Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History

  Compton, Todd M. 2006. Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History. Hellenic Studies Series 11. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Chapter 14. Aristophanes: Satirist versus Politician

Aristophanes and the other comic poets inherited, as part of their comic art, the iambic abuse of Archilochus and Hipponax. [1] Perhaps the hallmark of Old Comedy was political satire; it is not surprising therefore that the poet in conflict with politician is constantly in evidence in the history of Old Comedy. [2]

Aristophanes’ most prominent political target is the demagogue Cleon. The comedian’s conflicts with Cleon have become the subject of ongoing debate, with some critics believing that in the ritual environment of Old Comedy, the poet’s attacks and Cleon’s responses were not taken seriously, and the poet was subjected to no serious legal danger. Other scholars argue that Aristophanes was subjected to serious legal harassment by a powerful politician, who deeply resented the poet’s insults. Some have taken a middle ground between the two positions. [10] We can do no more than survey some of the basic evidence here. In the Acharnians (377–382), Aristophanes wrote:

αὐτός τ’ ἐμαυτὸν ὑπὸ Κλέωνος ἅπαθον
ἐπίσταμαι διὰ τὴν πέρυσι κωμῳδίαν.
εἰσελκύσας γάρ μ’ ἐς τὸ βουλευτήριον
διέβαλλε καὶ ψευδῆ κατεγλώττιζέ μου
κἀκυκλοβόρει κἄπλυνεν, ὥστ’ ὀλίγου πάνυ
ἀπωλόμην μολυνοπραγμονούμενος.

Later (502–503), Aristophanes writes, “A year ago, Kleon charged [diabalei] that I had slandered the State [tēn polin kakōs legō] in the presence of strangers, by presenting my play, The Babylonians, at our Great Festival of Dionysos.” [

After Acharnians, Aristophanes would attack Cleon in Knights and Wasps (1284-1291). [15] The latter passage probably reflects a second trial of Aristophanes by Cleon after the Knights: [16]

εἰσί τινες οἵ μ’ ἔλεγον ὡς καταδιηλλάγην,
ἡνίκα Κλέων μ’ ὑπετάραττεν ἐπικείμενος
†καί με κακίσταις? [???????, Briel] κακίσας, Briel] ἔκνισε· κᾆθ’ ὅτ’ ἀπεδειρόμην
οὑκτὸς ἐγέλων μέγα κεκραγότα θεώμενοι,
οὐδὲν ἄρ’ ἐμοῦ μέλον, ὅσον δὲ μόνον εἰδέναι
σκωμμάτιον εἴποτέ τι θλιβόμενος ἐκβαλῶ.
ταῦτα κατιδὼν ὑπό τι μικρὸν ἐπιθήκισα·
εἶτα νῦν ἐξηπάτησεν ἡ χάραξ τὴν ἄμπελον.

To rectify the record: Rumor has it that I, the author, have kissed and made up with Kleon. It alleges that he scratched and badgered until I buried the hatchet. A canard. Here are the facts: I found I was fighting alone. When the Tanner [Cleon] dragged me to court, I expected popular support from the folks who flocked to the case. And what did I get? Laughs. He peeled my skin off in strips; I howled—and the spectators roared. Dimly, I saw that my backing was only a comedian’s claque, political voyeurs assembled to see me prodded until I produced some tasty billingsgate. Faced with such odds, I changed my tactics—played the ape, flattered Kleon a bit. But what does he think today, now that this docile doormat is pulling the rug from under him? (trans. Parker)

Thus, Aristophanes was apparently brought to court again, and his popular backing deserted him; he was, metaphorically, flayed alive by the Tanner. He was forced to some kind of truce with Cleon, which he later rejected at the time of Wasps.

According to scholiasts, there were consistent attempts to muzzle the comic poets. In 440/439 an act against comic poets was passed, but was repealed three years later. [17] In 426, after Aristophanes attacked Cleon in The Babylonians, a bill against using names in comedy may have been passed. [18] In 415/414 Syracosius is said to have sponsored the same kind of bill. [19] In 387 it was decreed that the poets could ridicule no one by name. [20] Lefkowitz casts doubt on the historicity of these references because “there appears to be no reference to legal censorship outside commentaries on old comedy.” [21] But a bill proposed by Diopeithes in 434 against atheists and philosophers is attested outside the scholia. [22] C. Carey argues that the 440/439 law “seems certain, since the source … introduces it tangentially; it is therefore not based on conjectural attempts to make sense of the text of Aristophanes.” [23] The historicity of the Syracosius decree has been defended by A. Sommerstein. [24] It is attested by a scholiast, but the scholiast quotes the comic poet Phrynichos as his source. [25] Albin Lesky also argues that the 438 (440) and 414 (415) bills must be considered historical. [26] Richard Bauman, approaching the problem from the perspective of legal history, suggests that “Cleon’s approach to the Boule against Aristophanes [after The Babylonians] may have been preceded, then, by a psēphisma …” [27] This would support the scholiastic evidence for the 426 bill.

Ralph Rosen has taken Aristophanes’ portrait of Socrates in the Clouds as a parallel to argue that Aristophanes actually had no real quarrel with Cleon; that the quarrel mentioned in the Acharnians is as unfactual as is the quarrel with Socrates; that the comic poet, in treating Cleon was merely directing traditional invective themes against a prominent figure; and that these themes had little relationship with historical fact. Rosen follows Lefkowitz in deriving the scholiastic accounts of a quarrel from misunderstood interpretation of the plays themselves.

They seem to be maliciously, consciously telling untruths; they “tried to fill your minds with untrue accusations against me” (κατηγόρουν ἐμοῦ μᾶλλον οὐδὲν ἀληθές, Apology 18b). These people “tried to set you against me out of envy and love of slander” (φθόνῳ καὶ διαβολῇ χρώμενοι ὑμᾶς ἀνέπειθον, 18d). Moreover, this lying is done to children who cannot easily tell truth from lies; Socrates seems to find this lying to minors especially reprehensible, and he emphasizes it by mentioning it twice (18b, c). The only person singled out among these earlier accusers is “a playwright” (18c), who is later specified as Aristophanes (19c).

The tone here is not that of genial amusement, tolerant allowance of festive high spirits and the fantasy of Clouds, with its traditional satirizing that everyone understood had no relationship with reality. On the contrary, by Socrates’ account, most of the Athenians have believed Aristophanes and those like him. The philosopher, being tried for his life, singles out Aristophanes by name and speaks of malicious “envy and slander.” Socrates blames Aristophanes and his allies more than his actual accusers.

Rosen might also adduce an interesting passage in Plutarch, in which Socrates reports that he was not offended by Clouds. This deserves a close reading:

Ἀριστοφάνους δέ, ὅτε τὰς Νεφέλας ἐξέφερε, παντοίως πᾶσαν ὕβριν αὐτοῦ κατασκεδαννύντος, καί τινος τῶν παρόντων “κᾆτα τοιαῦτα κωμῳδούμενος οὐκ ἀγανακτεῖς” εἰπόντος “ὦ Σώκρατες;” “Μὰ Δί’ οὐκ ἔγωγε” ἔφησεν· “ὡς γὰρ ἐν συμποσίῳ μεγάλῳ τῷ θεάτρῳ σκώπτομαι.”

And when Aristophanes brought out Clouds and heaped all manner of abuse upon Socrates, in every possible way, one of those who had been present said to Socrates, “Are you not indignant, Socrates, that he used you as he did in the play?” “No indeed,” he replied, “when they break a jest upon me in the theatre I feel as if I were at a big party.”

On Educating Children 14 (10c)

This does portray a Socrates unruffled by Aristophanes’ play. But it also portrays a friend of Socrates who is clearly shocked at the extent of the abuse (“all manner of abuse … in every possible way”) directed at his friend. In addition, this fits into the familiar genre of Socratic stories in which he is seen as an extraordinarily wise man (it is prefaced by an explanation that wise men can control their anger, 10b). The point of the story is that one would expect Socrates to be upset, but he reacts with wisdom, self-control, and urbanity. If Old Comedy were a place where verbal attacks could not sting, the story and the characterization would be pointless.

Thus, even if Aristophanes’ portrait of Cleon is entirely untrue—which is not certain—the politician might have resented it as much as the Platonic Socrates did his own portrait, or more, for as a politician and militarist, he was likely to have been a much less self-controlled and genial man than was Socrates. And a politician’s natural tool for retaliation would have been the law court.


[ back ] 1. Poetics 1449a10; Semus ad Athenaeus 14.622c–d; West 1974:36–37; Rosen 1988c:4; Giangrande 1963), we may remember the importance of Archilochus’ possible advocacy of some kind of phallic cult in his cult legend and its close parallels. The tragedians also wrote satyr plays, which apparently always had satirical, obscene aspects,cf.Seaford1984.

[ back ] 2. For Aristophanes’ blame, see Harriott 1985:46–67, who discusses both praise and blame in the comic poet. Also Kraus 1985; Halliwell 1984a:86–87 and Halliwell 1984b (who would argue for a lack of “personal authorial commitment” in Aristophanes’ satire; I tend to disagree, see below); Carey 1994; Degani 1993. For Old Comedy apart from Aristophanes, Harvey and Wilkins 2000.

[ back ] 3. See relevant fragments from Nemesis; Dionysalexandros; Chirones, and especially Thracian Women in PCG. Cf. Plutarch Pericles 13, 3; Lesky 1966:419–420; Storey 1998n1.

[ back ] 4. See fragments 44, 45 PCG, attacks on Nicias and Pericles.

[ back ] 5. On the Aspasia story, Plutarch, Pericles 32; Gilula 2000:76. See Bread-Sellers, which attacked Hyperbolus, scholia on Aristophanes, Clouds 551.

[ back ] 6. See PCG 7, fragments s.v. those titles; cf. Lesky 1966:421–422.

[ back ] 7. PCG 5.448, test. 260; scholia on Aristophanes Frogs 569 = PCG 5.400; Aristophanes Clouds 551; for Alcibiades, see following note.

[ back ] 8. 151 Tzetzes, Prooemium I (Prolegomena) line 87; Koster and Wilson 1975 1a:27, also in PCG 5.332, test. iv.; see other testimonia, ibid. Eratosthenes, FGH 241 F 19 = Cicero Epistles to Atticus 6.1.18 = Eupolis test. 3, PCG 5.295.

[ back ] 9. See Luppe 2000, for a conflict between prominent comic poets.

[ back ] 10. See Gelzer 1970, especially 1398–1399; Rosen 1988c:63 (summarizing the position that the attack is historically accurate), 61n4 (taking the position that insult in Old Comedy was ritualistic and was not taken seriously, thus holding that the attack on Cleon is not historical). Halliwell (2004:139–140) holds to the same general perspective, arguing that the cultic setting of aischrology in Old Comedy prevented significant retaliation against poets. Arguing for real animus, bitter resentment, and dangerous legal harassment in Old Comedy are Henderson 1990 (p. 304: “Kleon’s subsequent lawsuit—no doubt another graphē—looks like a serious response to serious abuse rather than merely an oversensitive reaction to harmless ridicule”); Atkinson 1992; Sommerstein 2004. This is only a selective list that will introduce the reader to the issue.

[ back ] 11. Translation by Parker. Cf. MacDowell 1971:299; Foley 1996; Olson 2002:173–174.

[ back ] 12. οὐ γάρ με νῦν γε διαβαλεῖ Κλέων ὅτι / ξένων παρόντων τὴν πόλιν κακῶς λέγω. For a more literal translation, cf. Henderson’s: “Besides, Cleon shall not be able to accuse me of attacking Athens before strangers.” See Olson 2002:201–202. He concludes, “there was a real (and perhaps continuing) dispute between the two men somehow sparked by [Kleon’s reaction to Babylonians]” (Olson 2002:xxx).

[ back ] 13. Acharnians 6: ἐγᾦδ’ ἐφ’ ᾧ γε τὸ κέαρ ηὐφράνθην ἰδών, / τοῖς πέντε ταλάντοις οἷς Κλέων ἐξήμεσεν. For the talents, see Carawan 1990.

[ back ] 14. The information in 502–503 is echoed by scholia on Aristophanes, Acharnians 503, 378; Koster and Wilson 1975 1b:59, 70; and Vita 20 (see following note). See also Acharnians 300, 659. For the Vita, see Koster and Wilson 1975 1a:133–150; Cantarella 1949 I:135–144; translation in Lefkowitz 1981:169–172.

[ back ] 15. Cf. Edmunds 1987:51–57; Körte 1921:1233–1236; Gelzer 1970:1398–1399.

[ back ] 16. Sommerstein 1980:32–33, 1983:233–234; Storey 1995. However, this, like every detail of Aristophanes’ conflict with Cleon, is disputed, see Storey 1995:8.

[ back ] 17. Scholia on Acharnians 67; Koster and Wilson 1975 1b:17.

[ back ] 18. Scholia on Aristides Orations 3.8 (Eupolis Baptae test. 3, PCG). See Halliwell 1991a:55; Lefkowitz 1981:106.

[ back ] 19. Scholia on Birds 1297, citing a fragment of Phrynichos. Koster and Wilson 1991 2.3:192.

[ back ] 20. Cf. Vita 51–52; Platonius On Comedy, lines 23–29, Koster and Wilson 1975 1a:4. Also, Plutarch On the Glory of the Athenians 5 (348b–c); “Xenophon” The Constitution of the Athenians 2.18, commentary by Frisch 1942:277–281.

[ back ] 21. Lefkowitz 1981:106.

[ back ] 22. Plutarch Pericles 32. Cf. Rudhardt 1960:92; Finley 1973:91; Nilsson 1972:121–122. Dover rejects this (1976:39–40), cf. Derenne 1930:223, 237f. But Dover’s argument that Plutarch should be rejected because one would have expected his data to appear somewhere else is not convincing: history and textual criticism are full of examples of important data surviving in only one line of tradition. See Bauman’s convincing argument in favor of the historicity of the psēphisma (1990:39).

[ back ] 23. Carey 1994:71.

[ back ] 24. Sommerstein 1986, but cf. Carey 1994:71 and Sommerstein 2004.

[ back ] 25. Scholia on Birds 1297 = fragment 27 of Phrynichos (active as playwright 429–405 BC). Though there are many ways to interpret this passage (and certainly the scholiast might have misunderstood Phrynichos), one cannot categorically reject Phrynichos as a reliable source.

[ back ] 26. Lesky 1966:420.

[ back ] 27. Bauman 1990:55.

[ back ] 28. See Halliwell 1991:55 and passim.

[ back ] 29. See further Edmunds 1987:60; Halliwell 1984a:86–87; Atkinson 1992; Storey 1998; Halliwell 2004; Sommerstein 2004.

[ back ] 30. Leeuwen 1888, cf. Whitman 1964:307n2; Steffen 1954.

[ back ] 31. See Dover 1972:118–119; Erbse 1954.

[ back ] 32. Scholia on Clouds 96. When one assesses these late sources in conjunction with the Apology, perhaps the earliest Platonic writing, probably written not too long after Socrates’ death, the Apology has much greater weight. One might bring up the Socratic question, certainly; it is not proven that Socrates spoke these words. But they are certainly Platonic, and are possibly somewhat Socratic, as the dialogue was written during Plato’s most “Socratic” period. Brickhouse and Smith 1989 argue for the general historical reliability of the Apology. I would agree that the framework of the Apology is historical, while Plato’s literary allusiveness gives mythological resonance to Socrates’ trial. See chapter 15 below.

[ back ] 33. For those who see at least some elements of the historic Socrates in Clouds, see Nussbaum 1980:43–47 (summary of the problem); Schmid 1948:222; Stark 1953:77–89; Edmunds 1987:60n9; Edmunds 1985b:209–230.

[ back ] 34. Heath 1987:9.

[ back ] 35. Brickhouse and Smith also include Aristophanes among those early accusers. Clouds is “the very paradigm of the ‘first’ accusations” (1989:63–64).

[ back ] 36. Heath 1987:10.

[ back ] 37. Cf. Edmunds 1987:60.

[ back ] 38. After Alcibiades mentions that he has been bitten in the heart or mind by Socrates’ philosophy, he names everyone present, including Aristophanes: πάντες γὰρ κεκοινωνήκατε τῆς φιλοσόφου μανίας τε καὶ βακχείας …

[ back ] 39. Daux 1942.

[ back ] 40. Dover 1966:50.

[ back ] 41. As does e.g. Murray 1933:143.

[ back ] 42. Dover, in fact, suggests that the elaborate frame Plato gives the Symposium reflects its mythical, fictional nature (1980:9).

[ back ] 43. Symposium 205d.10–e.7; 212c.4–6, cf. Dover 1966:48.

[ back ] 44. Dover 1966:50.

[ back ] 45. καὶ πρότερον μὲν καταδαρθεῖν τὸν Ἀριστοφάνη, ἤδη δὲ ἡμέρας γιγνομένης τὸν Ἀγάθωνα.

[ back ] 46. See Sommerstein 2004:158.

[ back ] 47. Arrowsmith, Clouds 1969:6.

[ back ] 48. Cf. Cicero’s use of tradition invective topoi, which nevertheless brought about his exiles and death. See below, chapter 22.

[ back ] 49. Whitman 1964:80–81. Edmunds points out a background of “deme-centered animosities” in the feud (1987:61).

[ back ] 50. For Old Comedy’s background in lyric iambus, see Henderson 1975:18–24.

[ back ] 51. Acharnians 1150–1160, cf. Rosen 1988c:72; Watson 1991:140–141, 238.

[ back ] 52. Cf. Lesky 1966:237, 418; Rothwell 1995.

[ back ] 53. See Lilja 1979; cf. Moulton, “The Lyric of Insult and Abuse,” in Moulton 1981:18–47. See above, chapter 9 (Alcaeus); Rosen 1988c:32–33.

[ back ] 54. See Knights 1402–1405; Frogs 730–733; fragment 655KA; Gebhard 1926: test. 1–12 Athens (pp. 11–15); Harrison 1922:97; Rosen 1988c:21–24.

[ back ] 55. E.g. Acharnians 280–295; 319; 341–346; 331. Cf. chapter 1; Barkan 1927:47.

[ back ] 56. Edmunds 1980:6. We remember the association of Archilochus’ legendary crime (phallic singing?) with phallic cult, see above, chapter 3. Cf. app. A, below.

[ back ] 57. Nussbaum 1980:61. See Acharnians 318, Frogs 384–394; Clouds 518.

[ back ] 58. Sutton 1988.

[ back ] 59. We find the following themes in the Aristophanes biographical traditions and plays: 1a, crime of hero (by Cleon’s accusation). 7, trial of poet, unjustly accused; 10a, exile (possible); 11a, stoning (as theme in poetry); 22, satirical themes; 22d, artist satirizing artist; 22e, curse as poetic theme; 24, conflict with political leaders.