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(Comic Playwright, Greek, c. 446 - c. 386 BCE)

Introduction | Biography | Writings | Major Works
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Aristophanes was a prolific and much acclaimed comic playwright of ancient Greece, sometimes referred to as the Father of Comedy. Eleven of his forty plays have come down to us virtually complete (along with up to with 1,000 brief fragments of other works), and are the only real examples we have of a genre of comic drama known as Old Comedy. Aristophanes’ works recreate the life of ancient Athens perhaps more convincingly than those of any other author, although his biting satire and ridicule of his contemporaries often came close to slander.

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Unfortunately, we know less about Aristophanes the man than we do about his plays, and most of what we do know about him is through references in the plays themselves. Oblique references in later plays suggest that he was probably born around 446 or 448 BCE, possibly the son of a man named Philippos from the island of Aegina, although he was almost certainly educated in Athens.

He was writing at a time after the euphoria of Greece’s military victories over the Persians, when the Peloponnesian War had largely curtailed Athens’ ambitions as an imperial power. However, although Athens’ empire had been largely dismantled, it had nevertheless become the intellectual centre of Greece, and Aristophanes was an important figure in this change in intellectual fashions.

From his caricatures of the leading figures in the arts (notably Euripides), in politics (especially the dictator Cleon), and in philosophy and religion (Socrates), he often gives the impression of being something of an old-fashioned conservative, and his plays often espouse opposition to the radical new influences in Athenian society.

He was, however, not afraid to take risks. His first play, “The Banqueters” (now lost), won second prize at the annual City Dionysia drama competition in 427 BCE, and his next play, “The Babylonians” (also now lost), won first prize. His polemical satires in these popular plays caused some embarrasment for the Athenian authorities, and some influential citizens (notably Cleon) subsequently sought to prosecute the young dramatist on a charge of slandering the Athenian polis. It soon became apparent, though, that (unlike impiety) there was no legal redress for slander in a play, and the court case certainly did not stop Aristophanes from repeatedly savaging and caricaturing Cleon in his later plays.

Despite the highly political stance of his plays, Aristophanes managed to survive The Peloponnesian War, two oligarchic revolutions and two democratic restorations, so it can be assumed that he was not actively involved in politics. He was probably appointed to the Council of Five Hundred for a year at the beginning of the 4th Century BCE, a common appointment in democratic Athens. The genial characterization of Aristophanes in Plato's “The Symposium” has been interpreted as evidence of Plato's own friendship with him, despite Aristophanes’ cruel caricature of Plato’s teacher Socrates in “The Clouds”.

As far as we know, Aristophanes was victorious only once at the City Dionysia, although he also won the less prestigious Lenaia competition at least three times. He apparently lived to a ripe old age, and our best guess as to his date of death is around 386 or 385 BCE, perhaps as late as 380 BCE. At least three of his sons (Araros, Philippus and a third son called either Nicostratus or Philetaerus) were themselves comic poets and later winners of the Lenaia, as well as producers of their father's plays.

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The surviving plays of Aristophanes, in chronological order spanning a period from 425 to 388 BCE, are: “The Acharnians”, “The Knights”, “The Clouds”, “The Wasps”, “Peace”, “The Birds”, “Lysistrata”, “Thesmophoriazusae”, “The Frogs”, “Ecclesiazusae” and “Plutus (Wealth)”. Of these, perhaps the best known are “Lysistrata”, “The Wasps” and “The Birds”.

Comic drama (what is now known as Old Comedy) was already well-established by Aristophanes’ time, although the first official comedy was not staged at the City Dionysia until 487 BCE, by which time tragedy had already been long established there. It was under the comic genius of Aristophanes that Old Comedy received its fullest development, and he was able to contrast infinitely graceful poetic language with vulgar and offensive jests, adapting the same versification forms of the tragedians to his own aims.

During Aristophanes’ time, though, there was a discernable trend from Old Comedy to New Comedy (perhaps best exemplified by Menander, almost a century later), involving a trend away from the topical emphasis on real individuals and local issues of Old Comedy, towards a more cosmopolitan emphasis on generalized situations and stock characters, increasing levels of complexity and more realistic plots.

Major Works
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Introduction | Ancient Greece | Ancient Rome | Other Ancient Civilizations
Timeline | Alphabetical List of Authors | Index of Individual Works | Index of Important Characters | Sources
© 2009 Luke Mastin