Old Becomes New: Comedy in the Imperial Period

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Old Becomes New: Comedy in the Imperial Period
Over the last quarter century, scholars have become increasingly interested in the reception of fifth- and fourth- century literature during the Imperial period. As Swain (1996) and Whitmarsh (2001) have shown, Greek authors from this period responded to the political hegemony of Rome by turning to the writers of Athens’ golden age in an attempt to carve out a distinctly Greek identity for themselves. Discussions of the influence of the literature of Classical Athens on later Greek writers, however, tend to focus on certain genres more than others. Much work, for example, has been done on how Imperial authors drew on and adapted the Platonic dialogue. (Moles 2000) Likewise, Whitmarsh (2001) has shown how the language of Sophocles and Euripides directly shaped the rhetoric of Musonius Rufus, while Schmitz (2010) has explored Lucian’s recasting of Greek tragedy. This paper will approach this Imperial trend of reviving and recasting traditional genres from the perspective of a genre that has mostly been ignored: comedy.

In considering the Imperial reception of comedy, however, we must be mindful that comedy was not canonized in 386 BCE like tragedy, but was drastically changing its form even in Aristophanes’ own lifetime. In his recent analysis of the reception of Old Comedy by Imperial Greek writers, Bowie has suggested that while the educated elite preferred Old Comedy for its Attic style, New Comedy remained the preferred genre for educational purposes, entertainment at symposia, and perhaps even performances. Bowie’s account, however, largely focuses on specific moments of literary citation at the expense of other evidence. My discussion will therefore build on Bowie’s work by examining inscriptional evidence alongside two extended discussions of the genre: Plutarch’s Comparison of Aristophanes and Menander and Aristides’ On the Prohibition of Comedy. As I will contend, this evidence suggests not only that comedy continued to be produced, and performed, but that its role in society became a concern among the educated elite. This paper therefore has a two-fold purpose: it will show that comedy continued to be written and performed into the Imperial and period, and it will propose a new way of approaching the discussions of the genre that we find among our literary sources.

With this purpose in mind, the first part of my paper will examine six inscriptions, which record several comic victories in the Greek east from the first through the third century CE. These inscriptions, as I will show, bear witness not only to the fact that poets continued to compose comedies and, perhaps more surprisingly, they did so in the format of the already established genres of Old and New comedy. For example, one inscription bears witness to the victory of a poetess of Old Comedy from Kos (ποιήτριαν κω[μῳμδίας] ἀρχαίας), who won victories at Olympia and Pergamum. As this inscription suggests, Old Comedy remained popular not just for its Attic style, but as a performed genre.

Besides revealing information about comic performance at this time, these inscriptions also help us to better understand contemporary discussions of comedy. In the second half of my paper, I will demonstrate how these inscriptions force a more complicated reading of the attacks on comedy found in the writings of Plutarch’s Comparison and Aristides’ Prohibition than has been previously offered. Generally construed as abstract discussions, these texts attack the very value of comedy on the grounds that it is detrimental to society. While Plutarch focuses his critique solely on the language and jokes of Aristophanes, Aristides goes so far as to call for a ban on all comic performances, both the reproduction of existing ones and creation of new ones. For Aristides, the performative context and overall subject matter make Comedy a particularly problematic genre since it is neither proper to honor the gods with slanderous jokes nor is it beneficial for audiences to witness innocent people being publicly mocked and ridiculed. Read in light of the inscriptional evidence, I will argue that these texts reveal not just a literary distaste for the genre of comedy, but anxiety and concern about the role that it might be playing in their contemporary society.

Works Cited:

Bowie, Ewen. 2007. “The Ups and Downs of Aristophanic Travel,” in Aristophanes in Performance, 421 BC-AD 2007: Peace, Birds, and Frogs,” edited by Edith Hall and Amanda Wrigley. Legenda.

Moles, John. 2000. “The Dionian Charidemus,” in Dio Chrysostom: Politics, Letters, and Philosophy, edited by Simon Swain. Oxford.

Schmitz, Thomas. 2010. “A Sophist’s Drama: Lucian and Classical Tragedy,” in Beyond the fifth  century : interactions with Greek tragedy from the fourth century BCE to the Middle Ages, edited by Ingo Gildenhard and Martin Revermann. de Gruyter.

Swain, Simon. 1996. Hellenism and Empire. Oxford .

Whitmarsh, Tim. 2001. Greek Literature and the Roman Empire: the Politics of Imitation. Oxford.

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