History-Makers: Aristophanes

Ancient Greek Literature follows a pleasantly 
linear path in its early centuries. Our oldest   stories come from Bronze-Age Mycenaean culture 
and a multigenerational oral tradition, bringing   tales of the Trojan War into Archaic Greece by way 
of our boy Homer. Soon after him, poets found a   leading role as the creators and performers of the 
more freewheeling Lyric style. As literature was   always responding to the politics and culture 
of the times, it makes sense that we see this   more individual focus at a time when City-States 
became the engines of politics and culture all   across Greece. So we started with Epic, made our 
way over to Lyric, got us some Sappho, love that,   and then… Athens Happened. In the span of about 
two centuries, this cultural-lightweight of a   city became the biggest intellectual powerhouse 
in Greece. It inadvertently inspired the creation   of History, became The place to discuss 
Philosophy, and pioneered the genre-s   (two of them) of Theater: Tragedy and Comedy. 
Because truly, only a city as self-obsessedly   dramatic as Athens could single-handedly invent 
Theater. Athenian Tragedy is a fascinating and   absolutely wild bunch of stories, but today our 
focus is on Comedy. And, unlike the genre of   Tragedy and their dozens of surviving plays, 
old Athenian Comedy survives by exclusively   one author: Aristophanes. But fortunately, 
Aristophanes f*cking rules. So, to see how this   funny-ha-ha-writer-boy satirized his way into 
Athenian hearts and created possibly the best   portrait of Classical Athenian society ever put 
to paper (question mark), Let’s do some History. The exact origins of theater as a genre are 
tough to pin down. Its earliest recognizable   roots come in the form of song performances 
reenacting mythical scenes during celebrations   of the god Dionysus since the late 600s, but 
the concept of theater as a distinct style of   collaborative musical storytelling develops in 
Athens over the 500s BC, with the first recorded   Actor appearing in 532, and the creation 
of a dedicated theater festival sometime   between then and the end of the century. The City 
Dionysia festival was where leading poets in the   city would premiere their tragedies and compete 
for the glory of Angstiest Playwright. In 487,   the roster of Tragedies and bawdy satyr plays 
grew to include the newfangled genre of comedy,   which almost nobody took seriously for half 
a century, before Athens created a dedicated   comedy festival in the 440s called the Lenaia. 
We’d imagine that it was similar in structure to   the tragedies, but without literally any scripts 
from this period, we can only guess. Our first   (and only) real look at Old Attic Comedy 
comes during the Peloponnesian war, where   11 of Aristophanes’ 40+ plays make up the only 
surviving texts either side of half a century. Structurally, the first thing we notice is the 
names of a lot of these plays: Birds, Frogs,   Wasps, Clouds? Knights? Despite the appearance, 
Aristophanes wasn’t beating Animal Farm to the   punch by two thousand years, but rather, those 
names are what the chorus is dressed up as in   that particular story. In Aristophanic comedy, the 
chorus is a central focus and constant presence in   the play: singing, dancing, interacting with the 
characters, and talking right to the audience.   And with these choral costumes, the sillier the 
better. Everybody in the city was in attendance,   so any comedian worth his olive oil had to mix 
high-brow humor and complex lyricism with cartoon   slapstick and just the lowest, crudest jokes that 
you can imagine. Picture Shakespeare’s balance of   complex satire and dick jokes, but then have 
all of the actors wearing prosthetic dongs of   hilarious size, and that’s Aristophanes for you.

This niche of dirty jokes and vulgar costumes   was already covered by the Satyr plays, but 
Aristophanes elevated the genre of comedy by   juxtaposing all this obscenity with the 
absolute spiciest critiques of Athenian   society. While tragedies and satyr plays happen 
in far off myths and legends, most Aristophanic   comedies are set in contemporary Athens, right 
in the middle of the Peloponnesian War. Because,   for all its glories and successes, many 
Athenians would describe their city as   A Hot Mess. The political system of Demokratia was 
new and shiny, but the assembly was pliable, so   Athenian democracy had a concerning vulnerability 
to greed, war-mongering, and imperialism. And the   high-minded egalitarianism firmly stopped at Men, 
because even by the standards of Ancient Greece,   Athens was sexist as hell. Worse yet, these 
were just the self-inflicted problems from   long before the war with Sparta, which even itself 
was a bit of an own-goal. What’s most revealing   about Athens in particular is how they were fully 
aware of what was wrong, as Athenian historians   and philosophers were right alongside Aristophanes 
in pointing out the many flaws in their society. By volume, most of the surviving comedies are pure 
political satire, involving various harebrained   schemes to end the Peloponnesian war. To give 
you a sense of how absurd these plays get, let   me just take you through the list. Starting with 
Babylonians (426), he portrays the allies of the   Delian league as slaves grinding at an Athenian 
mill, and Aristophanes was actually taken to court   by the politician Kleon for slander. Hell of a 
debut. In Akharnians (425), one farmer attempts to   make a unilateral peace treaty with Sparta just to 
stop them from burning his farm. Knights (424) was   another attack on Kleon, just two years after 
getting taken to court for Babylonians. One of   his most famous plays is Clouds (423), portraying 
the philosopher Socrates as a corrupt sophist and   accused him of profiting off the immoral teaching 
of persuasion skills to help people cheat their   way out of debts. Wasps (422) satirized the 
judicial system of the notoriously-litigious   Athenians. An old man is addicted to serving on 
juries, so his family sets up a fake domestic   court to keep him busy at home, where he judges 
the case of Dog V Stolen Cheese. After the deaths   of the Athenian Kleon and the Spartan Brasidas, it 
looked like peace might actually be at hand, so in   421 Aristophanes wrote Peace, where a farmer rides 
a dung beetle into heaven to rescue the buried   goddess of Peace by digging her out of her grave. 
The Birds (414) sees an Athenian leave the city   to make a new home in the sky. He inadvertently 
becomes ruler of a bird kingdom and issues a trade   embargo against the gods, blockading Olympus from 
receiving their sacrifices in a direct reference   to the devastating Athenian siege of Melos, 
whereafter the protagonist replaces Zeus as   King of the Gods. Another hugely famous play is 
Lysistrata (411), where the women of Greece go   on a sex-strike to force the men to make peace. 
Frogs (405) leaves the Athenian setting for the   underworld, as Dionysus is sad that Euripides 
recently died, so he goes to Hades to get him   back, but it turns into a poetry contest between 
Euripides and his tragedian predecessor Aeschylus,   and Dionysus ends up taking Aeschylus back 
instead. Brutal. Assemblywomen (392) sees the   women of Athens take over the city and make 
all property communal, which I guess means   Aristophanes invented Communism and did presage 
Animal Farm by 2,000 years. Wild. And his last   play we have is Plutus (388), where the god of 
wealth regains his sight and no longer distributes   riches at random, so everyone in Greece starts 
praying only to him instead of the other gods. His   later plays shift away from satire and towards 
domestic social comedy — this continues into   Greek New Comedy and culminates in Roman Comedy 
which is literally just SitCom, and it’s great. Many of these plays sound patently ridiculous at 
a glance, but upon inspection they’re even more   insane. For my favorite example, let’s look at 
Women at the Thesmophoria (411) where a man in   disguise sneaks into the famously women-only 
festival of the Thesmophoria. The playwright   Euripides thinks that women are plotting to kill 
him because they hate the sexism in his plays,   so he enlists a friend named Mnesilochus to sneak 
into this Ancient Magical Women’s Bathroom to   spy on them. To his surprise, he finds the women 
carrying out an entire parallel society to Athens,   with their own assembly and social organization. 
During a debate on what to do about Euripides,   Mnesilochus starts making counter accusations, and 
the women instantly clock him as an impostor. He   grabs a baby as a hostage to aid in his escape, 
but it turns out to be a disguised cask of wine,   which Mnesilochus continues to threaten with a 
knife, to the dismay of one woman at the festival   who is clearly an alcoholic. He stabs the vase, 
and is immediately arrested, after which Euripides   puts on a series of disguises as characters from 
his own tragedies to eventually charisma-check his   way into freeing Mnesilochus from prison. Having 
saved his friend and made peace with the women of   Athens, they ride happily into the sunset. This 
play, like every single play by Aristophanes,   is absolutely buck-f*cking wild, and easily the 
greatest thing to ever come out of ancient Athens. Beyond the jokes, Aristophanes’ work 
reveals Athenian culture on two levels.   One is simply the plays satirizing the people, 
institutions, and culture of the city. He makes   fun of the politicians, he mocks the court system, 
he pillories the philosophers; he’s taking highly   specific and well-justified pot-shots at all 
aspects of life. And that gives us an otherwise   unparalleled look into the actual lived-in world 
of classical Athens. But what’s most wild is that   Athens allowed this, and even gave him prizes 
for it. The Athenians knew they were a mess,   and even celebrated it. Comedy like this 
doesn’t appear anywhere else in ancient Greece,   because only the society that went out of 
their way to make public participation and   arguing a central fixture of political 
life could then turn their Important   Religious Theater Festival into a free-for-all 
satirical slapfest. At the end of the day,   only the rich men were allowed to debate and vote 
in the Assembly, but by investigating civic life   for an audience of literally the entire city, 
Aristophanes democratized public discourse more   than anybody else in Athenian history. The man 
who ruthlessly criticizes democratic politics   is, ironically, perhaps the greatest beneficiary 
and most zealous advocate of democratic culture. The historian Thucydides wanted to create 
a record for all time, but Aristophanes was   focused on his contemporaries, and tapped into a 
communal understanding of the Athenian world to   tell his stories. He’s not above the history, 
analytically presenting a grand timeline, but   right in the middle of the city, in the space 
where big historical arcs come crashing into   the lives of everyday people. If the Spartans 
are burning down your farms year after year,   who wouldn’t want to strike a one-man peace deal 
with them, or dream of flying off to literally   anywhere else? Aristophanes brings Athens to life 
by humanizing the causes and the effects of its   history. In practice, his plays had little lasting 
effect, as Kleon continued to dominate politics,   Athens never reigned itself in and was eventually 
defeated by Sparta, and the Sophists continued to   use rhetoric like a weapon. Aristophanes couldn’t 
save Athens from itself, but even in the course   of his 4-decade career he saw the city pay for 
its hubris, getting nerfed from the political   center of Greece to ending as its intellectual 
center, and I don’t think he would’ve been mad! Aristophanes is a fascinating figure in 
Greek literature because on the face of   it he doesn’t fit in at all. In a landscape 
of philosophers, poets, and moody tragedians,   here’s a satirist who’s grace and grossness would 
inspire comedy from Shakespeare to South Park.   But as we’ve seen, Aristophanes could only have 
been a product of Athenian culture, not because   Athens was perfect and glorious but because it 
was so painfully embarrassing it was laughable.  Thank you so much for watching. We 
don’t ask much of you on this channel,   but as a personal favor to me, please read 
literally any of Aristophanes plays. Find   one that piques your interest and just Go For 
it. You’ll instantly understand ancient Athens   So Much Better than you did before, and 
you’ll laugh your ass off while doing so.   Just find a translation that keeps 
the dick jokes, and you’re set.
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGBF3h3L728

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