Rethinking Aristophanes’ Comic Hero: Utopianism, Ambiguity, and Athenian Politics

In: Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought
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  • 1 Università degli Studi di Firenze, Firenze, Italy


This paper aims to reconsider the so-called ‘comic heroism’ in Aristophanes’ extant plays. The comic hero does not always express the collective self-image, like Dicaeopolis in Acharnians and Trygaios in Peace; Knights, as early as 424 bc, is a telling instance of Aristophanes’ will to introduce a much more nuanced picture of both the imaginary and the real Athens. Clouds and Wasps also provide further variations. But the real turning point comes in 414 with Birds, whose much disputed political meaning deserves the closest attention. After the ambiguous, disquieting Peisetaerus, comic heroes will not entirely disappear from Aristophanic comedy, yet their nature will never be the same again. Good ideas may come from a clever woman (Lysistrata), a cowardly god (Dionysus in Frogs), or even Apollo’s shrine (in the late Plutus), no longer from the Attic ‘common man’ of the earlier plays. The political evolution of Athens during the Peloponnesian War appears to have altered Aristophanes’ (alleged) trust in some kind of ‘saviour’ emerging from the erratic mass of Athenian male citizens.


This paper aims to reconsider the so-called ‘comic heroism’ in Aristophanes’ extant plays. The comic hero does not always express the collective self-image, like Dicaeopolis in Acharnians and Trygaios in Peace; Knights, as early as 424 bc, is a telling instance of Aristophanes’ will to introduce a much more nuanced picture of both the imaginary and the real Athens. Clouds and Wasps also provide further variations. But the real turning point comes in 414 with Birds, whose much disputed political meaning deserves the closest attention. After the ambiguous, disquieting Peisetaerus, comic heroes will not entirely disappear from Aristophanic comedy, yet their nature will never be the same again. Good ideas may come from a clever woman (Lysistrata), a cowardly god (Dionysus in Frogs), or even Apollo’s shrine (in the late Plutus), no longer from the Attic ‘common man’ of the earlier plays. The political evolution of Athens during the Peloponnesian War appears to have altered Aristophanes’ (alleged) trust in some kind of ‘saviour’ emerging from the erratic mass of Athenian male citizens.

The central decades of the twentieth century saw many a distinguished Hellenist reflecting on the concept of ‘heroism’ in Attic drama.1 As far as tragedy is concerned, the work of Bernard Knox on Sophocles has been especially influent – and deservedly so.2 In the field of Old Comedy, a major contribution came from the pen of Cedric Whitman, who, after two books devoted to Sophocles and Homer respectively, produced his most famous work under the title Aristophanes and the Comic Hero.3 That study had some merits, and, to be sure, many more flaws.4 At any rate, it turned out to be ‘undoubtedly a very important book’, as a reviewer endowed with the gift of foresight once wrote.5 Many ideas of Whitman’s were either ill-founded or too imaginative, and his overall interpretation of Aristophanic comedy did not stand close examination of the texts: but he had the merit of pointing out the role of ‘comic heroism’ as a constitutive element of Aristophanes’ plays. In the following ages, this topic has been dealt with from time to time,6 but no comprehensive re-assessment has been carried out. While it is undoubtedly true that some comedies of Aristophanes’ feature a ‘redresseur de torts’7 who has the power ‘to express the collective self-image’ and to achieve ‘something that ordinary people would have liked to achieve but could not’,8 a closer reading of all his extant plays will show (a) that even in his first period he exploited the ‘hero’-type in a number of ways, and (b) that Athenian politics and the Peloponnesian War had a deeper influence on ‘comic heroism’ than we used to think: in particular, I will argue that Birds – possibly Aristophanes’ absolute masterpiece – are a real turning point in this evolutive process. I will not engage in a detailed refutation of Whitman’s interpretations of either single passages or the meaning of a given play: this falls beyond the scope of my paper, and is, I think, not necessary at all. What I want to highlight is just a difference in our perspectives: while Whitman strived to extract affinity from diversity, trying to define what ‘heroism’ is and how it contributes to the very nature of comedy,9 I am rather concerned with the variety of Aristophanic ‘heroes’ (cunning or naive, successful or unsuccessful, joyful or cruel) in their relation to Athenian politics, and more specifically to the decline of Athenian democracy. I will not propose a new definition of ‘comic hero’, but will at least try to distinguish between characters who simply have an idea of any kind, like Bdelycleon in Wasps or Euripides in Thesmophoriazusae (let me say it clear: ‘protagonist’ does not invariably mean ‘hero’), and those (a) who really embody both the identity and the hopes of Athenian people, and (b) whose ideas and efforts produce a true change in society and/or politics. From this point of view, Dicaeopolis, in spite of all his lecherous and selfish behaviour, in fact becomes a comic hero. Bdelycleon, himself a far more dignified and respectable figure, hardly deserves such title.

Aristophanes’ first comedy, Banqueters (427 bc: frs. 205-255 K.-A.), was centered on the conflict between the two sons of an old Attic landowner, one of them educated according to his father’s old-fashioned ethics, the other – like Pheidippides in the later Clouds – following the new trends of sophistic paideia.10 It is hard to imagine how ‘comic heroism’ could find a place in such a plot. The same holds true for Babylonians, produced the following year at the City Dionysia (frs. 67-100 K.-A.), with a chorus of Asian slaves embodying, in all likelihood, the discomfort of the allied cities oppressed by Athenian imperialism.11 Then Acharnians, Aristophanes’ third play and the earliest of the eleven surviving ones, saw the light of day in 425 bc. Here we finally meet a true ‘comic hero’, the shrewd but honest Dicaeopolis: his innovative idea of a thirty-years private treaty with Sparta, and his ability in persuading the chorus of old Acharnians that peace, not war, is the solution, translate into a life of comfort, pleasure, and triumphant feasting. He really is ‘a figure whose motivation, methods, and disposition reflect, in a mythic mode, a great deal of the collective psychology of the age’.12 Whether Aristophanes conceived the idea of his first ‘hero’ on his own, or had a forerunner (even a model) among the earlier poets of Old Comedy, we will never know for sure – reconstructing the plot of fragmentary plays is always very speculative, sometimes impossible at all.13 A ‘comic hero’ appears to have featured in Eupolis’ Demes (on which see below), but that play dates from a later period. Be this as it may, Dicaeopolis is the right man in the right place at the right time. He has an appropriate speaking name, ‘Just Citizen’ (Δικαιόπολις);14 his activism and his spirit of initiative aptly contrast with his fellow-citizens’ passivity (ὑµεῖς δὲ πρεσβεύεσθε καὶ κεχήνετε, ‘and you, carry on with embassies and gaping!’, l. 133); and he proves well aware of the powerful impact of his idea, when he declares ‘I will do something extraordinary and great!’ (ἀλλ᾿ ἐργάσοµαί τι δεινὸν ἔργον καὶ µέγα, l. 128). I would not dare to affirm that this line conveys a metapoetical allusion to Aristophanes’ invention/adoption of the comic hero: yet it surely fits the newly invented/adopted character proudly announcing his will to do something that nobody else had ever planned to. On a different ground, it is hard not to see in ‘great’ (µέγα) a definitely ethical and political meaning.15 We may agree with the late Sir Kenneth Dover on the fact that ‘it cannot be too strongly emphasized that Dikaiopolis does not concern himself even with the interests of his own city, let alone those of the Greek world’,16 but he possibly went too far when he wrote that ‘Acharnians is not a pill of political advice thickly sugared with humour, but a fantasy of total selfishness, exploiting, among much else, political views and arguments which existed at all levels’.17 Recent scholarship on Acharnians tends to highlight (rightly, in my view) the difference between Dicaeopolis as dramatis persona and the poet’s voice resounding in the former’s statements: self-centered as the old Attic farmer may be, his opinions and his actions have an undeniable political value.18 When Aristophanes introduces his first comic hero, he has him doing something really important – from both an ideological and a theatrical point of view.

One year later, at the Lenaea of 424 bc, the poet produced Knights. Much has been written on this play, but I think that, as far as ‘comic heroism’ is concerned, the transition from Acharnians to Knights deserves special attention. Is the Sausage-Seller a comic hero? To some extent, he certainly is – insofar as he is the protagonist, proves quite clever (if almost illiterate: ll. 188-189), and finally sets everything to right.19 Yet spectators who, after the brief space of an year, still had Dicaeopolis in mind20 could hardly fail to appreciate the difference between the two: the ‘Just Citizen’ is now replaced by someone who used to be a thief, a perjurer (l. 1239), and, occasionally, a male prostitute (l. 1242). Furthermore, let us note that, while the hero of Acharnians was solely responsible for conceiving his plan and carrying it out, in Knights there is a remarkable separation of powers:21 a (ludicrous) oracle had foretold that a humble man would overthrow the Paphlagonian (a crystal-clear disguise of Cleon), the two slaves luckily identify him with the Sausage-Seller, and the latter – with the Knights’ aid – will accomplish such task. On a literary ground, Aristophanes probably aimed to surprise his audience with another innovation: ‘I am glad that you liked my Dicaeopolis, but you should not expect that, from now on, all of my protagonists will be of the very same stamp’. On an ideological ground, the defeat of the Paphlagonian by another, even more contemptible figure of his sort surely represents ‘the bottom of the slope down which political leadership at Athens has rolled with increasing momentum’.22 It may also imply a further admonition to Aristophanes’ fellow-citizens: beware of a certain kind of alleged saviours. We all wish to see the end of Cleon’s supremacy, but are we sure that, in real life, his successor will choose for the better?23

The Clouds, first produced in 423 bc,24 may be read as another attempt to explore the possibilities of the ‘comic (would-be) hero’. Strespiades, the protagonist, does in fact conceive a plan that he deems brilliant and resolutive (to entrust himself, and then his son, to Socrates’ educational method). Needless to say, his ideas prove utterly wrong: as a ‘hero’, he is a total failure.25 Whether the Wasps (422 bc) are relevant at all to our topic, I am not sure. Bdelycleon’s political views appear to be the right ones (as the chorus of reluctant old men eventually acknowledges), but his attempt to heal his father from his morbid, pathological passion for jury-service and to convert him to a more relaxed lifestyle is not crowned with very great success.26 And old Philocleon, for all his obsessions and disagreeable attitudes, turns out to be the real protagonist of the play.27 To wonder whether one of them can in fact be labeled as a ‘hero’, and which one deserves such label, is after all unnecessary.28 It is not by chance that a true ‘comic hero’ will only reappear in 421 bc, when Peace was awarded second prize at the City Dionysia. Both Cleon and Brasidas had fallen at Amphipolis in the summer of 422, and peace negotiations between Athens and Sparta were almost completed: after ten years of war, hope was gradually resurfacing.29 Peace owes much to Acharnians, and Trygaeus, as scholars know only too well, is an improved Dicaeopolis, taking action not for bare personal interest but for the advantage of all the Greeks. Like Dicaeopolis, he too announces that he is going to venture into ‘a daring enterprise without precedent’ (τόλµηµα νέον, l. 94):30 yet the chorus invokes the entire Hellenic world to assist him (ὦ Πανέλληνες, βοηθήσωµεν, l. 302), and later he can proudly boast ‘I saved the Greeks’ (ἔσωσα τοὺς Ἕλληνας, l. 866),31 though the final celebration of his wedding with Opora has a clear Athenian flavour.32 While for the protagonist of Acharnians the final reward for his commitment consists in banquets, revel, and sex, Trygaeus – in spite of his initial, unheroic misadventures33 – even enjoys a kind of apotheosis.34 To quote a very effective definition, the action of Peace ‘is predicated on the hope that we are […] capable of redeeming and saving ourselves and of constructing a new world which will be both more liveable and perhaps ultimately more sacred than the old’.35 In the brightest days from the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes creates his most optimistic play (among the extant ones, at least) and his brightest comic hero, the most helpful and unselfish of all. Athenian citizens were relieved, and the poet makes them feel even more so, showing them that, on the comic stage at least, ‘the saviour is back’.

Years passed, and the Peace of Nicias faded very soon. Little remains of Aristophanes’ dramatic output between 420 and 415 bc (let others decide whether this is mere chance or not). No traces of comic heroes appear in the scanty fragments of Seasons (frs. 577-589 K.-A.), written at some time between 421 and 411.36 At the City Dionysia of 414, Aristophanes produced Birds, a complex and sophisticated play which became, in my view, a turning point in the history of comic heroism. Scholars will never end debating on the play’s ideology: is it utopian or dystopian? Should we read Cloudcuckootown as a comfortable place, free from all the troubles of both war and everyday life,37 or rather as an allegory of the degenerate Athenian democracy?38 Is Peisetaerus39 a sympathetic character, or a reckless demagogue? I am persuaded that the latter interpretation is the right one: but it does not emerge from the very beginning of the play. For some 1500 lines (out of 1765), Peisetaerus seems yet another Athenian old man – energetic, clever, loquacious and lewd – like Dicaeopolis, Philocleon or Trygaeus, the kind of character the audience would surely sympathize with. Even his sexual threats against Iris (ll. 1253-1256)40 are not so different from what, say, Dicaeopolis plans to do with a slave girl at Acharnians 274-275. Only at l. 186, ‘you will destroy them by Melian starvation’, his dark side possibly reveals itself – though we are not sure that his words allude to the cruel siege of Melos in 416-415 bc, or rather to a previous commercial embargo against the island.41 Things dramatically change from l. 1565, when a divine embassy consisting of Poseidon, Heracles, and a Triballian god arrives at Cloudcuckootown to treat for peace. It is only too easy for Peisetaerus to bribe the gluttonous Heracles with abundant roast, yet the main ingredient is a bewildering one (ll. 1583-1585):

ΗΡ. τὰ δὲ κρέα τοῦ ταῦτ᾿ ἐστίν; ΠΙ. ὄρνιθές τινες

ἐπανιστάµενοι τοῖς δηµοτικοῖσιν ὀρνέοις

ἔδοξαν ἀδικεῖν.

(HERACLES) What kind of meat is this? (PEISETAERUS) Certain birds who have been found guilty of attempting to rebel against the democratic ones.

Here Peisetaerus subverts two traditional motifs of Old Comedy: the final banquet, recurring in many Aristophanic plays and still used by New Comedy poets, and the so called ‘Land of Plenty’, an escapist fantasy set in either wealthy, exotic countries or imaginary worlds.42 Cloudcuckootown was in fact planned to be a Land of Plenty, where one could ‘be overburdened with goods’ (κοπιᾶν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀγαθῶν, l. 735). What the audience would expect in answer to Heracles’ question is a detailed list of gastronomic delicacies, such as that of Acharnians 1085-1131. Such expectations are utterly frustrated: Peisetaerus does not describe the food at all, contenting himself with a ‘political’ statement on those birds’ guilt. Are the spectators to trust his words? Some of them will doubt, and their doubts will presumably increase after Peisetaerus’ further comment at ll. 1688-1689:

εἰς καιρὸν ἆρα κατεκόπησαν οὑτοιὶ
εἰς τοὺς γάµους.

Well, these birds have been butchered43 at the right time for the wedding.

In all likelihood, the alleged anti-democratic Putsch did not even take place: it was just a pretext to kill and roast them.44 The birds’ champion has become their ruthless, cannibal exploiter.45 From this point on, Peisetaerus’ φύσις τυραννική emerges clear and unrestrained, and the audience can now understand what his ambiguous behaviour ultimately aimed at. The Messenger, at l. 1708, celebrates him as τύραννος, and then (ll. 1712-1714) announces that he

ἔχων γυναικὸς κάλλος οὐ φατὸν λέγειν,
πάλλων κεραυνόν, πτεροφόρον Διὸς βέλος.

is arriving with a wife46 whose beauty is impossible to describe, brandishing the thunderbolt, Zeus’ winged weapon.

The thunderbolt clearly evokes Salmoneus, the impious mythical king pretending to master Zeus’ instrument of power,47 while ll. 1712-1713 could recall the most famous tyrant of Athenian history, Peisistratus (similar to Peisetaerus even in his name),48 who, according to Herodotus 1.60, after his first exile came back to Athens on a chariot carrying with him a pretty tall woman disguised as Athena.49 Peisetaerus is now a tyrant for all intents and purposes. In the very last line of Birds, he is even called ‘O highest of gods!’ (δαιµόνων ὑπέρτατε, l. 1765). He enjoys total success – but not the kind of success the audience expected. In the first half of the play, his genial idea suggested that he could become a greater Trygaeus, a hero of cosmic, not just Hellenic, significance: when all is said and done, he turns out to be the exact opposite of the protagonist of Peace. In the spring of 414 bc, when Birds was produced, the bad omens that accompanied the military expedition to Sicily of the previous year – the mutilation of the herms, the blasphemous parody of the Eleusinian mysteries, Alcibiades’ defection to Sparta – were still fixed in the memory of Athenian people. The play probably reflected the great anxiety of those months, and Aristophanes’ suspicion towards ambiguous ‘saviours’ (too) good with words.

After the disquieting Peisetaerus (and the horrible news of the Sicilian disaster in 413), comic heroes will not entirely disappear from Aristophanic comedy, yet their nature will never be the same again. Lysistrata, produced in 411 shortly before the oligarchic revolution,50 features an extraordinary protagonist: Lysistrata is intelligent, resolute, eloquent, and truly concerned with public good. From this point of view, she is possibly the last ‘comic hero’ of the old stamp, and surely one of the best, ‘an advocate of traditional values for all Greeks male and female’.51 Nonetheless, she is untypical for two reasons. One one side, she is a woman (albeit ‘the most manly/courageous of all’: πασῶν ἀνδρειοτάτη, l. 1108), and decided to take action just because men proved no longer capable of doing the right thing: more than Aristophanes’ alleged ‘feminism’,52 the play reveals his very low opinion of his male fellow-citizens. On the other side, the social subversion that she created and defended is a temporary solution: gynecocracy ends as soon as the ‘normal’ democratic system can be safely restored in a peaceful Greece. Unlike Dicaeopolis and Trygaeus (for the better) or Peisetaerus (for the worse), she is not seeking to impose a permanent new order. At any rate, her enterprise, short-lived as it may be, is quite utopian: ‘did Aristophanes or anyone else really believe that peace, however desirable, was to be had in 411 without concessions which would weaken and impoverish the Athenians more than they would tolerate?’53

No proper ‘hero’ appears in Thesmophoriazusae (produced in 411 as well, few months later than Lysistrata):54 both Euripides and his old kinsman are too clumsy and untimely to achieve any important result, though the former, at the end of the comedy, manages to rescue the latter in a very entertaining way. It must be said that the play is less concerned with Athenian politics than most of the other extant ones. In Frogs (405 bc) we do find a comic hero, but, once again, an untypical one: Dionysus, who, cowardly and incompetent as he may be, still remains a god. It is worth noting that Eupolis’ Demes, earlier than Frogs55 but with a similar plot (summoning the ghosts of great men of old in order to save Athens), featured a human comic hero named Pyronides:56 Aristophanes, on the contrary, prefers to entrust someone else – a divine figure, if a ridiculous one – with such a mission. Better not to trust humans any more. It is well true that both Ecclesiazusae and Plutus are very late plays, paving the way to Middle Comedy, but I think that they too can shed some light on the evolution of comic heroism.57 In Ecclesiazusae (performed in either the first or the third decade of the fourth century bc) there is another female protagonist, Praxagora: like Lysistrata, she is resolute and has clearly defined ideas; unlike Lysistrata, she brings about a political revolution whose effects are intended to last.58 If success is the main criterion, we are fully entitled to define her a comic heroine.59 But what about the nature of her political programme? The critical debate on the meaning of Ecclesiazusae is vast and varied: only that on Birds can compete with it, though the former play lacks the subtle ambiguity and complex internal organization that we can appreciate in the latter. Some scholars are inclined to read Ecclesiazusae as ‘a straightforward wish-fulfillment fantasy in the mold of earlier Aristophanic plays’, demonstrating ‘the power of the dramatic imagination to transform reality’.60 Without denying the rights of imagination, and firmly believing that many spectators would have enjoyed the ludicrous gags of this play, I still wonder whether they might have considered Praxagora a reliable leader for their imaginary Athens. Could they find attractive, even as pure fantasy, the idea of contributing their property to the common fund and sleeping with an old hag? I am not sure that Aristophanes here parodies Plato’s political theories as expressed in the fifth book of Republic, as many scholars have been arguing from the 17th century onwards:61 but I do not hesitate to affirm that Praxagora, for all her good intentions (not for her the cunning malice of a Peisetaerus), has eventually produced yet another dystopian world.62 To find a utopian one in Aristophanes’ late plays, you have to turn to Plutus (388 bc). But there the discourse is much more ethical than political stricto sensu, and the individual ‘heroism’ of earlier plays is replaced with the cooperation between Apollo, who bids Chremylus to follow the first person he may meet on leaving the sanctuary,63 and a group of men of good will – Chremylus himself, Carion, and others. Extraordinary self-assertion was apparently going out of fashion.64

All in all, I hope to have demonstrated that the typological development of Aristophanes’ comic heroes cannot just be explained in terms of artistic variation. The influence of fifth-century politics on this literary theme is deeper and more complex than Whitman and other scholars believed. After the bitter experience of Birds, comic heroism has to evolve into new forms. Good ideas may now come from a clever woman (Lysistrata; Praxagora’s ones are not so appealing), a cowardly god (Dionysus), or even Apollo’s shrine (in Plutus), no longer from the Attic ‘common man’ of the earlier plays. The political decline of Athens during and after the Peloponnesian War appears to have altered Aristophanes’ (alleged) trust in some kind of ‘saviour’ emerging from the erratic mass of Athenian male citizens.


I express my gratitude to my co-editor and dear friend, Rosanna Lauriola, for her advice, help, and great patience. Translations of Greek passages (very few, in fact, and very short) are mine; so are the shortcomings still lurking in these pages.


B. M. W. Knox, Oedipus at Thebes (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1957), and The Heroic Temper. Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1964). Much has been written on this subject after Knox, and some theories of his are now regarded with skepticism (see, e.g., P. J. Finglass, Sophocles. Ajax [Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011], pp. 42-46): yet our appreciation of the ‘heroic temper’ in, say, an Antigone on an Ajax still owes much to Knox’s work.


Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1951); Homer and the Heroic Tradition (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1958); Aristophanes and the Comic Hero (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1964). A translator of great skill and taste, Cedric Hubbell Whitman (1916-1979), Eliot Professor of Greek Literature at Harvard University, did not confine himself to the archaic and classical periods: his brilliant English translation of Musaeus’ epyllion (in C. A. Trypanis, Callimachus. Aetia, Iambi, Hecale and Other Fragments; T. Gelzer and C. H. Whitman, Musaeus. Hero and Leander [Cambridge, ma and London; Harvard University Press, 1975], pp. 345-389) is still widely used.


See the review by C. Austin, Gnomon, 37 (1965), pp. 618-620, whose strictures were well deserved indeed. K. Dover, Classical Review, 16 (1966), pp. 159-161 offers a more balanced assessment.


C. J. Herington, Phoenix, 19 (1965), pp. 314-323: p. 314. See also H. L. Stow, American Journal of Philology, 87 (1966), pp. 111-113.


Cf. J. Henderson, ‘Comic Hero versus Political Elite’, in A. H. Sommerstein, S. Halliwell, J. Henderson and B. Zimmermann (eds.), Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis (Bari: Levante, 1993), pp. 307-319; T. Pappas, ‘Le sauveur chez Aristophane: approche anthropologique’, Hellenika, 43 (1993), pp. 293-309; F. Jouan, ‘Héros comique, héros tragique, héros satyrique’, in P. Thiercy and M. Menu (eds.), Aristophane: la langue, la scène, la cité (Bari: Levante, 1997), pp. 215-228; B. Zimmermann, ‘Aristophanes’, in M. Fontaine and A. C. Scafuro (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Comedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 132-159: pp. 145-147. On the possible links between comic heroism and popular magic, see A. Bierl, ‘Le “chamanisme” et la comédie ancienne. Recours générique à un atavisme et guérison (avec une application à l’exemple de la Paix d’Aristophane)’, Methodos, 7 (2007) ( I could not find in Italian libraries Pappas’ recent monograph Ἀριστοφάνης. Ὁ Ποιητὴς καὶ τὸ Ἔργο του (Athens: Gutenberg, 2016): from the review by A. Fountoulakis, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.48 (, I learn that he deals with comic heroism in Chapter 3 (pp. 111-151). R. M. Torrance, The Comic Hero (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1978), has a different, much wider scope. On Peace, A. Camerotto, ‘Come diventare un eroe. Le virtù e le imprese di Trygaios Athmoneus’, Incontri triestini di filologia classica, 6 (2006-2007), pp. 257-287, is especially valuable.


Jouan, ‘Héros comique’, p. 222.


Both quotations are from Henderson, ‘Comic Hero’, pp. 309-310.


‘Old Comedy is a heroic form. However it may comprise political or social satire and all the rest, these do not define it […]. It is the heroic dimension, and the nature of the comic hero, which are decisive’ (Aristophanes and the Comic Hero, p. 24).


A. C. Cassio, Aristofane. Banchettanti (Δαιταλῆς): i frammenti (Pisa: Giardini, 1977); M. Pellegrino, Aristofane. Frammenti (Lecce: Pensa Multimedia, 2015), pp. 138-167.


See Pellegrino, Aristofane. Frammenti, pp. 69-82, quoting previous literature. On the possible role of Dionysus as a comic would-be sailor, cf. especially J. Starkey, ‘Soldiers and Sailors in Aristophanes’ Babylonians’, Classical Quarterly, 63 (2013), pp. 501-510.


Whitman, Aristophanes and the Comic Hero, p. 17.


A recent caveat, together with important methodological remarks, in S. D. Olson, ‘Cratinus’ Cyclops – and Others’, Dionysus ex Machina, 5 (2014), pp. 55-69.


Even ‘he who makes the polis just’ (-πολις, not -πολίτης), with C. F. Russo, Aristofane autore di teatro (Firenze: Sansoni, 19842), p. 61. On his name see C. Bailey, ‘Who Played ‘Dicaeopolis’?’, in Greek Poetry and Life. Essays Presented to Gilbert Murray on His Seventieth Birthday (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936), pp. 231-239: pp. 236-238; S. D. Olson, Aristophanes. Acharnians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 179-180; R. Lauriola, Aristofane serio-comico. Paideia e geloion: con una lettura degli Acarnesi (Pisa: ets, 2010), p. 171 with n. 8; N. Kanavou, Aristophanes’ Comedy of Names. A Study of Speaking Names in Aristophanes (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2011), pp. 24-28. The idea of an allusion to Eupolis, suggested by E. L. Bowie, ‘Who is Dicaeopolis?’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 108 (1988), pp. 183-185 and further developed by K. Sidwell, ‘Aristophanes’ Acharnians and Eupolis’, Classica et Mediaevalia, 45 (1994), pp. 71-115, remains very speculative.


Olson, Aristophanes. Acharnians, p. 113, rightly points out the similar πρᾶγµα δεινὸν καὶ µέγα at Pax 403 and Thesm. 581. But in those passages, πρᾶγµα means ‘trouble’, ‘disgrace’, and has nothing to do with the protagonist’s deeds: at Ach. 128, on the contrary, ‘great’ has both heroic and ethical nuances (cf. Camerotto, ‘Come diventare un eroe’, p. 278 with n. 97).


K. J. Dover, Aristophanic Comedy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972), p. 87, adding that ‘in this respect he is strikingly different from Trygaios in Peace’.


Dover, Aristophanic Comedy, p. 88.


Cf., e.g., Lauriola, Aristofane serio-comico, pp. 15-36, 151-174 and 193-228. Olson, Aristophanes. Acharnians, pp. xl-lii is a bit more skeptical.


Cf. Whitman, Aristophanes and the Comic Hero, pp. 84-86.


Not unlikely at all: cf. G. Mastromarco, ‘Pubblico e memoria teatrale nell’Atene di Aristofane’, in Thiercy and Menu, Aristophane, pp. 529-548; M. Revermann, ‘The Competence of Theatre Audiences in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Athens’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 126 (2006), pp. 99-124.


Herington, in his review of Whitman (above, n. 4), p. 320, already noted this.


Dover, Aristophanic Comedy, p. 98.


As Z. P. Biles and S. D. Olson, Aristophanes. Wasps (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. xlvi-xlvii observe, if Demos (i.e. the Athenian people) ‘regularly insists on letting someone else run his affairs, one can reasonably assume, he will eventually be fooled again, a point Aristophanes’ play declines to pursue in favour of a nominally happy ending’. Similar (and convincing) arguments in M. Napolitano, ‘Alcune riflessioni sui finali di Aristofane’, in M. Taufer (ed.), Studi sulla commedia attica (Freiburg i. B.: Rombach, 2015), pp. 81-101, p. 90, and S. Pirrotta, ‘Triumph or Hilarity? Some Reflections on the Structure and Function of the Final Scenes in Aristophanic Comedy’, Trends in Classics, 8 (2016), pp. 33-54, pp. 36-45. Different interpretations are summarized by M. F. Di Bari, Scene finali di Aristofane. Cavalieri Nuvole Tesmoforiazuse (Lecce: Pensa Multimedia, 2013), pp. 44-49.


The much debated question of the first version of the play needs not detain us here.


Even Whitman, Aristophanes and the Comic Hero, p. 120 acknowledged this. See K. J. Dover, Aristophanes. Clouds (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), pp. xxiii-xxv (rightly noting that during the years 424-422 bc ‘the type of comedy which ends with unalloyed triumph and leaves no uncomfortable questions in the audience’s mind was not the only type in which Ar. was interested’).


A lucid assessment in Biles and Olson, Aristophanes. Wasps, pp. xlix-li and lvi-lviii.


See, e.g., D. M. MacDowell, Aristophanes. Wasps (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 7-8; Paduano in E. Fabbro and G. Paduano, Aristofane. Le Vespe (Milano: bur, 2012), pp. 9-18; Biles and Olson, Aristophanes. Wasps, pp. xxxiv-xxxvii.


Bdelycleon’s candidacy is most recently championed by M. J. Schere, ‘El problema del héroe cómico en Avispas’, Synthesis, 21 (2014) ( L. 56, ‘do not expect from us something too grand’ (µηδὲν παρ᾿ ἡµῶν προσδοκᾶν λίαν µέγα: italics mine), should be taken into account here. ‘Xanthias and Sosias put Aristophanes’ poetic cards on the table […]: the current play will not aspire to the high-minded and adventurous themes undertaken in earlier (sc. Aristophanic) comedies’ (Biles and Olson, Aristophanes. Wasps, p. xxix).


On the historical background of the play, see S. D. Olson, Aristophanes. Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. xxv-xxxi.


Cf. Camerotto, ‘Come diventare un eroe’, p. 281 with n. 117.


A paratragic passage, maybe reminiscent – as commentators know: cf. M. Platnauer, Aristophanes. Peace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), p. 141 – of Euripides’ notorious ἔσωσά σ᾿, ὡς ἴσασιν Ἑλλήνων ὅσοι (Medea 476). The final κινεῖν τε καὶ καθεύδειν, ‘screw and sleep’ (l. 867: probably not βινεῖν, see the parallel at l. 341 with N. G. Wilson, Aristophanea. Studies on the Text of Aristophanes [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007], p. 105), amusingly contrasts with the lofty tone of the preceding lines. On Trygaeus’ ‘Pan-Hellenic’ perspective, see also Dover, Aristophanic Comedy, pp. 136-139; Camerotto, ‘Come diventare un eroe’, pp. 266 and 277.


Dover, Aristophanic Comedy, pp. 138-139.


When he tried to use a thin ladder, he ‘fell down and broke his head’ (ξυνετρίβη τῆς κεφαλῆς καταρρυείς, l. 71).


His servant’s words at l. 90, ὦ δέσποτ᾿ ἄναξ, turn out to have a proleptic function. As Platnauer, Aristophanes. Peace, p. 74, remarks, ‘the slave regards his master, now on his way to heaven, as already deified’ (a more skeptical view in Olson, Aristophanes. Peace, p. 85). Whitman, Aristophanes and the Comic Hero, p. 116 remarked that ‘Trygaeus is the only figure in Greek literature who climbs the heavens by his own effort, puts the gods in their places, and walks home’.


Olson, Aristophanes. Peace, p. xlii.


A new critical edition with detailed commentary in F. Delneri, I culti misterici stranieri nei frammenti della commedia attica antica (Bologna: Pàtron, 2006), pp. 69-124, citing previous literature. Cf. also Pellegrino, Aristofane. Frammenti, pp. 327-336.


So, e.g., Whitman, Aristophanes and the Comic Hero, pp. 167-199; A. H. Sommerstein, The Comedies of Aristophanes, vi: Birds (Warminster: Aris&Phillips, 1987), pp. 3-5; D. M. MacDowell, Aristophanes and Athens. An Introduction to the Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 221-228; N. Dunbar, Aristophanes. Birds (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 1-6 and 11-14, and ‘Sophia in Aristophanes’ Birds’, Scripta Classica Israelica, 15 (1996), pp. 61-71. Further bibliography in E. Magnelli, ‘Sovversioni aristofanee. Rileggendo il finale degli Uccelli’, in A. Camerotto (ed.), Diafonie. Esercizi sul comico (Padova: S.A.R.G.O.N., 2007), pp. 111-128: pp. 113-114 with nn. 11-14.


This exegetical path was first trodden by J. W. Süvern, Über Aristophanes Vögel (Berlin, 1827). Cf. also J. Dalfen, ‘Politik und Utopie in den Vögeln des Aristophanes (Zu Ar., Vögel 451-638)’, Bollettino dell’Istituto di Filologia Greca, 2 (1975), pp. 268-285; Zanetto, in G. Zanetto and D. Del Corno, Aristofane. Gli Uccelli (Milano: Mondadori, 1987), pp. 307-309; E. Corsini, ‘Gli “Uccelli” di Aristofane: utopia o satira politica?’, in R. Uglione (ed.), La città ideale nella tradizione classica e biblico-cristiana (Torino: Regione Piemonte, 1987), pp. 57-136; A. Nicev, ‘L’énigme des Oiseaux d’Aristophane’, Euphrosyne, 17 (1989), pp. 9-30 (a sound, intelligent paper, deserving more attention than it has received hitherto); T. K. Hubbard, The Mask of Comedy: Aristophanes and the Intertextual Parabasis (Ithaca, ny and London: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 157-182; Zimmermann, ‘Nephelokokkygia. Riflessioni sull’utopia comica’, in W. Rösler and B. Zimmermann, Carnevale e utopia nella Grecia antica (Bari: Levante, 1991), pp. 53-101. Further literature in Magnelli, ‘Sovversioni aristofanee’, pp. 112-113 with nn. 7-10, adding now P. Thiercy, ‘Utopie et contre utopie chez Aristophane’, Studia Philologica Valentina, 9 (2006), pp. 231-243: pp. 232-235, and C. Corbel-Morana, ‘L’imaginaire utopique dans la comédie ancienne, entre eutopie et dystopie (l’exemple des Oiseaux d’Aristophane)’, Kentron, 26 (2010), pp. 49-61.


Πεισέταιρος (Bergk’s excellent emendation), not Πεισθέταιρος/Πισθέταιρος. See B. Marzullo, ‘L’interlocuzione negli “Uccelli” di Aristofane’, Philologus, 114 (1970), pp. 181-194, pp. 181-183; Dunbar, Aristophanes. Birds, pp. 128-129; Kanavou, Aristophanes’ Comedy of Names, pp. 105-110.


See E. W. Scharffenberger, ‘Peisetaerus’ ‘Satyric’ Treatment of Iris: Aristophanes Birds 1253-6’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 115 (1995), pp. 172-173; E. Fabbro, ‘Pistetero vs Zeus: strategie di assalto al cielo’, Dioniso, N.S. 1 (2013), pp. 97-128, pp. 107-111.


Cf. G. Bonnin, ‘Mélos face à l’appétit athénien (426-416 a.C.): à propos de la “faim mélienne” d’Aristophane’, Revue des Études Anciennes, 112 (2010), pp. 333-351; Fabbro, ‘Pistetero vs Zeus’, p. 100 with n. 15.


See M. Pellegrino, Utopie e immagini gastronomiche nei frammenti dell’archaia (Bologna: Pàtron, 2000); M. Farioli, Mundus alter. Utopie e distopie nella commedia greca antica (Milano: Vita & Pensiero, 2001), pp. 27-137.


Note the sinister κατακόπτω, here ‘to butcher’ rather than just ‘to kill’ (cf. Dunbar, Aristophanes. Birds, p. 738). For Peisetaerus they are just food, not fellow-citizens.


Nicev, ‘L’énigme des Oiseaux’, p. 22; A. H. Sommerstein, ‘An Alternative Democracy and an Alternative to Democracy in Aristophanic Comedy’, in U. Bultrighini (ed.), Democrazia e antidemocrazia nel mondo greco (Alessandria: Edizioni dell’Orso, 2005), pp. 195-207, p. 203.


N. Dunbar, ‘Aristophane, ornithophile et ornithophage’, in Thiercy and Menu, Aristophane, pp. 113-129: pp. 118-120 is surely right in noting that we should not infer from this play that Aristophanes did not enjoy eating birds: but I cannot agree with M. S. Silk, Aristophanes and the Definition of Comedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 289 n. 68, when he writes that Peisetaerus’ bird-cooking ‘has no realist-logical significance: the joke is at the expense of such logic, not at the expense of ‘the birds’ themselves’. It is Peisetaerus, not the poet, who has become the birds’ leader and, to some extent at least, a bird himself: here he is behaving like a true (not metaphorical!) δηµοβόρος βασιλεύς.


Basileia, a personification of Zeus’ power now transferred to the birds – better said, to their pretended tutor. See H.-J. Newiger, Metapher und Allegorie. Studien zu Aristophanes (München: Beck, 1957), pp. 92-103; Kanavou, Aristophanes’ Comedy of Names, p. 125.


A mythical figure well known in fifth-century Athens: Sophocles, Euripides and Astydamas the Younger all wrote on either Salmoneus or his daughter Tyro (see Magnelli, ‘Sovversioni aristofanee’, p. 118 n. 41).


As noted by C. Bonner, ‘Sovereignty and the Ambitious Hero’, American Journal of Philology, 64 (1943), pp. 208-210, p. 210; cf. also K. J. Reckford, Aristophanes’ Old-and-New Comedy (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), p. 333, and A. M. Bowie, Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 165.


This was suggested, rightly in my view, by Bonner, ‘Sovereignty and the Ambitious Hero’: cf. more recently Bowie, Aristophanes, p. 165, and now C. Anderson and T. K. Dix, ‘Prometheus and the Basileia in Aristophanes’ Birds’, Classical Journal, 102 (2006-2007), pp. 321-327. More details and further literature in Magnelli, ‘Sovversioni aristofanee’, p. 118.


But probably written in the previous year: see S. D. Olson, ‘Lysistrata’s Conspiracy and the Politics of 412 bc’, in C. W. Marshall and G. Kovacs (eds.), No Laughing Matter. Studies in Athenian Comedy (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2012), pp. 69-81.


J. Henderson, Aristophanes. Lysistrata (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. xxxvii.


For a sensibile criticism of modern feminist readings of Lysistrata, see Mastromarco in G. Mastromarco and P. Totaro, Commedie di Aristofane, ii (Torino: utet, 2006), pp. 39-49.


Dover, Aristophanic Comedy, p. 161.


Prato in C. Prato and D. Del Corno, Aristofane. Le donne alle Tesmoforie (Milano: Mondadori, 2001), pp. xi-xvii; C. Austin and S. D. Olson, Aristophanes. Thesmophoriazusae (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. xxxiii-xxxvi. On a second version of the play, staged at least two years later, see F.-S. Karachalios, ‘Aristophanes’ Lost Thesmophoriazusae Revisited: on the Date and Plot’, Leeds International Classical Studies, 5 (2006) (


Probably performed in 412 bc: see Olson’s contribution to this volume.


On this character see M. Telò, Eupolidis Demi (Firenze: Le Monnier, 2007), pp. 54-61. Aristophanes’ Gerytades (shortly before 405 bc), where three poets descended to the Underworld for strictly literary reasons (frs. 156-190 K.-A.: see Pellegrino, Aristofane. Frammenti, pp. 112-129), was quite a different story. On the theme, see also Whitman, Aristophanes and the Comic Hero, p. 231.


Nan Dunbar, in her review in Journal of Hellenic Studies, 86 (1966), pp. 182-183, rightly criticized Whitman for excluding these two plays from his analysis: ‘might not this debatable contrast have been usefully examined in terms of the presence or absence of this ‘central heroic figure’?’.


Sonnino’s contribution to this volume provides a detailed (and convincing) analysis of the differences between the two plays.


That she, oddily enough, disappears after l. 727 has to do with structure and compositional technique, not with ideology or characterization. See Vetta in M. Vetta and D. Del Corno, Aristofane. Le donne all’assemblea (Milano: Mondadori, 1989), pp. xxii-xxv.


N. W. Slater, Spectator Politics: Metatheatre and Performance in Aristophanes (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 228-232. Similarly, e.g., MacDowell, Aristophanes and Athens, pp. 322-323 (‘a delightful dream’); A. Capra, Aristofane. Donne al Parlamento (Roma: Carocci, 2010), especially pp. 28-31.


See R. G. Ussher, Aristophanes. Ecclesiazusae (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. xv-xx. The most recent and detailed attempt is that of L. Canfora, La crisi dell’utopia. Aristofane contro Platone (Roma and Bari: Laterza, 2014).


On this point, I totally agree with the late Massimo Vetta (Aristofane. Le donne all’assemblea, pp. xxiv-xxv); cf. also Thiercy, ‘Utopie et contre utopie’, pp. 235-238. H. Flashar, ‘Zur Eigenart des aristophanischen Spätwerks’, Poetica, 1 (1967), pp. 154-175, remains pivotal.


A traditional, widespread folkloric motif (see Bowie, Aristophanes, p. 278 n. 44). Frankly speaking, Apollo’s suggestion was not very original. All jokes aside, the parallel of Knights easily comes to mind.


For the interpretation of Plutus, L. Fiorentini, ‘A proposito dell’esegesi ‘ironica’ per l’ultimo Aristofane’, Eikasmós, 16 (2005), pp. 111-123 is especially valuable.

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