The sycophant, a true ‘plague’ for Athenian society in the classical age, is dramatis persona in some episodic scenes of Aristophanic comedy. An analysis of the peculiarities of such scenes shows how the sycophant’s negative features were pushed to the extreme by the distorting lens of the greatest poet of Old Comedy, producing a surreal, monstrous comic mask apt to strike the imagination of an Attic audience, accustomed as it was to the sad reality of trials and tribunals, where those shady characters used to rage by accusing both Athenian and foreigners, offering testimonies for the prosecution, and demanding a sentence. Aristophanes’ plays, having sycophants mauled and expelled, thus expressed the common desire of Athenian citizens to punish such individuals and get rid – on the stage at least – of their ominous presence.
Specialists of Attic law have widely shown that Athenian trial procedures were based on the initiative of free male citizens who had both the right and the duty to bring an accusation against anyone who might make an attempt upon the good of the State.1 In default of a Public Prosecutor (in the modern sense), it was any ‘volunteer’ (ὁ βουλόµενος) who promoted a trial for reasons of public interest: in some cases, there also was a money remuneration for the successful prosecutor. On the other hand, to prevent arbitrary accusations, there was a deterrent of the same kind: prosecutors who either did not manage to get at least one fifth of the jury’s votes, or resigned the trial, had to pay a fine – moreover, they were not allowed to promote another trial of the same nature. Needless to say, much depended on the prosecutor’s reputation. A popular jury could be very favourable when the accusation came from someone widely acknowledged as a loyal citizen defending Athenian constitution against rampant bribery and injustice; on the contrary, the trial might have a very different outcome if the prosecutor was held to be the kind of man who tried to make money at somebody else’s expense, distorting the law and oppressing honest citizens by means of threats and extortions.
To be sure, prosecution was not in itself a social plague: it could become so, and was regarded as such, when Athenian people detected in it either the illicit activity of intriguers without scruples or the frenetic production of fake charges for personal economic interest. The latter was the case of the ‘sycophant’, as they used to call those prosecutors who, theoretically useful to the State, in fact proved hateful, even harmful to Athenian society – for their excessive zeal, or rather for their legal misconduct and wicked use of rhetorical skill, producing nothing but false, cavilous accusations.2
Attic playwrights surely enhanced the perception of sycophants as a serious threat to Athenian judicial system, depicting them as shady characters quite good with words, corrupted and greedy, aggressive and treacherous.3 In this paper, I will discuss the image of the sycophant in the extant Aristophanic comedies, with special focus on the ‘comic violence’ and the exemplary expulsion that he is expected to suffer. I will also try to show that the liberating gestures marking the exit of this comic mask do reflect, if through the distorting lens of Aristophanes’ caricatures, the whole community’s desire to get rid of what was perceived as a real ‘malady’ of Athenian society.4
We find sycophants on stage in four episodic scenes of Aristophanic comedy: Acharnians 818-828 and 908-958, Birds 1410-1469, and Plutus 850-958.
- Acharnians 818-828 and 908-958. After having signed a thirty-years treaty with Sparta, Dicaeopolis fixes the boundaries of his private market (l. 719), where a Megarian merchant (l. 729) and a Boeotian one (l. 860) promptly come to exchange their goods.5 But the commercial negotiations between the protagonist and these two characters are interrupted, albeit briefly and without success, by an anonymous informer in the first scene (ll. 818-828) and by a sycophant named Nicarchus in the second one (ll. 908-958).6 In both cases, Dicaeopolis disposes of their inappropriate, annoying presence in a very brusque and resolute way.
- Birds 1410-1469. After the Father-beating (ll. 1337-1371) and Kinesias the dithyrambographer (ll. 1372-1409), a third visitor arrives at Cloudcuckootown: the Sycophant, whose activity gives Aristophanes the chance to depict him as unwelcome beggar.7 The playwright highlights the great shamelessness of this character, who, after a few cues, does not hesitate at all to define himself a συκοφάντης (l. 1423): this is most peculiar, since, as scholars rightly pointed out, ‘given its regularly pejorative force, συκοφάντης is never used by a speaker of himself’.8 Another repulsive feature of this very character is his special bent for accusing the allies (cf. ll. 1422, 1425): as we know from Ps.-Xenophon’s Athenaion Politeia (1.14-18), the σύµµαχοι were in fact subject to sycophants’ pestering, and their condition of foreigners would make a trial at Athens especially uncomfortable for them.9 Foreign spectators who, at the City Dionysia, had the privilege to belong to the Birds’ audience would surely rejoice in seeing first the Sycophant’s unsuccessful attempt to receive from Peisetairos any kind of facility for his hateful ‘job’ (ll. 1418-1461), and then his exemplary expulsion to the sound of lash (ll. 1462-1469).
- Plutus 850-958. This is the longest scene, in the extant Aristophanic plays, featuring the much feared character of the informer as dramatis persona. After recovering his sight, Plutus at last provides a remedy for social injustice, whose unfair distribution of financial resources has long been favouring the wicked at the expense of honest citizens (cf. ll. 28-31). The god of wealth loads Chremylus with goods (ll. 802-822), and makes the Good Man rich: the latter shares with Carion his joy and his purpose to make a tribute of gratitude to the god (ll. 823-849), bearing him as votive offerings the remains of his past condition of poverty (a worn-out cloak, τριβώνιον, l. 842; a pair of shoes, ἐµβάδια, l. 847).10 Then a sycophant breaks in, together with a witness (but the latter will disappear at the first difficulties: cf. l. 933), and declares to Carion and Good Man that Plutus has suddenly ruined him (ll. 850-858). His complaints will come to no effect: he is shamefully spoiled of all his clothes and punched in his face, until he leaves the stage in despair, accompanied by sneering words (ll. 930-957).
Aristophanes’ passages featuring sycophants count among the so-called ‘episodic scenes’, which, as is well known, did not awake the same scholarly interest as other basic formal structures of Old Comedy (like, e.g., the parabasis or the epirrhematic agon).11 Such scenes have been aptly defined a ‘debole anello di connessione fra parabasi ed esodo, la cui presenza si giustifica come tributo alle esigenze del pubblico e come retaggio di antiche convenzioni; il suo scopo primario sembra essere quello di intrattenere e divertire’.12 According to the current terminology, ‘episodic (or ‘burlesque’, or even ‘iambic’) scenes’ are sections in iambic trimeters following the parabasis and divided from each other by choral songs;13 they feature a rapid sequence14 of stock characters (soldiers, philosophers, poets, seers, orators, ambassadors)15 who, often with an arrogant and shameless attitude, disturb the project of the ‘comic hero’ and/or try to benefit from his success.16 Yet, in most cases, their fate is marked from their very first appearance on the comic stage: they are always treated with mockery, abuse, and coarse jokes, and then rudely expelled (cf., e.g., Ach. 719-970, 1018-1068; Nu. 1214-1302; v. 1388-1449; Pax 1042-1126, 1197-1304; Av. 903-1057, 1337-1469; Ec. 730-876, 877-1111; Pl. 802-958, 959-1096, 1097-1207).17
Two Italian scholars, Stefania Grava and Maria Cristina Torchio, recently offered interesting readings of such scenes based on Roland Barthes’ narratological approach.18 Starting from the three types of narrative elements theorized by the French semiologist – nuclei, i.e. cardinal functions, including those parts absolutely necessary for the development of the plot; catalysis, i.e. complementary functions, which cannot be suppressed unless one is willing to alter the semantic value of the text; indices, i.e. semantic units, characterizing settings and enriching the narration – they argue that episodic scenes in Aristophanes’ plays prevalently work as catalysis, interrupting scenic action for a while, making it either faster or slower, but also preparing further developments of the plot.19
Thus, in the particular case of scenes involving a sycophant, we find ‘sezioni strutturate come momenti di interruzione e di sosta dell’azione (le catalisi), ai quali si accompagna la parallela funzione di aggiungere indizi importanti per comprendere pienamente la nuova dimensione della realtà scenica’.20
In the Acharnians (ll. 818-828), the first sycophant is almost an onlooker, since his threatening intervention against the Megarian is promptly stopped by Dicaeopolis, who drives him off by dint of lashes; yet a few cues are enough to make the Megarian conclude that such figures are a true ‘evil for the city of Athens’ (l. 829: οἷον τὸ κακὸν ἐν ταῖς Ἀθήναις τοῦτ᾿ ἔνι). In the following scene (vv. 908-958), Nicarchus the informer is not just expelled, but even turned into bargaining chip: the additional index towards a better understanding of the deep meaning of Aristophanes’ message is that Athenian prosperity is based not only on the availability of goods, but above all on a ‘catartic’ removal from the comic hero’s space of those acknowledged to be a dangerous threat to the city.21
More explicit traces of political and ethical reflexion can be detected in the scenes of Birds (ll. 1410-1469) and Plutus (ll. 850-958).
In the Birds, the Sycophant arrogantly introduces himself as ‘summons-server for the islands’ (l. 1422: κλητήρ εἰµι νησιωτικός) and ‘hunting after lawsuits’ (l. 1424: πραγµατοδίφης), and wishes to become as citizen of Cloudcuckootown in order to be granted a pair of wings and thus harm the allies more effectively (ll. 1451-1460); Peisetaerus cannot but turn to an ‘educational’ process (note that the informer appears to be a young man: l. 1431 νεανίας), based not on the art of persuasion, but on a solemn punishment under the sign of lash (ll. 1461-1469).22
In the Plutus, the sycophant even believes to be ‘a respectable man and a patriot’ (l. 900: χρηστὸς ὢν καὶ φιλόπολις), and assumes to suffer from both an underserved misfortune (the loss of his wealth, due to the god Plutus: ll. 850-859, 864-867) and a shameful violence at the hands of Carion and Good Man (ll. 886-888). Yet his interlocutors, after a fast dialogue revealing that the sycophant is useless and unable to perform any kind of honest job (ll. 901-925), drive him off just in account of his being a social danger (ll. 926-958). In the light of such indices, not very relevant for the further development of the plot, yet helpful to understand the meaning of Aristophanes’ socio-political message in the Plutus,23 we are definitely entitled to conclude that ‘nel Sicofante il pubblico riconosceva un personaggio particolarmente odioso, che seminava la paura fra i cittadini e sfruttava le istituzioni democratiche per il proprio tornaconto’.24
The risk that both Grava and Torchio deservedly avoid is that of putting the episodic scenes of Aristophanic comedy into the cage of a fixed pattern which would hardly suit even a properly narrative text.25 This means that, for a more fruitful reading of episodic scenes involving as sycophant, we must above all give due importance to the performative dimension of the play. Only through the analysis of a dramatic text as such, we will finally see performance ‘in-scribed into the text’.26 From these episodes, in my view, we can single out the following theatrical peculiarities that concur in defining the negative features of the informer’s comic mask and in making us appreciate the ritual aspects of his expulsion from the stage.
- The third actor on the stage. Sycophants appear in highly movimented scenes, whose dramatic liveliness visually enhances his restless, molest activism. The third actor is thus necessary in such scenes.27 At Ach. 824-828, Dicaeopolis, the Megarian merchant and the Sycophant are simultaneously present on stage; at ll. 910-958, Dicaeopolis, the Boeotian merchant and Nicarchus; at Pl. 850-950, Carion, Good Man and the Sycophant. The only exception is Birds 1410-1469, involving only Peisetaerus and the Sycophant. Aristophanic scenes are further animated by some personae mutae: the Megarian merchant’s piglet-daughters at Ach. 818-828;28 the servants whom Dicaeopolis instructs at Ach. 926b-927, and Ismenias, the Boeotian’s servant, at Ach. 954-958. At Av. 1469 we find some assistants of Peisetaerus’, carrying away the baskets full of wings, and at Pl. 891 the Sycophant’s witness, who nonetheless disappears at the first difficulties (l. 933).
- The sycophant suddenly breaking in. His inrush disturbs the dialogue between the characters already present on stage, representing his unfair interference in the private affairs of Athenian citizens. In the Acharnians, the commercial trades between Dicaeopolis and the Megarian and Boeotian merchants temporarily stop due to the apparition, respectively, of an unnamed Sycophant (l. 818) and of Nicarchus (l. 910). In the Plutus, God Man informs Carion of his decision to make a tribute of gratitude to the god, whose regained sight granted him an unexpected wealth (ll. 823-849): but his purpose is frustrated, for a while, by the arrival of the Sycophant loudly complaining about his own disgrace (ll. 850-854). In the Birds, as we have seen, the Sycophant arriving at Cloudcuckootown after the Father-beating (ll. 1337-1371) and Kinesias the dithyrambographer (ll. 1372-1409) finds Peisetaerus alone on the stage (l. 1410): but here too the informer does not fail to display, with bold readiness (ll. 1422-1423a), his invadent behaviour, in this case harming foreigners above all (ll. 1453-1460), the victims whom Athenian judicial system protected less effectively.
- Venality and cheeky art of simulation. The sycophant conceals his extortions and venal scopes (cf. Av. 1459-1460; Pl. 856-859), feigning noble attitudes such as his alleged opposition to smugglers and enemies of Athenian economy (Ach. 819-820, 827, 911-912, 914a, 915), his will not to dishonour his ancestors’ job (Av. 1451-1452), his civic passion for lawsuits (Av. 1422, 1424-1425, 1429; Pl. 859), his concern with public good (Pl. 907), his defense of democracy (Pl. 948-950). His language is sometimes rich in clever rhetorical emphasis, and presumably uttered in stentorian voice (cf. Ach. 822: κλαίων µεγαριεῖς; 915: ἐγὼ φράσω σοι τῶν περιεστώτων χάριν); sometimes, on the contrary, openly trying to involve the bystanders and indulging in lament and self-commiseration (cf. Ach. 926a, Pl. 932: µαρτύροµαι, Av. 1464a, 1466a, Pl. 880, 930: οἴµοι τάλας, Pl. 850-852: οἴµοι κακοδαίµων, ὡς ἀπόλωλα δείλαιος, / καὶ τρισκακοδαίµων καὶ τετράκις καὶ πεντάκις / καὶ δωδεκάκις καὶ µυριάκις, 935a: οἴµοι µάλ᾿ αὖθις). Moreover, he constantly uses legal terminology, thus revealing the true nature of his intrigues. In the Acharnians, when Dicaeopolis fixes the boundaries of his private market (l. 719) and begins to trade with the Megarian merchant (ll. 729-835) and the Boeotian one (ll. 860-958), the sycophants’ language features recurrent mentions of, or allusions to, φάσις (cf. ll. 819-820a: τὰ χοιρίδια τοίνυν ἐγὼ φανῶ ταδὶ / πολέµια καὶ σέ; 827a: οὐ γὰρ φανῶ τοὺς πολεµίους; 911b-912a: ἐγὼ τοίνυν ὁδὶ / φανῶ πολέµια ταῦτα; 914a: καὶ σέ γε φανῶ πρὸς τοῖσδε), a kind of accusation usually related to the activity of agora and the defense of laws on import-export of goods. This, in the stage illusion, becomes something extremely dangerous for foreign merchants trading ith the protagonist.29 In the Birds, the frequent verbal forms referring to the official notification of summons (ll. 1425 καλούµενος, 1426 προσκαλεῖ, 1455 καλεσάµενος, ἐγκεκληκώς)30 suit only too well someone who, at ll. 1422-1423, introduces himself as κλητὴρ νησιωτικὸς καὶ συκοφάντης, revealing his inclination to accusing (and blackmailing) the citizens of allied islands (ll. 1424-1429, 1451b-1461a). In the Plutus, during a fast sequence of cues echoing words and phrases from judicial and political oratory (cf. ll. 907-908, 912-914, 918), the Sycophant’s words chiefly allude to his activity of ‘voluntary prosecutor’ (ll. 908c βούλοµαι, 929a ὁ βουλόµενος), determined to act for the sake of the State (ll. 907-919). But his true intentions appear very soon, all the more because of his scant regard for his interlocutors. At Ach. 818a, when he asks the Megarian ἄνθρωπε, ποδαπός;, his words convey a contemptuous double meaning (‘Where are you from?’, implying ‘What’s your race?’), as if the informer would contemptuously investigate the origins and identity of his interlocutor – almost refusing to acknowledge that he is a human being. At Av. 1410-1411, ὄρνιθες τίνες οἵδ᾿ οὐδὲν ἔχοντες πτεροποίκιλοι, / τανυσίπτερε ποικίλα χελιδοῖ;, the Sycophant reworks two lines by Alcaeus (fr. 345.1-2 v.: ὄρνιθες τίνες οἴδ᾿ Ὠκεάνω γᾶς <τ᾿> ἀπὺ πειράτων / ἦλθον πανέλοπες ποικιλόδειροι τανυσίπτεροι;), reusing, at l. 1410, their metre as well, i.e. the greater Asclepiad: but he inserts into it the phrase οὐδὲν ἔχοντες, arrogantly referring to the birds present on stage. At Pl. 922b the Sycophant, in a sustained defense of his zealous political activism (ll. 907-919), haughtily compares the quiet life mentioned by Good Man (ll. 921-922a) to ‘a sheep’s life’ (προβατίου βίον λέγεις).
- Accusatory attitude of the sycophant. The sycophant’s accusatory vis is the basic element of every Aristophanic scene involving an informer, and has its performative side in a number of ad hoc gestures. At Ach. 819-822, the Sycophant exposes the allegedly illegal trade of Megarian goods pointing at them (ll. 819-820a: τὰ χοιρίδια τοίνυν ἐγὼ φανῶ ταδὶ / πολέµια καὶ σέ) and trying to grab the sack out of his victim’s hands (l. 822: οὐκ ἀφήσεις τὸν σάκον;). At Ach. 911-924, Nicarchus’ system of bogus accusations is directed not just at the Boeotian’s goods, but especially at the alleged ‘threat’ of … a wick (it is remarkable, in this passage too, the occurrence of both φαίνω and demonstratives: ll. 911b-912a ἐγὼ τοίνυν ὁδὶ / φανῶ πολέµια ταῦτα, l. 914a καὶ σέ γε φανῶ πρὸς τοῖσδε, l. 918 αὕτη [scil. θρυαλλίς] γὰρ ἐµπρήσειεν ἂν τὸ νεώριον). At Av. 1451-1461, the Sycophant’s accusations and extortions infuriate ‘rapaciously’ against foreigners (cf., at ll. 1453-1454, his request for swift, light wings such as those of a sparrow-hawk or a kestrel, in order to do all legal paperwork ‘here at Athens’, ἐνθαδί, l. 1455, and then quickly arrive ‘there’, ἐκεῖσε, l. 1456). Finally, at Plut. 870-876 e 886-890 the Sycophant falsely accuses Carion and Good Man of both larceny and physical violence: note at l. 886 the demonstrative, pointing to the act of ‘violence’ that the Sycophant suffers at the hands of his opponents (ὕβρις ταῦτ᾿ ἐστὶ πολλή), and at l. 887 ἐνθάδ᾿, referring to the house of Carion’s master, whom the informer accuses of having embezzled his wealth.
- Interlocutors’ immediate reaction to the sycophant’s ‘social threat’. In the Acharnians, the entrance of Nicarchus, announced at l. 907 by the definition of the informer as ‘a monkey full of malice’ (πίθακον ἀλιτρίας πολλᾶς πλέων), is matched by an immediate – and highly malevolent – description, both physical and moral, of the sycophant by the Boeotian merchant and by Dicaeopolis himself (cf. ll. 909a µικκός γα µᾶκος οὗτος, 909b ἅπαν κακόν). At l. 924b, the latter’s purpose to punish the informer opens with a curse (ὦ κάκιστ᾿ ἀπολούµενε), used also by Peisetaerus when he shakes the lash towards his molest opponent (Av. 1467 ὦ κάκιστ᾿ ἀπολούµενος). At Ach. 936-939, Dicaeopolis uses a number of metaphors that the image of the sycophant as a pot will later take back to a moreliteral meaning. The informer is a bowl (κρατήρ), a mortar (τριπτήρ), a lampstand (λυχνοῦχος); in particular, alluding with worry to Nicarchus’ activity in the political life at Athens as a dangerous intriguer, Dicaeopolis identifies him with a cup (κύλιξ) suitable for ‘a mixture of tricks’ (l. 939 πράγµατ᾿ ἐγκυκᾶσθαι). At ll. 947-51 the verb θερίδδειν (Boeotian form of θερίζειν, properly ‘to mow’) is used by the Boeotian merchant with the metaphorical meaning of ‘raping a good harvest’, but the Chorus employs its compound form (συνθέριζε, l. 948) with another value, that of ‘annihilating’, variously attested in Greek.31 The coryphaeus seems to agree with the Theban, but in fact he implies for συνθερίζω a meaning that only an Athenian audience, unhappily vexed by sycophants, could understand. At Av. 1430, Peisetaerus’ question (τουτὶ γὰρ ἐργάζει σὺ τοὔργον;) reveals his disapproval of the informer who earns his life ‘getting up lawsuits’ (l. 1435: δικορραφεῖν) rather than by means of a honest job. Good Man, in the Plutus, expresses similar disdain for the Sycophant, when he learns that the latter is neither a γεωργός (l. 903) nor an ἔµπορος (l. 904), nor does he possess any kind of τέχνη (l. 905). No less hostile to the Sycophant is Carion: at l. 885 his cue ‘συκοφάντου δήγµατος’ relies on an aprosdoketon, since, instead of the expected name of a venomous animal, he uses συκοφάντου, thus pointing to his dangerous ‘bites’. And at l. 931 he blames the informer’s way of life with these words: σὺ γὰρ ἀξιοῖς τἀλλότρια πράττων ἐσθίειν.32
- The sycophant’s surreal exit. In the Acharnians, Dicaeopolis hastens to expel the Sycophant by dint of lashes (ll. 827-828). Nicarchus, instead, is tied and packed as a parcel (ll. 926-958). The latter scene, decreeing his definitive expulsion, in fact involves a kind of humorous enactment of the ‘retaliation law’: the sycophant, accustomed to denounce commercial goods (ll. 911b-918), is here in turn transformed into bargaining chip. In the Birds, Peisetaerus strikes the Sycophant with a lash, and the latter disappears whirling like a spinning-top: here the lively comic effect of the scene is built on the semantic nuances of the verb πτερόω and on the meaningful symbology of wings (πτερά), which, requested by the Sycophant in order to perform more quickly his frenzied activity of summons-server (ll. 1420-1429), are now turned into double-thonged lashes (ll. 1464-1465) and promoted to instrument of Peisetaerus’ will to punish the informer. Finally, in the Plutus (ll. 930-957) the Sycophant is shamefully stripped, painfully punched in his face, and driven off at the sound of discrediting mockery. The ἐµβάδια, symbol of Good Man’s past poverty and initially destined, together with the τριβώνιον, to be a votive offering to Plutus (ll. 842-849), are now ‘nailed’ (l. 943 προσπατταλεύσω) by Carion to the Sycophant’s forehead, and the latter, with his newly-fashioned ‘armamentary’ (at l. 951 Good Man calls the informer’s worn-out cloak πανοπλία, in a pejorative sense and with a blatantly derisive scope), quickly leaves the stage (l. 952 τρέχε), mocked by both Good Man (ll. 951-954), who bids him to find a remedy against cold (ll. 896-987) warming himself at the βαλανεῖον (ll. 952-953), and Carion (ll. 955-957), who foretells that the bathing-attendant will rudely expel him as a man ‘of bad stamp’ (ll. 955-957: at 957, the phrase τοῦ πονηροῦ κόµµατος closes in a ring composition the depiction of the Sycophant, whom Good Man had already ‘branded’ with the very same words when he entered the stage at l. 862).33
All in all, the articulation of scenes involving a sycophant confirms that this character is an evil figure, absolutely deserving to be removed. The rude treatment reserved to arrogant informers, and the genial comic inventions to drive them off the stage, clearly express Aristophanes’ hostility to such shady characters and his unsatisfied desire to get rid of a kind of man whose negative features, pushed to the extreme by the distorting lens of the playwright’s talent, produced a surreal, monstrous comic mask. A mask surely apt to strike the imagination of Attic audiences, accustomed as they were to the sad reality of trials and tribunals, where sycophants used to rage with their abuses – a true ‘plague’ for Athenian society, requiring, in Aristophanes’ comic fiction, an exemplary punishment and a ‘violent’ expulsion from the stage.
I am grateful to Enrico Magnelli and Rosanna Lauriola for translating the present paper into English. On the procedural aspects of Athenian law courts, see C. Bearzot, La giustizia nella Grecia antica (Rome: Carocci, 2008), pp. 59-74, 95-109, and the recent monographs by A. T. Alwine, Enmity and Feuding in Classical Athens (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), and A. Lanni, Law and Order in Ancient Athens (New York: Cambridge
For a detailed bibliographical survey on ancient sycophants see D. Harvey, ‘The Sykophant and Sykophancy: Vexatious Redefinition?’, in P. Cartledge, P. Millett and S. Todd (eds.), Nomos: Essays in Athenian Law, Politics and Society (Cambridge: Cambridge
I dealt with this topic at greater length in M. Pellegrino, La maschera comica del Sicofante (Lecce-Brescia: Pensa Multimedia, 2010); cf. also S. Caciagli, M. Regali, D. De Sanctis and M. Giovannelli, ‘Sicofante’, in the online database Lessico del Comico (http://www.lessicodelcomico.unimi.it/sicofante/).
R. Lauriola, Aristofane serio-comico. Paideia e geloion. Con una lettura degli Acarnesi (Pisa:
‘Dikaiopolis’ private and symbolistic agora […] is an illustration of the public proclamation made in ll. 623-625; similarly, the first scene with the Megarian Pig-dealer is along the lines envisioned by Telephus-Dikaiopolis in ll. 520-523 and 535. Yet this is not all: the scenes with the Megarian Pig-dealer and the Theban, which are composed with great care and are also completely different from each other in terms of scenic make-up and the use made of the actors, allude implicitly to two different comic styles. The first scene, whose ‘dialectal’ protagonist is the coarse Megarian with his ‘little piglettes’ – Μεγαρικά τις µαχανά, l. 738 – and whose willing Calandrinesque deuteragonist is the Attic Dikaiopolis, plays up indirectly the superficiality of ‘buffoonery purloined at Megara’ (cf. Ve 57); the other scene, whose scoffing protagonist is a sophisticated and often paratragic Dikaiopolis, plays up the refinement of the Attic spirit. Here the chorus takes part in the action, and the coryphaeus converses with Dikaiopolis and the Theban: C. F. Russo, Aristophanes, an Author for the Stage (transl. by K. Wren, London-New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 59. On the clever blending of symmetry and contrast in this couple of scenes, see C. H. Whitman, Aristophanes and the Comic Hero (Cambridge [Mass.]: Harvard
This person (
On this sequence of three scenes featuring such ‘personajes a la busca de alas’, cf. Rodríguez Alfageme, Aristófanes, pp. 226-230 (the quotation is from p. 226).
N. Dunbar (ed.), Aristophanes. Birds (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 674. The only other occurrence, yet an uncertain one, is at Ar. fr. 228.1 K.-A. ἔσειον, ᾔτουν χρήµατ᾿, ἠπείλουν, ἐσυκοφάντουν: this sequence of verbal forms, unless they are to be read as third person plurals, may belong to a corrupt son boasting to extort money (so, e.g., R. Kassel and C. Austin [eds.], Poetae Comici Graeci [Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1983-2001], iii.2, p. 137: ‘fort. 1. pers. sing. […], improbi filii impudenter gloriantis verba’).
On legal disputes between Athenians and citizens of the allied states taking places in the polis, cf. J. O. Lofberg, Sycophancy in Athens, Diss. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Libraries, 1917), pp. 68-72; more recently, D. M. MacDowell, The Law in Classical Athens (Aspects of Greek and Roman Life) (Ithaca and New York, Cornell
On the meaning of these humble gifts, embodying, like a kind of ex voto, the misery which Plutus has saved Good Man from, see M. C. Torchio (ed.), Aristofane. Pluto (Alessandria: Edizioni dell’Orso, 2001), pp. 206-207; D. Loscalzo, ‘Rubare e donare il mantello’, in P. Mureddu and G. F. Nieddu (eds.), Comicità e riso tra Aristofane e Menandro (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 2006), pp. 113-130, pp. 126-127. Furthermore, it is remarkable that Good Man’s offering prompts an ironic reply by his fellow, who, at l. 845, alludes to the custom of consecrating ragged clothes during the ceremony of initiation to the Eleusinian Mysteries. The meaning of Carion’s words is discussed by K. Dover (ed.), Aristophanes. Frogs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 62-63, and more recently by S. Perrone, ‘Aristofane e la religione negli Scholia Vetera alle Rane’, in F. Montana (ed.), Interpretazioni antiche di Aristofane (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2006), pp. 111-229, p. 199, and P. Totaro, in G. Mastromarco and P. Totaro (eds.), Commedie di Aristofane, ii (Turin:
A sketch of the compositional elements of Aristophanes’ extant comedies can be found in, e.g., A. Pickard-Cambridge, Dithyramb Tragedy and Comedy, 2nd ed. revised by T. B. L.Webster (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), pp. 213-229 (on the Iambic Scenes see also pp. 207-210). Moreover, cf. K.-D. Koch, Kritische Idee und komisches Thema. Untersuchungen zur Dramaturgie und zum Ethos der Aristophanischen Komödie (Bremen: Röver, 19682), pp. 88-98 (pp. 91-94 on the Trimeter-Szenen); L. Gil Fernández, Aristófanes (Madrid: Gredos, 1996), pp. 23-40 (Escenas episódicas, pp. 36-37); P. von Möllendorff, Aristophanes (Hildesheim, Zürich and New York: Olms, 2002), pp. 14-35 (Epeisodische Szenen, pp. 30-33); Rodríguez Alfageme, Aristófanes, pp. 60-71 (escenas yámbicas, pp. 67-68); H. Konishi, Forms of Greek Plays. From Aeschylus to Aristophanes (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 2013), pp. 132-170 and 208-214. The critical debate on the structural parts of Aristophanic comedy is aptly summarized by. G. Mastromarco, Introduzione a Aristofane (Rome and Bari: Laterza, 1994), pp. 174-176 (with further literature). More specifically, on the parabasis see G. M. Sifakis, Parabasis and Animal Choruses. A Contribution to the History of Attic Comedy (London: Athlone Press, 1971), T. K. Hubbard, The Mask of Comedy. Aristophanes and the Intertextual Parabasis (Ithaca and London: Cornell
Grava, ‘I mercanti in scena’, p. 17, also providing a well-informed bibliographical survey on the ‘episodic scenes’ (p. 37 n. 2). Let us just mention the pivotal works of Zieliński, Gliederung, pp. 191-245; J. Poppelreuter, De comoediae Atticae primordiis particulae duae, Diss. (Berlin: Ullstein, 1893), pp. 23-45; P. Mazon, Essai sur la composition des comédies d’Aristophane (Paris: Hachette, 1904), pp. 175-176; P. Händel, Formen und Darstellungsweisen in der aristophanischen Komödie (Heidelberg: Winter, 1963), pp. 205-215.
Zimmermann discussed in detail these structural parts of comic theatre, observing, inter alia, that ‘esaminando il corso delle commedie aristofanee si riconoscono innanzitutto due grandi blocchi all’interno delle singole opere che a loro volta possono ovviamente essere suddivisi in componenti piú ristrette. In una prima parte, superando la resistenza oppostagli da un gruppo – il coro – o un individuo, il protagonista crea delle condizioni nuove e spesso in un certo senso fantastiche ed utopiche. Nella seconda parte invece si illustrano in una serie di scene tipiche le conseguenze di queste nuove condizioni sotto la guida del protagonista’ (‘L’organizzazione interna’, p. 50). Yet the same scholar rightly remarks that it would be pointless to analyze the articulation of each episodic scene according to a fixed model: ‘Comparando […] le singole opere e la loro struttura specifica […] si comproverebbe come il poeta faccia uso della struttura per sostenere il contenuto, come egli evochi tramite certi segnali determinate strutture e costellazioni contenutistiche e come confermi o deluda le aspettative destate. Si dimostrerebbe valida […] la tesi […] che né forma, né tradizione, genere istituzioni o quel che sia spingono il poeta a tali soluzioni, che anzi Aristofane dispone liberamente dei mezzi sopracitati, libertà che è ulteriore prova della sua arte di grande poeta’ (‘L’organizzazione interna’, p. 64).
As F. Ceccarelli, Sorriso e riso. Saggio di antropologia biosociale (Torino: Einaudi, 1988), pp. 150-152, 311-313, 330, showed, iterating the very same situation belongs with the typical process of ‘stereotyped laugh’, a kind of humour based not on surprise, rather on the exploitation of clichés familiar to every spectator – be they the dissacration of contemporary public figures recently fallen into disgrace, or the caricatural depiction of ‘fixed masks’ well known to the audience.
On the typology of such impostors and swindlers, usually called ἀλαζόνες, cf. O. Ribbeck, Alazon. Ein Beitrag zur antiken Ethologie and zur Kenntniss der griechisch-römischen Komödie, nebst Übersetzung des plautinischen Miles Gloriosus (Leipzig: Teubner, 1882), pp. 1-51. Oddily enough, Ribbeck – as Grava, ‘I mercanti in scena’, p. 43 n. 46, notes – did not mention sycophants at all. Yet L. Gil, ‘El alazon y sus variantes’, in Estudios Clásicos, 25 (1981-1983), pp. 39-57, pp. 41-46 (now in De Aristófanes a Menandro [Madrid: Ediciones Clásicas, 2010], pp. 242-245), argued, in a fully persuasive way, that the informer should be really considered one of the sub-categories of the ἀλαζών: see also Orfanos, Sauvageons, pp. 83-101. On the alazoneia of soldiers, ambassadors, statesmen, poets, intellectuals, seers and physicians, as well as of further sub-species of ‘itinerant charlatans’, see D. MacDowell, ‘The Meaning of ἀλαζών’, in E. M. Craik (ed.), ‘Owls to Athens’. Essays on Classical Subjects Presented to Sir Kenneth Dover (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 287-292, according to whom ‘it is possible that ἀλαζών was originally a term for an itinerant tradesman, who travelled from place to place hawking his wares and cried up their merits in exaggerated terms’ (p. 290); S. Beta, Il linguaggio nelle commedie di Aristofane. Parola positiva e parola negativa nella commedia antica (Roma: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 2004), pp. 237-249.
Cornford had the merit to show that episodic scenes really belong to the comic plot, charlatans and disturbers turning out to be, after the parabasis, a kind of fragmentary duplicate of the main antagonist who was on stage in ther first half of the play. See F. M. Cornford, L’origine della commedia attica, transl. by P. Ingrosso, introd. by S. Fornaro (Lecce: Argo, 2007), pp. 209-248. On Cornford’s original, solid theories, whose value was not acknowledged – in part at least – until much later (his monograph first appeared in 1914), see X. Riu, Dionysism and Comedy (Lanham, Boulder and New York-Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999); also E. Rozik, The Roots of Theatre. Rethinking Ritual and Other Theories of Origin (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002), pp. 49-68.
‘Un type de scène très souvent utilisé par Aristophane est la scène de coups entre citoyens libres, généralement l’expulsion d’un fâcheux ou d’un parasite (alazôn) par le héros. Ces scènes typiques de la seconde partie de la comédie suivent un schéma à la fois vertical, par leur succession dans la même pièce, et horizontal, par la récurrence de personnages semblables dans plusieurs comédies: poètes, fonctionnaires et devins de tout poil, ainsi que les sycophantes, qui sont des victimes de choix’ (P. Thiercy, ‘L’ὕβρις chez Aristophane’, Kentron, 23 , pp. 179-191, p. 185). On both origins and function of verbal abuse in Aristophanic comedy, E. Degani, ‘Aristofane e la tradizione dell’invettiva personale in Grecia’, in Bremer and Handley, Aristophane, pp. 1-49 (now in Filologia e storia. Scritti di Enzo Degani, i-ii [Hildesheim, Zürich and New York: Olms, 2004], pp. 414-462) is still pivotal. See also R. M. Rosen, Old Comedy and the Iambographic Tradition (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), M. Treu, Undici cori comici. Aggressività, derisione e tecniche drammatiche in Aristofane (Genova: Università di Genova, D.AR.FI.CL.ET., 1999), and R. Saetta Cottone, Aristofane e la poetica dell’ingiuria. Per una introduzione alla λοιδορία comica (Roma: Carocci, 2005). On physical violence in comic theatre, see, e.g., M. Kaimio (& al.), ‘Comic Violence in Aristophanes,’ Arctos, 24 (1990), pp. 47-72; M. Sonnino,‘Una presunta scena di morte nel Maricante di Eupoli (fr. 209 K.-A.),’ Eikasmos, 8 (1997), pp. 43-60; P. Thiercy, ‘La violence chez Aristophane’, in C. Barone (ed.), Atti del XV e XVI Congresso Internazionale di Studi sul Dramma Antico. Euripide, futuro del teatro (Siracusa 14-17 settembre 1995). La violenza nel teatro greco e latino (Siracusa 11-13 settembre 1997) (Siracusa: Istituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico, 2002), pp. 303-24; A. Beltrametti, ‘Pensare, raccontare e rappresentare la violenza. Anche questo abbiamo imparato dai Greci?’, in G. Raina (ed.), Dissimulazioni della violenza nella Grecia antica (Como-Pavia: Ibis, 2006), pp. 13-46, pp. 36-37; S. Goldhill, ‘Der Ort der Gewalt: Was sehen wir auf der Bühne?’, in B. Seidensticker and M. Vöhler (eds.), Gewalt und Ästhetik. Zur Gewalt und ihrer Darstellung in der griechischen Klassik (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2006), pp. 149-168; A. H. Sommerstein, Talking about Laughter and other Studies in Greek Comedy (Oxford: Oxford
Cf. R. Barthes, ‘Introduzione all’analisi strutturale dei racconti’, in
As B. Zimmermann, ‘Nephelokokkygia. Riflessioni sull’utopia comica’ (translated by N. Menni and R. Klein), in W. Rösler and B. Zimmermann, Carnevale e Utopia nella Grecia antica (Bari: Levante, 1991), pp. 53-101 has aptly shown. At p. 72 he remarks that ‘l’illusione scenica fa sí che lo spettatore, identificandosi con Diceopoli, condivida i suoi successi: lo sottrae agli affanni del presente, gli permette persino di superarli assieme al protagonista. Tale funzione della rappresentazione scenica potrebbe designarsi, con Aristotele, catartica’.
In this case, as Orfanos, Sauvageons, pp. 99, has properly observed, ‘les fouets aussi, comme les belles paroles de Peisthétairos […], sont bel et bien des ailes’.
Saetta Cottone, Aristofane, p. 88, remarks that ‘giocando sul valore etimologico dei due termini χρηστοί e πονηροί, e con le connotazioni da essi assunte nel lessico politico, Aristofane costruisce un discorso nuovo in cui le definizioni sociali cambiano di significato per designare i contorni di una realtà grottescamente deformata, dove ciò che normalmente si trova in alto si sposta verso il basso e viceversa’.
Grava, ‘I mercanti in scena’, p. 28. As Orfanos, Sauvageons, pp. 83-101 also argues, the sycophant embodies those extempore profiteers who, albeit unable to frustrate the comic hero’s project, nonetheless prove to be very unwelcome presences and deserve no right of citizenship in the new, joyful world created by the protagonist.
Grava, ‘I mercanti in scena’, p. 20, rightly warns that ‘naturalmente […] non si intende proporre un’applicazione sistematica delle categorie narrative di Barthes, quanto piuttosto tenerle sullo sfondo, come griglia teorica di riferimento; in particolare, sembra che le nozioni di catalisi e di indizio, in quanto unità connesse indirettamente all’azione, possano consentire di comprendere piú a fondo la funzione delle scene episodiche, alle quali, come abbiamo detto, non si riconosce alcun rilievo drammaturgico’. Moreover, according to Torchio, Pluto, p. 11, ‘nella concreta messa in scena di uno spettacolo agisce contemporaneamente una pluralità di codici che concorrono a creare una significazione: oltre a quello linguistico, rilevante ma non esclusivo, intervengono codici prossemici, cinesici, paralinguistici, musicali, pittorici, architettonici, e convenzioni legate all’uso dei costumi e delle maschere’.
Torchio, Pluto, p. 12 (‘inscritta nel testo’). G. Mastromarco, ‘La parotragodia, il libro, la memoria’, in E. Medda, M. S. Mirto and M. P. Pattoni (eds.), ΚΩΜΩΙΔΟΤΡΑΓΩΙΔΙΑ. Intersezioni del tragico e del comico nel teatro del V secolo a. C. (Pisa: Edizioni della Normale, 2006), pp. 137-191, insists on the relevance of polysemic complexity in tragic and comic texts: only spectators could fully decrypt them, through an exact understanding not just of verbal expression, but also of scenic, metrical, and musical ones.
On the simultaneous presence of three actors on the stage, see A. M. Belardinelli (ed.), Menandro. Sicioni (Bari: Adriatica, 1994), pp. 66-69, with bibliography; further evidence in E. Csapo – W. J. Slater, The Context of Ancient Drama (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), pp. 417-418. Specifically on the use of a third actor in scenes involving a sycophant, see I. C. Storey, Eupolis. Poet of Old Comedy (Oxford: Oxford
For a status quaestionis about the theatrical nature of the Megarian’s daughters, see D. M. MacDowell, ‘The Number of Speaking Actors in Old Comedy’, in Classical Quarterly, 44 (1994), pp. 325-335, at pp. 327-328 and 335, who acknowledges that no definitive solution has been canvassed. ‘If the Daughters are dolls, only three actors are needed in this scene. If they are played by boys, five persons are needed, whether the boys are to be counted as actors or not. For the moment I leave this question open’ (p. 328). Olson, Acharnians, p. lxv, suggests that the Megarian girls might have been played by ‘by the same two boys who represent Dikaiopolis’ children on stage at 891-4’.
On the nature of φάσις, promoted against anyone who violated the laws, especially those concerning the import-export of goods, the basic informations can be found in D. M. MacDowell, ‘The Athenian Procedure of Phasis’, in M. Gagarin (ed.), Symposion 1990: Vorträge zur griechischen und hellenistischen Rechtsgeschichte = Papers on Greek and Hellenistic Legal History (Köln, Weimar and Wien: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1991), pp. 187-198.
Καλεῖσθαι and προσκαλεῖσθαι are technical terms referring to someone who officially notifies summons, compelling the defendant to appear before the law court (otherwise, the court would give judgment by default). On the meaning and occurrences of such verbs in Aristophanes’ plays, see A. Willi, The Languages of Aristophanes. Aspects of Linguistic Variation in Classical Attic Greek (Oxford: Oxford
On the semantic complexity of this verb, see C. Romano, Responsioni libere nei canti di Aristofane (Roma: Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 1992), pp. 95-96.
Against Harvey, ‘The Sykophant’, p. 115, in whose view these Aristophanic passages prove that sycophancy was a true profession, Christ, The Litigious Athenian, p. 65 argues that the playwright humorously depicts it as an imaginary job. On Av. 1430-1452 he remarks that ‘Much of this scene’s humor derives from its exploration of the metaphor that men practice sykophancy as a deviant and even hereditary career: if sykophancy were in fact recognized as a real profession, there would be little point to this excursus’. Let us also note, with Dunbar, Birds, p. 683, that the Sycophant’s proudly asserted intention to carry on his activity and not to dishonour his family tradition (cf. Av. 1451: τὸ γένος οὐ καταισχυνῶ) may have had a twofold impact on Athenian spectators: ‘the claim that family tradition demands that he pursue his present way of life probably both amused and shocked the audience, for whom tradition was a regular incentive to good behaviour’.
So, at the expense of the Sycophant’s dramatis persona, the ritual expulsion of the pharmakos is performed on the comic stage. As Christ, The Litigious Athenian, p. 53, remarks, ‘in each case a sykophant appears onstage, is mocked, and is then expelled from the stage. This process of intrusion and expulsion dramatizes the status of the sykophant as an outsider who must be shunned. While sykophants are by no means the only undesirable characters driven off the stage in Aristophanic comedy, Aristophanes appears to take particular pleasure in inventing bizarre punishments that suit these peculiar figures’. Torchio, Pluto, p. 217 similarly argues: ‘Non è azzardato immaginare che contro il delatore si coalizzasse l’aggressività del pubblico, e che quest’ultimo […] ridesse dello ‘sventurato’ impiccione, aiutato nella corretta lettura di quanto si stava svolgendo sotto i suoi occhi dalla sua competenza di frequentatore del teatro comico’. On the removal of sycophants, one of the most relevant among the possible reforms of Athenian democracy envisaged in Aristophanes’ plays – together with the abolition of salaries for statesmen and popular juries, the exclusion of lower class demagogues, and the peace with Sparta – see 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 (repr. in Sommerstein, Talking about Laughter, pp. 204-222).