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  • 1 ‘Sapienza’ Università di Roma, Roma, Italy


Especially in recent years, scholars have tended to regard the satyr play as a genre which, despite its humorous features, seriously aimed at carrying out a socio-political function, or – at the very last – at conveying ethical or cultural messages to its Athenian audience. According to these views, the satyrs’ rusticity would have served the purpose of satisfying the tastes of the countryside citizens, less attracted to tragedy, thus facilitating – after Cleisthenes’ reforms – a process of demographic osmosis among different population groups. By staging the satyrs’ antiethos the poet would have operated kat’antiphrasin to affirm and strengthen the social norms and values; the childish ingenuity of marginal and wild creatures such as the satyrs would have helped the Athenians rediscover the origins of their own culture; the exhibition of ithyphallic satyrs would have contributed to reestablish, in the male spectators, that sense of virility that tragedy, exciting typically feminine emotions, had temporarily eclipsed. These interpretations focus on themes and elements which are, indeed, important to the plot of the satyr play. However, their paideutic meaning or pragmatic effectiveness is weakened – if not utterly neutralized – by their being placed in the context of a playful metafiction, where actions, situations, and relationships between the characters have no value in themselves, but appear to be subject to a single dominant aim: to raise a smile from the audience. To fulfill this purpose, the playwright exploits all the estrangement effects conveyed by the interaction and the interlocution between satyrs and heroes. Ancient critics had already grasped the true nature of the genre aptly defined as a playful tragedy (tragoidia paizousa), and were essentially correct (though not exhaustive) in giving it a function of diachysis or delectatio/relaxatio. The satyr-chorus will only take on a real political function in the last decades of the 4th century bc, in parallel with the progressive reduction of the onomasti komoidein in comedy. This will lead to a partial contamination between the two genres, and to the loss of the original features of the classical satyr play.


Especially in recent years, scholars have tended to regard the satyr play as a genre which, despite its humorous features, seriously aimed at carrying out a socio-political function, or – at the very last – at conveying ethical or cultural messages to its Athenian audience. According to these views, the satyrs’ rusticity would have served the purpose of satisfying the tastes of the countryside citizens, less attracted to tragedy, thus facilitating – after Cleisthenes’ reforms – a process of demographic osmosis among different population groups. By staging the satyrs’ antiethos the poet would have operated kat’antiphrasin to affirm and strengthen the social norms and values; the childish ingenuity of marginal and wild creatures such as the satyrs would have helped the Athenians rediscover the origins of their own culture; the exhibition of ithyphallic satyrs would have contributed to reestablish, in the male spectators, that sense of virility that tragedy, exciting typically feminine emotions, had temporarily eclipsed. These interpretations focus on themes and elements which are, indeed, important to the plot of the satyr play. However, their paideutic meaning or pragmatic effectiveness is weakened – if not utterly neutralized – by their being placed in the context of a playful metafiction, where actions, situations, and relationships between the characters have no value in themselves, but appear to be subject to a single dominant aim: to raise a smile from the audience. To fulfill this purpose, the playwright exploits all the estrangement effects conveyed by the interaction and the interlocution between satyrs and heroes. Ancient critics had already grasped the true nature of the genre aptly defined as a playful tragedy (tragoidia paizousa), and were essentially correct (though not exhaustive) in giving it a function of diachysis or delectatio/relaxatio. The satyr-chorus will only take on a real political function in the last decades of the 4th century bc, in parallel with the progressive reduction of the onomasti komoidein in comedy. This will lead to a partial contamination between the two genres, and to the loss of the original features of the classical satyr play.

In the last decades, anthropological, sociological, psychological, and more generally cultural studies have provided a wide range of fresh critical perspectives to the analysis and interpretation of Greek literature, contributing to a remarkable change in our approach to classical texts. As it was expected, the context in which the new trends and methods of investigation have more strongly taken hold and have produced the more relevant results is Attic drama, and tragedy in particular. The complexity and importance of tragic themes, the impact of actions displayed directly on the stage, the religious and institutional milieu in which the festivals took place, the eagerness with which the Athenians attended the public event, all this could not but arise scholarly attention. Thus, dramatic texts – together with the evidence we have for theatrical performances – have lately been studied to reconstruct, as precisely as possible, the political, social, and cultural life of 5th-century Athens.

Obviously, this is a completely legitimate approach.1 Tragedy played an eminently political role: it stimulated critical reflection on issues that, despite the mythological setting, were relevant to the contemporary society, and it fundamentally acted as an instrument to promote consensus around democracy and civic values.2 Thus, for example, it is reasonable to assume that – as some ancient testimonies show us – the exaltation of values such as courage in war, spirit of cooperation, sacrifice, moderation, and justice operated so as to strengthen feelings of mutual respect, loyalty, and devotion to the polis’ institutions in Athenian citizens. Likewise, by highlighting the precariousness of human condition, tragedy caused audience members to recognize their limitations and prepared them to the possible strokes of fate.

As to ancient comedy, its political significance is even more evident:3 contemporary personages are represented on the stage, and comic poets do not spare their criticism to the politicians. Decrees are even issued to ban personal attacks from comedy. At his own trial, Plato’s Socrates says that most of his jurors have grown up believing the falsehoods spread about him by Aristophanes in Clouds (Apology 18a-b, 19c); and the author of the Constitution of the Athenians, attributed to Xenophon, demonstrates that members of the oligarchic faction were well aware of the subversive potential of comedy (2. 18).

But what was the function of satyr play?

Antiquity unanimously ascribed to the satyr play a psychological function of ‘detente’, ‘relief’, as a counterpoint to the tension caused by the tragic spectacle.4 The related texts are well known. They universally emphasize the relief and the fun that the satyrs’ comic extravagances produced in the audience after the conflicts and the horrors of tragic trilogy:

Tim. Lex. 192-193 R.-K. (= ς 2 Valente) = Phot. ΙΙ 502 P. σατυρικὰ δράµατα· πλείονα ἔθος ὑποκρίνεσθαι, ἐν οἷς µεταξὺ ἐµίγνυον ταῦτα πρὸς διάχυσιν.

Satyr plays: they used to represent more plays, among which they inserted the satyr ones in order to provide relief.

Diom. gl i 491. 4-7 K:

satyrica est apud Graecos fabula, in qua item tragici poetae non heroas aut reges sed Satyros induxerunt ludendi causa iocandi, simul ut spectator inter res tragicas seriasque Satyrorum iocis et lusibus delectaretur.

Mar. Victorin. gl vi 81.37-82.4 K:

superest satyricum, quod inter tragicum et comicum stilum medium est. haec apud Graecos metri species frequens est sub hac condicionis lege, ut non heroas et reges, sed Satyros inducat ludendi iocandique causa, quo spectatoris animus inter tristes res tragicas Satyrorum iocis et lusibus relaxetur.

Given their brevity, these statements do not clarify what the jokes of the satyrs consisted of, nor do they dwell on the peculiar contamination effect induced by their intrusive presence within the heroic saga; however, we do get from them some interesting indications. While stressing the comical impact of the satyrs’ presence, not only do they clearly distinguish satyr play from comedy, but they also attest a genetic link between tragedy and satyr play by means of two observations: first, by noting that satyr play was composed by the same tragici poetae; second, by strongly emphasizing the complementary relationship within the same spectacle of two opposing elements such as res tragicae seriaeque and the satyrs’ ioci et lusus.5 In fact, in the Hellenistic period, the rhetor Demetrius had already taken account of both these factors defining satyr play, very insightfully, a τραγῳδία παίζουσα.6

Critics have long endorsed this view of satyr play as a genre deriving its essence and its very raison d’être from its relationship with tragedy.7 Thus, according to A. W. Schlegel, the satyrs would have offered the audience ‘Erholung des Geistes nach dem ergreifenden Ernst der Tragödie’.8 Similarly, W. Schmid maintained that in satyr play tragedy ‘ironisiert sich so gewissermassen selbst und erwirkt sich dadurch Indemnität für das Übermass der leidvollen Affekte, die sie entfesselt hat’,9 and Sutton – equally peremptorily – states that ‘the function of the satyr play in the tetralogy is to allay the anxieties provoked by tragedy’.10

Today, however, both the absolute centrality of this function and its heuristic importance as an interpretative key of the genre risk being overshadowed by the latest trends in the studies on satyr play. Satyrs, and the way in which they are represented on the stage, have lately been the subject of an impressive series of researches and essays that seek to shift significantly our understanding of their function: namely, from the notion of ‘entertainment’ or ‘relief’ to the alleged pursuit by the authors – either directly or more frequently through antiphrastic devices – of specific ethical or paideutic purposes.

To what extent is this approach correct?11 In order to answer this question, it will be useful to examine, even if briefly, the main interpretative patterns hitherto proposed.12

The starting point of our enquiry should be Rossi’s pivotal study of 1972. While recognizing as valid the ancient theories about the satyr play being a source of relief, Rossi introduced the notion that a social-political function be operating alongside the first one.13 The satyrs’ ‘rusticity’ – which Rossi identified as the main feature of the genre14 – would aimed at meeting the tastes of a particular segment of the population: the rural demotai. Such a rusticity was certainly immanent in the primitive satyrikón, from which tragedy had developed, but had progressively disappeared from tragedy when this had become serious. By reintegrating this element as an essential part of the theatrical performances, satyr play would therefore have both filled a vacuum and contributed to strengthen the Cleisthenic program of demographic osmosis, increasing the sense of community and inclusion among all the inhabitants of Attica, whatever their geographical or social origins.15

The way for a radical rethinking of the function of satyr play, however, was paved by an article of F. Lasserre in 1973.16 He proposed to view the behavior of the satyrs, as they appear in theatre, as an intentional and deliberate reversal of 5th-century Athenian ethical ideals. Through the satyrs’ transgressions and excesses, the dramatic poets would have intended to represent a kind of negative pattern from which male Athenian citizens were to shy away. This educational aim would be so central and pre-eminent in satyr play that it would influence decisively every other element. The comic function too would become secondary and even purely accidental: ‘Par rapport à ces significations profondes, le comique, le grotesque, le burlesque, la bouffonnerie ne jouent qu’un rôle secondaire, celui de style ou de mode d’expression’. Similarly, humorous devices would be nothing more than ‘un épiphénomène intermittent dans le drame satyrique d’Eschyle et de Sophocle tel que nous le connaissons’.17

It is difficult to agree with such an interpretation. I do not exclude, and it is even likely, that in the satyrs’ politically incorrect behavior Athenian citizens recognized their own flaws or weaknesses, as though reflected in a mirror; and that precisely by the failure of the satyrs’ disreputable intentions the audience was encouraged to meditate upon the importance of moral principles and norms traditionally founded on usage and general consent. But this does not mean either that the poet composed his drama having in mind this specific purpose, nor that the audience interpreted the satyrs’ spectacle as essentially designed to reinforce the foundations of their ethical-political education. On the contrary, it is likely that the satyrs’ misconduct, their violation of rigidly codified rules, their mocking licentiousness, their disregard for any hierarchy amused the Athenians, who – according to a well-known psychological mechanism universally rooted in human nature – will have projected in that wrongdoing their own repressed desire for liberation from the constraints imposed by the social order. After all, was it not possible to dream of a world in which the polis existed without a limitation to individual freedom? In front of an audience secretly nursing similar thoughts, the satyrs openly behaved in a way to defy every rule of civilized life:18 whereupon the audience, far from analyzing the conceptual implications of such transgressions, will have laughed heartily.19 In this context, an important detail should not be overlooked: despite their indolence and their transgressions, the satyrs are never punished; actually, they exude natural sympathy, so that the audience ends up – if not siding with them – looking at them, at least, with some leniency and a good-natured smile.

Lasserre certainly has the merit of having called attention to a fundamental aspect of the satyrs’ characterization: their anti-ethos. But if the poet emphasizes this trait is not because he intends to use it as a vehicle of moral admonition, but primarily having in mind another purpose: he is well aware that the pivot on which the humor of his play hinges is exactly the surreal contrast, with its many and unpredictable implications, between satyrs and heroic world.

A different, even less persuasive, interpretation of the function of satyr play was proposed by E. Hall in 1998.20 According to her view, tragedy, by exciting emotions culturally connoted as ‘feminine’,21 would have risked to trigger a process of devirilization of the male audience. On the contrary, by introducing hypermasculinized satyrs in a state of perpetual erection, and through its use of obscenity and sexual humor, satyr play would have had, as a counterweight, the effect of thwarting this threat and restoring a full sense of virility in male Athenians. But we should observe that sex and obscenity play a much less significant role in satyr play than the number of vases showing ithyphallic satyrs suggest.22 Furthermore, poets in general exhibit a playful attitude towards the satyrs’ sexuality. Despite their being symbols of a brute and direct sexuality, the satyrs are often represented as regular suitors, clearly forced to follow, not without embarrassment, typically human courtship rules. Euripides, for instance, does not even hesitate, with a comical reversal, to represent Silenus himself as victim of a rape in the Cyclops. More specifically, it is certainly true that the satyrs, when faced with a female figure or a beautiful young boy, never refrain from manifesting their lust; but they cannot, after all, satisfy their sexual appetites, since their clumsy attempts regularly fail. In any case, it is difficult to take them as ‘role models’ for male Athens.23

Some clarification is needed also with reference to the anthropological approach to our topic. It has been correctly pointed out that satyr play abounds with scenic situations that refer to, or put in the spotlight, discoveries, inventions, and aitia – a kind of return to the origins of civilization: where the first man discovers fire (Aeschylus, Prometheus Pyrkaeus), where Dionysus gives the wine to men (Sophocles, Dionysiscus), where Hermes invents the lyre (Sophocles, Ichneutai), there are the satyrs. This, however, does not indicate a special interest in the history of human progress.24 It is, rather, the natural corollary of the author’s choice of exploiting one of the hallmarks of ‘scenic’ satyrs in a funny way: namely, their irrepressible childish naïveté. In fact, facing what they do not know and whose proper functioning they ignore, they inescapably act in a very clumsy way: in this respect their characterization is the same as the one already outlined by Hesiod, i.e., as a γένος of beings οὐτιδανοί and ἀµηχανοεργοί (fr. 123 M.-W.).25

Similarly, it is essential to resist the temptation to read the ‘anachronisms’ that often occur in satyr play as an indication of a special propensity of this genre for ideological criticism. For example, it is absolutely misleading to consider satyr play a kind of Tendenzdrama ‘spesso orientato a dibattere temi e problemi di alto livello concettuale’.26 I would confine myself to just three examples, starting with a recurring scene: the representation of satyrs held in bondage by a despotic master, and their final liberation through the intervention of a hero. Such a scene does not reveal a particular interest in the issues of slavery and freedom;27 rather, it is a topical motif,28 dramaturgically useful to justify both the encounter between satyrs and hero that the plot requires, and their subsequent – and otherwise unexpected – collaboration in view of the fight against a common enemy. Second, t he ‘sophistic’ rhesis with which Polyphemus in Cyclops celebrates his unrestrained hedonism does not primarily conceal Euripides’ intention to stigmatize a determinate lifestyle (in any case, the psogos remains implicit),29 but, rather, it aims at creating a comic contrast between the sauvagerie of the monster and the amazing mastery which he displays in speaking about the arguments most à la page in the intellectual circles of 5th-century Athens.30 And again, if we turn to a different topic, it is frankly difficult to read the reactions of heroines threatened by the satyrs’ aggressive masculinity as an hint of a poet’s serious reflection on the sexuality debate.

Conversely, a ‘political’ function is clearly recognizable in iv-iii century satyr play, which directly faces contemporary reality in its various political, cultural, and social aspects.31 Satyrs are taken away from their natural environment – the wilderness – and end up being identified with historical figures. For instance, in the Agen they were Persian magoi engaged in necromancy practices.32 Influence of ancient comedy is especially evident in the common use of the element of ὀνοµαστὶ κωµῳδει̂ν, and even of a trait that was typical of comic parabasis, i.e. the auto-reflection of the poet on the function of theatre and drama. In fact, in one of his satyr plays Sositheus mocked Cleanthes (fr. 4 Sn.-Kn.), while Lycophron in his Menedemus made fun of the Eretrian philosopher because of the extreme frugality in his diet;33 and a text of this period, certainly belonging to a satyr play, shows Silenus speaking about his dramatic role in an absolutely direct way (trag. adesp, fr. 646a Sn.-Kn,).34

Let us to go back to the theatre of the fifth century.

The studies I have so far mentioned do help us to understand the cultural background and the ideological schemes which are common both to the tragic author and his audience. This way, they fundamentally illuminate the poet’s assumptions in composing his text, for it is precisely the awareness of sharing certain socio-cultural codes that allows the author to be sure – or at least confident – that an action or a joke or a gesture of his characters, if embedded in a particular context, will produce distortion effects that will be hilarious for his audience. This is what happens, for example, in the fragment of Aeschylus’ Dictyulci where the satyr chorus lust after a defenseless Danae. When Aeschylus conceived such a scene, he was well aware that the audience would consider the satyrs’ behavior absolutely reprehensible. But – we should ask ourselves – did he write that passage to teach a lesson of morality to his fellow citizens or, conversely, to give a comic flavor to a potentially lewd scene? I would not doubt about which was the intentio auctoris: Aeschylus was primarily a playwright, and he in fact treats his subject with an absolute levity, far away from any pedagogical concern.35 The audience certainly does not ignore that the satyrs are a threat to Danae; but it rejoices and smiles, amused to see that they do not attack the girl directly, but entrust Silenus with the task to court and flatter her with fulsome bragging and grotesque perspectives of living together: he will be her πρόξενος and προπράκτωρ and will act as a father for Perseus, bringing him along with the satyrs in the woods.36 This Umbildung of satyrs and Silenus, their tendency to usurp roles, behaviors, and rhetorical strategies that are not their own, is a fundamental trait of their funny characterization.37

One should thus be careful in front of aprioristic constructions built on too rigidly hermeneutical models, especially when dealing with a genre of which – apart from Euripides’ Cyclops – only fragments survive. The few texts that have come down to us can provide useful information on mythical subjects or themes favored by the playwrights, but rarely enlighten us as to the exact way they treated them. In fact, the same theme or the same topic is likely to have been differently developed depending on the various factors (genre, context, purpose) which each time, in a different way, and even in the same author, affect dramatic play. This warning applies even more strongly to a genre such as satyr play which, by its nature, tends to transgress any strict logical coherence. In particular, this is true for the actions and gags of the satyrs and Silenus. The presence of the satyr chorus within the mythical plot causes fictitious situations and paradoxical consequences whose only justification is the pursuit of comic effects. For this reason, it is very difficult, if not downright misleading, to analyze some scenes or dialogues by applying to them interpretative views that are traditionally adopted for works which, albeit in various forms, reflect real life. In other words, if tragedy presupposes some degrees of verisimilitude, and the events in comedy, albeit through the distorting mirror of parody and reversal, reflect the real world, in the satyr play the characters’ action, as a result of introducing satyrs into a world totally foreign and unfamiliar to them, takes on a decidedly surreal tone. The openly artificial reworking of the mythical plot produces a sense of distance, and it is this sort of ‘estrangement-effect’ that prevents the audience from taking seriously the whole action of the play.38 As Sutton has acutely pointed out, ‘since this is a palpably fantasy world, and since a happy ending is obligatory by the rules of the game, we may be excited by the predicaments of satyric characters without being moved or distressed’.39

I believe, however, that the same ambivalent relationship between satyrs and heroes would not be so comically effective without another element whose function is dramaturgically decisive: I am referring to the ingenuous, primordial, and limited psychology that the satyrs exhibit whenever they confront the world into which the poet has unexpectedly placed them. Being inhabitants of the woods and used to the wilderness, they are naturally ignorant of the obligations and conveniences of civic life. What is more important, and even crucial in terms of comical implications, is their attitude when confronted with a reality which is essentially alien to them. In such a situation, they display an absolutely childish and naïve attitude – a naïve attitude which, however, in some particular circumstances, does not exclude a surplus of mocking malice. It is this very attitude of overwhelming, uncontrollable curiosity, dismissive of any ethical or social consideration, which gives their behavior a comical effect.

It is not at all a coincidence that among the recurring motifs of satyr drama there are inventions, riddles, and mysterious appearances. Faced with phenomena they do not know (e.g., the fire, the sound of the lyre, metallurgy, the first woman on the earth, Pandora), the satyrs are overwhelmed by a primitive amazement: they are torn between desire for knowledge and anxiety, and between attraction and fear of the unknown. The audience smiles at their awkward embarrassment, in the same way as adults smile indulgently at the natural naïveté of children. But laughing at the satyrs adult Athenians ultimately laugh at themselves, since the poet through the satyrs offers a tableau of humanity at the dawn of its existence, i.e., of a humanity still in its infancy.40

It has been often noted that children are rarely present in tragedy and comedy, and only in very short scenes. This is easy to understand: they could take part in the play’s action and dialogue only in a very limited way, and, in any case, their direct involvement entailed significant difficulties in acting. Satyr play presents creatures whose naïve imagination and transgressive impulses very closely recall the sphere of childhood: they are grown-up children or childlike adults. But that is not all. One may suppose that it is precisely because of this affinity between satyrs and children that the tragic poets chose the childhood of gods and heroes as a theme for some of their satyr plays: the instinctive sympatheia between satyrs and the nursling Dionysos is vividly illustrated by a fragment of the Sophocles’ Dionysiscus in which Silenus talks about his role as the god’s kourotrophos:

For when I offer him the drink I’m giving him, at once he tickles my nose, and brings up his hand to the smooth surface, smiling sweetly. (fr. 171 Radt)41

Theories of humor often consider a more or less unconscious desire for regression to a state of childhood innocence and disinhibition as an important factor of the production of laughter. In the caustic and irreverent laughter of comedy, in particular, many scholars recognize the projection of the child’s instinctive impulse to destroy the objects of his own game. I believe that this is only partially true for satyr play.

In comedy, inhibitions imposed by common morality or explicit prohibitions are easily overcome by the hero. In this genre, what Charles Mauron called ‘fantasy of triumph’42 produces situations and images of total freedom from physical and social constraints: the land of plenty, community of goods and women, equitable distribution of wealth, the journey to the underworld, and so forth. Funniness affects both the plot and, without exception, all the characters who, with different roles, participate in it. Summing up, in comedy disinhibition is pervasive and total. In satyr play, instead, the presence of a hero or a god acts as an antidote to the continuous subversive tendencies of the satyrs. Their instinct is restrained and kept under control by the hero – endowed as he is with higher rationality and moral and civic values – so that they are regularly reproached and forced to respect social order, its conventions and obligations. The counterpoint between the two levels – as already mentioned – is constant. The audience laughs or smiles at the provisional or even only threatened breach of the rules, but then – in the light of the repression to which the satyrs will be subject – it is immediately prompted to acknowledge that every kind of demeanor cannot but trigger a moral or social reaction, whereby the perturbed order will be re-established. Therefore, the smile is twofold: on the one hand it arises, as we have seen, from a repressed desire for liberation from the social censorship mechanisms; on the other hand, it is the smile of gratification deriving from the recognition that there is no alternative to the sacrifices that the collective norms impose, and that acceptance, and, therefore, integration, is, in the end, the wisest choice. The satyr play does not know either the liberating laughter that, so frequently in comedy, comes from imagining an utopian world, or the bitter laughter that, again in comedy, masks the powerlessness of those who reject reality, however knowing that they can escape from it only through phantasy.43

In conclusion, I believe that, in defining the function of satyr play, it is necessary to take into a greater account than hitherto the complex interaction occurring between the religious and institutional components of the spectacle, authorial intention, myths’ re-elaboration, scenic dynamics, and audience’s reception. However, as the Cambridge Dictionary reads, function may mean, at the same time, ‘the natural purpose (of something)’ and ‘the way in which something works or operates’.44 Obviously, between the two the purpose is the prius. One could therefore think of asking one last question: what is the purpose of satyr play? And, in terms of literary and performative creation, how is this purpose concretely carried out?

Emphasizing the importance of those ancient sources which connect institutionalization of the satyr drama in Athens with a popular reaction to the gradual effacement of the Dionysian elements from tragedy,45 some scholars attribute to the satyr play primarily the purpose of reintegrating Dionysus into a prominent role in theatre: this would have happened precisely through the introduction of a play focused on satyrs imagined as an integral part of the god’s thiasos – even when they are separated from him.46

These ancient evidence should not be discarded, even if questionable conclusions have sometimes been built on them.47 However, those sources exclusively concern the origins of the satyr play, or rather the probable genesis of its institutionalization within the Great Dionysia; they thus need to be complemented by a more precise assessment of the essential features of the genre. Taking account of this dual perspective, we could say that, if the general purpose of satyr play was to remember and honor Dionysus, the author’s most concrete and impellent task was no doubt to fulfill this commitment by ‘working’ on the funny traits of the satyrs, in tune with the expectations that the ‘dionysiac’ nature of the genre automatically aroused in the audience.

In this regard, we may consider the final objective pursued by the genre and the author’s task as two sides of the same coin or – more explicitly – two aspects of a same reality characterized by a close complementary relationship. The satyr play aimed both at remembering Dionysus and at offering the audience a pleasant entertainment; or – in other words – at entertaining the audience by remembering Dionysus and his divine power to free people from care and anxiety.48

In his Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes between τέλος, the end as something given, and σκοπός, the end as object of deliberation.49 We could say, using this subtle distinction, that the τέλος immanent in satyr play since from its origins is to celebrate Dionysus, but, at the same time, that it is from this very necessity that the author derives his σκοπός: namely, to recover the joyful dimension proper to the civic cult of Dionysus, and to do so through the jokes of the satyrs. This is the main purpose of satyr play. The various motifs the author elaborates (inventions, sex, parody of civic usages, inversion of values, and so on) have, in this respect, a purely instrumental function: they are not the τέλος of satyr play, but rather τὰ πρὸς τὸ τέλος or τὰ πρὸς τὸν σκοπόν (en 1111b 26; ee 11226 b 17, 1227b 23, 1227b 36).50


As it is well known, the Athenians too recognized that tragedy played a remarkable political role: suffice it to think, for example, of the arguments introduced by Aristophanes into the contest between Aeschylus and Euripides in Frogs, or of Plato’s vibrant polemic against the tragedians, whose plays he considered conflicting with the paideutic program of his ideal state.


For a general approach to this issue see, e.g., D. M. Carter, The Politics of Greek Tragedy (Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2007), with a critical survey of the most influential theories and a copious bibliography.


See, e.g., G. Mastromarco, Introduzione a Aristofane (Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1994), pp. 21-30; D. Olson, ‘Comedy, Politics, and Society’, in G. W. Dobrov (ed.), Brill’s Companion to the Study of Greek Comedy (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2010), pp. 35-69.


M. Di Marco, Satyriká. Studi sul dramma satiresco (Lecce-Brescia: Pensa, 2013), pp. 44-46, 102-106; R. Palmisciano, ‘Il meccanismo della distensione nel Ciclope di Euripide’, Annali dell’Istituto Orientale di Napoli (Sezione filologico-letteraria), 30 (2008), pp. 65-85. Recently, D. Sansone, ‘The place of the Satyr-Play in the Tragic Tetralogy’, Prometheus, 41, (2015), pp. 3-36. Has tried to challenge the reliability of the ancient evidence attesting that satyr play was represented at the end of the tetralogy; this attempt is clearly unfounded: see M. Di Marco, ‘Sulla collocazione del dramma satiresco nella tetralogia drammatica’, Prometheus, 42 (2016), pp. 3-24.


In considering the style of satyr play as a sort of tertium quid between the two main dramatic genres (inter tragicum et comicum stilum), Marius Victorinus clearly depends on Horace (cf. de medio, Ars P. 243). The existence of three dramatic genres is also presupposed by Vitr. 5.6.9: genera autem sunt scaenarum tria … See in general M. Griffith, ‘Greek Middlebrow Drama (Something to Do with Aphrodite?)’, in M. Revermann and P. Wilson (eds.), Performance, Iconography, Reception. Studies in Honour of Oliver Taplin (Oxford: University Press, 2008), pp. 59-87 [= Greek Satyr Play: Five Studies (Berkeley: California Classical Studies, 2015), pp. 146-168], pp. 76-77.


On Demetrius’ definition see M. Griffith, ‘Greek Middlebrow Drama’, pp. 76-77 (= Greek Satyr Play: Five Studies, p. 163).


The ‘orthodox view’ – so defined by R. Seaford, Euripides: Cyclops (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), p. 27, who however considers it non entirely satisfactory – is already in I. Casaubon, De satyrica Graecorum poesi et Romanorum satira libri duo (Paris: apud A. et H. Drouart, 1605), p. 117.


A. W. Schlegel, Kritische Schriften und Briefe. v, ed. by E. Lohner (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1966), p. 128.


W. Schmid and O. Stählin, Geschichte der griechischen Literatur, i, 2 (München: Beck, 1934), p. 82.


Sutton, The Greek Satyr Play, p. 165. This relief is not, however, a comic relief (italics mine) ‘achieved by presenting as humorously incongruous and inappropriate what tragedy has just represented as serious and consequential’ (pp. 165-166). Satyr play does not aim at a distorting parody of tragedy: cf. Di Marco, Satyriká, pp. 22-25, 63-65, 99-103.


For the sake of truth, almost all scholars, although differing in their views, agree that ‘the various functions ascribed to satyr play need not be mutually exclusive of each other’ (P. O’Sullivan, in P. O’Sullivan and C. Collard [eds.], Euripides Cyclops and Major Fragments of Greek Satyric Drama [Oxford: Aris and Phillips, 2013], p. 27). The problem is, therefore, not only assessing the degree of reliability of the various theories but, above all, verifying which among them identifies the really dominant function.


In her two major contributions to satyr play, Rebecca Lämmle enumerates nine or even ten theories about the function of the genre: cf. Das Satyrspiel, in B. Zimmermann, Handbuch der griechischen Literatur der Antike. Erster Band: Die Literatur der archaischen und klassischen Zeit (München: Beck, 2011) pp. 616-628, esp. pp. 618-621; Poetik des Satyrspiels (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2013), pp. 93-99. This number can be considerably reduced, as some theories can be clustered in a larger category (e.g., the ‘eskapistische Funktion’ or the ‘Unterhaltungsfunktion’, which are both part of the more general function of relief), and others still have no real significance (e.g., the ‘werbende Funktion’).


L. E. Rossi, ‘Il dramma satiresco attico – Forma, fortuna e funzione di un genere letterario antico’, Dialoghi di Archeologia, 6 (1972), pp. 248-302, 273-281.


Cf. already F. G. Welcker, Nachtrag zu der Schrift über die Aischylische Trilogie, nebst einer Abhandlung über das Satyrsopiel (Frankfurt: Ludwig Heinrich Brönner, 1826), pp. 326-327.


For some critical observations see M. Griffith, ‘Slaves of Dionysos: Satyrs, Audience, and the Ends of the Oresteia’, Classical Antiquity, 21 (2002), pp. 195-258 (= Greek Satyr Play, pp. 14-74), 202: ‘the dynamics of the plays seem if anything to reinforce, rather that mitigate, the stereotypical view of rustics as buffoons and incompetents’.


F. Lasserre, ‘Le drame satyrique’, Rivista di Filologia e Istruzione Classica, 101 (1973), pp. 273-301.


Lasserre, ‘Le drame satyrique’, pp. 281 and 276.


In this perspective, we can really say that satyr play presented ‘an inverted anthropology (or andrology) of the ancient city-state’ (F. Lissarrague, ‘Why Satyrs Are Good to Represent’, in J. J. Winkler and F. I. Zeitlin [eds.], Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context [Princeton: Universiy Press, 1990], pp. 228-236 (= ‘Pourquoi les satyres sont-ils bons à montrer’, in P. Ghiron-Bistagne and B. Schouler [eds.], Anthropologie et Théâtre antique [Cahiers du gita 3, 1987], pp. 93-106), 235.


M. Griffith, ‘Satyrs, Citizens and Self-Presentation’, in G. W. M. Harrison (ed.), Satyric Drama: Tragedy at Play (Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2005), pp. 161-199 (= Greek Satyr Play, pp. 75-107), has recently tried to explore the way the audience was reacting to a spectacle in which heroes and satyrs were represented side by side, not in a relation of opposition but rather of cooperation. Such a spectacle, in his opinion, activated a ‘dichotomy of fantasies’ (pp. 174-175): on the one hand, the adult male Athenians were urged to identify themselves with the heroes, who symbolized order, rationality, virtues and civic values; on the other, in a sort of resurgence of ‘infantile, pre Oedipal desires’, they could not help but feel the charm of the satyrs’ transgressive behavior.


E. Hall, ‘Ithyphallic Males Behaving Badly, or, Satyr Drama as Gendered Tragic Ending’, in M. Wyke (ed.), Parchments of Gender: Deciphering the bodies of antiquity (Oxford: University Press, 1998), pp. 13-37.


F. Zeitlin, ‘Playing the Other: Theater, Theatricality, and the Feminine in Greek Drama’, in Winkler and Zeitlin, Nothing to do with Dionysos?, pp. 63-96 (= Playing the Other. Essays on Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature, Chicago: University Press, 1996, pp. 341-372).


Di Marco, Satyriká, p. 56 and especially pp. 104-105. For the painted ceramic vases see F. Lissarrague, ‘De la sexualité des satyres’, in Lissarague, La cité des satyres. Une anthropologie ludique (Athènes VIe-Ve siècles avant J.-C.) (Paris: Éditions de l’École de hautes études en sciences sociales, 2013), pp. 73-96. Voelke’s treatment of this theme (‘Satyres et sexualité’, in Un théâtre de la marge, pp. 211-259) is, in my opinion, too affected by the impression evoked by the iconography. A fine analysis of Sophocles’ language of sex and love is offered by M. Griffith, ‘Sophocles’ Satyr-plays and the Language of Romance’, in I. J. F. De Jong and A. Rijksbaron (eds.), Sophocles and the Greek Language: Aspects on Diction, Syntax and Pragmatics (Leiden: Brill, 2006), pp. 51-72 (= Greek Satyr Play, pp. 109-128), 60-68.


A clear example of Hall’s distorted perspective is her interpretation of the ironic expression ποσθοφιλὴς ὁ νεοσσός (A. Dicty. 795) with which Silenus comments on the innocent gesture of Perseus extending his hand toward the phallus of the old father of the satyrs, having mistaken it for a toy: even the baby would be ‘at risk of sexual assault’, since ‘Silenus seems to be more interested […] in Perseus, the baby ‘penis-lover’, than in his mother’ (‘Ithyphallic Males’, pp. 27-28). Despite its weakness (aptly illustrated, among others, by O’Sullivan, Euripides Cyclops, pp. 26-27), Hall’s thesis has had a great resonance in the scholarship on ancient theatre: see, e.g., J. Gibert, ‘Recent Work on Greek Satyr Play’, The Classical Journal, 98 (2002-2003), pp. 79-88, and Griffith, ‘Satyrs, Citizens and Self-Presentation’, pp. 176-177, who, however, re-elaborates it with appropriate integrations and corrections.


See, for example, G. Conflenti, Il Ciclope, gli Ichneutae e il drama satiresco (Roma: Istituto poligrafico dello Stato, 1932), p. 33: according to her, satyr play would have been characterized by un ‘dichiarato atteggiamento teoretico, addizionato d’un riso speculativo’ and would have had as a special vocation to ‘discettare di origini e di cause prime’.


For a further discussion about this, see below, pp. 444-446.


L. Paganelli, ‘Il dramma satiresco. Spazio, tematiche e messa in scena’, Dioniso, (59) 1989, pp. 213-282, p. 237.


Paganelli, ‘Il dramma satiresco’, p. 242. See also Griffith, ‘Satyrs, Citizens and Self-Presentation’, p. 184: ‘the satyrs of the theater constitute the most revealing reflection of Athenian fantasies and prejudices about the natural differences and capabilities of slaves and masters, as well as one of their most effective mechanism for reassuring themselves of the benevolent and harmless character of slavery itself as an institution’.


For an extensive and penetrating discussion of this motif, essential to the plot of a very large number of satyr plays, see Lämmle, Poetik des Satyrspiels, ch. 7 (‘Poetik der Serie’), pp. 245-291.


According to Paganelli (‘Il dramma satiresco’, p. 246), the Cyclops ‘parla come uno dei Trenta Tiranni, come un Crizia, come un estremista della fazione oligarchica. La sconfitta di Polifemo è dunque la sconfitta dell’oligarchia: l’intero dramma si rivela una ‘pièce di propaganda democratica’ ’.


See G. Mastromarco, ‘La degradazione del mostro. La maschera del Ciclope nella commedia e nel dramma satiresco del quinto secolo a.C.’, in A. M. Belardinelli – O. Imperio – G. Mastromarco – M. Pellegrino – P. Totaro (eds.), Tessere. Frammenti della commedia greca: studi e commenti (Bari: Adriatica Editrice, 1998), pp. 9-42.


On the 4th-century satyr play, cf. I. Gallo, ‘Il dramma satiresco posteuripideo: trasformazione e declino’, Dioniso, 61 (1991), pp. 151-168 (= Ricerche sul teatro greco [Napoli: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 1992], pp. 107-123). Premises of this evolution can already be found in 5th-century comedy: see Di Marco, ‘La commedia, i satiri e la libertà di parola’, in Satyriká, pp. 69-88. On the relationship between satyr drama and comedy and the various overlaps between the two genres, see now C. A. Shaw, Satyric Play: The Evolution of Greek Comedy and Satyr Drama (Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), with the review of A. Marinis, ‘Recent Studies on Satyr Play’, Logeion, 4 (2014), pp. 365-386, 373-383.


See Shaw, Satyric Play, pp. 123-129.


For a tentative reconstruction of some scenes of this satyr play, see M. Di Marco, ‘Sul Menedemo di Licofrone’, in Satyriká, pp. 319-330.


M. Di Marco, ‘Poetica e metateatro in un dramma satiresco d’età ellenistica’, in Satyriká, pp. 277-309.


A complete linguistic and stylistic analysis of the fragment, helpful in defining the Stimmung of the scene, is now offered by E. Dettori, I Diktyoulkoi di Eschilo. Testo e Commento. Contributo a lingua e stile del dramma satiresco (Roma: Quasar, 2016).


According to a sensitive critic such as Eduard Fraenkel, ‘Aeschylus. New Texts and Old Problems’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 28 (1942), pp. 237-258, p. 241, the verses addressed by the satyr chorus to the weeping Perseus represent ‘one of the loveliest pieces of Greek poetry’. On the ‘romantisch-märchenhafte Atmosphäre’ that pervades satyr play cf. B. Seidensticker, ‘Das Satyrspiel’, in G. A. Seek (ed.), Das griechische Drama (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1979), pp. 204-257, p. 232; D. F. Sutton, The Greek Satyr Play, pp. 172, 174-175; M. Griffith, ‘Sophocles’ Satyr-plays’, p. 70: ‘it appears to have been primarily the satyr-plays that provided the most engaging and fertile field of romance for Athenian theater-goers’.


On the usurpation by satyrs of alien and, considering their physis, paradoxical roles see R. Lämmle, Poetik des Satyrspiels, pp. 203-215.


See M. Di Marco, ‘L’ambiguo statuto del dramma satiresco’, in Satyriká, pp. 11-27, p. 25: ‘Con il dramma satiresco il poeta crea […] uno dei mondi possibili cui la trasduzione del mondo finzionale della tragedia può dar luogo: esattamente di un mondo il cui ordine e le cui leggi contemplino la compossibilità di individui pur così differenti e addirittura alternativi quali gli uomini e i satiri – una compossibilità che la finzione di primo grado appunto non prevedeva’ (with reference to the categories adopted by L. Doležel, Heterocosmica. Fiction and Possible Worlds, Baltimore. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); Lissarrague, ‘Why Satyrs Are Good to Represent’, p. 236: ‘The comic effect springs from this collage of satyrs and myth, the revision of myth through this specific filter. The joke is one of incongruity, which generates a series of surprises’; P. Voelke, ‘Formes et fonctions du risible dans le drame satyrique’, in M.-L. Desclos (sous la direction de), Le rire des Grecs. Anthropologie du rire en Grèce ancienne (Grenoble: Editions Jérome Millon, 2000), pp. 95-108, p. 105: ‘en tant qu’élément étranger, le satyre brise l’homogénéité et la choérence du monde représenté et dénonce ainsi le caractère purement théâtral de ce monde qui se trouve dès lors mis à distance’.


D. F. Sutton, ‘The Satyr Play’, in P. E. Easterling and B. M. W. Knox (eds.), The Cambridge History of Classical Literature. I: Greek Literature (Cambridge: University Press, 1985), pp. 346-354, p. 353.


According to Voelke (‘Formes et fonctions du risible dans le drame satyrique’, p. 106), ‘en riant du satyre, le public trouve une cohésion face à celui qui tantôt s’inscrit hors des normes de la vie en société, tantôt les pervertit, en les modelant à son image’. I can agree on this ‘fonction cohésive’, but I find Voelke’s argument less convincing when he maintains that, through the elimination of monsters such as Polyphemus or the invention of wine, the poets deliberately aim at representing the creation of that very same order the satyrs tend to subvert.


H. Lloyd-Jones (ed. and transl.), Sophocles: Fragments (Cambridge, Mass. – London: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 77. For the scene of the Diktyoulkoi in which Silenus attempts to win baby Perseus over, in order to soften Danae’s heart, see above, nn. 23 and 36.


Ch. Mauron, Psychocritique du genre comique (Paris: J. Corti, 1964), pp. 104-107.


For these considerations placed in a wider context, see Di Marco, ‘Il riso nel dramma satiresco’, in Satyriká, pp. 53-68.


The Italics are mine.


Zen. 5.40 (cpg 1.137); Suda ο 806 Adler (whose source is Chamaeleon = fr. 38 Wehrli2): see K. Ziegler, s.v. Tragoedia, in re vi A2, 1937, cols. 1931-1935; A. Pickard-Cambridge, Dithyramb, Tragedy and Comedy, 2nd ed. rev. by T. B. L. Webster (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), pp. 124-126.


See especially Seaford, Euripides: Cyclops, pp. 10-16. On the tension produced by the presence/absence of Dionysus, Lämmle, Poetik des Satyrspiels, pp. 111-153 (chapter 4, ‘Der eingeschlossene Dritte’).


For example, the theory that postulates a close association between some recurrent themes in satyr play (in primis the enslavement of the satyrs by a cruel master and their eventual liberation) and Dionysiac mysteries.


From this point of view, satyr play is really ‘a show for Dionysus’, as Easterling aptly defines it (P. E. Easterling [ed.], The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy [Cambridge: University Press, 1997], pp. 36-53).


1227a 7-9: ἐπεὶ δὲ βουλεύεται ἀεὶ ὁ βουλευόµενος ἕνεκα τινός, καὶ ἐστὶ σκοπός τις ἀεὶ τῷ βουλευοµένῳ πρὸς ὃν σκοπεῖ τὸ συµφέρον, περὶ µὲν τοῦ τέλους οὐθεὶς βουλεύεται, ἀλλὰ τοῦτ’ ἐστιν ἀρχὴ καὶ ὑπόθεσις, ὥσπερ ἐν ταῖς θεωρητικαῖς ἐπιστήµαις ὑποθέσεις: ‘But since one who deliberates always deliberates for the sake of some object, and a man deliberating always has some aim in view with reference to which he considers what is expedient, nobody deliberates about his End, but this is a starting-point or assumption, like the postulates in the theoretic sciences’. The translation is from H. Rackham, Aristotle: The Athenian Constitution. The Eudemian Ethics. On Virtues and Vices (London – Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press: 1935), p. 297.


For the semantic distinction between τέλος and σκοπός, which is sometimes difficult to grasp in the Aristotelian use, see. S. Natoli, La salvezza senza fede (Milano: Feltrinelli, 2007), pp. 173-175. Cf. Lissarrague, ‘Why Satyrs Are Good to Represent’, p. 235: ‘everything takes place as if the satyrs were a means to explore culture through a fun-house mirror’ (italics mine).

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