A study of the political views of Aristophanes considered in relation to the personalities and political conditions surrounding his comedies
Buehler, Eberhard Siegfried
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Aristophanes’ appeal as a poet is universal, and his contribution to the literary world is important and obvious. The importance of Aristophanes to the historian, however, is much less clearly defined. The subject matter of the comedies is certainly clear enough, but its meaning has been much and, variously disputed. Aristophanes’ elusiveness is well summed up in one line of the Acharnians: "Did you understand what he said? No, by Apollo, I did not. "1 The difficulty of determining the exact political views of Aristophanes has moved one writer to say: "A sympathetic reader of Aristophanes can hardly fail to perceive that, while his political and intellectual tendencies are well marked, his opinions, in so far as they color his comedies, are too indefinite to reward, or indeed to tolerate, analysis."2 Whether or not Aristophanes’ political opinions will reward analysis depends entirely on the analyst himself, but they will certainly tolerate analysis. While the subject is admittedly thread-bare, much can be learned if we approach it in the correct way.3 This thesis proposes to show Aristophanes’ stand with respect to the politics of his city, Athens. To avoid the pitfall which is inevitable if we do not understand the true Athenian spirit, it is imperative that we obtain such an understanding, for Aristophanes was an "Athenian", if he was anything at all. For this reason, it will be unnecessary to enumerate Aristophanes’ views one by one. If we can see Aristophanes in his own environment, we need merely let him speak, and we will understand. In order to place Aristophanes into his environment, it has been thought necessary to present as complete a picture as is possible, within the scope of the thesis, of the conditions of the time, and of the historical facts which were important in their development. Some information which may appear irrelevant has been included partly because it provides a fuller picture of Aristophanes’ personality. For example, it is important to know what historical events preceded each comedy, even if the comedy does not contain any references to those events. Sometimes events or personalities become conspicuous by Aristophanes failure to mention them in his comedies. Similarly, it was felt that the origin and nature of comedy should be described in considerable detail. However, special points on which there are divergent opinions, have not been included because they add little or nothing to an understanding of Aristophanes' politics. The main idea has been to provide the casual reader of Aristophanes’ with a fairly reliable guide to what he must know in order to understand the poet’s political personality. Further, the information on comedy has been included for another reason. It helps to detract from too serious a view of Aristophanes as politician; for the tendency has often been to allow the poet to disappear in the politician. The thesis is presented under three main headings. The first treats of Aristophanes’ career as a whole and includes historical details surrounding the comedies. The next division shows how Aristophanes felt about various personalities and institutions of the democracy. Under the third heading comes a discussion of various aspects of the oligarchy and Aristophanes; views concerning them. In the same chapter, some attention is devoted to Aristophanes' relations with Alcibiades, a much neglected or perhaps underestimated facet of Aristophanes’ political life. The concluding chapter presents some philosophic aspects of Aristophanes’ politics and discusses the validity and influence of Aristophanes’ views generally. The relative justice or injustice of particular charges made by Aristophanes is not given much attention throughout the thesis, since this is not its purpose. Finally, it was felt that it would be difficult to sum up, in the conclusion, all of Aristophanes’ political views. The important thing is his political attitude in general, and the reader will come to a gradual understanding of this attitude during the course of the thesis. A map and a chronological chart have been added as appendices, and it is hoped that these will help the reader to follow more closely the events during the course of which Aristophanes wrote his plays. 1. Ach. 101 2. Jebb, Sir Richard Claverhouse, article "Aristophanes", Encyclopaedia Britannica, eleventh edition, 1910. 3. Gomma, A.W., article "Aristophanes and Politics," Classical Review, Vol. LII, July, 1938, (pp.97-l09), p. 97.