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SATIRE WAS AS important to ancient Greeks as it is to those of us living through today’s muddle. Think of the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes as that era’s combination of Saturday Night Live, Tom Lehrer and Charlie Chaplin. I cite an extended array of modern satirists because Aristophanes’ comedic efforts were presented in ancient Greece for almost four decades, 425 B.C. to 388 B.C.
Aristophanes is regarded as the Prince of Ancient Comedy. Eleven of his 40 plays survive, many carrying satirical messages that resonate with us across 2400 years. I offer tidbits here on three of them: The Knights, The Wasps and Lysistrata.
The Knights, 424 B.C. One of his earliest plays, The Knights earned Aristophanes the first prize at that year’s Lenaia festival, sort of the equivalent of modern-day Oscars. The play ridiculed Cleon, at the time the pro-war populist demagogue of Athens.
Cleon was a piece of work. He rose to power exploiting Athens’ legal exercise of sycophancy, whence the word sycophant, a self-serving flatterer. Wikipedia says of Cleon, “Although rough and unpolished, … he knew how to work upon the emotions of the Athenian populace.”
Wikipedia continues that Cleon “instilled a feeling of mistrust within Athens through a kind of Athenian ‘McCarthyism,’ caused by the excessive number of informants he employed to keep watch on the city.”
In The Knights, Cleon was represented by a comic character, Paphlagonian, an all-around screwup. Everyone in the audience knew who was intended. Indeed, Aristophanes played the role himself because other actors were reluctant to incur the real Cleon’s wrath.
The Wasps, 422 B.C. Aristophanes continued poking fun at Cleon in The Wasps, but his primary targets were the law courts of Athens, a city-state renowned for its litigious nature. As noted above, sycophancy was an aspect of the legal system in ancient Greece, ψευδοκολακεία, literally “to show a fig,” in relation to the illegal exportation of this fruit.
One of the characters in The Wasps is Philocleon, father of Bdelycleon, named for the opposite feelings. Philocleon is addicted to jury service, a paid post; the son has turned their house into a prison to keep the old man away from this activity. The Chorus, an element of Greek theater, swarm around like wasps in dad’s defense.
Father and son agree to settle their differences out of court, by debate. Dad says he likes jury service because his decisions are not subject to review. The son responds that dad and other jurors are under the control of small-time cons and that most of the revenue goes to private treasures of people like Cleon.
Matters degenerate into a dispute between two dogs. The Cleon pooch maliciously accuses the other of stealing Sicilian cheese and not sharing it. Witnesses for the defense include a bowl, a pestle, a cheese-grater and a pot.
This may sound suspiciously like parts of Beauty and the Beast, but suffice to say all ends happily with a song-and-dance routine celebrating dad being fixed in his ways and sonny’s filial devotion.
Lysistrata, 411 B.C. The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta had been going on for 20 years and Aristophanes wasn’t the only one tired of it. Athens was refined, cultural and democratic (after a fashion); Sparta and its Peloponnesian League were militaristic.
In Lysistrata, Aristophanes imagines a brilliant means of ending the conflict: Lysistrata is a woman with a strong sense of individuality and social responsibility. By contrast, her gal-pal Calonice believes women are hedonistic and best led by you-know-whom.
Lysistrata convenes a gathering of women, including Lampito of Sparta. Together, they promise to withhold their sexual favors until the menfolk lay down their arms. Matters take a turn in their favor when the Old Women of Athens bar the gates of the Acropolis, wherein lies the state treasury.
A Chorus of Old Men contests this with burning timbers, but the women refuse to open up. [Go, metaphor! Go!] Then a Chorus of Old Women arrive with pitchers of water and the Old Men get drenched.
Along comes a magistrate who blames the men for poor supervision of their womenfolk. He’s overcome by angry women yelling, among other insults, “you garlic-innkeeping-bread-sellers.” Lysistrata defends women’s rights admirably.
A Spartan appears with a large burden under his tunic. The magistrate ridicules him, but the audience recognizes the magistrate’s burden too. They all laugh and peace talks ensue, with a gorgeous young woman named Reconciliation in attendance.
The delegates squabble, but decide it’s more fun admiring Reconciliation. The comedy ends with the usual song-and-dance routine, this one praising Athene, goddess of wisdom and chastity.
How chastity got into this is a mystery to me. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017