OxBlog

Monday, May 01, 2006

# Posted 4:07 PM by Patrick Porter  

ART AND CRISIS: Amidst the violence, chaos and terror that Athens experienced during the Peloponnesian war, the city's playwrights and builders birthed some of their finest works. The emergency of war and political instability, it seems, was the stimulus.

Consider the period
...between 411 and 408, when a seemingly exhausted Athens was plagued by internal revolution and the Spartan plundering from Decelea, while fighting for its life in a series of climactic sea battles at Cynossema, Abydos, and Cyzicus. Nervertheless, in the midst of such killing and calamity, Aristophenes staged his masterpiece antiwar comedy Lysistrata (411), followed by Thesmophoriazusae - fantasy plays in which women make state policy and the courts into their own hands. And while the masons were nearing completion of the Erechtheum, the last and most daring of Pericles' envisioned Acropolis temples, Euripides produced one of his darkest tragedies, Orestes, and Sophocles his majestic Philoctetes - about the unconquerable will of an unfairly tormented hero who resists the forces of accommodation. Actors, theatergoers, and artisans alike might ride, row, or riot in between plays and stonecutting.
(From Victor Davis Hanson, A War like No Other (2005) pp.101-2.)
(8) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments:
Though I find no problems with the idea that crisis and innovation or indeed cultural (re-) nascence may be and are often linked, the picture of Athens at the end of the 5th century that VD Hanson gives is seriously flawed.

Scholars of Ancient literature are increasingly moving away from the 'crisis' description of the last two decades of the 5th century. Euripides is not an iconoclast, his 'Orestes' is not a 'dark' play any more than Aeschylus' 'Agamemnon' is a dark play (and it was written at the height of Athenian power in 458 BC), and few people would hold that Aristophanes is trying to make serious political points in his plays.

We have to keep in mind that the Athenians - and the rest of the Greeks as well - fought one another on and off for much of the 5th century and all the 4th. They were used to living in a semi-permanent state of war, and the Athenians consistently rejected overtures of peace from Sparta because they wanted to keep their empire, and they thought they could win. Moreover, keep in mind that Aigospotamoi (404 BC) was a fluke victory in which the Athenian fleet was trapped on shore; until that point the Spartans, even after the Athenian disaster in Sicily, were getting by far the rougher end of the stick in the naval war of the last decade in the 5th century. This could go on, but I'm sure it's boring the hell out of non-classicists; the point is that VD Hanson should be a hell of a lot more careful before he starts generalising about the crisis element in late 5th century Athenian literature.

We review the texts of this period with the knowledge that Athens would lose, and frequently under the cultural spell of a conservative aristocrat like Plato, whose criticisms of Athenian democracy were as much ideological as they were philosophical, and Thucydides, who had been banished from Athens for clear and stunning military incompetence in the defence of Amphipolis in the 420s. Source criticism, VD. It would help.
 
hadrianus, to say that Aristophanes was not making political points is like saying that there was no satire in Spitting Image. Of course he was making political points, and he holds fairly consistently to a political platform for the body of his work that we have extant up to and including the Frogs.

While I agree with much else of what you say in your comment, this one assertion does not stand up to the reality of Aristophanes' plays. Heavens, we know he was making political points because Cleon sued him at one point.
 
Dear Lewis,

thanks for the post; I didn't think anyone would be bothered to reply.

I do disagree with you, however, on several points. Firstly, we have no solid evidence that Kleon sued Aristophanes, for the references to such a case all come from the author's first person statements in his plays. As we are increasingly coming to understand, the tradition of Attic Old Comedy (Aristophanes' earlier plays meant here) was heavily dependent on another early comic tradition, known as Ionian iambos, represented in the works of such authors as Arkhilokhos and Hipponax. In these authors, one of the characteristic genre features is the creation of a text-internal character and narrative which may be carried on from one poem to the next, as a means of identifying with the author -i.e. this is the guy who's always making the jokes about his failed marriage, and what a cow his ex-wife (actually, promised wife) is, and how he raped her younger sister in revenge (this is a crude summary of a cycle of poems written by Arkhilokhos).

This is what Aristophanes was doing with his references to Kleon; another early comic poet, Eupolis, also did so by constantly attacking the politician Alkibiades. What is fascinating is that later ancient authors, most often preserved in the scholia attached to the medieval manuscripts of Aristophanes, interpreted these stories as autobiographical truth (in Eupolis' case, they claimed that he was drowned by Alkibiades, an obvious and misunderstood reflection of an episode in a play by the author which was called 'Baptai' or 'dippings')!

So, there is no solid evidence that Kleon really attacked Aristophanes in the law courts, but the better conclusion is that Kleon was adopted as the comic poet's bugbear, and the story was one means of creating a character with which the audience could identify from festival to festival, and thence vote for. Note that, (i) after Kleon dies in 422, Aristophanes hardly mentions him at all, and also (ii) during the period when Aristophanes was consistently winning the contest with plays performed in the 420s, Kleon was the universally most successful politician in Athens, re-elected to the generaliship year after year.

As a side-line, it is interesting to note that after the profanation of the Mysteries in 415 by a certain group of aristocrats in the city, a decree of 'Syrakosios' (otherwise unknown) apparently banned the mention on the comic stage of those involved - an indication, if there ever was one, that the comic stage was not the place to make serious political statements beyond trite generalities. Indeed, to be mentioned on the stage seems to have been a mark of honour or contemporary significance. Given the extraordinary litigiousness of the Athenians, and the kinds of things which the comic poets said on stage, we should also remember that 'onomasti kwmwidein' (to make fun of by name) was something which could not have worked in Athens had there been a direct relationship between what a contemporary character was said on stage to have done, and what he actually did in real life.

You are right to quibble with my earlier expression 'political point' (although I'm not sure that Sptting Image has a single point); what I meant by that was that he was not espousing a single political line through his dramas, which is what an earlier generation of scholarship used to argue. The academic discourse on this, which for some reason has not filtered down to a less specialised level of discussion (probably because of academic self-satisfaction), has moved well away from this type of party-political identification.

In this sense, Spitting Image is a really good analogy for my case (and thank you for making me think of it): whilst they slagged the Tories, they made no bones about laughing at Labour for being so disastrously ineffective, or at the Royals, or at anyone else. This type of scattergun, which is satire, is typical of Aristophanes - he laughs at the rich, he laughs at the poor, he laughs at Greeks, Persians, non-Athenians, Athenians - everybody.

So, whilst he takes the political as his starting point, he does not put forward a political message in any play - neither a complete condemnation of the law courts in Wasps, or of the Peloponnesian war in Akharnians (in 427, when the Athenians were hardly on the back foot), or the possiblity of politicians being other than sleaze merchants in Knights, the idea that a return to old values might save Athens in Clouds (first performance dated 423, when the Athenians had done incredibly well in the war), or that Aeschylus' ranting in the Frogs (405-4) is the key to Athens' survival (and the textual problems in the agon between Euripides and Aeschylus in that play make it almost impossible to determine why Dionysos chooses Aeschylus). Begin with a political current, turn it upside down and laugh at everyone involved - that is Attic old comedy.

Cheers for the post, though. It's a good thing to talk about, for classicists like me don't often get the chance to spread the word - except with other classicists, and they are tedious. Or are you a classicist?
 
How long does it take for comments to appear on this site? I wrote the response to Lewis this morning. Doh.
 
hadrianus - An excellent post and I would love to respond right now, but I have only just gotten around to reading Oxblog today at 23:30, so I will endeavour to reply tomorrow.
 
Sorry, that anonymous post was me. Just forgot to put my name in the correct field.
 
Well hadrianus, first I should probably apologise in advance for the waffling below. In answer to your question I am not a classicist. I studied ancient and mediavel history at uni - but on a classical foundation. I used to be able to read some of the easier texts with the aid of the dictionary, but alas that is 5 years in the past now and this is now all just a hobby, and my Latin and Greek are mostly forgotten. To some extent what follows might well seem very crude, but I hope not too crude.

As to Aristophanes - as you say the belief that he sued Cleon comes from internal evidence in his plays. However, I have never understood the logic dismissing such statements simply because of a lack of supporting information. Given the paucity of information available to us lack of supporting evidence does not indicate proof the other way. This is, I know, a matter of approach, and there are strengths and weaknesses to both sides.

I do not think the fact that Aristophanes barely mentioned Cleon after his death is germane to the discussion. In a world of contemporary theatre last year's events and bugbears are irrevelent, it is today's that matter. In my opinion of the plays I found those earlier ones to be sharper, but whether that was because of Aristophanes' youth, or because Cleon was a focus for him to use, or both, or neither and just me, I do not have an opinion.

Cleon's popularity doesn't really figure either. It is not a proper analogy, but look at Michael Moore and the Bush-attack industry. Despite the great success of Moore's books and film, GWB was still re-elected in 2004. Also, Cleon was the quintessential demagogue, and I have always had the impression that Aristophanes was more of the typical Athenian aristo, someone never entirely approving of democracy, or, for that matter, Socrates.

I probably should not have used the term 'political platform' because that is not really what I meant, but I did because I couldn't immediately think of a more appropriate term. In my reading of the plays (again, up to and including The Frogs) it has always struck me that Aristophanes 'heroes' (using the term loosely of course) were generally small-c 'conservatives'. I don't mean that politically, though it has meanings there, but across the board. This does not mean that he will not make fun of Aeschylus at the same time as he is knocking Euripides, but there is a clear winner at the end of it all (whyever he is chosen).

Another thing is that no writer, in whatever medium, has ever taken himself out of the work. Even modern-day historians who try and parade their 'objectivity' are not really any different from Herodotus. Likewise, although Old comedy may be based on earlier forms, there is nothing stopping an adept poet from using those forms to his own purposes.

You are very correct though when you say lots of the opinion you express hasn't made it out. I cannot imagine Classics is any more ivory tower than the rest of academia, but perhaps there is a greater tendency for other authors (like VDH) to take an interest in events like the Peleponnesian War, and thus helping public discussion of those topics? Or not helping, as the case may be here.

Thinking back to the original post I think VDH's point is entirel wrong on differnet grounds as well: because it is virutally impossible to compare one year from another with what few plays actually survive. Should have thought of that earlier, though of cours he might have a response to that in his book.

On reflection I would have to argue that Aigospotamoi was no fluke, (just like Waterloo was no fluke) but an event bound to happen sooner or later. But that is a different discussion. I hope I have not tried your patience too sorely.
 
Lewis, there is no need to apologise, for you have neither waffled, tried my patience, nor been crude. Instead, you've raised some very important points on the issue, and I particularly like the invocation of Herodotos - an absolutely crucial figure who was more honest and explicit about the process of source criticism than Thucydides ever was, and yet the latter was until recently thought of as the epitome of objective historiography.

On the the internal evidence, I agree that we cannot dismiss it simply because of that fact. I suppose that my position is that the evidence cannot be read autobiographically without the qualifications of genre and poetic tradition, for it is with these tools that the poets and their audiences understood the works and their performances. The importance of convention is most clearly illustrated in those cases where our own tendency to read autobiographically is sourced from a later, though still ancient, tendency to do precisely that. The case of Eupolis is particularly relevant here, because, despite the scholiast's autobiographical misinterpretation of the title and episode from the 'Baptai', we know from the didaskalia (notices about who competed in the dramatic festivals in each year) that Eupolis was still alive and producing plays after he was held to have been 'drowned' by Alkbiades in 415.

The comic poets were particularly fruitful sources of comparison here, because they were full of apparently truthful comments and sneers, e.g. with regard to Euripides (i.e. that his plays were written by someone else, that he was an atheist, that he hated women and his mother sold celery - not a reputable job for anyone). None of these things are true (though by modern standards he may well have hated women; certainly his plays are full of dangerous ones). What then happened was that these jokes were read as truth about the poet's life (particularly by later scholars who had no reliable information) and then transmitted to modern scholarship as parts of the Vitae ('Lives') prefaced to some manuscripts.

So the autobiographism we have until recently practised is actually the result of a very long process; the way in which ancient historians in general use these texts is driven by the desire to make them into historical documents. So, doubting the historical veracity of these statements is actually a very recent scholarly phenomenon, for the dominant trend was simply to take them at face value and as independent confirmation of the commentaries contained in the Vitae, but it is pretty standard now. I suppose the fascinating thing is that, had I begun classics at university forty years ago rather than eighteen (Jesus), I would be arguing the opposite case; so context is always important, but I think the evidence is stronger on the fictional side than not. As you say, a matter of approach.

As to Kleon's popularity and the fact that he's barely mentioned after 422, I think I didn't express myself properly. I was adducing those considerations as evidence of the fact that he was only significant for Aristophanes when he was alive, rather than indicative of a broader political trend which Aristophanes found objectionable; the requirement for identification demands contemporaneity - so we agree on this point, but you would see it as evidence of direct and real engagement, whereas I would see it as deriving its usefulness in a conventional sense from that contemporaneity.

Also, it is not true to say that comedy did not deal with yesterday's news. In the parabasis of the Akharnians (427), Aristophanes speaks about a figure called Thucydides son of Melesias, who was a prominent and important politician opposing Perikles, and who had been exiled more than 15 years previously. He was no longer 'news' in that sense, but he was a prominent figure one could still laugh at in the context of Aristophanes' evergreen battles between the generations.

Then, the demagogues. This is a political slogan used particularly by fourth century authors, but also by fifth century ones, to deride their opponents; that Kleon is called a demagogue by Thucydides need be seen as nothing more than the usual rough and tumble of political life in Athens. If one were so inclined, you could call Alkibiades a demagogue, or Iphikles a demagogue, or even Perikles. Indeed, despite the neat Thucydidean separation between the way in which Athens was run before and after his death in 430-29, if we had some more of Kratinas' work (elder contemporary of Aristophanes), I suspect that the usual run of political insults would have been aimed at Perikles (certainly his rather extensive fragments give that impression). In short, here we have to be aware of a particularly vicious case of the documentary fallacy - actually, fallacies - in that we suddenly have an explosion of texts dealing with life in Athens in the last 30 years of the century. Yet the same things were happening in the previous 30 years, as Athens generally extended its power over the Delian league and the rest of Greece, often in particularly unpleasant ways. Unfortunately, we have to depend on a rather small and so extremely influential group of authors - as I was outlining in my first post.

Whilst it is certainly true that authors never take themselves out of their own work, we have to be sensitive to the things which actually make genres from different times and places distinctive. A general tendency is to flatten out these differences and read them as though the Athenians reflected our attitudes in general - a typical approach, e.g. to the Lysistrata or even the Akharnians which reads them as generalised statements of pacifism, but one which ignores entirely the course of Athenian and indeed Greek history in general, before and after the Peloponnesian war. In this case, the conventional nature of the author-poet (usually) revealed in the parabatic passages, and the manifold evidence that the comic stage was separable from the legal or political consequences of what was said there, incline me away from your rather generalised statement.

I think we also need to keep in mind that Athens was a much smaller, more politically involved and close-knit community, than modern America. Voting levels and procedures were entirely different (after all, GWB got back in with only just over half of the one third / half of the populace who voted - an Athenian could never have got away with such a low level of support), particularly in a period when the population spent a considerable period inside the walls of the city because of the presence of Spartan armies ravaging in the hinterland.

I think you're right that Aristophanes was a small 'c' conservative type, in our terminology, if by that he was happy with the status quo and didn't want the extremes of any political position put upon the city, as long as its citizens could enjoy the wealth (exhibited most notably in the architecture and festivals funded by the state) brought them by the Athenian empire. This is all part of more general Greek ethics in its broadest sense, of course, the avoidance of 'lian' / 'agan', but this makes Aristophanes (I think, rightly) a very conventional moralist whose views were not designed to appeal to any one group more than any other. After all, he was trying to appeal to as broad an audience as he could in order to win their favour and renown (the same goes for the tragic poets, of course). So, on many grounds, we should avoid treating him as a specifically political author in any way other than that sketched out in the course of our exchange.

I'd also be much more careful about extrapolating even this from Aristophanes' heroes - after all, Dikaiopolis refuses entry to his fellow citizens into the joke market he sets up at his house; if the audience were inclined to read him as a small 'c' conservative, then they would have found his refusal to help his fellow citizens rather startlingly unconservative, indeed almost unGreek. But that's the joke of the play (also, e.g. Peisetairos and Euelpides burn and torture those birds who don't like their new regime, despite having spent the opening of the play complaining of the oppressive atmosphere of Athens). Moreover, though it may be clear that Aeschylus wins, it is not clear that his policies - keep the navy strong etc. - are in any way different from those being pursued by the current regime (or even Perikles, as his final speech in Book 2 of Thucydides shows). Again, here we have to do with taking a social setting and then making a joke out of it.

Nonetheless, this could go on (and I think the Persians attitude to Athens and Sparta was a trifle more labile than that of the rest of Europe to Napoleon), but I have tutorials to teach, and students banging on the door. On the isolation of the academics, can I recommend a very small book on Aristophanes by Malcolm Heath, Political Comedy in Aristophanes, Göttingen 1987? Though aimed at classicists, I think it sets out its line with admirable clarity and precision.

On a more general note, thanks for the posts, and I hope Patrick puts some more classical stuff up. We should encourage him to do something about Aigospotamoi. Cheers.
 
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