Cratinus Essay - Critical Essays



Cratinus c. 519 b.c.-c. 422 b.c.

Greek comic dramatist.

A major force in shaping Athenian Old Comedy, Cratinus was one of the three greatest practitioners of the genre, along with Aristophanes and Eupolis. Cratinus is credited with composing the first fully-constructed comedy, one which boasted a defined literary style. His comedies, many of which were invective-laden satires on political and topical events, won him first place prizes in literary festivals on nine separate occasions, including six victories at the prestigious City Dionysia festival. Cratinus used many of his dramas to denounce those who offended him, subjecting them to ridicule before the public. His sometimes obscene attacks were most frequently directed at the Athenian politician and general Pericles, although there was also considerable animosity between Cratinus and Aristophanes—who sometimes competed for the same literary prizes. Cratinus also produced parodies of myths. His works survive today only in fragments and have not been translated into English.

Biographical Information

Very little is known of Cratinus's life. His career most likely spanned several decades, possibly beginning in the 450s b.c. His first known victory in a literary contest occurred in about 437 b.c.He was influenced by the invective of the satirist Archilochus. Cratinus was frequently attacked by other playwrights, most notably Aristophanes, who referred to him as an adulterer, a drunk, incontinent, senile, and bad smelling, most notably in his play Knights. In response, the following year Cratinus produced Pytine (423 b.c.; The Wine Flask) in which he not only does not deny his drunkenness, but extols alcohol's virtues, contending that the gods never favor a poet who drinks plain water. Cratinus died shortly after producing the play, reportedly at the age of ninety-three.

Major Works

Although some 460 fragments survive of Cratinus's plays, none even approach completeness. Scholars do not agree on how many plays Cratinus wrote; suggestions range from twenty-one to thirty-one. The discrepancy stems from the fragmentary nature of what remains of his works, some of which are also probably spurious or misattributed. For some titles thought to be the work of Cratinus, nothing whatsoever is known about their content except what can be deduced from the titles themselves. The plots of a few others are explained in the writings of his contemporaries. Archilochoi (circa 448 b.c.; Archilochus and His Companions) seems to feature the ghosts of Archilochus, whose satires influenced Cratinus's works, and other epic poets brought together in order to compete against each other in a literary contest. Pericles suffers ridicule in three of Cratinus's plays: in Cheirones (date unknown; Chiron and His Companions), in which his head is compared to an onion; in Nemesis (date unknown), which uses the tale of Zeus (representing Pericles), Leda, and Helen as its basis; and in Dionysalexandros (circa 430 b.c.; Dionysus as Alexander), a mythological and political satire in which Pericles, who had just recently started the Peloponnesian War, is likened to Dionysus, who began the Trojan War. Cheimazomenoi (425 b.c.; The Tempest-Tossed) took second prize to Aristophanes's Acharnians in the Lenaean Festival. Pytine was Cratinus's last play and took first prize, defeating Aristophanes's Clouds, which came in third.

Critical Reception

Although some information can be gleaned from the hundreds of surviving fragments and the few summaries of his works made by contemporary writers, scholars of Cratinus are severely limited by the fact that not even one complete play by him is extant. Two ancients are responsible for the best critiques of Cratinus: Aristophanes, who states that Cratinus was praised for his imposing style, likened to flood water destroying all the trees in its path; and Platonius, who writes: “Though admirably inventive in the opening and scheme of his plays, he rends his plots to pieces as he goes on, and fills up his plays with inconsequent matter.” From the little they have to go on, modern critics are in no position to disagree. Gilbert Norwood examines what remains of the comedies and, like all Cratinus scholars, explores his feud with Aristophanes. Keith Sidwell speculates on the interrelatedness of the plays of the two great comic poets, suggesting there was a great deal more communication between them than previously considered by modern critics. Ralph M. Rosen examines the nature and targets of Cratinus's invective and his inspiration for it, writing that “in looking to the iambos as a poetic antecedent of comic drama, and by incorporating iambographic elements into his plays, Cratinus succeeded in elevating his genre to a level of literary refinement which it had not attained before. He articulated a literary lineage for Old Comedy, and for the first time helped to define this otherwise eclectic genre for his successors.”

Principal Works

Cheirones (play) date unknown

Nemesis (play) date unknown

Archilochoi (play) c. 448 B.C.

Dionysalexandros (play) c. 430 B.C.

Cheimazomenoi (play) 425 B.C.

Pytine (play) 423 B.C.

Poetae Comici Graeci, Vols. IV, III.2, VI [edited by R. Kassel and C. Austin] (play fragments) 1983, 1984, 1986


Gilbert Norwood (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: Norwood, Gilbert. “Cratinus.” In Greek Comedy, pp. 114-44. 1932. Reprint. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.

[In the following essay, Norwood discusses the plots of Cratinus's plays, to the extent they can be determined from surviving fragments.]

Aristophanes spoke too soon. This stinging mixture of praise and pity brought the elderly genius to his feet. ‘Nearly seventy and ruined by drink, am I? Ho!’ Next year at the City Dionysia he produced the Wine-Flask (Πυτίνη) and defeated1 his ambiguous eulogist with a play that boldly took up the imputations of Aristophanes. From the fragments and a scholium on the Knights2 we gain a fair conception of the plot. Cratinus' wife, Comedy herself, complains to his friends that Cratinus is neglecting her and consorting with Drunkenness (Μέθη)—‘formerly I was his wife, but now no more’ (γυνὴ δ' εκείνου πρότερον η, νυ̑ν δ' οὐκέτι)3—and wishes to bring an action against him for ill-treatment. Cratinus used to be a good husband, but now he runs after every pretty wine-skin that he sees.4 It appears that these friends, who form the chorus, have come forward in order to keep the case out of court by making Cratinus see reason. In a speech that was probably the culmination of the drama, Cratinus explained, or defended, or gloried in, his new way of life: it contained the famous line5 ὕδωρ δέ πίνων οὐδέν ἂν τέκοι sοφόν: ‘but if he drinks water he can create nothing wise’. We possess practically nothing else about it, only the dazed comment:6

ἄναξ '′ Απολλον, τω̑ν επω̑ν τω̑ν ῥευμάτων.
καναχου̑sι πηγαί, δωδεκάκρουνον τὸ sτόμα,
'Ιλιssὸς εν τη̑ φάρυγι · τί ἂν εἴποιμ' ετι;
εἰ μὴ γὰρ επιβύsει τις αὐτου̑ τὸ sτόμα,
aπαντα ταυ̑τα κατακλύsει ποίήμαsιν.

‘Holy Apollo! What a torrent of verse! A bubbling well! His mouth is a twelve-spouted fountain, his throat a river, his … comparisons fail me! Unless some one plugs his mouth, he will flood the whole district with poetry.’ We may conjecture that he entered embracing the Wine-Flask which gives its name to the play and which (needless to say) symbolized his new love, Methe.7 His recalcitrance is proved by the passage8 where a friend cudgels his brains for some device to cure the infatuation:

                                                  πω̑ς τις αὐτόν, πω̑ς τις ἄν
ἀπὸ του̑ πότου παύsειε, του̑ λίαν πότου;
εγὦδα.          sυντρίψω γάρ αὐτου̑ τοὺς χόας,
καὶ τοὺς καδίsκους sυγκεραυνώsω sποδω̑ν,
καὶ τἄλλα πάντ' ἀγγει̑α τὰ περὶ τὸν πότον,
κοὐδ' ὀξύβαφον οἰνηρὸν ετι κεκτήsεται.

‘How, oh how, can one check his drinking, his excessive drinking? I have it! I'll smash his jugs, I'll shatter his jars like a thunderbolt, and every other drinking-vessel: he shan't have so much as a winesaucer to his name.’ But somehow Cratinus is later reconciled to Comedy and expresses his repentance:

ὰτὰρ εννοου̑μαι δὴ τὰ τη̑ς μοχθηρίας
τη̑ς eλιθιότητός τε τη̑ς εμη̑ς.(9)

‘Well, well: I realize how wicked my stupidity has been.’ How this change of heart is induced we can only guess: perhaps Comedy steals the Wine-Flask and thus brings the poet to his knees.10

Of the other fragments some are interesting although we cannot tell what connexion they had with the story just outlined. There would seem to have been a racy discussion of young politicians: each was relegated to some spot better suited to his habits than the Pnyx: e.g.:11

'Uπέρβολον δ' ἀποsβέsας έν τοι̑ς λύχνοιsι γράψον.

‘Put Hyperbolus out and write him up in the Lamp-Market,’ Hyperbolus being a lamp-merchant. Some of the proposed destinations would (we are to hope) be funnier than this,12 and the whole oration would resemble Koko's topical song: “I've got him on the list”. Finally, we are told13 that ‘Cratinus, hearing this (the passage from the Knights quoted above) wrote the Wine-Flask, in which he reviles14 Aristophanes for plagiarizing Eupolis’.

But by far the most attractive and important of Cratinus' comedies, in the present state of our knowledge, is the Dionysalexandros.15 Till 1904 our meagre collection of citations told nothing of the plot, but in that year Grenfell and Hunt published a papyrus, discovered at Oxyrhynchus, containing a good deal of the Argument.16

‘… These17 address the audience concerning the poets,18 and when Dionysus appears they mock and jeer at him. Dionysus, being offered by Hera unshaken sovereignty, by Athena success in war, and by Aphrodite the possession of charm and surpassing beauty, adjudges the victory to Aphrodite. Next he sails to Sparta, abducts Helen, and returns to Mt. Ida. But soon, hearing that the Greeks are ravaging the land, he flees to Alexander,19 hides Helen in a basket as [a goose?], disguises himself as a ram, and awaits the upshot. Alexander arrives, detects them both, and orders them to be taken to the ships, intending to hand them over to the Greeks. But Helen objects; he takes pity on her and withholds her, to make her his wife, but Dionysus he despatches to be handed over. The satyrs escort Dionysus with encouragement and assurances that they will never desert him. In the play Pericles is most convincingly satirized by innuendo as having involved the Athenians in the war.’

This document puts us for the first time in possession of a correct notion as to Athenian mythological comedy. Cratinus took the familiar story of Helen, Paris, and Agamemnon's expedition. Into this he thrust Dionysus and an attendant rout of satyrs, giving to the god, for most of the play, the part assigned by the legend to Paris, but of course making it ridiculous. (One detail of the fun is preserved: whereas Paris was promised the most beautiful woman on earth, here the no doubt less attractive Dionysus is offered a prospect of becoming irresistible himself.) Then, at the close, orthodox legend is reinstated: Dionysus disappears, and Paris stands forth as responsible to the Greeks for the retention of Helen.

As to the details of the Dionysalexandros, it is necessary to observe that our information practically begins with the parabasis. We are told that ‘they address the spectators,’ whether on behalf of the poet or ‘concerning the poets’.20 Either reading points to a parabasis of a kind familiar in Aristophanes. What preceded the parabasis? Our tattered Greek mentions “seeking,” and Hermes, who assuredly acted as conductor of the three goddesses to be judged by the mortal. After the parabasis, Dionysus “appears”. The word is notable—not επιφανέντα, appropriate to a glorious apparition, but παραφανέντα, which suggests some one “popping in” rather jauntily and unexpectedly. This, together with the derision of the satyrs, probably gives a clue to the early action. It may be that Hermes, having brought the three goddesses to Mt. Ida for judgment by Paris, cannot find him21 and is at his wits' end, since such important ladies cannot be kept waiting, especially on a mountainside and prepared for a beauty-contest; and that his difficulty is solved by a sudden proposal that Dionysus (providentially near at hand) shall act as judge. Who makes this proposal? Probably not the god himself, but his satyr-followers in his momentary absence, for it seems that they have to describe their candidate to the doubtful Hermes:

Α. sτολὴν δέ δὴ τίν' εiχε; του̑τό μοι φράsον.
Β. θύρsον, κροκωτόν, ποικίλον, καρχήsιον.(22)

‘Tell me, what was his attire?’ ‘A Bacchic wand, a saffron shawl, an embroidered robe, a goblet.’

Dionysus “pops in” and the plan is discussed. Perhaps he is attracted by the task of impersonating a prince and wearing royal gear, but is disillusioned:

οὔκ, ἀλλὰ βόλια χλωρὰ κosπώτην πατει̑ν.(23)

‘Nothing of the kind: (you will have to) walk on fresh dung and filthy wool.’ But he accepts the proposition and adds theatrically rustic attire to his effeminate Bacchic garb. The chorus greet with jeers his boast that he is several kinds of herdsman in one:

πομὴν καθέοτηκ' αἰπόλος καὶ βουκόλος.(24)

The next thing we know of is the Judgment of Paris-Dionysus and its result, though with no details. It is quite in accord with the intoxicated Time-Spirit of Old Comedy that Dionysus sails to Sparta, woos Helen, and returns with her while the chorus (we are to suppose) sings an ode. The Greek expedition, too, makes the journey to Troy at a miraculous speed. The terrified Dionysus conceals Helen and himself. Her he puts into a basket disguised as something thereto appropriate—what, we do not know, because the papyrus is defective here. The best proposal is that of Körte, a goose,25 because of the Leda story. Dionysus disguises himself as a ram: the famous line26

ὁ δ' eλίθιος ὥsπερ πρόβατον βη̑ βη̑ λέγων βαδίzει,

‘and the simpleton walks along saying “Ba! Ba!” like a sheep,’ refers no doubt to the industrious but amateurish efforts of Dionysus to sustain the character. The true Paris arrives, urged probably by the Greek invasion to discover the culprits and release his country by their surrender. Some detective27 work is necessary before the disguise is penetrated: the scene of the Megarian pigs in the Acharnians may suggest how the detection of Helen was conducted. Finally Dionysus is merely ejected from the story, but the charms of Helen overthrow the purpose of Paris, and matters are in train for the ten years' war. The play perhaps ended with a marriage-feast of Alexander and Helen.28

It is difficult to interpret precisely the final sentence of the Argument that “Pericles is most convincingly satirized by innuendo as having involved the Athenians in the war”. It is plain enough from these words that Dionysus represents Pericles; that the ravaging of the Troad—which must have been emphasized in the play, or it would never have got into this brief summary29—is meant to recall the first invasion and the exasperating sight of fire rising from Acharnæ;30 that the amorous adventure of Dionysus corresponds to the scandalous stories about Aspasia's31 part in the outbreak of war. It is possible, too, that the surrender of Dionysus to the Greeks hinted at the Spartan demand that Athens should expel the “accursed” Alcmæonidæ, that is, Pericles.32 But whereas, judging by the practice of contemporary playwrights, we should have expected a perfectly explicit comparison, the Argument plainly indicates another treatment, satire by insinuation. In the present state of our knowledge it is best to accept this view, and to believe that Cratinus is primarily concerned with a riotous travesty of the legend, and works contemporary satire into the fabric purely as an undertone.

Two other points should be made: (i) It is possible that Hermippus refers to this play in the fragment33 that begins βαsιλευ sατύρων. If so, the allegory must have been more transparent for Cratinus' contemporaries than for the writer of the Argument. (ii) Is Tzetzes, who contradicts Aristotle about the number of actors in early comedy, himself contradicted by this Argument? Aristotle had written34 that ‘no one knows who fixed the number of comic actors’. Tzetzes reports35 that ‘Cratinus was the first to fix the number of actors at three’. Is it a fact that the Dionysalexandros needs four actors? In the scene where Dionysus judges the three goddesses, we apparently need four, not to mention Hermes. But it may well have been that Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite are all silent. We moderns should, of course, expect a striking address from each, but the practice of Aristophanes36 shows that he at any rate—and if so, why not Cratinus?—would have been content to make each “whisper” to Hermes, who would then report37 her offer. That scene would demand only two actors, with three mutes.

The date is not quite certain. One would naturally place it early in the war because of the political allusions, but not later than Pericles' death. This gives 430 or 429. Clear evidence for the former year is obtained if we assume that the satyr-fragment of Hermippus could not have been written had not Cratinus already made Dionysus-Pericles a leader of satyrs.38 Now the passage of Hermippus belongs to a play (whether the Fates or not) produced in 430. The conclusion would then be that Hermippus' comedy appeared at the City Dionysia, and the Dionysalexandros at the Lenæa, of 430.

Another blend of whimsical legend-distortion and satire on contemporaries was to be found in Nemesis, a deliberately bungling travesty of the birth of Helen compounded by some queer alchemy with the fortunes of that great but unromantic Athenian, Pericles. Later writers give the story thus:39 “Zeus fell in love with Nemesis, a maiden of Rhamnus in Attica, who changed herself into all shapes so as to elude his embraces. Finally she became a swan, and Zeus, turning himself into a swan also, bade Aphrodite, in the shape of an eagle, pursue him. The fugitive bird found a refuge with Nemesis, who thus, in due course, laid an egg. This was taken by Hermes to Leda in Sparta; she hatched it and produced Helen.” That Nemesis, not Leda, was Helen's mother had been affirmed by Stasinus, the epic poet who composed the Cypria. The laughably stupid notion of two mothers is, of course, an attempt to harmonize the Nemesis story with the Leda story; whether it is an invention of Cratinus' own one does not know, but would like to believe.40

In the fragments we find some one, whether Aphrodite or Hermes, giving Zeus the great idea: ‘Well, you must become a large bird’—ὅρνιθα τοίνυν δει̑ sε γίγνεsθαι μέγαν.41 After his metamorphosis the god (an amazing figure of fun, no doubt, like the comic fowls on the famous British Museum vase) is heard explaining that his appetite has changed with his shape: ‘So that when at meals I enjoy the food, and everything in the garden is lovely to eat’.42 In four lines43 of pseudo-tragic diction Leda is commanded to complete the birth of Helen:

Lέδα, sὸν εργον · δει̑ s' ὄπως εὐsχήμονος
άλεκτρυόνος μηδέν διοίsεις τοὺς τρόπους,
επὶ τἳ̑δ' επozουs', ὡς aν εκλέψῃς καλὸν
ἡμι̑ν τι καὶ θαυμαsτὸν εκ του̑δ' ὄρνεον.

‘Leda, 'tis thy task to assume all the habits of a graceful hen, brooding on this egg, so that from it thou mayst hatch for us a fowl most wondrous fair.’ Two allusions are found to Sparta, Leda's home, one44 of them a pun on spartinos, which means “made of rope”. With all this Pericles was in some way connected. Plutarch45 writes that the comic poets ridiculed Pericles because of his abnormally long head, and that Cratinus in Nemesis wrote: μόλ', Zευ̑ ξένιε καὶ καραιέ. (‘Come, O Zeus alien and headlong.’) What, and how vital, was the connexion between Pericles and the legend is uncertain. But the comic playwrights were fond of joking about his relations with Aspasia, who is sometimes represented as a Hera to his Zeus. It is an excellent conjecture,46 based partly on the word ξένιος (“alien”) just quoted, partly on the complicated birth of Helen, Zeus' child, that the whole play was a skit on the family affairs of Pericles, who (having lost his legitimate sons) had proposed the abrogation of the bastardy law so that he might adopt the son born to him by Aspasia. If so, the play can be dated with certainty at 429 b.c.

The Chirons (Kείρωνες) seems to have been regarded by Cratinus himself as his finest play. At the close he wrote:47

ταυ̑τα δυοι̑ν ετέοιν ἡμι̑ν μόλις εξεπονήθη,

‘this I hardly completed in two years,’ adding a challenge to all other poets to do as well in the whole of their lives. Its theme was that favourite topic, the baseness of to-day contrasted with the noble past. In Chirons, however, the difference appears to have been political only.48 These Chirons, who formed the chorus, were a multiplication of a single figure, the Centaur Chiron, famous for his immense knowledge and wisdom, which made him to Greek imagination a great instructor of youth. Early enough to be attributed to Hesiod, there existed a body of writing known as Chiron's Maxims, and it was as such mentors that the chorus appear:

sκη̑ψιν μεν Kείρωνες ελήλυμεν, ὡς ὑποθήκας(49) …

The passage breaks off because Hephæstion, who quotes it, is not interested in the speech or the play, but only in the fact that Cratinus used ελήλυμεν for εληλύθαμεν. ‘Ostensibly we Chirons have come so as to … maxims.’ They have been summoned to give sage advice, but their real purpose is … it may have been horse-play, or a comic song, or almost anything else. The reason for invoking their aid was disgust with the Periclean régime. Somewhere occurred a lyrical parody of legend:50

Στάsις δὲ καὶ πρεsβυγενὴς Κρόνος ἀλλήλοιsι μιγέντε
μέγιsτον τίκτετον τύραννον,
δν δὴ κεφαληγερέταν θεοὶ καλέουsιν.

‘Strife and primeval Cronos mingling together brought to brith a mighty monarch, him whom gods name the high-brow Jove.’ For this Athenian Zeus a consort was provided:51

‘′Ηραν τέ οἱ ‘Αsπαsίαν τίκτει Καταπυγοsύνη
παλλακὴν κυνώπιδα,

‘and to him (Cronos) Lewdness bare Hera-Aspasia, the concubine with the eyes of bitchery’. From the complaints against the rule of these deities comes apparently the phrase δωροδοκούντων αiξ οὐρανία, ‘the Horn of Plenty for bribe-takers’:52 this may be a general charge of corruption in politics, or may allude to Pericles' institution of payment for public services. That Strife is said to be his mother points to the bitter struggles—with Cimon, Thucydides, and others—by which he rose to primacy in Athens.

On the chance of remedying this corruption the malcontent (we are to suppose) summons Chiron, and finds his prayer lavishly answered by a whole squadron of cantering Centaurs, each bringing a battery of maxims. Later the malcontent (probably...

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Albin Lesky (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Lesky, Albin. “Political Comedy.” In A History of Greek Literature, translated by James Willis and Cornelis de Heer, pp. 417-21. London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1966.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in German in 1963, Lesky examines the subject matter and polemics of several of Cratinus's plays.]

If we were asked whether the Attic genius was most fully and characteristically shown in Sophocles or in Aristophanes, we should have to reply ‘In both’. Either by himself is only half the picture: to see it whole we must view together the sublime poetry of human suffering and the colourful extravagance of a comic invention which has never known a...

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Ralph M. Rosen (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Rosen, Ralph M. “Cratinus.” In Old Comedy and the Iambographic Tradition, pp. 37-58. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Rosen analyzes how Cratinus, by incorporating into his plays the elements of invective poetry, helped elevate the genre of comedy to a higher stylistic llevel.]

The evidence we have examined above suggests that the Athenian comic poets were aware of both the distinguishing poetic features of the Ionian iambos and the appropriateness of these features to their own genre. This awareness, moreover, reflected their realization that the satirical and antagonistic elements of their plays derived from an impulse fundamentally...

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Keith Sidwell (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Sidwell, Keith. “Poetic Rivalry and the Caricature of Comic Poets: Cratinus's Pytine and Aristophanes's Wasps.” In Stage Directions: Essays in Ancient Drama in Honour of E. W. Handley, edited by Alan Griffiths, pp. 56-80. London: Institute of Classical Studies, 1995.

[In the following essay, Sidwell argues that Aristophanes's Wasps and the second version of his Clouds are parodies of Catinus's Pytine, and that all three plays use caricature, politics, and the audience's familiarity with contemporary people and events to make their attacks effective]

Recent scholarship has been paying more attention to the other poets of...

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Michael Vickers (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Vickers, Michael. “Posthumous Parody in Cratinus's Dionysalexandros.” In Pericles on Stage, pp. 193-95. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Vickers argues that the Dionysalexandros was most likely written after Pericles's death.]

Cratinus' Dionysalexandros may be a posthumous lampoon of Pericles rather than one written and performed in the statesman's lifetime. “In the [Dionysalexandros] Pericles is satirized with great plausibility by means of émphasis, because he brought the war on the Athenians,”1 says the plot summary. The concept of “emphasis,” and its role in comedy,...

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Further Reading


Bowra, C. M. “The Antidote of Comedy.” In Landmarks in Greek Literature, pp. 191–95. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966.

Expolores Cratinus's importance in the development of early Greek comedy.

Hathorn, Richmond Y. “Cratinus.” In Crowell's Handbook of Classical Drama, pp. 98-99. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1967.

Brief summary of Cratinus's career and several of his works.

Trypanis, C. A. “The Golden Age of Old Comedy: Aristophanes and his Predecessors and Rivals.” In Greek Poetry: From Homer to Seferis, pp. 206-07. London: Faber and Faber, 1981....

(The entire section is 101 words.)