Aristophanes Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

0111201513-Aristophanes.jpg Aristophanes (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Greek playwright{$I[g]Greece;Aristophanes} The highly entertaining plays of Aristophanes provide the only extant examples of Old Comedy. His writings reveal much about not only dramaturgy in late fifth century b.c.e. Athens but also the social, political, and economic conditions of the time.

Early Life

The son of Philippos, who may have been a landowner in Aegina, Greece, Aristophanes (ar-uh-STAHF-uh-neez) was born in Athens about 450 b.c.e. Though little is known about his early life, he was clearly well educated, for his plays quote or allude to many sources. These works also suggest a deep interest in public affairs, and Aristophanes was to serve as representative of his district on the Athenian Council.

His literary ability became apparent quite early: When he was between seventeen and twenty-three years old, he began participating in the annual dramatic competitions in Athens. The Lenaian Dionysia, or Lenaia, held in Gamelion (January-February), was devoted largely to comedies, whereas the Great, or City, Dionysia, established in 536 b.c.e. and celebrated in Elaphebalion (March), presented tragedies but also offered three comic plays. Both festivals were religious as well as literary, honoring Dionysus, the god of wine, who was associated with agriculture in general.

The comedies derived both their name and purpose from the ancient komos, or procession of rejoicing in the vital forces of nature, which supposedly drove away evil spirits and guaranteed continued fertility of the land and its inhabitants. Bawdy jokes and costumes that include large phalluses constituted part of the ritual, as did the gamos, or sexual union, that frequently concluded the plays. Similarly, the mockery of prominent political or cultural figures served as a liberating force that temporarily gave free rein to irrational and suppressed urges; such antics were connected with the madness of intoxication. To these satiric and sexual elements, Aristophanes added a lyricism rivaling that of any other Hellenic poet. An excellent example appears in the parabasis (choral interlude) of Ornithes (c. 414; The Birds, 1824), which begins with a summoning of the nightingale:

Musician of the Birds
Come and sing
honey-throated one!
Come, O love,
flutist of the Spring,
accompany our song.

The Chorus then presents a myth of the creation of the world through the power of Love, all told in lyrical anapests.

Only a fragment survives of Aristophanes’ first play, Daitalēis (banqueters), which won second prize at the Lenaia of 427, yet the remains suggest that the dramatist already was treating an issue that would become important in his more mature writing. Though still a young man, he attacked Athenian youth and their new ways, especially modern modes of education. An old man sends one son to the city, while the other remains in the country. The former learns only to eat, drink, and sing bawdy songs; his body is no better trained than his mind. When he returns home, he is too weak to work and no longer cares whether he does.

Babylōnioi (Babylonians), another lost play, was produced at the Great Dionysia of 426 and won first prize. Cleon, the Athenian demogogue then in power, had undertaken a policy of mass terror to force Athens’s allies to support its military efforts against Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. As a believer in peace and pan-Hellenism, Aristophanes attacked Cleon’s measures. Cleon responded by taking Aristophanes to court. Despite the playwright’s claim in his next comedy that during the proceedings he almost “gave up the ghost,” he does not seem to have been punished severely, if at all. As is evident from his next plays, he was undeterred from speaking out against war and against Cleon.

Life’s Work

Acharnēs (The Acharnians, 1812), which in 425 won first prize at the Lenaia, continues to attack Cleon’s war policy. When the demigod Amphitheus raises the question of peace in the Athenian assembly, he is ejected. Dikaiopolis (which means “Honest Citizen” or “Just City”), a refugee farmer whose land has been ravaged by war, supports this pacific plea and sends Amphitheus to Sparta to negotiate a separate peace for himself. When the demigod returns with a thirty-year treaty, the Acharnians attack him. These old men, represented by the Chorus, have suffered in the war, but they want revenge, not peace. Dikaiopolis must defend his views while he rests his head on a chopping block, so that if he fails to persuade the Chorus that his policy is best, they can kill him at once. His speech divides the old men, who resolve to summon Lamachos, a general, to argue the matter further. The agon, or debate, ensues, allowing Aristophanes to present further arguments against the war. The Chorus finally sides with Dikaiopolis, but Lamachos leaves, vowing eternal resistance.

The farmer now sets up a market. While the play shows him prospering through peace, it also reveals the hardships of war. For example, a Megarian has become so impoverished that he is willing to sell his daughters for a pittance. The final scenes highlight the contrast between the policies of Cleon and Aristophanes: Lamachos returns from war, wounded, just as Dikaiopolis, victorious in a drinking bout, appears with two young women to celebrate wine and fertility, the gifts of Dionysus and peace.

In Hippēs (424; The Knights, 1812), which took first prize at the Lenaia, Aristophanes again attacks Cleon. A lost play, Holkades, presented at the next Lenaia, is still another attack on Cleon. Then, at the Great Dionysia, Aristophanes turned his attention to a different subject in Nephelai (423; The Clouds, 1708). Strepsiades (Twisterson) has fallen deeply in debt because of the extravagance of his wife and the gambling of his horse-loving son, Pheidippides. To cheat his creditors, Strepsiades resolves to send the youth to the Phrontisterion (Thinkery), the local academy run by Socrates, who can make the weaker side appear the stronger. When Pheidippides refuses to attend, his father enrolls instead. Despite his best efforts, the father cannot grasp the new learning, and at length his son agrees to enter the academy.

Now Pheidippides must choose a mentor; Dikaios Logos (Just Cause) and Adikos Logos (Unjust Cause) offer themselves, and to help Pheidippides choose they engage in a debate, or agon. Dikaios Logos speaks for the old morality and simple life, but when Adikos Logos advocates skepticism and amorality, even Dikaios Logos is...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Very little is known of Aristophanes’ life; most of what is known has been gleaned from his plays and is therefore vague or uncertain because of the comic content. The only evidence for his birthdate is the fact that he was “very young” when his first play was produced in 427 b.c.e. His first three plays were produced by another man, but it is not known whether this was because of a legal age limit, Aristophanes’ inexperience, or simple preference (some of his later plays were also produced by others). He belonged to the deme (township) of Kudathenaion, and his father’s name was Philippos. Nothing is known, however, of the family’s social or economic status. A line in The...

(The entire section is 673 words.)


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

The plays of Aristophanes contained scathing attacks on prominent Athenian personalities, as well as on the state of Athens itself, and were therefore controversial and subjected to censorship. He was a contemporary and, perhaps, a friend of Socrates, although his play The Clouds ridiculed Socrates and may have contributed to the philosopher’s downfall. His plays, invariably witty, contain an odd combination of political satire, scatology, and sexual humor. In the Lysistrata, for example, written during war with Sparta, the women of Athens agree not to have sex with their husbands until the men stop fighting. The plot provides much occasion for sexual innuendo and explicit...

(The entire section is 1023 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Aristophanes (ar-uh-STAHF-uh-neez) was born in Athens, Greece, around 450 b.c.e., to parents Philippos and Zenodora. The date of Aristophanes’ birth assumes he was at least nineteen years old when his first play, Daitalis (banqueters), was produced in 427 b.c.e. by Kallistratos; he would have had to be that age to understand the requirements of the competition and to develop the requisite writing skill. That he was not yet old enough to have produced that play himself, a task assumed only in 424 b.c.e. with the production of Hipps (The Knights, 1812) after several successful plays, would seem to vouch for the...

(The entire section is 473 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Over a forty-year period, Aristophanes wrote at least forty plays whose titles are known, and in five instances he rewrote earlier plays. Of this number, only eleven plays survive in their complete form. Yet within these complete plays are some of the finest examples of Greek lyric, so that alongside his contemporary, the tragic poet Euripides, Aristophanes is remembered as a master of Attic poetry.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Aristophanes (ar-uh-STAHF-uh-neez) is considered the greatest writer of Greek comedy, and his plays have been produced for centuries because of their wit, comic invention, poetic language, and characterization. Politically, Aristophanes was noted for his aristocratic, rather than democratic, views of government. Very little is known of the life of Aristophanes; even the dates given for his birth and death vary as much as five to ten years. His parents were Philippus and Zenodora, and their son was born into the Athenian township of Cydathenaeon of the tribe Pandionis. The father was a landowner in Aegina, which gave the young playwright certain status, and he may even have owned land at a young age. He may not have been out of his...

(The entire section is 912 words.)


(Drama for Students)

Little is known of Aristophanes, except that his father, who was from Athens, may have been a property owner. When Aristophanes was born,...

(The entire section is 372 words.)