Menander Additional Biography


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

Article abstract: Greek dramatist{$I[g]Greece;Menander (dramatist)} Noted for his careful plotting, his accurate depiction of middle-class society, and his sympathetic treatment of character, Menander is considered the finest writer of Greek New Comedy.

Early Life

Although there is some disagreement about the exact date of his birth, Menander (muh-NAN-dehr) was probably born in 342 in Athens, Greece. His father was Diopeithes of Cephisia. Menander’s family was evidently involved in both the social and the cultural life of Athens. His uncle Alexis was an important playwright in the tradition of Middle Comedy; he had some two hundred plays to his credit. Menander attended the lectures of Theophrastus, who had succeeded Aristotle as head of the Peripatetic school and who was also a notable writer, now known chiefly for his Charactēres ethikōi (c. 319 b.c.e.; Characters, 1616), sketches of human types, which undoubtedly influenced Menander and the other dramatists of New Comedy.

Like all Athenian men, between the ages of eighteen and twenty Menander served a year in the military. It was at that time that he became a close friend of Epicurus, whose philosophy was influential in Menander’s works. Another of Menander’s early friends was important in his later life: Demetrius of Phalerum, a fellow student. When Menander was in his mid-twenties, Demetrius was appointed by the Macedonians as ruler of Athens. During the following decade, Demetrius constructed magnificent buildings in the city and drew the most brilliant and talented men of Athens to his court. Among them was Menander, who was already recognized as a playwright, having written his first work when he was nineteen or twenty.

The bust that has been identified as that of Menander suggests what an addition he would have been to the court of Demetrius. The classic features, well-defined profile, penetrating eyes, and strong jaw testify to strength of mind and character; the sensitive mouth and wavy hair soften the general impression. All in all, he was a strikingly handsome man.

When Demetrius fell, Menander is said to have been in some danger, and he was offered the protection of Ptolemy Soter if he would follow his friend Demetrius to Alexandria, Egypt. The playwright declined, however, as he also is said to have declined an invitation to Macedonia, and he spent the remainder of his life in Athens.

Life’s Work

In somewhat more than thirty years, Menander wrote some one hundred comedies. Most of his work, however, has been lost. Until 1905, he was represented primarily by hundreds of lines quoted by other writers and by the four plays of Plautus and four others of Terence that were based on certain of his lost plays. Then, a fifth century c.e. papyrus book was discovered in Egypt; it contains one-third to one-half of three of Menander’s plays, Perikeiromenē (314-310 b.c.e.; The Girl Who Was Shorn, 1909), Epitrepontes (after 304 b.c.e.; The Arbitration, 1909), and Samia (321-316 b.c.e.; The Girl from Samos, 1909). In 1958, another papyrus book was found in a private collection in Geneva; it holds not only a complete play, Dyskolos (317 b.c.e.; The Bad-Tempered Man, 1921, also known as The Grouch), but also half of Aspis (c. 314 b.c.e.; The Shield, 1921) and the almost complete text of The Girl from Samos.

Because so much of Menander’s work is lost, and because the dating of those plays and fragments that have survived is very uncertain, it is difficult to analyze the playwright’s development. It is known that his first work was written about 322 b.c.e. The only complete play that has survived, The Bad-Tempered Man, is an early one, performed in 317, which incidentally was the year that another of Menander’s plays, now lost, won for him his first prize.

In The Bad-Tempered Man one can see the careful plot construction and the realistic but sympathetic treatment of characters for which Menander was noted. The title character of the play is Cnemon, a misanthrope whose wife has left him because of his nasty temper and who lives alone with his daughter and a servant, while his virtuous stepson lives nearby. In the prologue to the play, the god Pan announces that he intends to punish Cnemon because he has offended against the principles Pan prizes, in particular good fellowship and love. It is not surprising, then, that this comedy, like Menander’s other plays, must move toward suitable marriages, which symbolize reconciliation and which sometimes are accompanied by the reform of an...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Little of the information or gossip that has survived has a direct bearing on Menander’s work. The Suda (a literary and historical encyclopedia compiled around the end of the tenth century c.e. and preserving, albeit in corrupt form, much ancient scholarship) describes him as an Athenian of good family, son of Diopeithes and Hegestrate. The comedian Alexis (by some accounts his maternal uncle) is said to have taught him his craft, and Diogenes Laertius says that he studied philosophy under Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor as head of the Peripatetic school. Although politically inactive himself, his political associations with the oligarchic faction in Athens brought his career and even his person into danger on at least one occasion. A scholiast to Ovid’s Ibis (after 8 c.e.; English translation, 1859) preserves the story that he died by drowning while swimming at the Piraeus. Plutarch reports that he was at the height of his powers when he died. A well-to-do family background fits the subjects of Menander’s plays, who are generally prosperous citizens and their associates, slaves, concubines, and parasites. The connection with Theophrastus is also plausible: Theophrastus’s sketches of eccentric types in Charaktres (fourth century b.c.e.; The Characters, 1699) are sometimes very close to Menandrian personalities, and there is a general assumption of Peripatetic beliefs about motivation and conduct in the plays.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

With the work of Menander (muh-NAN-dur), born in Athens in 342 b.c.e., Greek New Comedy came into being. New Comedy involved plays in which such devices as the chorus and intervention by the gods were replaced by themes of commonplace Athenian life, treated with subtle humor. Through his influence on such Romans as Plautus and Terence (who was even called “Half-Menander,”) Menander determined the form of later comedies of manners. From Homer he took his “call of the blood” theme (the recognition of lost relatives), but his thematic treatments of a good woman sinned against and of a man reformed by a woman’s love were of his own devising.

Menander was the son of wealthy Athenians, Diopeithes and Hegesistrate. The tyrant Demetrius of Phalerum was his classmate while he studied with Theophrastus, the successor to Aristotle in the Peripatetic school and the author of thirty vivid character sketches (The Flatterer, The Grumbler, and others). Because of his wealth, Menander could choose his own career. He decided to follow his playwright uncle Alexis. His first play, Anger, was written in 321 b.c.e., but he failed in the annual drama contests until 316 b.c.e. During his lifetime he wrote more than one hundred dramas, with the titles of eighty recorded, but he won the wreath only eight times. It has been charged that his most successful competitor, Philemon, though greatly inferior, had influence with the judges.

Though Menander was invited by Ptolemy Soter to Alexandria and was urged to visit Macedonia, he remained in Athens until his death by drowning in the Bay of Phalerum in 291 b.c.e. He was buried beside Euripides. After his death Menander was considered the best representative not only of New Comedy but also of Greek comedy as a whole. For a long time, his work was considered wholly lost, but discoveries of papyrus in Alexandria and Cairo have allowed Gilbert Murray and others to reconstruct his plays of intrigue.