Plato Comicus and the Evolution of Greek Comedy

Ralph M. Rosen
University of Pennsylvania free e book
In tracing the formal changes in comic drama from the fifth to the fourth centuries, it is common to point to such things as the waning role of the chorus and parabasis, an increasing subordination of lyric elements, and a tendency towards more coherent, unified plots.1 But changes in subject matter, topoi, themes and tone are more difficult to ascertain, especially in light of the wholly fragmentary nature of the comedy that survives from the period between Aristophanes and Menander. Handbooks tell us that along with the decline of the Athenian polis at the end of the fifth century, such hallmarks of Old Comedy as personal invective, obscene language and political satire also disappeared. But such generalizations obviously stem from the careless assumption that fourth-century comedy must have been more like Menander than Aristophanes. In fact, when one looks at the comic fragments from the middle decades of the
fourth century, it is striking just how many elements normally associated with Old Comedy appear.2 Still, however artificial and imprecise the labels we assign to literary movements may be, most scholars would agree that they remain constructs useful for organizing the undifferentiated material history leaves us.
In the case of Greek comedy the general division between the “Old” and the “New” began at least as early as Aristotle, who could speak at EN 1128a22 of palaiã and kainÆ comedy.
Exactly which poets Aristotle would include under these rubrics remains uncertain, especiallyù since it is likely that he considered at least some of Aristophanes’ plays to be “new” and it was only at the end of Aristotle’s lifetime that the chief representative of our so-called “New Comedy,” Menander, began his rise to prominence.3 The tripartite distinction of comedy as we
know it (Old: to the death of Aristophanes; Middle: early fourth century to Menander; New: Menander and beyond) probably originated in Hellenistic scholarship, but even so, as Heinz-Günther Nesselrath has meticulously discussed in his recent book on Middle Comedy, there was often considerable disagreement in antiquity about which poets belonged to what period. free e book