Mapping Ancient Comedy: Data, Limitations and Perspectives

Prof. Kaiti Diamantakou,  member of the NKUA team,  talks about Tragedy’s slightly younger sister, the Ancient Comedy, the way in which she and the NKUA team worked on the annotation ‘to a certain extent’ of its value, the conceptual richness and the first general conclusions that emerged from the related analysis.
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Mapping Ancient Comedy: Data, Limitations and Perspectives

I will refer from my side to Tragedy’s slightly younger sister, the Ancient Comedy, to the way in which I worked and we worked on the annotation ‘to a certain extent’ of its value and conceptual richness and to the first general conclusions that emerged from the statistical processing of the corresponding recorded words, lexemes, phrases, sentences or even longer periods of discourse. Elements which reflect to a certain extent both the worldview of Ancient Comedy and the worldview of the ancient Athenian city-state and the worldview of the modern global society that repeatedly refers back to this particular theatrical production, identifying convergences, analogies, and at the same time re-nominating its conceptual and value potential on the basis of its own perceptions, priorities and expectations.

Some preliminary and basic methodological remarks, related to the phrase ‘to a certain extent’ just mentioned above: At first, in order to annotate the values, ideas and concepts, our research interest focused exclusively on the first phase of Attic comedy, i.e. the so-called Old (archaίa) Comedy (490/480 – 400/380 BCE), which went hand in hand with and was shaped in parallel with the Tragedy of the early and mature Classical period, in the space of about a century: from 486 BC (when the comedy was introduced into the competitive framework of the Great Dionysia) until the first two decades of the 4th century (when we have the last works of this first –Old– phase of Attic comedy, before it passed into its second phase, the so-called Middle one. In other words, we have left out of the field of research (for the time being?) both the Middle Comedy (400/380 – 330/320 BC) and the New Comedy (330/320 – 2nd cent. BC), since they are the fruits of a later political, social and artistic era (the Late Classical/Post-classical and Hellenistic period), of which the only complete survived play is Menander’s (New) comedy Dyskolos (i.e. The Grouch or The Misanthrope). The annotation of this particular comedy was considered that it would not offer sufficient comparative data either as regards the genre of comedy per se (as a whole or as regards the specific period of the New Comedy) or as regards Tragedy (since no complete tragedy survives from the 4th century BCE onwards). On the other hand, its future annotation, together with the annotation of extensive fragments from the Middle or New phase of ancient drama (4th and 3rd centuries BC), could potentially bring to light interesting research data and thought-provoking impulses concerning the (different) conceptual and value constitution of Attic drama in the course of its development.

At the same time, from the whole of Ancient (see Old) Comedy we were forced to focus exclusively on the work of Aristophanes, which belongs to the late phase of Old Comedy (Aristophanes’ firs play, now lost, The Banqueters, was produced in 427 BCE) and covers half of the mature Classical Period (450 – 400/390 BCE). The first surviving Aristophanic comedy, the Acharnians, dates from 425 and the last chronologically extant comedy, Wealth, dates from around 388 – we keep in mind that the much older Aeschylus had died in 456 long before Aristophanes was born; Sophocles first appeared on the stage in 468 and died in 406/5; and Euripides first appeared on the stage in 455 and died in 406 BCE. The conceptual mapping of Ancient Comedy with reference exclusively to the work of Aristophanes (of which eleven complete samples survive) can thus offer interesting comparative observations in relation to Ancient Tragedy, especially with regard to the ‘contemporary’ perspectives of the two theatrical genres (Aristophanes coexists on the theatrical stage with Sophocles and Euripides from 427 to 405 BCE) and – much more precariously – as regards the ‘previous’ (before 427) and ‘posterior’ (after 405) convergences or divergences between the two genres in the mature and late classical period.

Methodological challenge I: Not only did we inevitably have to focus our annotation exclusively on Aristophanes (out of a much larger number of poets-representatives of the Old Comedy, of whom only extracts survive), but we also had to focus exclusively on his surviving work, i.e. on 11 comedies out of a total of 44. Certainly, the surviving ¼ of the total output is a very representative and convincing sample, however, the inclusion of other comedies from the remaining 33 if not drastically differentiating, would certainly broaden the conceptual and value spectrum of Ancient (see Aristophanic) Comedy. Let alone if we consider that among Aristophanes’ lost comedies were included many that had as their subject (or context of action) different religious-worship events (Amphiaraus, Polyidus, Telmessians, Seasons, Women at the Thesmophoria II, Women in Tents) or many comedies that parodied mythical themes or specific dramatic treatments of mythical themes (and their corresponding values, ideas and concepts) from tragedy (Danaids, Lemnian Women, Centaur, Phoenician Women, Aiolosicon, Anagvrus, Cocalus).

Methodological challenge II: The members of the NKUA research team, after a relevant discussion and on the basis of literary, theatrical, linguistic/philological, pedagogical, historical, sociological elements and criteria, we came to the selection of representative plays, which constituted the corpus of our research. If Aeschylus was annotated to the most representative degree (6/7 surviving tragedies), Aristophanes is the second best annotated author (compared to Sophocles: 4/7 tragedies and Euripides 3/19 plays). In the case of Aristophanes, 7 of his 11 complete extant comedies were selected (65% of the surviving total), first because they were considered to cover chronologically the whole range of Aristophanes’ extant production: starting with the comedies of the 1st phase: Acharnians 425 BCE and Peace 421 BCE, continuing with the comedies of the middle phase: Lysistrata and Women at the Thesmophoria of 411 BCE and Frogs of 405 BCE and ending with the two liminal comedies of the 4th century, The Assembly Women and Wealth, of 393/2 and 388 BCE respectively). Secondly, they were also considered to cover to a certain extent different thematic areas of Aristophanes’ work (‘political comedies’, such as The Acharnians, Peace and Lysistrata; ‘literary comedies’, such as Women at the Thesmophoria and Frogs; ‘social comedies’, such as the The Assembly Women and Wealth; ‘female comedies’, such as Lysistrata, Women at the Thesmophoria and The Assembly Women).

Despite this calculated and unquestionable representativeness of the selected corpus, on the other hand, it is certain that the annotation of the other 4 surviving comedies would to some extent (both quantitatively and qualitatively) differentiate the conceptual/axial map of the Aristophanic world, with the contributions that would have, for example, the intensely ‘anti-demagogic’ Equites or the focused on the Athenian judicial system Wasps or the focused on the educational system Clouds or the swinging between utopic, atopic and dystopic, human, subhuman and superhuman dimension Birds.

Another key challenge: as in the case of the Tragedy, the identification and corpus-based annotation of words, phrases and/or periods of speech, based on the three categories we had already established: (1. KEY / MAIN CONCEPTS / VALUES / IDEAS, 2. EXPANDED / VARIOUS CONTENT, 3. OPPOSITE CONCEPTS / CONCEPTUAL COUPLES / BIPOLARITIES) were carried out on the basis of the English translation of the corresponding (7) texts, extracted from the Perseus digital library database, i.e.:

  • Aristophanes. Acharnians. The Eleven Comedies. Anonymous. New York. Liveright 1922.
  •  Aristophanes. Peace. The Complete Greek Drama, vol. 2. Eugene O’Neill, Jr. New York. Random House. 1938.
  • Aristophanes. Women at the Thesmophoria. The Complete Greek Drama, vol. 2. Eugene O’Neill, Jr. New York. Random House. 1938.
  • Aristophanes, Lysistrata, with the English translation of Benjamin Bickley Rogers, Volume 3, Heinemann 1924.
  • Aristophanes. Frogs, with the English translation of Benjamin Bickley Rogers, Volume 2, Heinemann 1924.
  • Aristophanes. Ecclesiazusae. The Complete Greek Drama, vol. 2. Eugene O’Neill, Jr. New York. Random House 1938.
  • Aristophanes. Wealth. The Complete Greek Drama, vol. 2. Eugene O’Neill, Jr. New York. Random House 1938.

The use of English translation was a necessary and indispensable requirement in an international (interdisciplinary and non-philological) research project, where the entries and quantitative data (should) constitute easily accessible and comparatively manageable material for and by all members of the project. Moreover, the lexemes that make up our three main reference categories (1. KEY / MAIN CONCEPTS / VALUES / IDEAS, 2. EXPANDED / VARIOUS CONTENT, 3. OPPOSITE CONCEPTS / CONCEPTUAL COUPLES / BIPOLARITIES) are very clear and do not require any particular stylistic translation nuances. However, it is certain that between the original text and our annotation there was and is the mediating filter of (English) translation. Indeed, a specific (English) translation has its own lexical, stylistic, semantic, rhythmic choices, which certainly influence the recipient-reader’s response, especially with regard to the more extended passages and the broader textual sets (short phrases but also longer sentences, periods of discourse), which were marked in order to identify the connections of concepts/values/ideas and even of conceptual dipoles, in the context of cross-talks (stichomythia), verbal struggles (agon) or in the context of the comic parabasis.

Last but not least, both the compilation of the list of the three basic categories of reference and the annotation of dramatic plays on the basis of this list is the work of specific readers-receivers, with specific encyclopaedic and experiential equipment, with specific gender, age and social characteristics, who have identified specific concepts and values in specific spatio-temporal contexts of their lives and work. Differentiating the above variables would certainly vary the final result of the annotation quite a lot in terms of the ideological and value background of the specific reference plays. A cross-check of the results through the tagging of the same texts by third parties – a cross-check that the research team had envisaged from the beginning – has already shown that identical interpretations are not possible even in a very concrete and coherent ‘here and now’. Therefore, it will be very interesting to see the corresponding annotation of exactly the same plays after a period of time or at regular intervals, by many more other individuals of different age, language, nationality, religion, educational and social identity.

I will not refer redundantly here to our way of working on the annotation of ancient plays: that is, the initial identification of direct, explicit, usually one-word and much more ‘objective’ references to concepts, ideas, values, and then, the annotation of passages and verbal synapses with indirect, contextual, connotated, implied renderings of the concepts, ideas, values, dipoles, cases in which, in contrast to the above cases, the subjective interpretation of the verbal sets and the corresponding feelings or attitudes expressed by the speaking persons involved is to a much greater extent involved.

Very briefly some conclusions that emerged from this whole research process: The Key/main concepts/values/ideas that gathered the highest rates of identification in 7 of the 11 surviving Aristophanic comedies were Peace and Solidarity, while among the Opposite concepts/conceptual couples/bipolarities the highest rates were gathered next to generosity vs greed, punishment vs reward and tradition vs innovation).

In Aristophanes’ three ‘political comedies’ (The Acharnians, Peace, Lysistrata), set in different phases of the Peloponnesian War (from 425 to 411 BCE) the value of Peace is understandably overwhelmingly dominant, while to a high degree (mainly because of Lysistrata) the dramatic characters (as well as the poet and possibly the ancient audience) are concerned with issues related to female emancipation.

In Aristophanes’ so-called ‘female comedies’, on the other hand, despite the fact that the male/female dipole dominates the structural and linguistic organization of the comedies (as well as the value of Equality), Peace dominates as a value, mainly because of the anti-war Lysistrata of 411 BCE.

Among the three female comedies, Lysistrata certainly raises issues of female emancipation and power of motherhood, which are enriched in the case of the Women at the Thesmophoria (female speech, female oppression, female emancipation are key structural concepts of this comedy) and the Assembly Women (love/marital love), comedy which opens up the value perspective of ancient comedy to new additional perspectives (Equality is the first value, followed by Loyalty vs Disloyalty, Individuality/Collectivity – Individual vs Collective, Democracy, Reason/Political Correctness).

Similarly, the so-called ‘literary comedies’ (Women at the Thesmophoria, Frogs), despite the fact that they present –expectedly– conceptual statements related to the artistic production of the period and the reflection on it (Objectivity, Clarity vs Ambiguity, Social/Political Function of the Art, Appearance vs Reality), they are also indissolubly imbued with concepts and values concerning the overall function of the city-state (Piety, Solidarity, Equality, Freedom vs Slavery).

As for the two ‘social comedies’, which are the last of the extant Aristophanic production (The Assembly Women, Wealth), it is characteristic that they both focus on issues of social and economic equality (Equality & Generosity vs Greed are the first annotated values in the case of Wealth, Equality is also the first value of the Assembly Women, with Loyalty vs Disloyalty, Justice and Solidarity follow in good positions), which concern the author and his audience in this new phase of ancient Athens, after the end of the Peloponnesian War, the decline of democratic values, and in the midst of another civil war, the Boeotian or Corinthian War, which threatens not only politically but also economically ancient Athens.

In the case of Aeschylus’ 6/7 annotated tragedies, the predominant (by a wide margin) value is Justice, which is also the first value in the three Euripides annotated tragedies. In the case of Sophocles’ 4 annotated tragedies the two predominant values are Love among Siblings and Law of Gods/Law State. Peace appears in a low position only in the case of Euripides and not at all in the case of Aeschylus and Sophocles, in contrast to its predominant position in all of Aristophanes’ annotated comedies.

An obvious differentiation, possibly confirming the direct political function and interventionist commitment of Ancient Comedy, and indeed of the (anti-demagogue and pacifist) Aristophanes, which, in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, fights under the star of Peace, as opposed to Ancient Tragedy which, though flourishing in the aftermath of the Persian Wars, in the case of Aeschylus, and during a major civil war, the Peloponnesian one (in the case of Sophocles and Euripides), does not seem to intervene explicitly and programmatically in favour of the continuation or cessation of the war, but rather prefers to speak in a (sub)(con)notated, poetically refracted way, either about peace or about other issues of concern to the Athenian city-state. Conversely, despite the overwhelming ideological reinforcement of the value of Peace in Aristophanes’ work, his comedies, singly or in groups, open up a very broad conceptual, value and ideological territory, as Peace seems to be accompanied by many other presuppositions (Solidarity, Equality, Justice, Piety, et al.).

In conclusion: The annotation of Aristophanes’ comedies was, is and will be a fascinating immersion into a very rich conceptual, value and ideological world, with many references to many key issues concerning a favoured and as inclusive as possible democratic city, which seems from classical antiquity to modern post-modernity to face correspondingly, mutatis mutandis, issues and problems (about justice, equality, dialogue, peace, solidarity, moral and institutional justice, gender and social-class conflict et al.). The comparative correlation of these data with other literary loads from different spatio-temporal, cultural and ideological contexts is also a fascinating process and multiply revealing of the breadth of human experience and thought. But this will probably be the subject of another concluding workshop of the Vast Programme, which I hope will be expanded and grown further with another future collaborative opportunity. Thank you.



I would like to thank warmly, the head of the NKUA team of the VAST project, Professor Emeritus Mr. Theodore Grammatas, for the truly broad and wide-ranging research insight, managerial flexibility and practical effectiveness that our cooperation has offered me as life knowledge during these three years. I also thank all members of the NKUA research team, dear colleagues and young researchers, with whom we have also cooperated in great harmony, mutual appreciation and creative unanimity or dissent, in a complicated and demanding field, such as that of the search and annotating of the values that first settled in ancient Greek dramaturgy and then emerged, mutated but still valid and applicable, in different artistic contexts. Finally, I thank all the members of all the research teams of the VAST project, with whom I feel that there was and is a strong ‘sympathy’ and ‘like-mindedness’ in our common parallel struggle to float in the different cultural and grammatical waters of each territory, in which we ‘dived’ and ‘swam’ endurance races under the guidance of each coach.


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