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Aristophanes’ Ecclesizusae and the Remaking of the patrios politeia

Alan Sheppard

Memorably described by Gilbert Murray in 1933 as the ‘literature of fatigue,’ Ecclesiazusae has commonly been presented as lacking the political cutting edge of its predecessors. Viewed as a product of Aristophanes’ declining powers and performed at a time when interest in political ‘Old Comedy’ was supposedly on the wane, Ecclesiazusaes engagement with the political questions of post-war Athens has been largely ignored.  Aside from Ober’s 1998 discussion of the play in the context of political dissent and debates over the role of law and persuasion in post-war Athens, the few discussions of Ecclesiazusae in its wider context (Ussher, 1973; Sommerstein, 1998) have tended to view the play in the context of potential links to Plato’s Republic or as an intermediary step towards the less political ‘Middle Comedy.’  This paper argues that contemporary Athenian politics were no less important for Ecclesiazusae than Aristophanes’ earlier works.

Part I argues that Aristophanes hints at but rejects the possibility that the women’s plan represents another oligarchic coup. The description of the women as hetairai (Ar. Eccl. 23, 528), echoing Thucydides’ and Xenophon’s descriptions of oligarchic factions, and references to the time when no assemblies were convened at all (Ar. Eccl. 183-4) raise the shadow of oligarchy. Yet Aristophanes is careful to offset this through, using suitably democratic language in the women's assembly at the beginning of Ecclesiazusae and having the women elect Praxagora as general, casting her in the role of democratic leader rather than oligarch (Ar. Eccl. 246).  Aristophanes’ reluctance to put oligarchic factions on the Athenian stage further testifies to the enduring impact of the stasis and subsequent Amnesty but evidence from the scholiasts suggests that comic silence in the case of certain extraordinary events was not unprecedented (Halliwell, 1991), and Ecclesiazusae’s treatment of this problem should not therefore be taken as evidence for a limited engagement with political life.

Part II of the paper argues that the women’s concern with archaion nomon and their traditional way of life (Ar. Eccl. 214-40) taps into contemporary discussions surrounding the reform of the laws and constitution. The competing claims of the characters in the second half of the play illustrate the problems associated with invoking tradition and the patrios politeia since both Praxagora’s supporters and their opponents invoke what the term in support of their own views (e.g. Ar. Eccl. 586-7, 778).  Building on Ober (1998), I argue that Aristophanes’ use of both psephisma and nomos engages in the debate over legal reform in Athens and further complicates the outcome of Praxagora’s actions.

Praxagora’s appeals to tradition and the focus on legal and constitutional reform cast her in the role of a Solonic lawgiver who remakes the constitution. This is a drastic change, even by Aristophanes' standards, since nowhere else in the surviving plays is it suggested that the structures of male-citizen democracy cease to exist.  The language of constitutional reform exposes a dissatisfaction not with any one democratic leader but the workings of the demos itself.  Despite invoking tradition, Praxagoa ushers in a new constitution, exposing both the worthlessness of appeals to the patrios politeia and the ineffectiveness of the Athenian demos.  This change is acceptable only because Aristophanes portrays Praxagora as a democratic reformer of the constitution rather than as a proto-oligarch.

In conclusion, Ecclesiazusae reflects its contemporary political context both through what Aristophanes mentions and omits: the fact that the play does not focus on any one komodoumenos should not blind readers to the close engagement of Ecclesiazusae with contemporary Athenian issues.  Thus, on a wider level, this paper questions the implicit periodisation of Attic Comedy and builds on recent analyses of comic fragments (Olson, 2007; Rusten, 2011) to argue that closely engaged political comedy did not end with Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War.  Ecclesiazusae can not support the idea that the transition from ‘Old’ to ‘Middle’ comedy was a move away from political comedy.  

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Politics and Parody in Old Comedy

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