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Comedy Repurposed: Evidence for Comic Performances in the Second Sophistic and Aristides’ On the Banning of Comedy

Anna Peterson

It is undeniable that the theater scene in the imperial period included the increasingly popular genres of mime and pantomime (Webb 2008) as well as the reprisal of scenes from Greek tragedy (Jones 1993, Gildenhard / Revermann 2010). Notably absent from this picture is comedy, with few challenging the assumption that productions of comedy fell by the wayside in the centuries following the success of Plautus and Terence. Instead, previous discussions of comedy’s place in the Second Sophistic have focused largely on the general preference for Aristophanes among the educated elite (Bowie 2007), the formative role that his texts play in Lucian’s literary persona (Branham 1989), and the anxiety they inspired in Plutarch (Hunter 2009). The exceptions to this trend are Veyne (1989), who interprets Dio Chrysostom’s reference to theatrical performances in Or.32 (ταῖς κωμῳδίαις καὶ διασκευαῖς, 94) as evidence of comic revivals, and Jones (1993), who raises the possibility of the continued production of comedy through a collection of literary and epigraphic evidence. This paper builds on the work of Veyne and Jones by reconsidering the question of continued performance of comedy in the Second Sophistic. My discussion will combine epigraphic evidence, including inscriptions not covered in Jones’ discussion, with a close examination of the literary evidence, specifically Aristides’ On the Banning of Comedy. This evidence, as I will contend, suggests not only that comedy continued to be produced and performed, but also that it possibly followed the models of both Old and New Comedy. Furthermore, taking this evidence into account requires a new approach to discussions of comedy found among our literary sources as not simply literary showpieces but as potentially reflecting a larger conversation about the role of comedy in their contemporary society.

I begin with an analysis of six inscriptions, which record several comic victories in the Greek east from the first through the third century CE. In addition to bearing witness to the continued production of comedy, they distinguish between new productions of comedy (καινὴς κωμωιδίας) and revivals (παλαιᾶς κωμωιδίας) of what is most often assumed to be New Comedy (Nervegna 2007). Several of the inscriptions, however, vary from this formula, denoting revivals instead with the adjective ἀρχαία. While Jones (1993) interprets ἀρχαία as a synonym for παλαιά, I will suggest that ἀρχαία, which often refers specifically of Old Comedy, allows for the possibility that Old Comedy continued to be revived, in some form or another, into the second century CE.

In the second half of my paper, I will demonstrate how these inscriptions invite a more complicated reading Aristides’ On the Banning Comedy than has previously been offered. Delivered sometime between 157 and 165 CE at Smyrna, this speech counters a suggestion that comic performances be added to the city’s Dionysia on the grounds that they display both an unsavory style of humor, which fails to honor the god, and a tendency towards ad hominem attacks that threaten Smyrna’s citizenry. Although Aristides does not directly label which style of comedy is being performed, his description of their style of humor suggests a form akin to Old Comedy (Bowie 2007) and is thematically similar to Plato’s critique of mimetic poetry (Behr 1981). In considering Aristides’ anxiety about the role of comedy in society, I will argue that

Aristides borrows the framework of Plato’s critiques of mimetic poetry not to attack comic poetry as a whole, but rather poor imitations of it. Aristides’ concern for the bastardization of comedy stands in contrast to other discussions of comedy at this time, most notably Plutarch’s that debate the value of Menander over Aristophanes and seemingly ignore the contemporary scene. Read in light of the inscriptional evidence, I will argue that discussions of comedy, such as that of Aristides, are not merely academic, but are responding to trends in the contemporary theatrical world.

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Greek Comedy in the Roman Empire

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