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History, Memory, and the soteria Theme in Aristophanes' Ecclesiazusae

Robert Tordoff

This paper explores a new, historicizing reading of a major theme in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae. The term soteria (broadly ‘deliverance’; for its semantic range: Faraone 1997:56-7) occurs more times in this play than anywhere else in Aristophanes, but the absence of a sufficiently heightened sense of crisis in the period of the play’s production (probably between 393 and 390: Ussher 1973:xx-xxv; Seager 1967:107n.110; cf. Sommerstein 1998:5-7) and the its vagueness about the reason for the need for soteria (cf. Ober 1998:150) have puzzled historians and literary critics alike.

At Eccl. 23 Praxagora makes a joke, yet to be satisfactorily explained, about one Phyromakhos, adding the words ei memnesth’ eti (‘if you still remember that’). Commentators have rejected identification with LGPN2 (basileus in the late C5: IG i3 1384) on grounds of lack of contemporary topicality, suggesting moreover that historical references in the play only go back as far as the final years of the Athenian Empire (e.g. Sommerstein 1998:160). This paper argues that Praxagora’s joke in her prologue speech is pointedly programmatic and that Ecclesiazusae here and elsewhere encourages its audience to remember the past stretching back not only to 403 (as at 95-7; cf. Scholtz 2007:71-109) but as far as 411. That Praxagora’s reforms are introduced through female conspiracy, the very terms in which Aristophanes had anticipated the oligarchic machinations of 411 in Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae, is not simply generic comic poetics but a provocatively historical frame of reference.

This is demonstrated by comparison of the importance of soteria in Ecclesiazusae and the main accounts of the revolution of 411 (Thuc. 8.53.2, 53.3, 54.1, 72.1, 75.3, 81.1, 86.3; Ath. Pol. 29.2). The word occurs more in Thucydides 8 than any other book and seems to have been a key term of oligarchic propaganda (Bieler 1951; cf. Heftner 2001:64). Analysis of soteria in Aristophanes shows that the word, when applied to individuals, connotes mortal danger (e.g. Wasps 369) but has a less urgent sense of ‘security’ or even ‘being fit for purpose’ when used of large groups or institutions (e.g. Birds 879; cf. Thuc. 7.12.3, 6.23.4). The oligarchs’ deliberate obfuscation of its sense in 411 was probably instrumental in engineering the vote at Kolonos and the mollification of the democrats on Samos. The prominence of soteria in Ecclesiazusae is, then, no accident but a deliberate textual strategy closely connecting Praxagora’s fictive abolition of democracy with its historical abandonment in 411.

In this light two further features of the play are illuminated, which illustrate and develop the argument that the play was designed to be understood by an audience with tacit historical knowledge of the constitutional development of Athenian democracy over the preceding twenty years. Most importantly, the significance of written law in the notorious Epigenes scene (1011-22, 1049-51, 1077-90) is an ironic reflection of the systematic investigation and inscription of Athenian laws and calendars (Ostwald 1986: esp. 405-11; Rhodes 1991; Robertson 1990) originally motivated by the events of 411 and still bitterly contested in the 390s (e.g. Lys. 30). Moreover, Ecclesiazusae’s ridicule of Agyrrhios’ introduction and increase of assembly pay (186-8, 289-311), a major topic in the play, acquires a new dimension of significance, since polis revenues and the abolition of pay for most offices were of paramount importance to the Four Hundred and the Five Thousand in 411 (Thuc. 8.53, 65.3; cf. 69.4; Ath. Pol. 29.5, 33.1). In summary, a layer of historical irony in Ecclesiazusae has gone unexplored: in dramatizing a gynaecocratic, communistic revolution as an ‘ultra-democratic’ solution to Athens’ problems of inequality and poverty, Aristophanes has mordantly echoed the oligarchic coup d’état of twenty years before. The effect of the interplay of the political and libidinal desires for equality in all things and the satisfaction of those desires in terms that smack of the oligarchy of 411, is to appeal to the broadest possible range of political affiliations in the complex social struggles of 390s Athens.

Session/Panel Title

Politics and Parody in Old Comedy

Session/Paper Number

59.3

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