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Sophocles, Polemon and fifth-century comedy

Sebastiana Nervegna

In his biography of Polemon of Athens, the head of the Academy from 313 to 269, Diogenes Laertius comments on Polemon’s fondness for Sophocles (4.19-20):

He also loved Sophocles, particularly in those passages where it seemed as if, in the words of the comic poet, ‘a Molossian dog co-authored’ ( κύων τις ἐδόκει συμποιεῖν Μολοττικός) his plays with him, and where the poet was, according to Phrynicus, ‘neither bland nor doctored but Pramnian’ (οὐ γλύξις οὐδ' ὑπόχυτος, ἀλλὰ Πράμνιος). Thus he would call Homer the epic Sophocles and Sophocles the tragic Homer.

Radt divided this passage into two testimonia, which he placed under the headings ‘Sophocles Ὁμηρικός’ and ‘Cetera’ (Soph. TrGF T 115a, 144). This editorial edition is probably the main reason why the two comic fragments quoted by Polemon have been largely forgotten in scholarly discussions of both Sophocles and Old Comedy. My intention is to examine both fragments and to place them within the reception of Sophocles in Classical Athens and beyond. As being critical of Sophocles and his plays, they run contrary to the ‘consistently favorable attitude towards Sophocles’ in fifth-century comedy (Olson 2007: 211; see also Sommerstein 1996: 345). They also provide evidence for both the survival and the use of comic ridicule of Sophocles in Early-Hellenistic Athens.

          Explicitly ascribed to Phrynichus, the second fragment draws on the well-attested association between poetry and wine to compare Sophocles’ drama to Pramnian wine. Aristophanes shows the comparison to be negative. After describing Pramnian wine as ‘neither sweet nor thick, but dry, harsh and outstanding in power,’ Aristophanes adds that ‘the Athenians do not like it. [They] dislike both poets who are harsh and stiff and Pramnian wines that contract the eyebrows and the stomach. They prefer a fragrant wine, ripe and dripping with nectar’ (Ar. PCG F 688; Ath 1.30 b-c). Ascribed to Aristophanes by Kassel and Austin (PCG F 958), the first fragment cited by Polemon brings together Sophocles and a Molossian mastiff by using the language of poetic collaboration (συμποιεῖν, see Halliwell 1989). Since Molossian dogs are famous for their ferocity (e.g,, Ar. Thesm. 416-7, Arist. HA 608a28-31, Lucr. 5. 1063-6), the implication is that there was something aggressive and wild in Sophocles’ drama, but the exact details are hard to pinpoint. I offer two interpretations: (i) vituperative debates such as those in Antigone (626-766), Oedipus the King (300-462) and Oedipus at Colonus (I254-446); and (ii) discordant songs following the New Musical trends with which Sophocles too engaged (see Wilson 2009;  Power 2012).

          Polemon was unconventional in his poetical taste, for he most appreciated in Sophocles’ drama those features ridiculed by comic poets. By preferring the Sophoclean passages written in an atypical style, Polemon does seem to emphasize stylistic variation in Sophocles’ tragedy. This variation is probably key to the comparison that he draws between Sophocles and Homer, two authors often celebrated for their mastery of all styles by later critics (Dion. Hal. Comp. 22-4 is the locus classicus). Polemon was neither the only fan of Sophocles in Early-Hellenistic Athens, nor was he the only ancient author to turn Sophocles’ perceived or real faults into merits. Longinus’ On the Sublime offers the closest parallel. In discussing noble words as a source for the sublime, Longinus illustrates the difference between genius and faultlessness by referring to Greek lyric and tragedy (33):

Consider lyric poetry: would you rather be Bacchylides or Pindar? And in tragedy, Ion of Chios or, by god, Sophocles? Ion and Bacchylides are faultless and accomplished writers in the smooth style, while Pindar and Sophocles sometimes burn everything in their vehemence, often absurdly lose their fire and fall most pitifully. Nobody in his senses would trade one single play, Oedipus, for all of Ion’s works put together.

Like Polemon, Longinus was aware of Sophocles’ shortcomings. Like Polemon, Longinus put them too into service to celebrate Sophocles’ genius.

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Comedy and Comic Receptions

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