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Rewriting the Conversion of Knemon in Menander’s "Dyskolos": Aelian’s "Letter" 15

Emilio Carlo Maria Capettini

Letters 13-16 of Aelian’s Epistulae rusticae well exemplify how creatively Greek authors of the Imperial period approached canonical texts from the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. In these four epistles Aelian presents to the reader the correspondence between two characters of Menander’s Dyskolos: the “grouch” Knemon and his neighbor Kallippides. The hypothesis of the dependence of this epistolary exchange on Menander’s comedy, brilliantly formulated by Charles Graux in 1877, was confirmed when the complete text of the Dyskolos, discovered in one of the Bodmer papyri (P. Bodmer 4), was published by Victor Martin in 1958. Since then, scholars have focused on detailing how Aelian appropriated and transformed the Menandrean model (Thyresson 1964; Guida 2004). However, one important connection between the narration of Knemon’s conversion in the Dyskolos and Letter 15 has not been noticed yet. In this paper I will show that recovering such a connection not only sheds further light on Aelian’s intertextual technique but also enables us to fully appreciate his amused critique of the idea that the character of human beings can truly change.

Letter 15 contains Kallippides’ invitation to Knemon to attend a sacrifice for Pan. Whereas in the Dyskolos Knemon takes part in the celebrations in honor of this god after he has already decided to forsake his misanthropy (ll. 938-56), in Aelian’s Letter Kallippides imagines that the feast that will follow the sacrifice will provide the setting for Knemon’s transformation. According to him, after listening to a flute girl, his grouchy neighbor will “break out into song and drift softly into harmony” and will “gain some peace of mind” (ἐς ᾠδὴν ἐκπεσὼν καὶ ἐς μέλος ὑπολισθὼν ἕξεις τι καὶ γαληνὸν ἐν τῇ ψυχῇ). The translation I have quoted, which is the one by Benner and Fobes in the Loeb collection, downplays the strangeness of the use of the verbs ekpiptō – “to fall out/down” – and hypolisthanō – “to slip” – to describe Knemon’s surrendering to music. Aelian’s reason for resorting to these verbs becomes apparent, I contend, when we recall that what causes Knemon’s transformation in the Dyskolos is his fall into a well. This transformative event is narrated by the slave Simiche at the beginning of Act IV as follows: ἵνα τὴν δίκελλαν ἐξέλοι καὶ τὸν κάδον, | κατέβαινε, κἆιτ’ ὤλισθ’ ἄνωθεν, ὥστε καὶ | πέπτωκεν (ll. 626-28). As is clear, by exploiting the semantic field of falling and slipping, Aelian playfully rewrites the very incident that turns out to be pivotal for the conversion of Menander’s grouch.

The substitution of a real and almost deadly fall with a metaphorical and, thus, innocuous one is a parodic deformation, I will argue, of the Menandrean original: by choosing a much more trivial experience as the trigger for the hypothetical transformation of his Knemon, Aelian encourages his reader to adopt a less optimistic view of human beings’ potential for change than that put forward by Menander. This is confirmed by the continuation of the Letter; for Kallippides imagines that his neighbor will demonstrate his adoption of a less savage way of life (cf. agrios in Ep. 13) by getting drunk and raping one of the young girls who have attended the sacrifice. The Orpheus-like charming of Knemon’s soul performed by the flute girl will result, then, even in Kallippides’ most optimistic hypothesis, not in Knemon’s complete forsaking of his animal savagery but simply in his redirecting of it. Even this transformation, however, is presented as impossible: in his response Knemon, embracing the animalization of his character implicit in Kallippides’ words, says that he would gladly eat him raw (κἂν ὠμοῦ πασαίμην σου, Ep. 16). In clear contrast to what happens on the Menandrean stage, then, in the rustic world depicted by Aelian a dyskolos cannot truly change.

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Perception and the Senses

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