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Dinner Bells and War Drums: Dactylic Hexameter in Old Comedy

Amelia Margaret Bensch-Schaus

Graduate Student at the University of Pennsylvania

            I will argue that an examination of dactylic hexameters across the comic corpus reveals a consistent relationship between comic poets as a group and epic. Revermann and Silk, however, have argued that Aristophanes is the exception to comedy’s relationship with epic, basing this assessment of epic’s influence on the titles of lost plays by other playwrights. Instead of considering epic characters in titles, I will use the meter of epic to assess how comedy interacts with the genre. Focusing on passages in dactylic hexameter grants the fragments importance in their own right, and incorporates them into discussions of Old Comedy, which are often Aristophanic-centered. Identifying passages by meter, I will reintegrate Aristophanes into the comic milieu of 5th century Athens and its approach to epic.

            Cratinus, Hermippus, Plato Comicus, and Aristophanes all employ hexameters to discuss food. Cratinus’ Polyphemus, for example, describes how he will cook Odysseus and his companions in delectable detail, transforming the Odyssean eater of raw meat into a sophisticated gourmand. In Hermippus, a hymn to Dionysus takes a culinary turn, as he becomes the god of tasty treats rather than wine. Plato Comicus treats the audience to a dramatic reading of a cookbook, which celebrates the culinary possibilities of fish in lascivious language. Knights, Peace, and Birds all include the stock character of an oracle monger whose hexameters are only aimed at securing his own dinner. In all of these instances, the comic playwrights subvert the gravity of epic’s meter to discuss something as mundane as finding one’s next meal. They further undermine the Homeric convention of feasting as an expression of social order, in which everyone is included and the highest members of society are recognized for their achievements. In the comic passages, by contrast, eating is not a social activity but an individual one, defined by the greed and gluttony of one man, or one Cyclops, as the case may be.

            Hexameters are also used in comedy to represent war in contrast to more peaceful pursuits. Towards the end of Aristophanes’ Peace, Trygaeus has an extended argument with a boy who will only sing epic poetry about war, and ultimately replaces him with another boy who satisfies his demands to hear material suitable to peace. Telò has argued that the opposition between these two singers should be read as a reworking of the competition between Homer and Hesiod. This analysis aligns the Peace passage closely with the hexameters that the chorus sings at the very end of Frogs. According to Rosen, the entire agon between Aeschylus and Euripides, which the final chorus considers, also reflects the contest between Homer and Hesiod. These two instances of hexameter appear in very different circumstances within their plays, yet in both places Aristophanes employs them within an agonistic literary context concerned with war. The comparanda from the fragments are sparse but highly suggestive, indicating that Cratinus provided a model for Aristophanes’ programmatic use of hexameter as the mode for discussing war.

          The pervasiveness of epic’s influence is abundantly evident in other types of 5th century literature, yet in comedy the influence of tragedy has overshadowed the older genre. Epic settings and characters reveal themselves mainly in the tantalizing, yet ultimately vague, title lists, while the epic form reveals itself in a number of passages across the work of several comic poets. The distinctive rhythm of epic is just as important a weapon in the playwright’s comedic arsenal as the character of Odysseus, whether that playwright is Aristophanes or Cratinus. In their use of hexameters, the comic poets explore highly specific uses of epic, subverting its formality to discuss low subjects while also responding to its bellicose themes.

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Rhythm and Style

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