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THEOPOMPUS’ HOMER: EPIC IN OLD AND MIDDLE COMEDY

Matthew Farmer

University of Missouri

            In the paraepic fantasy world of the late fifth- and early fourth-century comic poet Theopompus, Odysseus is a man who knows – and likes – his Homer. Eustathius preserves a fragment of Theopompus in which the character of Odysseus refers to “an elaborate cloak you brought and gave to me, which Homer excellently compared to the skin of an onion” (fr. 34). Odysseus alludes here to a famous passage of the Odyssey (19.232-35), in which the disguised Odysseus describes for Penelope the clothing the real Odysseus wore when he first set out for Troy; Theopompus’ version has Odysseus anachronistically employing the right technical term used in contemporary literary criticism for such a short simile. It’s a striking choice to make Odysseus the vehicle for such a joke: Homeric characters often refer to a culture of songs about heroes like themselves, but it is only Odysseus who is ever seen reacting to, evaluating, and performing his own epic poetry. This element of metafictional awareness of himself as a character in a poem is thus already inherent in the Homeric Odysseus: Theopompus exaggerates this awareness to the absurd, illusion-shattering extent of having Odysseus know both the name of his poem’s author and the right technical vocabulary to describe his poetry.

            This isolated fragment, quoted without title, turns out to be part of a broad and often quite sophisticated strategy of paraepic comedy in the works of Theopompus. Although paraepic was a key element of early comedy, from Epicharmus’ series of Odyssey-inspired plays to Cratinus’ hilarious send-up of Odyssey 9, Odysseuses (Revermann, Bakola, Willi, Phillips), recent work on late fifth-century comedy has suggested that by the time of Aristophanes and Eupolis, Homer had fallen out of fashion as a target for comic engagement (Revermann, Telò, Storey, Cassio, Macía Aparicio). Theopompus, however, wrote three plays with distinctly Homeric titles (Odysseus, Penelope, and Sirens), one of which was probably the home of the onion-skin simile quoted above, and also worked an extensive run of Homeric hexameters into his otherwise politically-focused play The Mede. At least four, then, of the twenty or twenty-four comedies Theopompus wrote made substantial use of paraepic humor (Farmer, Sanchis Llopis, Phillips, Favazza), at a time when other poets were turning their attentions to tragedy, politics, philosophy, even religion: when Aristophanes employs hexameters, for example, he does so almost exclusively to mock oracles, rather than epic (Platter).

            Each of these moments of engagement with Homer in Theopompus’ fragments shows different elements of his sophisticated use of paraepic. In Odysseus, he combines paraepic with paratragedy in a reference to Euripides that also presents Theopompus’ own acts of parody as a form of parasitism;  Revermann identifies this combination as an "additive strategy" typical of paraepic. In Penelope, a reference to worshipping Apollo at the new moon suggests Theopompus’ close attention to the subtle details of the Odyssey itself. In Sirens, Theopompus merges the Homeric portrait of the Sirens with later depictions of them as aulos-players, dismissing their “outdated” music with an another anachronistic joke. And in The Mede, he again presents simile as a distinctive feature of Homeric poetry, rendering the politician Callistratus as a pathetic would-be Nestor who can only persuade the modern “sons of the Achaeans” by bribing them and getting them drunk.

            In the generations after Aristophanes, paraepic comedy seems to have come back into fashion (Casolari, Nesselrath, Arnott, Hunter): whether we see Theopompus as a trend-setter himself or simply an early exemplar of this trend, he occupies a crucial position in the still under-studied period of transition from Old to Middle Comedy. In this paper I present a showcase of Theopompus’ paraepic plays, revealing the sophisticated acts of epic parody his fragments contain, enlarging our sense of comedy beyond what the extant plays of Aristophanes can tell us, and, finally, presenting a little known fourth-century vase that may illustrate Theopompus’ Sirens itself.

Session/Panel Title

Whose Homer?

Session/Paper Number

64.2

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