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Lucian, Aristophanes, and the Language of Intellectuals

David William Frierson Stifler

Duke University

When second century CE Greek writers set about reviving the Attic Greek of Classical Athens, they looked to Aristophanes and his Old Comedy contemporaries Cratinus and Eupolis for vocabulary and usage. Terms unique to Old Comedy appear in Attic lexicons and grammars of the Second Sophistic alongside phrases characteristic of dialogue and rhetoric. The result is a latter-day Atticism combining multiple stylistic registers from fifth and fourth century BCE Athenian literature, based on the sole criterion of their historical attestation (Fischer 1974, Hansen 1998, Strobel 2009). This fervent devotion to five-hundred-year-old vocabulary provided a rich source of comedy for others, most notably Lucian, who readily acknowledges his own debt comedic debt to Aristophanes as well as Eupolis. This paper argues that Lucian’s mockery of contemporary Atticist pretensions depends upon his engagement Old Comedy, focusing on the thematic and textual connections between Lucian’s corpus and Aristophanes’ Clouds. Furthermore, this paper explains how, by employing Old Comedy imagery in his critique of Atticizers, Lucian enlists the ancient Athenian authors as allies in mocking the very people who profess to be experts in their works.

Aristophanes appears in Lucian’s True Stories, while both he and Eupolis are mentioned in Against the Ignorant Book-Collector. This last work, featuring Lucian’s most explicit commentary on the intellectual culture of the day, implies that while Aristophanes and Eupolis may have been known as models for Attic usage, relatively few readers engaged with Old Comedy on a serious literary level (Johnson 2010, Rosen 2016). Lucian’s satire punctures the intellectual veneer created through superficial references to Classical literature, most obviously in the Lexiphanes where the title character speaks in affected pseudo-Attic, stuffed with misapplied Aristophanic and Platonic vocabulary that reveals his ignorance of the works from which he purports to draw inspiration (Weissenberger 1996). The Professor of Rhetoric depicts similar pseudo-intellectual Atticism, although in that work the language is cynically crafted by an orator looking to exploit the ignorance of his audience (Zweimüller 2008).

While they are held up as two of Lucian’s most biting satires on Second Sophistic Atticism (Hall 1981), both the Lexiphanes and Professor, as this paper illustrates, also refigure the depiction of intellectually dishonest sophists in Aristophanes’ Clouds. Like Socrates, playing abstract word games with the hapless yet pragmatic farmer Strepsiades (Green 1979), the Professor inflicts specious Atticism on his own audiences; Lexiphanes, meanwhile, represents a fusion of the two types as an eager but clueless devotee of Atticism who has miseducated himself into incomprehensibility. Lucian’s lampooning of bad linguistic practices in his own day is, therefore, a significant component of his larger engagement with Old Comedy, a fact driven home by characters—Lexiphanes, Lycinus, and Sopolis—whose names echo the trio of Old Comedians Aristophanes, Cratinus, and Eupolis.

The reputation of Old Comedy for shocking obscenity may have been responsible for its lesser popularity compared with Menander and New Comedy (Storey 2003, Nervegna 2013), however Lucian’s corpus frequently rehabilitates Aristophanes and stresses the literary value of his texts (Tosello 2016); as this paper argues, such rehabilitation of Old Comedy ironically exposes the ignorance of Lucian’s critics.  Double Indictment highlights such ignorance, when Lucian depicts a personified Dialogue charging that he has been violated by Lucian’s fusing him with Comedy to create a strange new beast. In his complaint, however, Dialogue himself employs Aristophanic imagery and vocabulary unmistakably recalling the Clouds—a comedy famous for satirizing Socratic dialogue. Other writers’ failure to read Aristophanes, clearly, has caused them to create divisions between genres as anachronistic as their misuse of Old Comedic language. By using Aristophanic language and images, Lucian emphasizes the close connections between Classical comedies and his own innovative satire, inviting the ancient author himself to support Lucian in mocking the foibles of his own age. This paper will appeal to audiences interested in Old Comedy reception, as well as scholars of Imperial Greek and Second Sophistic intellectual history.

Session/Panel Title

Second Sophistic

Session/Paper Number

24.3

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