Skip to main content

The ancient evaluations of the plays of Old Comedy typically focused not only on their aesthetic virtues but also their ethical implications, and Old Comedy's abusive outspokenness was generally taken to be enabled by and used in defense of the demos. Already in the 5th century, however, the nature of and motives for its outspokenness were questioned, and a body of criticism arose that attacked its effects on society and its role in the democracy. Under the Empire especially, the democratic values associated with these texts became problematic, and, for example, Dio Chrysostom (Or. 33.9-10; cf. Plebe 1952 and di Florio 2001), Aelius Aristides (Or. 29; cf. Plebe 1952), and Plutarch (Mor. 67F-68C, 711F-712A, 853A-854D; cf. Hunter 2009) criticized the efficacy of its outspokenness and its use as a model for appropriate behavior. In this paper, I argue that this polemic about free speech and democratic values was a central influence on the construction of narratives about Old Comedy's origins and development.

According to one type of narrative, Old Comedy's origins are to be found in a kind of folk justice: wronged farmers would disguise themselves, gather outside the house of a more powerful wrong-doer, and mock him in order to shame him into changing his behavior; Athens later institutionalized this practice in the form of Old Comedy, and Old Comedy's abusive and corrective outspokenness was a symbol of the demos' power and a tool for maintaining it (e.g., the anonymous treatises on comedy XIb or XVIIIa Koster). But a second type of narrative discounts the benefits of such outspokenness and connects comedy's origins to unwarranted abuse and even violence. Plutarch describes the demos under the democracy in Archaic Megara - where, according to some sources, comedy was invented - as violent and insolent towards the powerful, with mobs attacking ambassadors and assaulting the rich (Mor. 295D and 304EF). As Forsdyke 2005 argues, there was probably no such democracy in Archaic Megara; these accounts may describe festivals of license, and the conception of a violent, radical democracy may be a product of a anti-democratic agenda. In fact, I will suggest that these two types of account manifest the same functionalist analytical strategy, with their differences contingent on their valuation of unrestrained speech and the democracy.

I will show that the same kind of analysis underlies narratives about the development of comedy, according to which it evolved (or devolved) because of its engagement with politics: according to the standard narrative, in the beginning comedy abused wrong-doers, but as the democracy lost power legislation was passed that increasingly curtailed its license for mockery. However, a second, rather anti-democratic type of narrative asserts that, on the contrary, such legislation was passed because the type of corrective abuse associated with Old Comedy degenerated into unwarranted abuse, and it had to be curtailed for the good of the state (e.g., Evanthius De fab. 2.5). Here, too, the same pattern emerges, with histories of comedy based around positive or negative valuations of democratic values, and in particular the abusive outspokenness so frequently associated with Old Comedy.