Ancient Greek comedies
A scene from the comedy “Phylax” showing three men (Gynmilos, Kosios and Karion) robbing a miser (Kharinos) inside his house. Side A of a red-figure calyx-krater made in Paestum, 350–340 BC. From Sant’Agata dei Goti. Credit:User:Bibi Saint-Pol/Public Domain 

Some things never change — and humor, luckily, is one thing that hasn’t changed a great deal over time, as we can see today by the comedies of Ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks were known for exploring a wide range of comedic content, using the satire and farce that are just as funny today as they were in ancient times.

Tropes such as mistaken identity and of course the old standby, sex jokes, will never go out of style, as we can still see today. We have always needed an outlet for the stresses and troubles of life and that was just as true two millennia ago as it is today.

Of course, politics will never cease to be a part of our lives and we see portrayals of politicians from the time of ancient Greece who may as well be behind the mahogany desks of today, all over the world, still wheeling and dealing.

And the battle of the sexes is absolutely nothing new, as we can plainly see in the comedies of the great writers of ancient Greece.

Lysistrata one of the most beloved Ancient Greece comedies

Lysistrata is one of the comedies that has translated the easiest throughout human history. Written by Aristophanes, the man who is known as best Greek comedy writer of them all, this play has been reinterpreted and staged all over the world innumerable times, even in the form of an opera.

This play, which takes place during the Peloponnesian War, portrays Lysistrata, a woman who is tired of the constant, seemingly meaningless, fighting. After deciding to take matters into her own hands, she persuades the women from all of the Greek city-states to join her in her effort to bring an end to the males’ unending wars. And of course she has to use one of the very few powers women had in those times — that they refuse to have sex with their husbands until they somehow call a halt to the hostilities.

Naturally, all the ladies agree have anything to do with their spouses and happily sign  sexual activities by signing an extremely detailed oath telling them exactly what they can and cannot do as part of the pact. The women next swarm the Acropolis, where the treasury of the city was located, to make the men know that they mean business.

By seizing control of there treasury, the women put a crimp in the war machine since the battles cannot be funded without these monies. Lysistrata meets with the magistrate in charge, explaining that the women of Greece have long been frustrated that men make stupid decisions during war and ruin the lives of everyone around them.

Before to long, the men begin to suffer without the pleasures of being with their wives. The women are also lonely and pine for their husbands, but Lysistrata keeps them faithful to the cause, telling them that they must remain adamant, even despite real begging on the part of their men. Finally, the men and the women of ancient Greece agree to begin peace talks. However, the men simply cannot leave quarreling and fighting behind, and they start to find fault with many of the terms of the agreement. Lysistrata then comes up with the idea that she should parade a beautiful woman in front of them so that they would become so desperate they would sign almost anything. Naturally, Lysistrata wins that bet.

This immortal comedy was even remade recently into a dramatic movie, called “Chi-Raq.” Incredibly, Lysistrata was first performed in the year 411 BC — showing that human nature remains basically the same as in those days of old.

Thesmophorizusae
A krater with a scene from Aristophanes’ comedy Thesmophorizusae. Circa 370 BC. Credit:Daderot/Public Domain

Thesmophoriazusae

Thesmophoriazusae, yet another masterpiece by Aristophanes, focuses on taking pot shots at the tragic poet Euripides. Using powerful women as protagonists, he has them deciding that they have been unfairly represented by Euripides as seducers, schemers, betrayers, or sometimes simply helpless victims — none of which these women are. The women decide to rise up and punish the great playwright for his misrepresentations of their gender.

Concerned, Euripides asks Mnesilochus to go disguised as a woman to the great female celebration of Thesmophoria, a fertility festival for women held every autumn that strictly prohibits any attendance by males.

Mnesilochus would be expected to speak in favor of the playwright there. In many different ways, including hilarious and sometimes painful methods, the hair is removed from his body and he is finally dressed like a woman. He then makes his appearance at the Thesmophoria, where he is supposed to hear the ladies start the festivities with a prayer that anyone who angers them be punished — especially poor Euripides.

Undaunted, Mnesilochus tries to praise his friend, but ends up doing so poorly that it backfires — including a mention that Euripides hasn’t even mentioned all of the ways that women are known to deceive men.

Not to be outdone, another man, Clesithenes, also arrives dressed as a woman and tells the participants of Euripides’ plan to infiltrate the female-only festival. Still, for a while, both men somehow continue to maintain their charade, but eventually Mnesilochus is discovered for who he really is.  After the women rush at him, trying to attack him, he grabs a wine flask and threatens to cut it open and waste all the wine in it. Hating to lose any of their precious wine, which they had looked forward to drinking, the women wisely back off.

However, they succeed at keeping him their prisoner.

Euripides, ever creative, comes up with ways to try to free Mnesilochus using scenes from his own tragic plays, which are presented as parodies. Finally, Euripides tires of this and ends up just talking to the women — no doubt, one of themes painful things men have to do. He bargains with them that he will no longer talk about the ways in which they deceive men if they just promise to free Mnesilochus. Finally, after all these goings-on, an agreement is made between the sexes.

The Frogs
Krater with scene from The Frogs showing Heracles fighting Aeacus. Louvre Museum. Credit: Bibi Saint-Pol. Credit: public domain

The Frogs

The Frogs, another comedy by Aristophanes that has certainly stood the test of time, was first performed at Lenaia in the year 405 BC, taking first place in the theater competition. And this is no wonder, since its take on human nature is just as tru today as it was then.

The play tells the story of the Greek god Dionysus who is in complete despair over the loss of the tragic playwright Euripides, who had died just the year before. The Greek god visits his half-brother Heracles, asking advice on how he could to get to Hades so that he could bring Euripides back from the dead. Heracles tells him that he should either hang himself or jump off a tower as the fastest way to make it to the underworld. Instead, Dionysus chooses to travel across Lake Acheron — dressed in Heracles’ clothing.

While he voyages on the lake, a choral interlude is heard in which frogs croak their song. Dionysus is so annoyed by the sound of the frogs that he engages in a mock debate with them which is surely one of the highlights of the play. Naturally, when Dionysus reaches the underworld, he is mistaken for his brother Heracles by Aeacus, who is still angry that Heracles stole the dog Cerberus. Dionysus then wisely trades clothes with his slave in order to having to fight Aeacus.

But of course, as always happens in these cases of mistaken identity, a person — in this case a maid — then appears and mistakes Dionysus’ slave for Heracles. Of course, she then offers him a feast replete with virgins, in which the slave is more than happy to take part.

Of course, Dionysus then asks to trade clothes again but only ends up meeting yet more people who have reason to be angry with his brother. At that point he gives up and gives the clothes back to the slave. When Dionysus and the slave finally discover Euripides, he is arguing with Aeschylus about just who is the best tragic writer.

The debate then prompts Dionysus to wonder which playwright he should actually bring back; so he judges a competition between the two brilliant wordsmiths.

Dionysus ends up as the butt of almost every joke in The Frogs — as almost every comedy has to have that figure of fun. In addition, though, the competition of the two great playwrights retells some of the great tragic plays of Greek history as parodies, in a more unexpected twist.

The Clouds
Socrates in his basket in a scene from The Clouds. Credit: http://www.mnemosyne.org/mia/showillu?id=embmne_sam1569_105/ Public Domain

The Clouds

The Clouds is yet another brilliant work by comedic master Aristophanes. Premiering at  Dionysia in 423 BC, it came in last place at the theatric festival that year, which led to Aristophanes revising it and letting people read the manuscript.

Its main protagonist is Strepsiades, a man who is deeply in debt because of his son’s gambling habit. Strepsiades determines that since he is such a poor public speaker, he should go straight to the top, to the great philosopher Socrates, to help him attain some oratorical skills, since these would be needed while he defended himself in court.

The famous philosopher ends up spending a great deal of time trying to teach Strepsiades a number of different philosophical forms of thought to great exaggeration, but to no avail.

As it happens, Strepsiades’ son ends up being a much better student and Socrates says that his teaching is a success. Believing that his son can now persuade anyone to believe anything, Strepsiades then refuses to pay all his son’s debtors. However, his miscreant son then argues that he should have every right to beat his father and mother. Strepsiades then turns on the school for what kind of a human being it his son into and he — naturally — decides to burn it down. But instead, he fears his son and realizes that he would have no one left to argue for him, so he simply resigns himself to paying off the debts.

Menaechimi

Menaechmi, a play written by Plautus, is considered to be his best work. Told and retold over time, most prominently by Shakespeare as “A Comedy of Errors,” the play uses the familiar plot of mistaken identity, with the twin sons of Moschus, Menaechmus, and Sosicles. Moschus leaves on a business trip and takes Menaechmus with him. Menaechmus is abducted while on the journey and he is never seen again. Sosoicles is then renamed Menaechmus of Syracuse. And this is where things get really confusing.

When Menaechmus of Syracuse becomes an adult he goes off in search of his brother, the original Menaechmus. He arrives in Epidamnus unaware that his brother is actually living in that city.

The original Menaechmus has married a woman that he considers to be a shrew. For this reason, he decides to take her best shawl and bestow it on his mistress. He tells his friend Peniculus of his plan to give the shawl to his mistress, called Erotium. Menaechmus goes with his friend to Erotium and he presents her with the shawl. He tells her to prepare a feast for him and Peniculus that night.

The men then leave to have some drinks in the city.

Menaechmus of Syracuse is walking by when Erotium comes out of her door and beckons him inside to have dinner with her. Menaechmus is confused but naturally decides to accept the offer to have dinner with a beautiful woman; he then sends his servant on to the hotel that he is panning on staying at. When he finally leaves the dinner with Erotium, he is met by Peniculus who mistakenly thinks he is his twin brother and berates him for going to eat dinner without him.

Peniculus then really throws a monkey wrench into things, taking revenge by telling the wife of Menaechmus all about the stolen shawl.

Menaechmus then returns to his mistress not only to find his meal eaten but Erotium angry at his inexplicable request for yet more food. Then his angry wife shows up, demanding the return of her shawl, and Menaechmus promises to return it.

Then he is approached by a furious Peniculus, who is still angry about not being included in the original meal. Finally the two twin brothers manage to run into each other and realize what has happened. Menaechmus then decides to sell all his belongings — including his wife — in order to go live with his long-lost brother.

OK, maybe not “funny funny” as we think of it today because of — you know, the selling of your wife thing. But still a pretty good plot twist, you have to admit.

The Birds
Birds depicted on Lakonian black-figured kylix, ca. 550–530 BC. Credit: Jastrow/Public Domain

The Birds

The Birds, another classic by Aristophanes, was first performed at the City of Dionysia in 414 BC and took second prize at the festival that year. The play was seen as a perfectly-realized fantasy with stunning mimicry of birds as well as beautiful songs. One of the oldest surviving plays of Aristophanes, this is also one of the most widely studied throughout history.

The satire explores the classic theme of how those who try to escape oppression often become the oppressors themselves.

Two men decide to take off in search of Tereus after becoming frustrated with life in Athens and with people doing nothing but arguing over laws. They hope that by finding Tereus, a king who metamorphosed into a bird called the Hoopoe, they could find happiness somewhere else. They do somehow manage to find Tereus, who is not very convincing as a bird.  However, he blames his lack of feathers by saying that he is going through the molting process.

Αfter speaking with the Hoopoe they come up with the idea that birds stop just flying around all day and instead build a castle in the sky so they can make a blockade against the Olympian Gods.

Eventually, the men convince the birds to build the city in the sky — as people have wanted to do since time immemorial — and construction begins.

However, one of the men, Pisthetaerus, starts becoming a tyrant, taking charge of the city. He organizes a religious service to honor the birds as the new Gods of men, and they begin flocking to the new city in the sky, hoping to live there as well.

As always seems to happen, other unwelcome visitors also come to the city, ruining the neighborhood.

In the end, Pistetaerus becomes so powerful that he bends the Olympian gods to his will, agreeing to declare him their king, and even Zeus surrenders his scepter and his girlfriend, Sovereignty, to the new tyrant.

The Knights
The Knights is another classic play by Aristophanes. Credit: Jastrow /Public Domain

The Knights

The Knights is the fourth play written by the brilliant Aristophanes, winning first place at the Lenaia festival in 424 BC. This is yet another political satire that was as relevant to the people of the time as it is today. Its protagonist is Paphlagonian, who represented the actual Athenian politician Cleon; he is accompanied by an elderly man named Demos — or the people —  who of course stood for the people of the city.

In this work, Paphlagonian and other politicians function as the actual servants of Demos — just as politicians have claimed since time immemorial that they are. But true to form, Paphlagonian deceives the people and lords his power over Demos.

Desirous of having backup, the other servants of Demos embark on a search to find someone else who can lie and cheat as well as Paphlagonian in order to control Demos further — finding a sausage seller fits the bill perfectly.

The Sausage Seller and Paphlagonian then engage in a hilarious competition to convince Demos they are indeed the right man to run things around the house, sparking many comparisons to politics today. The absurd wordplay used in this scene is as hilarious as any comedy today.

In the end, the Sausage Seller is the winner and Demos kicks Paphlagonian to the curb. He eventually ends up as a merchant peddling his wares in a back alley. However, in a refreshing twist that gives us the essential hope that indeed not all is lost in our public discourse, the Sausage Seller reveals that he is not truly swindler — he just had to appear that way if he was to win. And he actually goes on to solve all the pressing social problems in Athens.

Strangely enough, he even boils Demos in a cauldron and transforms the old man into a happy, healthy young man from the sick, confused figure he was at the beginning of the play. Another not altogether “funny” scene — but everything sure turns out well in the end of this play.

Demoi

Demoi is a comedy by Eupolis which tragically has only survived in pieces. Yet another of the many works of political satire in Ancient Greece, it rails against corruption, partisanship and the race for personal gain as is still seen of course in politics today. Perhaps most interestingly, the Athenians romanticized their past political leaders and vilified those of the present — just as many of us still do today — proving that this is another trap that we still fall into in our thinking.

Pyronides, the main character in the play, wants to restore Athens to its former cultural and political glory; he then travels goes to the underworld to bring back four former great leaders including Pericles, Miltiades, Aristeides, and Solon the Lawgiver.

The four politicians are of course eagerly welcomed in Athens and they humorously enlarge upon all the many ways that these greats of old could tackle the issues of the day.

The chorus, which represents the 139 different communities in the Athenian democracy, appear before the greats with their complaints about the current politicians and the state of the city.  The four men from the past then agree to deal with their corrupt and incompetent counterparts from the present day.

Aristeides makes short work of a member of what he calls the “accuser” class, the politicians who bring false charges against their political enemies which are meant to bring ruin to them. The great judge Solon deals with a judge or Sophist who is famous for distorting laws to argue for his own benefit. While the work of all the greats of old is welcomed by the Athenians there is sadly no surviving end of the play so we do not know exactly what happens to them afterward.

Baptae

Baptae is a comedy by the relatively unknown ancient Greek comedy writer Eupolis about the cult of the Thracian goddess Cotyto, or Kotys. Eupolis wanted to make a statement about how the worship of the goddess had sprung up as a fad, with prominent people in Athens performing a number of silly rituals. The all-male followers of Kotys are portrayed as worshipping her by dressing up as the goddess — this appears to be poking fun of the politicians of the day for being effeminate.

The play features her devotees hiring a female to be their surrogate for their ritual.

The men fail to realize, of course, that the surrogate is the actual goddess Kotys. She then punishes the Baptae for distorting the rites of worship and creating these unnatural ceremonies.

One of the most well-known scenes in the play portrays Kotys finally revealing her true identity. She takes one of the men, who is portraying a celebrity of the time, and dunks him in a tub of dye, marking him as the fool that he is. The play became a cultural phenomenon of the time — so much so that it is believed that any unusual religious sect from that time onward was referred to as “Baptae.”