Episode 37: The New Comedy

Menander’s Old Cantankerous (316 BCE), produced during the New Comedy period, shows theater beginning to take on its modern form.

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Menander’s Old Cantankerous

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 37: The New Comedy. This show is on an Ancient Greek play called Old Cantankerous, produced in 316 BCE in the city of Athens, a little more than a century after the most famous works of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

The Bodmer Papyri: Our Most Important Menander Manuscript

There is a part of the Nile River that runs east to west. It’s deep in the central part of Egypt, about halfway between Cairo and the northern border of Sudan. This stretch of the Nile is a magic place for archaeology. Follow the river south forty miles or so and you come to Thebes, home of Luxor Temple and the Valley of Kings, where the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in 1922. Just four miles west of the site that concerns us today is the town of Nag Hammadi, where a set of scrolls was discovered in 1945 that dramatically changed our understanding of the early evolution of Christianity and Second Temple Judaism. But something else was discovered nearby in 1952. It wasn’t the intact tomb of a New Kingdom Pharaoh, complete with a shining golden mask. It didn’t quite have the scope of the Nag Hammadi library. What was found in 1952 wasn’t quite so earth shattering as these.

luxor map menander nag hammadi

The Bodmer Papyri and Nag Hammadi library were discovered north of Luxor.

What was found in 1952, just ten miles east of Nag Hammadi, was another collection of texts that we now call the Bodmer Papyri. The Bodmer Papyri were buried in the headquarters of an order of monks called the Pachomians, some time around 200 CE, a very early Christian group known for their communitarian ethics. Like many bundles of texts discovered at archaeological sites, the papyri discovered in 1952 were a miscellaneous lot. The Bodmer Papyri included papyrus leafs in codex forms, and scrolls, and about fifty texts were included, written in both Greek and Coptic. The texts included excerpts from the Iliad. The Bodmer Papyri contain the oldest known text of the Gospel of John, the epistle of Jude, and the pseudepigraphal Third Corinthians. There were more apocryphal texts, helping us paint a broader picture of the early development of the Biblical canon.

But amidst all of these remarkably important texts, preserved for the ages in the dry climate of central Egypt, there was something else. It wasn’t a religious scripture, It wasn’t a compelling variation on a New Testament book, or a copy of one of the great Homeric poems. It was, in fact, the text of a play – a play that had not been read in perhaps a thousand years. And today, we’re going to read it. [music]

Sometimes, in literary history, there are gaps. There are long periods – centuries – during which we don’t have a lot of texts. These dark spots can happen for many reasons. Civilizations have ended. Literacy has been interrupted. Sometimes, we’re too busy scratching out the basic necessities of life to have any time to read, or write. At other times, actions are taken that lead to huge bodies of texts being destroyed. The famous Library of Antioch, largely backed by the polymath Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, was destroyed by his Christian successor Emperor Jovian. Nine hundred years later, the library of Constantinople was leveled during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, as zealous knights showcased their piety by stealing and burning books and profiteering from the loot they plundered. Equally tragic was the demise of the library at Baghdad in Iraq, which burned in 1258 when the Mongols struck the intellectual center of the Muslim world. If we had the contents of these libraries – and the contents of the most famous library in western history – the library of Alexandria, which underwent successive damages during the earlier eras of imperial Roman history – if we still had the contents of these libraries, human history would have taken a different course. We might be worshipping different gods. The scientific revolution might have unfolded a thousand years earlier. New England might have been colonized by Greco-Roman polytheists, centuries before the Protestant Reformation began compelling mass migrations from Europe. All of this might have happened. The wisdom of the past is the ultimate dragon’s treasure, and parts of it are still out there, hiding somewhere in clay tablets and crumpled up around the emaciated faces of mummies, wedged into jars and rolled into the lightless vaults of forgotten temples.

One small shard of this treasure, which was discovered with the Bodmer Papyri and some other manuscripts during the twentieth century, is the text of a plays by an ancient Greek writer named Menander. Menander flourished about a hundred years after the more famous dramatists of Ancient Greece. While Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes produced their work mostly during the middle and second half of the 400s, our writer for today – again, his name is Menander – Menander wrote during the end of the 300s. By the close of this show, you’re going to know a fair bit about Menander. In his own day, Menander was held in extremely high esteem. While full copies of Menander have been difficult to come by, references to him are all over in the ancient records, and artistic depictions of his plays have been found all over the Aegean, as well as in modern day Syria.1 Additionally, Roman imitators took the plays of Menander and adapted them in later centuries. So there are two reasons why it’s good to know a bit about Menander. First, it’s clear that Menander was hugely popular in his own time. Second – and this is the most important – Menander is our clearest picture of the link between the old titans of Golden Age Athens – Sophocles and Euripides and company, and the later drama of Ancient Rome. Menander is the most important representative of what we now call the New Comedy.

The Genre of Menander: What Is New Comedy?

And that takes us to the main idea of today’s episode. The main idea of this episode is in its title: Episode 37: The New Comedy. This show is about a school of theater that arose some time during the 300s BCE in Greece. This comedy was different than what came before it. Compared with the no-holds-barred political satire of Aristophanes, complete with all of its farts and fake penises and x-rated euphemisms, the work of New Comedy writers like Menander was subtler. The New Comedy writers weren’t averse to including a deity or two in their plays. But by and large they sought to depict characters and situations from everyday life. Menander and his contemporaries didn’t seem to want to create searing statements about justice, or fate, or religion, or politics. On the contrary, they sought to produce comedy involving stock situations – a heiress with a fortune everyone wants, for instance, or a husband who believes he’s been cuckolded, or a misunderstanding surrounding a pregnant servant, or a soldier trying to marry his family’s servant girl.2 These are some of Menander’s plots, and they are thought to be representative of the New Comedy of the 300s BCE more generally. In the New Comedy, stock characters and situations serve as entertaining commentary on contemporary life. They are not plays about legendary figures like Agamemnon, or Oedipus, or Medea. New Comedy plays were supposed to be about men and women who could have been your neighbors, who were experiencing things that you might have experienced.

Pompeii - Casa del Menandro - Menander

A fresco illustration of Menander from the House of Menander in Pompeii. Menander was hugely popular during the 200s and 100s, his work adapted by Plautus and Terence, who in turn passed plots and motifs down to Renaissance writers like Shakespeare and Moliere.

And there are two more aspects of New Comedy that make it an integral part of theater history. First, the works of Menander and his contemporaries are some of the earliest works of theater that were divided into five acts. Following the structural innovation of the five acts, which seems to have taken place during the 300s BCE, plays would continue to be built in this fashion for over two thousand years. And there’s one more aspect of New Comedy – one that I, personally believe is the most important of all. And that’s this. New Comedy plays entertained their audiences with plots. Now if you went and watched Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King in 429 in Athens, you would have known how it was going to end. You might not have known exactly how you’d get to that end, but you’d know that at the play’s end, the main guy was going to have killed his father, and married his mother, and everything was going to go belly up. But this was not the case with New Comedy. Because New Comedy didn’t usually use widespread legends for its plots. And if you were at the theater to watch Old Cantankerous, the play we’re about to explore in this episode – if you went to the theater to watch Old Cantankerous, you’d have no idea how it was going to end.

Before we go any further, at the risk of being redundant, I want to emphasize this point a bit. Plot is one of the things that our species loves about literature. We like to journey through the twists and turns of an unfamiliar story. We like to meet strangers in fiction, and sometimes when we meet strangers who appear like us, or like people we know, our interest in what happens to these characters grows. We like to be surprised and delighted by unanticipated turns in plot – that two characters end up being related to one another, for instance, or that a character proves heir to a vast fortune, or that another character, who was thought dead, unexpectedly returns from abroad. Some of us, once a story plays out, like to run our minds back over the shapes and corridors of a good plot and appreciate its complex structure. I think we are so accustomed to being entertained by plots, and unexpected revelations in plots, that we can’t even imagine narrative literature without them. Almost all of our novels, and films, and TV shows today entertain us by slowly and strategically revealing exciting turns of events, and the delight we take in discovering these turns of events is one of the things that keeps us continuing to enjoy fiction, whatever form it happens to take.

But during the lifetime of Menander, the presence of carefully constructed, complex plots in Ancient Greek Theater seems to have been something relatively new. Now, it would be silly to say that plot as an entertainment device was invented during the 300s BCE. Entertainment through plot must be as old as our species. But during the 300s, plot driven comedies starring everyday characters seem to have ascended to such a level of popularity that they ended up influencing later dramatists far more than the work of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. Shakespeare is only the most famous practitioner of the five act play with a broad cast of characters. Without Menander and his contemporaries, who influenced Roman dramatists, who in turn influenced the secular playwrights of the late Medieval and early modern periods – without Menander and the New Comedy, world theater might have taken a very different form.

So when we talk about the Bodmer Papyrus, which contains the first almost entirely complete play by Menander, we’re talking about a manuscript in which you can see modern narrative fiction coming to life on the page, line after wonderful Ancient Greek line. From the broad cast of Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, to the convoluted plots and reunited families of Charles Dickens and George Eliot, to the rustic naturalism of Mark Twain and Gustave Flaubert, a metric ton of modern literature’s features first became widespread in the 300s BCE. The New Comedy, with its earthier settings, its everyday casts of characters, and most of all, its enchanting, well-engineered plots – the New Comedy helped lay the foundations of narrative fiction in the west forever after. And the Bodmer Papyrus, lost for over 1,700 years in that bend of the Nile north of Luxor, contains the only almost entirely complete play from this period of literary history, a famous missing link between Golden Age Athens and Rome – a play that we’re going to talk about now. [music]

Menander’s Old Cantankerous: The Characters and Opening Situation

The title of this play in Ancient Greek is Dyskolos. This title gets translated in various ways – sometimes it’s The Grouch, sometimes The Curmudgeon, sometimes The Misanthrope. I’m going to use the title that translator Norma Miller uses, since she’s done the edition I’ll occasionally be quoting from. That title is Old Cantankerous. Old Cantankerous was first staged in Athens in January of 316 BCE – about ninety-five years after Lysistrata. Menander would have been about twenty-six years old when it staged. Old Cantankerous is set in a village that was around fourteen miles outside the center of Athens. In this village, there lives the titular character of the play – a cantankerous old man named Knemon. Knemon is an almost timeless stock character – he’s a rural geezer who really, really doesn’t like strangers, and would just as soon live alone, grim and self righteous, and work his own plot of land until he dies without ever interacting with anyone. Picture a farmer scowling at you over a fence or hedge, and you have Knemon, a countrified hermit who would prefer not to interact with anyone, ever.

New Comedy Period (Ancient Greece) (14610356907) Menander

A sculpture of a New Comedy period masked actor, from the province of Myrina in about 330 BCE. Photo by Rennett Stowe.

There’s just one problem. Knemon wasn’t always this way. Once, in fact, Knemon was married. He had once married a widow who had a son. And with this widow, Knemon had produced a daughter. That marriage, sadly, didn’t work out. Knemon’s wife moved out with her son from her previous marriage. Now, the son is a major character in the play, and his name is Gorgias. Gorgias, Knemon’s ex-step son, lived just one house away from Knemon, and Gorgias, as best he could, tried to take care of Knemon’s ex-wife. And just because this might be confusing in a podcast form, Gorgias is spelled G O R G I A S, not G O R G E O U S. Knemon’s ex-step son Gorgias isn’t a male model, or anything – he’s just a regular country guy, with a commonplace name, trying to take care of his widowed and then divorced mother.

So let’s do something. Let’s pretend it’s January of 316 BCE, and we’re sitting there at the theater in Athens, maybe tucked under some blankets. If we look down at the stage, we see three structures. These three structures are the set of Menander’s play, Old Cantankerous. The house on the left is the house where old man Knemon lives with his daughter. The house on the right is where Knemon’s ex-wife and his ex-step son, Gorgias live. In between the two houses, there is a temple. And if we were sitting there together in January of 316, we would recognize this temple as the Temple of Pan – Pan being the mischief loving deity of country life.

In the opening moments of the play, Pan is going to come out of this temple and lay out the situation for us. And just for maximum clarification, let me tell you what he is going to tell you in a minute. Knemon, the grouchy old xenophobe who lives in the house on the left with his daughter – Knemon might have lived there in that village for a long time, adjacent to his ex-wife and ex-step son. Knemon might have lived there in that village, avoiding his former step son Gorgias and ever speaking to his ex-wife, even though they lived just one house away. But something, as the play begins, has happened which will change all of this – something, as Pan will tell us, that will change these characters’ relationships with one another.

As it happens, the daughter that Knemon had with his now ex-wife – this daughter is quite good looking. And she has been spotted by a visitor from out of town, who has fallen in love with her. His name is Sostratos. And Sostratos is from a high stratum of Athenian society – his family has money, and, when we meet them, Sostratos’ rich family will predictably not be particularly happy about their son being infatuated with a poor country girl who has neither money nor reputation.

So that is the situation at the outset of the play Old Cantankerous. Knemon, the old country dwelling grouch. His beautiful daughter. His former stepson, Gorgias. His ex-wife. And the aristocratic city boy Sostratos, who comes to court Knemon’s daughter. These are the main characters of the only piece of New Comedy that has come down to us from the ancient world in a nearly complete form. I’ll be occasionally quoting from the Norma Miller translation, published by Penguin in 2004 in a volume called Menander: Plays and Fragments. [music]

Menander’s Old Cantankerous, Act 1

A day’s walk from Athens, there was a small village. A road passed through this village, and at its center, there was a temple to the god Pan – a temple that, according to local lore, enabled the country around there to be farmed, in spite of its rocky soil. Pan, after all, was the deity of country life, and so a residence in this scenic wayside village suited him perfectly. On the left of the temple was the house of Knemon, the main character of this story. And on the right side of the temple was the house of a man named Gorgias, the step-son of this man Knemon.

On an otherwise ordinary day in this small village, distinguished only by its shrine to the god Pan, the temple doors opened, and the god himself emerged. The god Pan began by introducing the setting – a holy place, he said, but one that nonetheless didn’t boast any particularly civil residents. Knemon, said the god Pan, was an intolerable hermit. He avoided all contact with those he met, and when he did meet people, grouchy old Knemon never had anything good to say. If Knemon ever did say anything, it was merely to voice a salutation to Pan himself – a salutation that arose only because Knemon lived just next door to the temple.

Pan spoke about this grumbling old man at length. Knemon, said Pan, wasn’t an absolute isolationist. He had once married a widow, who’d come to him with a stepson – that same man named Gorgias who still lived on the same street. And old Knemon had sired a daughter with the widow that he married. But the birth of a daughter hadn’t brought cantankerous old Knemon any closer with his wife. The couple separated, and the wife moved in with her son, who was doing his best to support her. And that was the setting, Pan said. An old man, his daughter, a kind young lady who’d been raised in the countryside – these in the house on the left side of the temple. And on the right side of the temple, the old man’s estranged wife, and her son from a previous marriage.

And there was just one more thing, Pan indicated. Old Knemon’s daughter was of marriageable age. And just that morning, in the village, a young man had arrived. He came from a prosperous family, and normally lived in Athens, but he had come to the countryside to hunt. This fashionable young man’s name was Sostratos. And the god Pan had made young Sostratos fall deeply in love with the daughter of contentious old Knemon.

Pan concluded that he’d introduced the situation at the play’s beginning, and he went back into his shrine. Just then, Sostratos strolled onto stage with a companion. They were in the middle of a conversation. In fact, the two well-heeled youth were talking about Knemon’s attractive young daughter, with whom, evidently, Sostratos had just become enamored.

Sostratos had seen her decorating the temple next door to her house with flowers. And Sostratos fell in love at first sight. Now, Sostratos’ companion Chaireas was a sharp witted man. Chaireus said that he was always of service to his friends in amorous adventures. If those friends had an infatuation with a courtesan, Chaireas said, he worked to make sure that the friend in question got to enjoy a steamy union with that courtesan as soon as possible. But, Chaireas said, if his friend were in love with a girl – that was a different matter. In such cases, Sostratos’ companion Chaireas explained, he made himself useful by seeing what kind of family the girl came from, how her family’s finances looked, and that kind of thing.

Sostratos said that was – nice. It was just that – uh – he had already dispatched a servant to inquire about the girl. Chaireas was incredulous, but Sostratos said that he had indeed dispatched a servant, for good or ill, and sure enough, the servant came sprinting from offstage over to where the two wealthy travelers were talking. The servant was called Pyrrhias. He was out of breath, and extremely frazzled. He’d been attacked, he said! The father of the girl he’d been sent to inquire about was a brute! He was violent. Sostratos’ servant Pyrrhias said the man had assaulted him with thrown clods of dirt as soon as he stepped on the old man’s land! The old man had gone after the servant for two miles, hurling dirt and rocks, and even a bushel of pears he’d been carrying. Sostratos and Chaireas, hearing the servant’s story, were astounded. The three of them agreed that country farmers had odd ethics, and Chaireas said that he would go and talk to the grumpy bumpkin in the morning.

But, soon enough, they heard old Knemon’s voice. He was actually already yelling – and they couldn’t tell what at. Sostratos shrunk away from the buildings and into the street, apprehensive about confronting such an aggressive stranger. And a moment later, the old, cantankerous Knemon made his first appearance on the stage. [music]

Old Knemon looked at Sostratos and his companion Chaireas.
Well, [said Knemon], wasn’t Perseus the lucky one, twice over, too. First, he could fly, so he never had to meet any of those who walk the earth: and then he had [that head of Medusa] with which he used to turn anyone who annoyed him into stone. I wish I had it now. . .There’d be no shortage of stone statues all round here. Life is becoming intolerable, by God it is. People are actually. . .walking on my land now, and talking to me. Of course, I’m used to hanging about on the public highway – sure I am! When I don’t even work this part of my land any longer, I’ve abandoned it because of the traffic. But now they’re following me up to the tops, hordes of them. Heavens, here’s another one, standing right beside the door.3

Wealthy young Sostratos, afraid of being struck, timidly proclaimed that he was just meeting someone there, and old Knemon grumbled and vanished into his house. Sostratos said he would need to send his father’s emissary to talk to old Knemon, and just as Sostratos reasoned this through, out came Knemon’s daughter. Side note – Knemon’s daughter isn’t ever given a name in the play – her name is just “girl,” so I’ll refer to her as Knemon’s daughter. Anyway, so Knemon’s daughter came out of the house and Sostratos was instantly awestruck by her great beauty. Knemon’s daughter announced – to no one in particular – that she had a problem. She’d been sent by her ireful father to go and fetch some water. But a servant had dropped the bucket down into the well. Who ever could help her?

Sostratos, hearing his rustic dream girl complain about the missing bucket, quickly announced that he’d get her some water. He dashed into the shrine to help, and filled up the bucket, reemerging a moment later. Sostratos gave her the bucket, and she thanked him, and soon after, he sped off to find his father’s emissary – the one he planned to send to the angry old Knemon. Happy to have the water, Knemon’s daughter went back into her house.

There was just one problem with this seemingly innocent courtship scene of a boy fetching water for a girl. A servant had witnessed it. This servant lived on the other side of the temple from Knemon. The servant worked for Knemon’s ex-wife and former stepson, and this servant, whose name was Daos, said he would remember this occurrence. Knemon’s daughter was out on the street, not looked after, and perhaps fraternizing with anyone who happened to pass by. It just wouldn’t do. The servant, again Daos, said he would tell his master – Knemon’s former stepson, Gorgias, who would certainly intervene to help his half sister keep her reputation. [music]

Menander’s Old Cantankerous, Act II

Act 2 takes us to a new character. His name was Gorgias. And he was grumpy old Knemon’s former stepson. And his servant, Daos, told him of what had happened. Knemon’s daughter, said the servant Daos, had been spotted on the street, interacting with a man! Now, Gorgias, the girl’s half brother, was deeply troubled by this news. Gorgias said that his half sister’s reputation was still a matter of great consequence to him, and that he would intervene.

Thorikos tower southeast of athens

The ruins of a square stone tower at Thorikos, Lavrio, southeast of Athens. Photo by C messier.

He did just this when he saw handsome young Sostratos coming down the street. At first Gorgias accosted Sostratos on behalf of his half-sister. But after a bit of conversation, the two men became much more civil. Sostratos revealed that his intentions were absolutely noble – he wanted to marry the girl, he had a good income, and he didn’t desire a dowry at all – really, he just loved the girl. Hearing this, Gorgias nodded. The stranger, he reasoned, really did have the best intentions toward his half-sister. It would all have been fine and dandy, were it not for the girl’s dad, misanthropic old Knemon.

Knemon, said Gorgias, was a harsh person. He actually had a considerable swath of land, but he hated his fellow people so much that he wouldn’t accept any help in farming it, and so it was always underused. Gorgias said that his former stepfather Knemon probably wouldn’t consent to his daughter marrying a well-heeled Athenian stranger like Sostratos. Still, Gorgias added, they could certainly try. And Gorgias revealed his plan.

Gorgias said that in order to impress Knemon, Sostratos ought to get rid of his fancy cloak and nice shoes and pretend to be nothing other than a common worker, tilling the field with a mattock. And Sostratos said he’d do just this. He was so love struck, he said, that the stringent conditions of working in the fields would only make him want the girl more. After all, she’d have none of the vices of city girls. And so, with considerable difficulty, the aristocratic Sostratos hefted a mattock, and bravely began his day of farm work. A pair of servants, bearing a sheep and a load of rugs and pots and pans, discussed the curious incident. They were the servants of Sostratos’ family, and they resolved to pray to the god Pan so that whatever happened had a happy ending. [music]

Menander’s Old Cantankerous, Act III

Old, grouchy Knemon set out to his day of work. But in the little neighborhood in which the play is set, some new figures had arrived. These were the mother, and father of the handsome Athenian youth Sostratos, and their servant. Sostratos’ family had arrived in order to assist with, and superintend his courtship. Sostratos’ family brought animals and wine and incense for sacrifice at the altar of Pan. And Knemon looked at these newcomers with fury. First of all, he hated people, and detested the thought that anyone would be buzzing around his neighborhood at all. Second of all, he saw all the finery these urbanites had brought with them and thought that their wine and luxuriant foods were out of place in the rustic village and at the sacrificial altar of Pan. Knemon grumbled that he’d just have to stay in the house to avoid all the strangers.

Knemon, however, would not be left alone that day. One of the servants of Sostratos’ wealthy family had forgotten a pot. No matter, said the family of Sostratos. They’d just. . .knock on a door and ask to borrow one. One of the servants knocked on Knemon’s door. The servant knocked again, and again, and finally the old man answered with characteristic xenophobia and anger. After some harsh words, the servant gave up and Knemon said the next blue blooded city person who knocked on his door would pay dearly for doing so.

The servant returned to Sostratos’ family’s party and described his rude reception. Soon enough, Sostratos’ family cook announced that he would win the favor of this churlish country man. The cook said that he catered vast parties in Athens. Surely, he could handle a crabby hillbilly. And so the cook knocked on Knemon’s door.

This time, Knemon almost immediately resorted to physical violence. He assaulted the hopeful cook with a leather strap, beating the man until he fled from Knemon’s door. A moment later, Knemon’s door slammed shut again, making unambiguously clear his dislike for the strangers. The cook nursed his bruises and said he didn’t need a damned pot, anyway – he’d roast the meat that he had wanted to boil.

slave mask new comedy menander

A slave mask from the New Comedy period. Menander’s actors would have worn masks like these, and it is likely that the later Roman writer Plautus, who used a variety of colorful slave characters, was quite familiar with such masks.

Just then, Sostratos staggered onto the stage from the left. He said he had had a little spurt of working in the fields with his mattock – a short spurt that had exhausted him and left him rubbing his back in agony. Knemon hadn’t even come out, said Sostratos, and so he was fated to try and be observed by his beloved’s father on the following day. Sostratos went to the temple of Pan and quite to his surprise, saw his family – his family servant – all of them emerging from its door. Sostratos asked what in the world his family servants, and mother, and father were doing in the little village. The servant replied that the family was there to perform a sacrifice. Sostratos – uh – just accepted this. Why wouldn’t his family come to the pastoral village where he happened to be? Sostratos not only accepted their presence, he said he’d invite his beloved’s stepbrother to the family luncheon. And with this announcement, the love struck young man was off.

A moment later, old Knemon’s servant came out of his house, a careworn old woman who blinked at all the well dressed strangers. In a repeat of an earlier episode, the old woman said she’d dropped not only the bucket into the village well, but also her mattock. And to make things worse, Knemon emerged. Hearing that his servant had dropped her bucket and tool down the well, he threatened to make her recover it, but then said he would go down himself and get the tools.

As the furious old man began huffing back into his house to tend to the well, Sosastratos’ family servant volunteered to lend him a rope and grappling hook, but Knemon cursed the stranger and told him not to speak. Hearing this, the servant shook his head. “He’s gone rushing in again,” said the servant. “Poor man, what a life he leads. That’s your genuine [Athenian] farmer. He struggles with stony soil that grows thyme and sage, getting a good deal of pain and no profit” (38).

Following these words about the difficult existence of a country farmer, Knemon headed down into the well to recover the mattock and bucket that his servant had dropped. Meanwhile Sostratos, accompanied by Knemon’s step son, Gorgias, went into the temple of Pan to share a meal with his family. [music]

Menander’s Old Cantankerous, Act IV

Act IV begins with a calamity. As Sostratos and company enjoyed a nice lunch, suddenly the door to Knemon’s house burst open. His servant was in a state of consternation. Her master, she said – her master, Knemon, had fallen down his own well! The Athenians heard this, and Sostratos hurried in to help.

Sostratos’ servant, meanwhile, soliloquized at the exterior of Knemon’s house. The servant said that the old bastard deserved to fall into his own well. It served him right for being such a violent and rude person. Sostratos then came out of the house, and explained what had happened. And remember here that even in later Athenian drama it seems to have been most common to have major crises involving physical action unfold offstage, and be explained by a participant who was there, afterward. In this case, the participant was wealthy young Sostratos. Sostratos described how he’d helped pull Knemon out of the well. Knemon’s own stepson had been the primary lead in the effort, descending into the well himself, while Sostratos stood at the well’s rim and was thoroughly distracted by Knemon’s beautiful daughter.

A moment later, Knemon was brought out on a couch with wheels. He was shocked, and, as it soon became apparent, he was defeated by what had happened. Seeing his estranged stepson Gorgias there waiting to help him, all together with the Athenian strangers, Knemon asked his stepson to fetch his ex-wife. Once she arrived, Knemon gave a pivotal and very long speech.

Knemon said he had made the mistake of trying to be overly self-sufficient. His near death experience had taught him this. He said he’d been too stringent, and too cynical. He hadn’t believed that people helped one another for no reason, but his step son’s brave intervention – an intervention that had probably saved his life – had taught him otherwise.

Knemon said he wanted his stepson Gorgias to be his adopted son, and receive all of his property upon his death. Further, said Knemon, Gorgias would decide the marriage of his half sister – in other words, Knemon’s daughter. Whether or not Knemon died from the accident in the well, he said, his stepson Gorgias would inherit his affairs and care for his daughter. Knemon said to just divide up his property and give half of it to his widow and half to his daughter.

By way of conclusion, old Knemon turned to his daughter and addressed her directly. “Lay me down again, my dear,” he told her. “I don’t think a man should ever say more than is strictly necessary, so I’ll add only this, my child: I want to tell you a little about myself and my ways. If everyone was like me, there’d be no law-suits or dragging one another off to [the prison], and no wars: everyone would be satisfied with a moderate competence. But you may like things better as they are. Then live that way. The cantankerous and bad-tempered old man won’t stop you” (42).

Knemon’s son-in-law Gorgias, hearing all of this, moved quickly. He said that Knemon’s daughter needed to be married. After some understandable apprehension about the hastiness of it all, Knemon said he consented to the girl marrying Sostratos, whom he took to be a local farmer. After Knemon was wheeled back into his house, Sostratos was formally engaged to Knemon’s daughter. Gorgias, it seemed, wholly approved of the wealthy outlander, now.
You’ve been frank and straightforward in approaching the business, without any deceit in your courtship [said Gorgias]. And you were ready to do anything to win the girl. You’ve lived soft, but you took a mattock and dug the land, you were willing to work. A man really proves his true worth when, although he’s well-off, he’s ready to treat a poor man as his equal. A man like that will bear any change of fortune with a good grace. You’ve given adequate proof of your character. Just stay that way! (43)

And so Knemon’s stepson formally engaged his half-sister to Sostratos. There was just one last thing to take care of, and that was for Sostratos to discuss the business arrangements of the wedding with his father. [music]

Menander’s Old Cantankerous, Act V

Sostratos’ father consented to his son’s marriage with the countrified young daughter of Knemon. Sostratos’ father said that indeed genuine love was an important ingredient to a stable marriage. And yet there were still tensions between Sostratos and his father. This was because Sostratos had a sister. And Sostratos wanted this sister to marry Gorgias, Knemon’s stepson. Now, Sostratos’ wealthy father was fine with one of his children marrying a moneyless rustic. But having both children marry poor country folk just wouldn’t work. “I’ve no desire,” said Sostratos’ father, “to acquire two beggars-in-law at one go. One’s quite enough for us” (45).

Sostratos then offered his father a persuasive speech. Sostratos said that money was mutable. It came and went, and one had little control over the vicissitudes of his personal fortunes. But if one were generous – Sostratos said – if one were willing to bequeath his fortunes onto others, then one shored something up that was much more permanent and enduring than mere money. One stored up generosity. And generosity always came back. That was the gist of Sostratos’ florid but – uh – rather idealistic speech.

Notwisthstanding the shortcomings of Sostratos’ rosy monologue, Sostratos’ father bought it entirely. He said it would be fine, now that he had thought about it, for both of his children to marry impoverished country people. Now, Gorgias, when he heard of this plan, was reluctant. It was, Gorgias said, a crooked match, where his advantages would be obvious, and his wife wouldn’t receive a thing. Yet, pressured by Sostratos’ father, Gorgias finally consented. He would, he said, be willing to marry a wealthy Athenian girl, and soon found out that he would receive a gigantic dowry with her.

Then, all were off to plan. There had to be a celebration that night, and Gorgias, particularly, had some preparations to take care of. The next day, it was agreed, a double wedding would take place. Sostratos voiced a brief monologue about how much he’d achieved with his hard work. Why, in just one day, Sostratos reasoned, he’d secured himself a marriage that had seemed impossible in the morning. It’s a – weird little speech – since all Sostratos has really done has been to pretend to be a farmer for a single day and then suddenly, randomly benefit from his future father-in-law’s near death experience, but anyway, Sostratos offered a speech in which he praised his own work ethic.

Now, as for Knemon, Knemon was still resting in his house, still injured or traumatized from falling down the well. Two of Sostratos’ family servants, hearing that the badgering old man was debilitated, resolved to go and taunt the old timer while he lay helpless. Their reasoning was that now their family was united with the family of Knemon, and that the old yokel needed a bit of civilizing. The two servants brought Knemon’s bed out of his house and then made a great display of asking him for odds and ends. They asked for pans, and a basin, and tables, and rugs, and Knemon, battered and exhausted, asked them to please leave off their demands. Finally, the two servants revealed their wishes. They wanted cantankerous old Knemon to get up and dance – they wanted to bring him over where the festivities were, in the temple, and to have him dance for everyone. After much bullying, Knemon consented.

The servants brought out torches and garlands of flowers, and escorted the reluctant Knemon into the shrine of Pan for the dancing celebration. One of Sostratos’ family servants then addressed the audience, and, smiling, said, “You’ve enjoyed our victory over the old man, now please applaud us, young and old. And may laughter-loving Victory, daughter of a noble line, smile upon us all our days.” And with this, the final servant went into the temple to join the wedding celebration. And that’s the end.

New Comedy and Old Comedy

So you just finished hearing about a play. A play in which people from two different walks of life, the country and the city, come into contact with one another, a grouchy old man is chastened and made into a better person, a city-boy learns the virtues of country work, and a double marriage caps everything off and cements all of the healthy moral exchanges that have taken place. If you’ve read or attended a work of theatrical comedy, then I’d wager that this ending feels very, very familiar. A set of characters begins overall alienated from each other, but through a series of fortuitous and often comedic events, everyone arrives at an enhanced degree of togetherness and mutual understanding. It could be Shakespeare, or Bernard Shaw. It could be Oliver Goldsmith, or Jane Austen. It could the plot of a moderately successful Hollywood romantic comedy. In fact, there are so many things that the plot of Old Cantankerous could be that it’s easier to discuss what it couldn’t be.

Beardsley The Examination

Aubrey Beardsley’s The Examination (1896), a scene from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Menander’s Old Cantankerous, together with all of the New Comedy, tends to be more restrained, less sexually explicit, and less charged with overt political aims.

Old Cantankerous was produced in the winter of 316 BCE. Let’s contrast it with something. Let’s contrast Old Cantankerous with the play we talked about in the last episode – Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata. If you walked out of the theater in Athens in 411 BCE, after watching Lysistrata, you would know that you had just watched an antiwar play. You’d have had other memories of Lysistrata, of course – all the pornographic euphemisms and prosthetic penises and all that, but you would also know that the comedy you had just watched was a clear political statement that called for an end to the Peloponnesian War. Similarly, if had you walked out of the theater in Athens in 423 BCE, after watching another Aristophanes play – The Clouds – you would have known that you just watched a lengthy barrage that made fun of Socrates and his wacky order of sophists, and that this was the main thrust of the play. These two plays by Aristophanes that we’ve covered in the Literature and History podcast – these two Aristophanes plays are what we call Old Comedy.

Old Comedy is most often characterized by explicit political overtones and heavy handed social commentary. If Aristophanes is a representative example, then Old Comedy is also defined by its bathroom humor, its profanity, and its plentiful references to sex. The New Comedy, as I said before, generally seems to have been subtler. The intention of the New Comedy, which Menander practiced, rather than making fierce mockeries of figures in contemporary history, or leaving the audience with a political imperative – the intention of New Comedy seems to have been more in the direction of pure entertainment. In terms of Old Comedy, there is a message in a play like Lysistrata – that war is pulling apart the fabric of city states and denying people their most elemental physical needs. But if we look for a similarly emphatic message in the play we just heard in this show, Old Cantankerous doesn’t communicate anything so vigorously. There seems to be a mild statement about the country and city coming to understand one another, and a general sense that hubristic rural isolationists will eventually need their fellow people in order to survive and flourish. But that’s it. Old Cantankerous, along with other surviving fragments of New Comedy that we possess, doesn’t have the high-yield, weapons grade satire and political commentary that characterized the comedy of the previous century.

Well, okay. Old Comedy – that comedy of the late 400s, is over the top, profane, and unambiguously political. And New Comedy – that comedy of the late 300s, is more restrained, and as far as we can tell, less inclined to violent lampoons of contemporary historical personages and events. That’s not too hard to understand, once you know the plays, and if you’ve listened to this and the past two episodes, you already have a nifty understanding of a major evolution in world comedy that surprisingly few people know about. What I want to do now is offer you an explanation of why this evolution may have taken place – in other words why, by the time of Menander, playwrights had started leaving the giant leather penises on the stockroom shelves and writing plays about everyday life. [music]

The Corinthian and Boetian Wars

We last left off Greek history at the end of the Peloponnesian War. This war ended in 404, with Athens being on the losing end and Sparta the victor. Let’s talk a bit about what happened afterward. The victorious Spartans set up a regime in Athens called the “Thirty Tyrants.” These despots had a run of it for thirteen months, during which, in a reign of blood and turmoil, they made murder and the arrogation of property commonplace. At the close of these thirteen months, the Thirty Tyrants were deposed, and democracy was revived in 403.

Then followed a brief period of peace. Athens and the other cities exhausted by the Peloponnesian War took a short respite, storing up resources and in some cases returning to political and economic practices that had been suspended during wartime. And since everyone in Ancient Greece had lost something during the Peloponnesian War, whether family, or friends, or commercial opportunities, in the mid 390s, the most powerful city states in Greece began – uh – fighting each other again. Yeah. There was a new civil war, this one called the Corinthian War. The Corinthian War lasted from 395 until 387. What happened was that Sparta had pressed its advantage at the previous war’s end, expanding beyond what other city states were comfortable with, and so Thebes, Argos, Corinth, and Athens all banded together to fight Sparta and its allies. Eight years of renewed war got the attention of Persia, which used the war to reclaim the west coast of modern day Turkey and consolidate its holds of Cyprus and Egypt.

Just as had happened in the Peloponnesian War, Sparta had the advantage at the end of the Corinthian War. And also, just as had happened with the Peloponnesian War, the end of the Corinthian War saw Sparta assuming more power in mainland Greece. Now, this time, having spent most of the past forty years at war with one another, the major city states in Ancient Greece took a nice long respite of – uh – nearly a decade – and then started killing each other again. Sparta got a bit too aggressive following its gains at the close of the Corinthian War, and Greece’s third civil war in half a century – one we call the Boeotian War – broke out. The Boeotian War took place in the middle part of the 370s. On one side was Sparta and its traditional allies, and on the other, a prickly alliance between Athens and Thebes. This third war – again the Boeotian War, ended in the summer of 371. And from this war comes a delicious little morsel of history, which ties nicely into the later part of the 300s.

Ancient Regions Central Greece

The regions of central Greece during the Boeotian War. Sparta (off the map to the southeast) was crushed in a land battle with Thebes, which for a time became the dominant force in mainland Greece until it was leveled by Alexander of Macedon.

Throughout the 400s and 300s, no one wanted to face Sparta on land. This was part of the reason Sparta could keep being such an aggressive agent both during and after the Greco-Persian Wars. Nobody wanted to mess with those tight phalanxes of men who lived in military barracks, spoke as little as possible, and were trained to kill from childhood onward. You could slice away at the periphery of Spartan territory with your triremes, but once their land armies showed up, it was time to head for the hills. The ancient historians talk about Sparta the way modern memes talk about Chuck Norris. I don’t know if you’ve seen thouse, but you know, like “Spartans can make fire by rubbing two ice cubes together.” Or, “When a Spartan takes a bath, the Spartan doesn’t get wet. The water gets Spartan.” Or “Fear of spiders is called arachnophobia. Fear of tight spaces is called claustrophobia. Fear of Spartans is called logic.” Anyway, that’s the way some ancient historians write about Sparta – with those always-entertaining one liners. But in the 370s, for the first time in recorded history, a large force of elite Spartans found something that, even in a good old fashioned land battle, could take them out.

What happened was that the city of Thebes, during the 370s and before, had been steadily growing in power and influence. And in July of 371, soldiers Thebes, though they were outnumbered, stood squarely across the field from the terrifying and legendary Spartan infantry, locked shields, and began marching forward. Thebes had two secret weapons. One of these was called the Sacred Band of Thebes. This band was a group made of 150 pairs of male lovers handpicked by the state according to their fighting prowess and stamina. The Sacred Band of Thebes was one of the city’s chief weapons. The second was tactics. Now, without getting into the nitty gritty of military formations, I can just tell you that the Theban army reversed the traditional organization of their phalanx, placing their strongest fighters on the left wing of their line, rather than the right. Sparta, nothing if not traditionalist and conservative, didn’t expect that the right wing of their line would face an assault of ultraviolent Theban lovers in the opening seconds of the battle. And so the Spartans quickly lost a thousand men, along with their king, and due to their innovative tactics and powerful determination of the Sacred Band of Thebes. The moral of the story is, whether they were Spartans or Thebans, assaulting a heavily armed group of male lovers was a great way to get yourself killed during the Iron Age.

So, by 371, Thebes, having done the impossible, became for a time the most powerful city state in Ancient Greece. Thebes was so powerful, in fact, that for a time it held captive a person who would be rather influential in world history. A few years after the Sacred Band of Thebes helped clobber the Spartan army, when the brilliant tactics used by the Theban military must have been in discussion all over the city, Thebes held hostage a prince. His name was Philip, and history would end up calling him Philip II of Macedon. Philip, while in residence there, became the lover of the very general who had led the Sacred Band of Thebes into battle against Sparta’s toughest warriors. This general – his name was Pelopidas – was Philip’s military instructor. And after a few years of education and a few fortuitous political coincidences, Philip II went back to his rugged homeland of Macedon, where he took the throne in 359 BCE. Let’s talk about Macedon, and its most famous citizen, Alexander the Great. [music]

The Lives of Menander and Alexander

The capital of Macedon, during the late 300s, was the city of Pella. This city was a little over 200 miles north northwest of Athens as the crow flies – far longer if you took the land route, which wound through multiple mountain ranges, and even along the base of Mount Olympus itself. Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, is thus in the far north of modern day Greece. Located in a fertile valley about twenty miles from the sea, the center of the ancient kingdom of Macedon was, the year that Menander was born, a remote place far removed from the mind of the average Athenian, or Spartan, or Theban. Macedon had its own language, and its own customs. It had its own feuds with its neighbors in the central Balkans – Illyria, and Thrace – feuds that didn’t concern the more cosmopolitan Greeks like Menander and his family.


Alexander of Macedon in the Alexander mosaic in Pompeii. Menander was just a tiny node in Alexander’s world, as the famous conqueror butchered and enslaved civilizations from mainland Greece to western India.

Yet in the year 342, however much newborn Menander’s Athenian parents might not have ever given Macedon a second thought, up in the rugged north, Philip the II was riling things up. The lessons that Philip had learned from observing the lowland battles between Thebes, Sparta, and others taught Philip the importance of military tactics. Philp II of Macedon is credited with promoting the use of a weapon called the sarissa, a spear 6-10 feet longer than those traditionally used in Greek phalanxes. Using their 12-20 foot long sarissas, Philip II’s army began subjugating their ancestral enemies in the lower Balkans.

The year Menander that turned one, up in the north, Philip’s son Alexander of Macedon was already a teenager. In fact, that year, the man who would later be called Alexander the Great found a tutor. This tutor was an accomplished man from a small town in the northern part of the Aegean. His name was Aristotle. And if the surviving records of his works, and the works of those who came before him are reliable, Aristotle was one of the most ingenious, original, and productive human beings ever to have lived anywhere. In fact, tutoring the man who would eventually conquer much of the world was only a small end note on Aristotle’s resume. But this show is about Menander, so let’s steer things back in that direction.

As little baby Menander learned how to walk, and how to fasten his own sandals down in Athens, up in Macedonia, Alexander was being tutored by Aristotle in every subject known to humankind at the time. And when Menander was about six, up in Macedonia, the great king Philip II was assassinated, and his twenty-year-old son took the throne. That happened in 336 BCE. And, if you’re into memorizing dates, 336 – 323 BCE are good ones to recall from the 300s. If you had three words you could use to describe the events of 336 – 323, those words might be “war,” “chaos,” and, “death.” 336-323 BCE were the years of Alexander’s military campaigns. History might have called him “Alexander the Great.” We might also call him “Alexander the Megalomaniacal Butcher.”

Alexander executed all of his rivals. When Thebes and other Greek cities began acting out after the death of Philip II, Alexander headed down into central Greece, compelled a large contingent of allied Greeks to surrender near Mount Olympus, and then induced Athens to surrender without a fight. This was the first year of Alexander’s famous and violent adventures. The next spring, he clobbered the Thracians to the east of Macedon, and then the Illyrians to the west, and spent the rest of the year preparing for the most successful military campaign in world history.

It began in 334. Our friend Menander was just eight years old when Alexander commenced his journey to the east, the object of which was the wholesale destruction of Persia. Now, this is a great story, and I’d recommend Jaime Redfern or Dan Carlin on the subject of Alexander’s military expeditions if you want a full history podcast on the subject. For our purposes, we can just say that during Menander’s youth, the talk of all of Greece must have been how the northern king – the product of a mountainous backwater, really – the northern king Alexander was going after Achaemenid Persia in its home territory. The Greeks had crossed swords with Persians before. A century and a half ago, they’d beaten the Persians at home in the Aegean. But no one – no one before Alexander, at least, had taken it upon themselves to steer an army directly toward the Persian heartland.

So, again, Menander’s childhood would have been filled with incredulous dispatches from abroad. The author was eight when Alexander conquered the western Persian capital of Sardis, in modern day Turkey. That same year Alexander campaigned along the eastern Aegean, carving away islands and port cities controlled by Persia. As Menander celebrated his ninth and tenth birthdays, Alexander cut his way into Syria and Canaan, slowed only by the heavily fortified Phoenician city of Tyre. In Tyre, and later that year at well armored Gaza, Alexander punished the resisting cities by executing every male in the city who was of fighting age.

Menander, by this time, had his own education well under way. As Alexander contentedly watched mass executions of people who had opposed him in the eastern Mediterranean, Menander was probably studying literature and philosophy, far west of the fighting. And in 332, Alexander headed into Egypt. Egypt didn’t resist Alexander’s conquest. Quite the opposite. The kingdom along the Nile regarded Alexander as a liberator from Persian oppression, and in a famous historical episode, an oracle in an oasis in the west of modern day Egypt declared that Alexander was the son of Amun-Ra. Thereafter, Alexander began to think of himself as the son of both Zeus and Amun-Ra. And if you ever want to take human arrogance to its logical conclusion, you need to follow Alexander and declare that you’re not only the child of a god, but multiple gods, of different nations. Both of them males, by the way – I don’t know how that worked out in his mind.

Anyway, Menander turned 11 in 331, and meanwhile, after assuming control of Egypt, Alexander met the Persian army in battle in the far north of modern day Iraq. The battle – called the Battle of Gaugamela, was the most consequential defeat that the Achaemenid Persian Empire ever faced. Its king, Darius III, fled.

Menander, back in balmy Athens, was celebrating his twelfth birthday while Alexander tore through the Zagros Mountains and occupied the ancestral Persian capital of Persepolis. King Darius III was soon murdered by one of his regional governors, and Alexander founded cities in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The Macedonian army spent the early 320s in western India, with Alexander taking an increasing degree of personal risk and suffering wounds in battle as he massacred city after city. By the mid 320s, as Menander reached the ages of sixteen and seventeen, Alexander seemed poised to strike further eastward.

But finally, after ten campaign seasons abroad, Alexander’s army mutinied. They were now three thousand miles away from home – so far that their conquests were becoming meaningless. Further, campaigning as they were in the populous lowlands of the Himalayas, near where the modern state of Punjab meets Pakistan, they were fighting utter strangers who spoke unfamiliar languages and worshipped strange gods. Alexander’s army had been on board with fighting their old nemeses, the Persians. But as for shouldering their way even more deeply into an alien world, Alexander’s army had no interest. Alexander broke his army up. Some were sent to explore the Persian Gulf. The oldest veterans were allowed to return home. Others came with him to modern day Iran, where Alexander continued to try and manage his exhausted army. Sadly, Alexander’s lover and best friend Hephaestion died in the previously Persian city of Ecbatana.

Menander was nineteen years old when Alexander returned to the Mesopotamian city of Babylon. There, Alexander prepared funeral services for his beloved. Alexander had, some years before, when coming through the land between the rivers the first time, ordered that the ziggurat called Etemenanki be repaired. But in his absence, no progress had been made. Alexander ordered the ancient temple entirely destroyed. His intention was to rebuild it completely. Further, he intended to turn his aggression southward, and begin an invasion of Arabia. But he did neither. Hephaestion’s funeral proceeded. Alexander soon thereafter sickened and died. There was no Arabian campaign. The Tower of Babel was never rebuilt. Alexander’s eastward conquests had torn apart the Persian Empire and set nothing durable up in return. His death created one of the greatest and most damaging power vacuums in world history.[music]

The Wars of the Diadochi and the Awful End of the 300s

A simplified map of the warring Diadochi states after Alexander’s death. Graphic by Hidro.

In 323, the gigantic territory that Alexander conquered had an uncertain future. His generals and regional governors ended the 320s with wars. In fact, it took fifty years after the death of Alexander for balance to be restored. In what we call the Wars of the Diadochi, the successors of Alexander sliced through one another for several generations. By 300, the bloody ribbons of Alexander’s empire were divided into several mega-states controlled by his former generals – Ptolemy in Egypt, Seleucus in Mesopotamia and the distant east, Cassander in Macedon and central Greece, and Lysimachus in Turkey and the eastern shore of the Black Sea. The borders of these kingdoms continued to shift over the next quarter century. By 275, the wars of the Diadochi were over, and the violence that had begun with Philip II’s ascent to the throne – eighty five years before, began to slacken.

The year 323 begins what historians call the Hellenistic period. This was the year that Alexander died. It was the year that the ziggurat of Etemenanki, also known as the Tower of Babel, actually fell, marking the end of not only the Achaemenid Persian Empire, but also the consignment of ancient Mesopotamia to the more distant past. In this year, 323, above the Danube, the tribal peoples in Austria, and Germany, France, and the Czech Republic were becoming more prosperous, and more desirous of their own territorial acquisitions. And in this year – again 323, the Romans were fighting the Second Samnite War in southern Italy, consolidating their hold on the peninsula.

The next year – 322 – Menander turned twenty. His city, Athens, had historical prestige, but the real power for most of Menander’s artistic career would lie to the north, in Macedon. In fact, of the many historical changes wrought by Alexander, one of the most prominent was the decline of the city state. During Athens’ heyday in the 400s, a city could hold sway over a small empire in the Aegean Sea. But Alexander showed, and the successive Wars of the Diadochi showed, that a single city was no match for a league of allied cities. Athens had its pride and cultural clout, but in a way it was an anachronism. History’s great powers, thereafter, would be large kingdoms, and not tough little city states.

In 322, emboldened by the death of Alexander, Athens allied with several other city states in a revolt against Macedonian rule. As far as the Athenians were concerned, they were fighting for their freedom against a foreign invader. Athenians fought Macedonian forces. And Athens and its allies were defeated. As punishment, many of the Athenians who had agitated for the rebellion were killed. Democracy was abolished. Political participation was only permitted to men who had a sizable income. Macedon wanted Athens’ political body smaller, and more carefully monitored. A Macedonian military garrison was set up next to Piraeus, the southern portside section of the city, where Menander was from. The playwright Menander, then, knew firsthand, that in his lifetime the world had changed. It would not change back. [music]

Escapism and the Persecutions of the Diadochi

So all of that should have given you a general sense of what was going on while Menander was growing up in Athens. And now it’s time to bring the discussion back to literature. We know that the New Comedy of Menander’s period of history was more restrained, a bit less crude, and far less inclined to overt political satire than the comedy of Aristophanes in the previous century. Why was this the case? What happened over the course of the 300s that encouraged this artistic evolution?

There’s one very obvious answer. The Athens of Aristophanes, even when it was being bludgeoned by the Peloponnesian War, was still a free city for its male citizens. Aristophanes could furiously lay into generals and demagogues. Although a feud with the statesman Cleon seems to have imperiled Aristophanes with legal troubles, Aristophanes never faced the threat of death or imprisonment. This was Aristophanes’ Athens, though, and not the one Menander faced. When Menander staged the play Old Cantankerous in 316, he had compelling reasons to keep contemporary politics out of the play altogether. The play was staged at the end of a destructive four year conflict called the Second War of the Diadochi, a war that claimed the lives of Alexander’s mother, his wife, and his baby son. Menander would have known the whole bloody story – the Macedonian regent, who was supposed to oversee the peaceful division of power after Alexander’s death, refused to appoint Alexander’s son, Cassander. Cassander, for the next four years, fought the general his father had appointed.

This would have been a dangerous time to go outside, let alone write works for the theater. And so one of the reasons for the de-politicizing of Athenian drama was probably the utter instability of the late 300s. Menander saw his whole culture threatened by the Macedonian overlords. Alexander the Great had unhesitatingly killed full cities of adult men. The rebellion of 322 had resulted in a series of political executions. This was not a particularly safe time to write piercing critiques of leading politicians. So Old Cantankerous, with its humdrum plot of elderly Knemon and doughty Sostratos, and its happy double marriage, probably avoided politics because it was perilous to do otherwise. So that’s one reason why New Comedy may have become less political and more interested in everyday matters.

MacedonEmpire era of menander

A map of the full extent of Alexander’s Macedonian Empire. In Aristophanes’ democratic Athens, you could lay into state leaders and demagogues with sharp political satire. In Menander’s Athens, under the bloody shadow of Macedonian leadership, a playwright was better off telling politically neutral tales about everyday life in the city or provinces.

But there’s another reason for this evolution in theater – an evolution that as I said earlier, affected Roman comedy and everything that came afterward. The Athenians that came to the theater in the 400s, a century before Menander, expected their plays to be related to contemporary history in specific ways. In this podcast, we looked at how Aeschylus’ play The Eumenides may have been a celebration of the new Heliaia court system that had recently been established in Athens. We saw how Sophocles’ Oedipus the King might have been a statement about the sudden weakness and decline of Athens at the beginning of the 420s, and how Euripides’ Medea might have been partly written in response to the city’s marriage and citizenship regulations under Pericles. It’s all a lot to remember, of course, but from a high level view, put simply, we saw how one of the normal things that popular plays did during the 400s in Athens was to make theatergoers reflect on the social and political realities of their day.

But what if theatergoers didn’t want to reflect on those things? What if history had been so consistently turbulent, and the city’s fate had become so uncertain, that rather than having its nose rubbed more deeply into current events, an audience simply wanted to think about something else? This, I think, is another reason for the New Comedy being less political than the Old Comedy. Aeschylus could celebrate the triumphant rise of the citizen courts in 458 BCE. Sophocles could still afford to question his city’s soundness in 429. Euripides could prick and poke at Athens’ marriage regulations in 431. Because overall, in these three cases, Athens was still a cohesive democratic entity – an entity that could be praised, or second guessed, or corrected for the betterment of everyone. But over a hundred years later, the day that Old Cantankerous was first staged, Athens was facing the immediate threat of Macedon and the violent circus of generals and descendants of generals who all wanted to hack off a slice of dead Alexander’s pie. When Athenians went to the theater during these years, maybe they didn’t want to think about that. Maybe a charming, escapist story about a crotchety old man was just what they wanted. Maybe a double marriage that healed a minor rift between the country and the city was just the sort of thing the average Athenian wanted to reflect on as the whole world seemed to be going up in flames.

Historians love the conquests of Alexander the Great, and the subsequent wars of the Diadochi, and the general conflagration that led to Greek culture’s confluence with other cultures – cultures as far east as India, as far south as Sudan, and as far north as modern day Austria. The period between, say, 336 and 275 saw historical changes taking place on a scale that is jaw dropping even from 2,300 years in the future – the destruction of the Achaemenid Persian empire, the comingling of Zoroastrianism with the polytheism of ancient Greece and Egypt, and the broader geographical circulation of goods and cultures. If you read a book about Alexander, of course plenty of information about his military tactics comes up, and you see these colored diagrams of battles – the red blocks are the enemy, the blue blocks Alexander’s forces, and little arrows represent how this wing charged in this direction, and how this force was flanked on this side, and so on. It’s all very exciting and I enjoy these epic transitions in history as much as anyone. But to be a single node in one of those red blocks, or blue blocks – to be swept up in the catastrophes and miseries – the indiscriminate murder and rape and enslavement – of such a period of history – this would have been a terrible time to live. Families, and economies, and schools, and individual aspirations were all subject to the whims of Philips and Alexanders and the warring generals who came after them.

Amidst this dreadful instability, I don’t think it’s too surprising that a simpler, earthier style of theater became popular. In Menander’s Old Cantankerous, Knemon and Sostratos and their servants, a representative cross section of Athenian society, reminded the audience that even though the world was being torn apart, the folkways and personalities of everyday people would survive. Whoever domineered Athens – whether Sparta, or Thebes, or Macedon, or someone else – whoever controlled Athens, the peasantry and the aristocracy of Greece would continue to survive, and bicker, and cook, and worship the gods, and marry, as they always had. This was what Menander and his countrymen could hold onto as the 300s BCE grinded to a violent conclusion – that foreign oppressors could lumber in and reconfigure governments and laws, but that by and large, the Knemons, the Sostratoses, and the Gorgiases of Ancient Greece would weather the storms mostly unchanged, just as they always had.

Moving on to the 200s BCE

In the next show, for the first time in twelve episodes, we’re going to leave drama and return to fiction. The Hellenistic world that Alexander left behind produced a lot of literature, much of which has been lost. But one work – currently the most famous work – has not been lost. It was written in the city of Alexandria by a Greco-Egyptian scholar named Apollonius of Rhodes. And it is called Jason and the Argonauts. Now, this epic is so exciting, and so sweeping, that we’ll need two episodes for it. You will hear the story of brave young Jason, a man from the eastern shore of the Greek mainland, who embarks with an all star crew for a perilous journey deep into the Black Sea, in search of a golden fleece. When he reaches his destination, an ancient kingdom in modern day Georgia, Jason will meet Medea, who will steal the show and join the crew for a spellbinding series of subsequent adventures. In the next two episodes, there will be dragons, and fistfights, black magic and hungry monsters, strange islands rising up out of the choppy seawater, and the prow of one of literature’s most famous ships, splashing through endless breakers over the course of an astonishing 8,000-mile journey around the ancient world. Folks, get ready for an epic, because you’re going to love Jason and the Argonauts, written by Apollonius of Rhodes in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, some time around the middle of the 200s. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, I’ve got a comedy song coming up for you if you want to hear it, and if not, see you soon!

Still here? Hey, thanks! So, I got to thinking about Alexander the Great. You know I understand the guy’s historical importance – I’d be a buffoon if I didn’t get that. But at the same time, following a long line of revisionist historians, it is difficult for me to look at a person who superintended such a quantity of brutality and killing, and left behind him such a horrific mess, and give him an unqualified thumbs up. So I thought I’d write a song about him. A cute little fingerstyle guitar folk song, like the stuff I actually play when sitting around the house or singing with my friends. This one’s called “Alexander, the – um – Great.” Hope it’s funny, and in the next show, I can promise you will Argonaut be disappointed by the story of Jason and his adventures.

1.^ A house on the island of Delos archaeologists call the House of the Comedians seems to display a scene from Menander’s play Aspis. A Roman house in Ephesus, along with a mosaic in Antioch, show scenes from Menander’s Girl with her Hair Cut Short. A scene from Samia is present in a site at Mytilene called the House of Menander.

2.^ These are the plots of Menander’s plays Aspis, Perikeiromene, Samia, and Sikyonioi.

3.^ Menander. Plays and Fragments. Translated and with an Introduction by Norma Miller. Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition., p. 27. Further references are noted parenthetically.