These ὑποθέσεις (ancient plot summaries and background information) are the work of anonymous
scholars of unknown date. As MacDowell has observed, they really belong with the ancient scholia.
They are rough (sometimes very rough) summaries, attached to the manuscript editions in much the
same way that modern book-covers carry ‘blurbs’. For the most part, they attempt to summarise the
action of each drama and only occasionally will they venture a bookseller’s comment in the manner
of “an instant classic - Daily Tabloid”. Yet, just as publishers today like to catch the eye of readers
by mention of Pulitzer prizes or Booker short-lists, these synopses will often end with a mention of
victories won in dramatic competitions. The mention of these successes is usually the most valuable
piece of information included in the hypothesis because the name of the eponymous archon tells us
the year in which the drama was originally produced.
The principal textual variants are shown here in parenthesis. A full apparatus to the texts is provided
in MacDowell’s edition (pp. 43-5) along with a commentary (pp. 123-5).
The order of the ὑποθέσεις here is that in which they appear in the codices regardless of the fact that
this reverses the purported chronological sequence.
Φιλοκλέων Ἀθηναῖος φιλόδικος [-αστὴς] ὢν τὴν φύσιν ἐφοίτα περὶ [πρὸς] τὰ δικαστήρια συνεχῶς.
Βδελυκλέων δὲ ὁ τούτου παῖς ἀχθόµενος ταύτῃ τῇ [τοιαύτῃ] νόσῳ καὶ πειρώµενος τὸν πατέρα
παύειν, ἐγκαθείρξας τοῖς οἴκοις καὶ δίκτυα περιβαλὼν ἐφύλαττε(ν) [ἐφύλακτε] νύκτωρ καὶ µεθ’
ἡµέραν. ὁ δὲ ἐξόδου[ς] ἑαυτῷ [αὐτῷ] µὴ προκειµένης [-ενον] ἔκραζεν [ἐζήτει]. οἱ δὲ συνδικασταὶ
αὐτοῦ σφηξὶν ἑαυτοὺς [αὐτοὺς] ἀφοµοιώσαντες παρεγένοντο, βουλόµενοι διὰ ταύτης τῆς τέχνης
ὑποκλέπτειν τὸν συνδικαστήν· ἐξ ὧν καὶ ὁ χορὸς συνέστηκε(ν) καὶ τὸ δρᾶµα ἐπιγέγραπται. ἀλλ’
οὐδὲν ἤνυον οὐδὲ οὗτοι. πέρας δὲ τοῦ νεανίσκου θαυµάζοντος τίνος ἕνεκα ὁ πατὴρ οὕτως, ἥττηται
τοῦ πράγµατος. ἔφη ὁ πρεσβύτης τὸ πρᾶγµα εἶναι σπουδαῖον [σπουδῆς] καὶ σχεδὸν ἀρχῆς [ὡς
ἀρχὴν] τὸ δικάζειν [δικάζεν]. ὁ δὲ παῖς ἐπειρᾶτο τὰς ὑποψίας ἐξαιρεῖν τοῦ πράγµατος νουθετῶν τὸν
γέροντα. ὁ δὲ πρεσβύτης [πρέσβυς] µηδαµῶς νουθετούµενος οὐ µεθίει τοῦ πάθους [τὸ πρᾶγµα]·
ἀλλ’ ἀναγκάζεται ὁ νέος ἐπιτρέπειν αὐτῷ φιλοδικεῖν, καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς οἰκίας [τοῦ οἴκου] τοῦτο ποιεῖ
[ποεῖν / ποεῖν µόνον], καὶ τοῖς κατὰ τὴν οἰκίαν δικάζει [δικάζειν]. καὶ δύο κύνες ἐπεισάγονται
[παρεισάγονται / εἰσέρχονται] πολιτικῶς παρ’ αὐτῷ κρινόµενοι [δικαζόµενοι]· καὶ κατὰ τοῦ
φεύγοντος [τοὺς φεύγοντας] ἐκφέρειν <συνεχῶς> τὴν ψῆφον µέλλων ἀπατηθεὶς ἄκων τὴν ἀποκατα-
δικάζουσαν* φέρει ψῆφον. περιέχει δὲ καὶ δικαιολογίαν τινὰ τοῦ χοροῦ* [ποιητοῦ] ἐκ τοῦ
ποιητικοῦ [ποιητοῦ] προσώπου, ὡς [διὰ τὸ] σφηξὶν ἐµφερεῖς εἰσὶν οἱ [εῖναι τὰ] τοῦ χοροῦ, ἐξ ὧν καὶ
τὸ δρᾶµα. οἵ, ὅτε µὲν ἦσαν νέοι, πικρῶς ταῖς δίκαις* ἐφήδρευον, ἐπεὶ δὲ γέροντες γεγόνασι,
κεντοῦσι τοῖς κέντροις […].
ἐπὶ τέλει δὲ τοῦ δράµατος ὁ γέρων ἐπὶ δεῖπνον καλεῖται, καὶ ἐπὶ ὕβριν τρέπεται, καὶ κρίνει αὐτὸν
ὕβρεως ἀρτόπωλις· ὁ δὲ γέρων πρὸς αὐλὸν καὶ ὄρχησιν τρέπεται καὶ γελωτοποιεῖ τὸ δρᾶµα.
τοῦτο τὸ δρᾶµα πεποίηται αὐτῷ οὐκ ἐξ ὑποκειµένης ὑποθέσεως, ἀλλ’ ὡσανεὶ γενοµένης. πέπλασ-
ται γὰρ τὸ ὅλον. διαβάλλει δὲ Ἀθηναίους ὡς φιλοδικοῦντας, καὶ σωφρονίζει τὸν δῆµον ἀποστῆναι
δικῶν, καὶ διὰ τοι τοῦτο καὶ τοὺς δικαστὰς σφηξὶν ἀπεικάζει [εἰµάζει] κέντρα ἔχουσι καὶ πλήττουσι.
πεποίηται δ’ αὐτῷ χαριέντως.
ἐδιδάχθη ἐπὶ ἄρχοντος ἀµυνίου* διὰ Φιλωνίδου ἐν τῇ πθ΄ ὀλυµπιάδι. δεύτερος ἦν, εἰς Λήναια. καὶ
ἐνίκα πρῶτος Φιλωνίδης «Προάγωνι», Λεύκων «Πρέσβεσι» [πρέσβεις] τρίτος.
The following appear likely emendations: ἀποκαταδικάζουσαν ἀποδικάζουσαν (Brunck)
ποιητοῦ χοροῦ (Mousouros) ταῖς δίκαις τοῖς Πέρσαις (van Leeuwen) or ταῖς Μηδικαὶς (Zacher)
ἀµυνίου Ἀµεινίου (Brunck)
“An Athenian, Philokleon, is a dedicated juror by nature and spends all his time at the law-courts.
His son Bdelykleon, on the contrary, is distressed at this addiction of his and tries to get his father to
desist. He has confined him to their living quarters and after spreading nets around keeps him under
guard night and day. The father, finding it impossible to get out, starts to loudly complain. Then his
fellow-jurors come by, having made themselves resemble wasps,*1 and intent on stealthily stealing
their fellow away by this stratagem. They make up the chorus and the play takes its title from them.
But, they do not accomplish anything either. At last, since the young man is at a loss as to why his
father is like this, he gives way in the affair. The old man declares that jury-courts are a matter of
grave importance amounting almost to sovereign power. The son endeavours to allay the old man’s
suspicions and to make him see sense over the matter, but the old man cannot be set straight by any
means and will not relinquish his passion. Instead, the young man is forced to permit his passion for
He creates this <court> in their home and <his father> sits in judgment over members of the house-
hold. Next, two dogs are brought on to be judged by him on matters pertaining to the state.*2 All
the while he intends to deliver his vote against the defendant, but is tricked into casting his vote for
‘not guilty’ against his will.
The play also contains a speech from the poet’s persona in defence of the chorus,*3 <saying> how
the members of the chorus are remarkably like wasps (from whom the drama takes its title). When
they were young they used to lie in wait keenly for the forces of the Mede,*4 but now, grown old,
they sting defendants <in trials> with their stingers.
At the end of the drama the old man is invited to dine out and gives way to outrageous behaviour. A
bread-woman accuses him of assault. The old man, however, gives himself up to flute music and
dancing, turning the play into a farce.
This drama has been composed by him (Aristophanes), not from any fictional assumption but as if it
were actual. The whole affair has been contrived. He ridicules the Athenians as litigious and warns
the people to desist from trials. He has constructed a witty play.*5
It was produced by Philonides*6, when Ameinias*7 was archon, in the 89th Olympiad. It placed
second, at the Lenaia <festival>. Philonides won first prize <with his> “Preview”, Leukon won
third prize <with his> “Ambassadors”.
1. The accompanying list of characters refers to “a chorus of aged wasps” (ἐκ γερόντων σφηκῶν), a
description which has misled many into believing that the old men have been made up to resemble
insects, as the writer seems to believe. One can probably infer from discrepancies on this point that
two or more summaries have been combined in the present text.
2. Although two dogs are brought on, only one is put on trial.
3. Hall and Geldart attribute the emendation to the Aldine editor, Mousouros. In fact, it is found in a
contemporary manuscript copy J (Vaticanus Palatinus 128), though this raises the possibility that he
might also have had a hand in transcribing it at an earlier date.
4. The text reads ‘bitterly watching for trials’, but Hall and Geldart saw that the verb was not really
suitable and that there ought to be a contrast between the jurors’ youthful activities and their judicial
role now, so they obelized ταῖς δίκαις. The sense can be mended by van Leeuwen’s suggestion τοῖς
Πέρσαις, but the existing text is better explained by Zacher’s ταῖς Μηδικαὶς (sc. ναυσίν). This does
not meet with MacDowell’s approval because the chorus refer (1071-90) to a battle on land, but this
was the battle at Marathon, which culminated at the Persian ships beached there. In any case, there
were other significant naval engagements later, at Artemision and Salamis, which would justify the
reference. Moreover, one could understand the reference to mean στρατίαις, as I have translated. It
is possible that originally there had been a phrase such as ἐν ταῖς δίκαις at the end of the subsequent
clause which was seen as redundant once Μηδικαὶς had been miscopied.
5. The adverb χαριέντως (literally ‘filled with the Graces’) can be rendered as “witty” here (cf. test.
60). But, it could also be a nod to the graceful Attic style which was a feature of his work (cf. test.
65, sinceram illam sermonis Attici gratiam…retinet - “<Old Comedy> preserves the pure grace of
6. The accuracy of this information has been brought into question. It is thought that Aristophanes
must by now have been directing his own play, and so Petersen proposed deleting διὰ Φιλωνίδου.
This seems all the more necessary since Philonides is said to have won first prize with another play
“Preview” (which was possibly also written by Aristophanes).
7. The manuscripts of this hypothesis name the archon Amynias, the name of one of the prominent
men pilloried in the play. Since, according to other sources (e.g. Athenaios 218δ, Diodoros 12.72.1)
the archon was named Ameinias, it is probable that the error here has also been repeated in the text
of the play.
All but one of the extant dramas of Aristophanes carries a ten-line précis in iambic metre. These are
traditionally attributed to Aristophanes of Byzantion, the scholar who became head of the library at
Alexandria circa 200 B.C, and is credited with devising both the system of periodic punctuation and
of accentuation to elucidate earlier texts. Though the lackluster quality of the verses has cast doubt
on this attribution, it may be that these synopses were commissioned by the librarian to serve as an
aide-memoire attached to the bulky book-rolls.
φιλοῦντα δικάζειν πατέρα παῖς εἵρξας ἄφνω
αὐτός τ’ ἐφύλαττεν ἔνδον οἰκέται θ’, ὅπως
µὴ λανθάνῃ µηδ’ ἐξίῃ διὰ τὴν νόσον.
ὁ δ’ ἀντιµάχεται παντιὶ τρόπῳ καὶ µηχανῇ.
εἶθ’ οἱ συνήθεις καὶ γέροντες, λεγόµενοι
σφῆκες, παραγίνονται βοηθοῦντες σφόδρα
ἐπὶ τῷ δύνασθαι κέντρον ἐνιέναι τισὶν
[σφῆκες παρόντες ἐκ ταυτοῦ κακοῦ]
φρονοῦντες ἱκανόν. ὁ δὲ γέρων τηρούµενος
συµπείθετ’ ἔνδον διαδικάζειν καὶ βιοῦν,
ἐπεὶ τὸ δικάζειν κέκρικεν ἐκ παντὸς τρόπου.
“A son has of a sudden confined a father who is addicted to jury-duty. Both he and his household
slaves have been keeping him under guard indoors, so that he does not elude them and get out - all
because of his affliction. The father, however, puts up resistance using every means and every trick.
Then the father’s elderly buddies, the so-called ‘wasps’, happen by, coming to the rescue with great
passion, so as to be able to put their sting into people, [Their condition as wasps is the result of the
same affliction.]* being fully intent <to do so>. Since he is kept under watch and has made up his
mind to be a juror by whatever means necessary, the old man agrees to live and do his jury-duty at
* The eighth line is found in the Ravenna codex only.
The Cowardly Hero
One of the most frequently ridiculed figures in the extant comedies of Aristophanes is a man named
Kleonymos. Between Ἀχαρνεῖς (425 B.C.) and Ὄρνιθες (414 B.C.) he is mentioned no less than
seventeen times; at least once in each play and three times in Σφῆκες alone. Since he does not figure
in the histories of Thucydides, it appears likely that he was one of those ‘dogs’ who stayed at home
and directed domestic politics. Storey (1989) points to the coincidence of epigraphical evidence (IG
I³ 61, 68, 69 dated 426/5 B.C.) with the first appearance of his name in Comedy and surmises that
his absence from any source later than 414 B.C. may be thought to indicate that he was a casualty of
the disastrous Sicilian expedition.
In Σφῆκες, we meet him first in the dream described by Xanthias, which so perturbs his fellow -
slave (15-27). Although, the figure central to the dream, symbolized by the great eagle, may be
Kleon himself, it is Kleonymos who is seen to get rid of a shield held in the bird’s talons.
κἄπειτα ταύτην ἀποβαλεῖν Κλεώνυµον (19)
The dream was presented to the audience as a puzzle of the sort that a witty symposiast might pose.
No explanation is offered for why the eagle had seized a shield in the market-place, and, for some
reason, the audience was expected to realize that disposing of shields, wherever they were to be
found, was characteristic of the politician Kleonymos.
Later, we are introduced to his real persona, when the Father talks about two political figures, who
champion the cause of the ordinary citizen (592-3),
εἶτ’ Εὔαθλος χὠ µέγας οὗτος Κολακώνυµος ἀσπιδαποβλής,
οὐχὶ προδώσειν ἡµᾶς φασιν, περὶ τοῦ πλήθους δὲ µαχεῖσθαι.
The first is the young prosecutor who had so mercilessly assailed the noble son of Melesias a few
years before; the second, described as both ‘eminent’ and ‘a flatterer’, is recognizably the same
Kleonymos who ‘discards shields’.
Finally in this play, his name suddenly crops up again unexpectedly in an aside spoken, in all
likelihood, by two slaves (822-3),
οἷόσπερ ἡµῖν φαίνεται Κλεώνυµος.
“For us, Kleonymos is hard on the eyes in the much the same way.”
οὔκουν ἔχει γ’ οὐδ’ αὐτὸς ἥρως ὢν ὅπλα.
“He doesn’t have his ‘equipment’ with him either, even though he is a hero.”
These incidental comments receive little help from the context. The Father and Son have just been
discussing the provision of a shrine to the hero Lykos to add verisimilitude to their home -court,
when the first slave observes that Kleonymos is as hard to look at as an actual λυκος / wolf would
be. To this the second slave adds the abstruse thought that, even though he has not got his weapons,
the politician is a hero (like Lykos) nonetheless. Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that his lack of
weapons could be due to the fact that he had thrown away his shield. But, in that case, how can he
still be considered a hero? We are told by a near-contemporary source * that anyone found guilty of
throwing away his shield could have his name removed from the citizen-roll. So it was clearly
considered a serious offence, tantamount to desertion in the face of the enemy, and yet it does not
seem to have had any effect on our hero’s political career.
The allegations of him having discarded his shield had appeared first in Νεφέλαι the previous year,
when the Clouds are said to alter their forms to match the characters of people they see on the
ground. They first take on the shape of wolves when they spot the rapacious “predator of the public
purse” Simon (351-2), but then transform themselves into deer when Kleonymos appears (353-4),
ταῦτ’ ἄρα, ταῦτα Κλεώνυµον αὗται τὸν ῥίψασπιν χθὲς ἰδοῦσαι,
ὅτι δειλότατον τοῦτον ἑώρων, ἔλαφοι διὰ τοῦτ’ ἐγένοντο.
“So that explains it! When they caught sight of Kleonymos the other day, they recognized him as the
timorous discarder of his shield and that’s why they turned into deer.”
After Σφῆκες, Aristophanes returned to the attack the following year in Εἰρήνη, in which he makes
explicit his accusation of cowardice by having the son of Kleonymos sing the opening of notorious
elegiacs by Archilochos
(1295-1304). The original verses, which Aristophanes has modified
slightly to his purpose, make it clear that Kleonymos stands accused of having thrown away his
shield in battle (frg. 5, West).
ἀσπίδι µὲν Σαΐων τις ἀγάλλεται, ἣν παρὰ θάµνῳ
ἔντος ἀµώµητον κάλλιπον, οὐκ ἐθέλων·
αὐτὸν δ' ἔκ µ' ἐσάωσα· τί µοι µέλει ἀσπὶς ἐκείνη;
ἐρρέτω· ἐξαῦτις κτήσοµαι οὐ κακίω.
“Some Thracian takes pleasure in owning my shield,
It was a good shield; I had no complaints of it,
But I had to abandon it near a bush.
I got away in one piece, anyhow.
Why should I give a thought for that shield?
Let it go. I’ll get myself a better one in due course.”
By quoting these lines of Archilochos, Aristophanes appears to confirm the conclusion that the
demagogue had discarded his shield in battle in order to save his skin. Consequently, it has been
generally thought that, since the matter of ῥιψασπία is first publicly-aired in 423 in Νεφέλαι, the
occasion on which Kleonymos threw away his shield could well have been the rout at the battle
with the Boiotians at Delion in 424. Presumably, there were many who had been compelled to take
to their heels for dear life when the Boiotian cavalry surprised them, so that Kleonymos may have
been exonerated on grounds of expediency. Furthermore, there were doubtless cases where the
shield was dropped when it would have been an impediment to fighting. To lower one’s shield in
the battle-line would certainly have been a gross betrayal of the hoplite on one’s left, as it exposed
him to attack. But, in irregular combat once the line had broken, the shield was only for one’s own
protection and discarding it might make better sense. Thus, Archilochos could be telling us that he
had been forced (οὐκ ἐθέλων) to abandon his shield because of the rough terrain and scrub (παρὰ
θάµνῳ) in which he found himself. Similarly, Brasidas was apparently absolved of the disgrace for
the loss of his shield, usually suffered by Spartans who returned home alive without their shield (cf.
823 note). Even so, it is surprising that Kleonymos evidently enjoyed a prominent role in Athenian
politics despite losing his and is acknowledged as a hero as well. Stranger still, perhaps, is the fact
that this action of his is treated by Aristophanes as a laughing matter.
* * *
The inference that Kleonymos had thrown away his shield at Delion has not always persuaded
scholars, because there is a mention of him in connection with a shield in Ἱππεῖς that predates the
battle. In outlining his future policies, ‘Demos’ insists he will right certain wrongs (1369-72).
ἔπειθ’ ὁπλίτης ἐντεθεὶς ἐν καταλόγῳ
οὐδεὶς κατὰ σπουδὰς µετεγγραφήσεται,
ἀλλ’ οὗπερ ἦν τὸ πρῶτον ἐγγεγράψεται.
“What’s more, nobody will obtain a postponement through his connections, once he has been
enrolled for military service as a hoplite.”
τοῦτ’ ἔδακε τὸν πόρπακα τὸν Κλεωνύµου.
“That would sting Kleonymos on the shield-grip!”
As Storey says, this reference to an essential feature of a shield, the part which is attached to make
it ready for use, can hardly be divorced from the subsequent run of jokes about shields being
discarded. He suggests quite convincingly that Kleonymos’s infamous ῥιψασπία might actually
have been a metaphor for his avoidance of military service (p. 256). The metaphor is made explicit,
he notes, in the second παράβασις of Εἰρήνη where the chorus complain about an odious type of
commander (1171, θεοῖσιν ἐχθρὸν ταξίαρχον) whose fine military uniform is usually seen leaving
the battlefield before the common soldier and others like him at home who “enter some of us in the
draft, while others they remove willy-nilly two or three times.”
τοὺς µὲν ἐγγράφοντες ἡµῶν, τοὺς δ’ ἄνω τε καὶ κάτω
ἐξαλείφοντες δὶς ἢ τρίς .
It is these men, those who receive continual deferments, who are the real “discarders of their
shields, in the sight of gods and men” (1186, οἱ θεοῖσιν οὗτοι κἀνδράσιν ῥιψάσπιδες).
He might have added that, though Kleonymos cannot be identified with the preening, military
commander in this passage of Εἰρήνη, there is a strong insinuation earlier in the play that his name
was one of those repeatedly crossed off the levy (674-8).
ποῖός τις οὖν εἶναι ’δόκει τὰ πολεµικὰ
“So how was Kleonymos when it came to war?”
ψυχήν γ’ ἄριστος πλήν γ’ ὅτι
οὐκ ἦν ἄρ’ οὗπέρ φησιν εἶναι τοῦ πατρός.
εἰ γάρ ποτ’ ἐξέλθοι στρατιώτης, εὐθέως
ἀποβολιµαῖος τῶν ὅπλων ἐγίγνετο.
“As feisty as they come…except that it seems he was not a son of the father he said he was, as, if he
was ever <obligated> to go on a military campaign, he tended to get rid of his weapons.”
Consequently, with Storey, I consider that there are good grounds for interpreting the constant
mockery of Kleonymos for ῥιψασπία as an allusion to a number of deferments from military
service, beginning at least as far back as 426/5 B.C. This coincides with his appearance on the
political scene in moving decrees and therefore may have been entirely honourable and due to some
public office which he held, rather than some medical excuse (bone-spurs?) or his father pulling
* * *
The dream related by the slave Xanthias in Σφῆκες appears to deride Kleonymos’s support for
Kleon in the matter of the shields captured at Pylos, by resurrecting the earlier ridicule for his
avoidance of overseas service. For, while the Spartans’ shields were a trophy to be celebrated,
Kleonymos (and his stay-at-home friends) were hardly the ones to be sharing in the glory for them
(ἀγάλλεσθαι). But, then, Aristophanes carries the joke a step further. If Kleonymos’s deferments
were represented as tantamount to throwing away his soldierly equipment, then it might be said that
he was an ὁπλίτης who no longer had his ὅπλο and this might be construed. as meaning that as a
man (27, ἄνθρωπος) he had really lost his manhood. There are a number of instances where the
clear connection is made between military equipment and genitalia e.g. Νεφέλαι 989, where a young
man is said to thrust out his shield in a provocative manner when dancing (τὴν ἀσπίδα...προέχων),
and others where one may suspect it e.g. Σφῆκες 1081, when the Chorus picture themselves sallying
forth ξὺν δορὶ ξὺν ἀσπίδι.
Storey makes the reasonable suggestion that a man without his ὅπλο or ἀσπίς would be, to all
intents and purposes, emasculated and ‘no better than a female’ in wartime. Thus, he connects the
“a man who has got rid of his weapons” (27, ἄνθρωπος ἀποβαλὼν ὅπλα) with the
feminization of the ἀστράτευτοι, men who, for one reason or another, do not perform military
service. The leading example was the archon Ameinias, who was probably too old for active service
by now, and who is said to be engaged in diplomacy with the Thessalians in any case (cf. 1266-74).
In Νεφέλαι, Sokrates decides that, grammatically at least, Ameinias is feminine.
ὁρᾷς; γυναῖκα τὴν Ἀµεινίαν καλεῖς.
“Don’t you see? You are calling Ameinias just as you would call a woman.”
οὔκουν δικαίως, ἥτις οὐ στρατεύεται;
“Quite appropriate really, for one who doesn’t take part in military campaigns.” (691-2)
In the same scene (673-80), Strepsiades misunderstands Sokrates to be saying that Kleonymos
should properly be called ‘Κλεωνύµη’, in view of the fact that (s)he mills her barley-corns or
pleasures herself in her mortar (i.e. the female vagina), rather than using a pestle (i.e. the male
So then, the dream shows us how one fantastic accusation of ῥιψασπία based on avoidance of
military service (probably for legitimate reasons) could be exaggerated even further to cast the
suspicion that Kleonymos’s failure to serve was actually because, as a ‘eunuch’, he had failed the
army-medical. In either case, the underlying pretext for the joke was ἀστρατεία, which the word
itself probably suggested by virtue of inherent ambiguity. It will be noted that ἀστρατεία is found
with ῥιψασπία in the same catalogue of crimes punishable by ἀτιµία, and so the poet is taking
advantage of a legal distinction between discreditable evasion of ones duty to serve, and legitimate
avoidance. Even so, inevitably, those who had served overseas would have felt some resentment for
others who had remained at home in safety and comfort. For this reason, I am less hesitant than
Storey in seeing Kleonymos among those drones who lacked a stinger, sitting at home and enjoying
the revenue provided by the navy (1114-6),
ἀλλὰ γὰρ κηφῆνες ἡµῖν εἰσιν ἐγκαθήµενοι
οὐκ ἔχοντες κέντρον, οἳ µένοντες ἡµῶν τοῦ φόρου
τὸν πόνον κατεσθίουσιν οὐ ταλαιπωρούµενοι.
* Andokides’ speech περὶ τῶν Μυστηρίων was delivered in 399 B.C.
καὶ ὁπόσοι λίποιεν τὴν τάξιν, ἢ ἀστρατείας ἢ δειλίας ἢ ἀναυµαχίου ὄφλοιεν, ἢ τὴν ἀσπίδα
ἀποβάλοιεν,...οὗτοι πάντς ἄτιµοι ἦσαν τὰ σώµατα, τὰ δὲ χρήµατα εἶχον. (1.74)
“Also, all who deserted the ranks in battle or were found guilty of evading military service,
cowardice, or not engaging in a sea-fight, or those who threw away their shield…would be
personally disenfranchised, but retain their property rights.”
Storey, Ian C. - ‘The blameless shield of Kleonymos’ in Rheinisches Museum 132 (1989) 247-61
(open access on-line)
A Stinger in the Tale
ὡς ἔγωγ’ αὐτῶν ὁρῶν δέδοικα τὰς ἐγκεντρίδας (427)
“I don’t like the look of those spiky things of theirs one bit.”
Recent commentators have tended to assume that Aristophanes brought on his chorus of aged jurors
fitted out to look like wasps. MacDowell (p. 190) declares that, the chorus are wearing costumes
which make them look like wasps”. He suggests that they may have worn “black and yellow tunics”
under their cloaks. His assumption appears to be supported by the anonymous, author of the ancient
synopsis (Ὑπόθεσις α΄), who informs us that the members of the chorus “have made themselves
resemble wasps” as a means to gain the release of their brother-juror
ἀφοµοιώσαντες παρεγένοντο βουλόµενοι διὰ ταύτης τῆς τέχνης ὑποκλέπτειν τὸν συνδικαστήν).
Besides, the chorus-men themselves point out to the audience (1071-6) the fact that they possess
two physical attributes in common with wasps, a narrow waist between abdomen and thorax, and a
εἴ τις ὑµῶν, ὦ θεαταί, τὴν ἐµὴν ἰδὼν φύσιν
εἶτα θαυµάζει µ’ ὁρῶν µέσον διεσφηκωµένον,
ἥτις ἡµῶν ἐστιν ἡ ’πίνοια τῆς ἐγκεντρίδος,
ῥᾳδίως ἐγὼ διδάξω, κἂν ἂµουσος ᾖ τὸ πρίν.
ἐσµὲν ἡµεῖς, οἷς πρόσεστι τοῦτο τοὐρροπύγιον,
Ἀττικοὶ µόνοι δικαίως ἐγγενεῖς αὐτόχθονες.
“With regard to my physical appearance, should any of you in the audience, be surprised to note my
narrow, waspish waist, and wonder as to the significance of this prick of ours, I can easily explain
even <to someone> unversed <in entomology>. We, who have this abdominal member, are the
only truly, native-born species, indigenous to Attika.”
The narrow waist is attributable to two causes. Firstly, they have spent their prime, adult years
‘behind the oar’ propelling triremes around the Aegean. Their abdominal muscles are as toned as it
is possible to be without steroids. Secondly, their wartime diet left them little opportunity to put on
fat (300-1, 674). In the original performance one can assume that the dancers would have been slim-
waisted in any case; their costume did not need to emphasize this fact. Though their proportions
might well have been accentuated by a little padding (so MacDowell p. 271), the short, threadbare
cloaks they wear would lend their torsos a deceptive bulk
But the idea that the ‘wasps’ may have sported a sting as part of their costume seems to some to be
borne out by their earlier confrontation with Bdelykleon and his slaves, where the leader of the
chorus encourages his swarm to summon up their rage, κινεῖν ἐκείνην τὴν χολήν, which they
display whenever someone disturbs their nest (403-4) and to bring into action “the sharp stinger
with which they are furnished”, κέντρον ἔντεα ὀξύ (405-7). The received text suggests that they are
being urged to brace these stingers like projectiles, which would not be suited to the situation, but
each must display something that can be taken to stand for a wasp’s stinger, because one of the
slaves claims to see them with his own eyes as soon as they pull back their cloaks (420, καὶ κέντρα
ἔχουσιν. οὐχ ὁρᾷς; ). Whatever this symbolic stinger may be it cannot be projecting from the rumps
of the ‘wasps’, because their backsides are still concealed by the cloaks, but also because the
chorus-leader instructs them to form up as they would in court, all facing ‘the accused’ so as to
direct their venom at their common target. Consequently, we can understand that they advance upon
the unfortunate slaves; their cloaks billowing behind them, exposing “the stinger which protrudes
from their loins” (cf. 225, κέντρον ἐκ τῆς ὀσφύος). It is apparent, therefore, that the physical
embodiment of their anger is the property-phallos which, up to now at any rate, has dangled limply
beneath their outer garment. Should confirmation be needed, one has only to consider Philokleon’s
own appearance for, if his fellow-jurors were to be dressed as wasps, he would surely be similarly
attired. Moreover, we find out in due course that he too is equipped with the same κέντρον ὀξύ as
his fellow-wasps, even though his seems to have suffered the mellowing effects of age and too
much alcohol (1342-3).
The comic-poet has utilized his actors’ traditional, satiric costume to reinforce their identity as
‘waspish’ jurymen. It is a physical attribute to serve as a reminder that their claim to possess a
stinger is a metaphor for their characteristically aggressive nature. Thus, he crudely correlates male
aggression with an excess of testosterone; a point which George Carlin has encapsulated in his
aphorism that ultimately all wars are based on penis-envy.
The ‘wasps’ make clear the connection when they talk of the battles waged with their member in
days gone by (1060-3) and boast of their downright curmudgeonly nature.
πολλαχῇ σκοποῦντες ἡµας εἰς ἅπανθ’ εὑρήσετε
τοὺς τρόπους καὶ τὴν δίαιταν σφηξὶν ἐµφερεστάτους.
πρῶτα µὲν γὰρ οὐδὲν ἡµῶν ζῷον ἠρεθισµένον
µᾶλλον ὀξύθυµόν ἐστιν οὐδὲ δυσκολώτερον.
“However you look at it, you’ll find that we closely resemble wasps in everything, from our
behavioural traits to our pattern of life. For a start, there’s no other creature which is more quick-
tempered or more fractious when aroused.” (1102-5)
In two other extant works, Ὄρνιθες and Βάτραχοι, the choruses would have worn appropriate masks
and costumes to show that they represented actual birds and frogs. Perhaps the chorus-men of the
lost play Πελαργοί were also fitted out with beaked masks and short stilts to show that they
portrayed ‘Storks’. But, the Σφῆκες were wasps in name only. Their appearance was that of
somewhat decrepit old men. It is for this reason that I have used the exclamation mark in the title of
the play. The Latin title would properly be ‘Cave Vespes’.
* * *
In satirizing the Athenians’ passion for litigation, Aristophanes would certainly not have been
alone, for the business of the courts would have aroused debate among the citizen body, since so
many of them were regularly involved in the proceedings, and would have probably caused
dissension, as prosecutions were often founded on political antagonism. Our understanding of
Aristophanes’ Σφῆκες would surely benefit from having one of his rivals’ plays on the subject
extant, but we have only faint echoes of competing works in the fragmentary evidence. There was a
play by Eupolis entitled Ὑβριστοδίκαι, ‘Those who abuse Justice’ or, as Polydeukes has it (8. 126,
οἱ µὴ βουλούµενοι τὰς δίκας εἰσαγαγεῖν) possibly ‘Those who circumvent Justice’, and another by a
lesser-known comic-poet named Thougenides with the title ∆ικασταί, though it is not known
certainly whether either was produced prior to Σφῆκες.
At any rate, the law-courts afforded an obvious play-area in which the younger satirists could
exercise their wit. As it is, we have the example of the previous year’s Νεφέλαι, in which the poet
had already mocked the new breed of ‘educated’ advocates who were able to sway juries with their
‘clever’ arguments and so cause Justice to miscarry on occasion. On the other hand, mention is
made of a court-case which foundered in spite of Sokrates’ forensic expertise.
In Σφῆκες, there are oblique references to some of the recent causes célèbres. The main event, as
the trial of the dog Labes suggests, was the impeachment of the στρατηγός Laches over his
misappropriation of public monies (240-1). Another prominent case had involved Karystion, a
resident alien (281-3), on an unknown charge, while the recent reverses in Thrace had led to the
arraignment of one of the commanders responsible for the loss of Amphipolis, Thucydides or
Eukles (288-9). The same Thucydides, or an earlier namesake, had been ‘lost for words’ at his trial
(947-8). As well as these eminent defendants, we hear of advocates who had handled
mishandled) recent cases, Philippos (421) and Khairephon (1412-3), and there was talk of perceived
collusion between such advocates (691-5). But the main thrust of the play is not just the role of the
older generation in hounding greedy, public officials, but the zealous manner in which they perform
their duties. For Aristophanes, the central theme of this particular satire is their malevolence and
irascibility, symbolized by their ‘stinger’. The jurors’ waspishness may sometimes be in doubt
when he confuses them with bees that collect pollen and make honey-combs and can be driven off
with smoke (456), or when Philokleon is called a honey-bee and worker-bee (107, 366), even so,
their readiness to use their stingers justifies their true identity as wasps
It has been suggested by Collard (1975, pp.8-14)* that the metaphor of the κέντρον in Σφῆκες may
derive from a speech of Euripides’ Ἱκέτιδες when describing class rivalry, in the previous year’s
οἱ δ’ οὐκ ἔχοντες καὶ σπανίζοντες βίου
δεινοί, νέµοντες τῷ φθόνῳ πλέον µέρος,
ἐς τοὺς ἔχοντας κέντρ’ ἀφιᾶσιν κακά,
γλώσσαις πονηρῶν προστατῶν φηλούµενοι.
“Those who live in dire deprivation with nothing to their name are to a great extent consumed with
envy and direct the venom of their hatred at the well-to-do, misled by the lying tongues of their
Certainly, the description resonates with the Son’s complaint of how difficult it is to treat “the
ancient disease <of class hatred> which has given birth to <the jury-courts> in the city” (651,
ἰάσαθαι νόσον ἀρχαίαν ἐν τῇ πόλει ἐκτετοκυῖαν). But, the metaphorical use of κέντρον seems to
have had other proponents in comic-drama, in any case. It is used, for instance, by Eupolis (frg.
102) to convey Perikles’ unique ability to instil fervor in his audience.
πειθώ τις ἐπεκάθιζεν ἐπὶ τοῖς χείλεσιν
οὕτως ἐκήλει καὶ µόνος τῶν ῥητόρων
τὸ κέντρον ἐγκατέλειπε τοῖς ἀκροωµένοις.
“A certain power of persuasion would alight upon his lips so he was able to mesmerize his audience
and he alone of the public speakers would leave his sting in them”.
But, perhaps closer to home, is a fragment from a comic-drama of Phrynichos (frg. 3), which at first
sight appears to be speaking about young men, but may in fact describe old men in the second youth
offered by jury-service.
ἔστιν δ’ αὐτούς γε φυλάττεσθαι τῶν νῦν
ἔχουσι γάρ τι κέντρον ἐν τοῖς δακτύλοις,
µισάνθρωπον ἄνθος ἥβης
εἶθ’ ἡδυλογοῦσιν ἅπασιν ἀεὶ κατὰ τὴν ἀγορὰν περιόντες.
ἐπὶ τοῖς <δὲ> βάθροις ὅταν ὦσιν, ἐκεῖ τούτοις οἷς ἡδυλόγουσιν
µεγάλας ἀµυχὰς καταµύξαντες καὶ συγκύψαντες ἅπαντες
“The hardest job of all nowadays is protecting oneself against them. They hold in their fingers a
kind of stinger, you see, a product of youth’s general animosity. When they stroll around the
market-place they always speak cordially to everyone they meet, <but> then when they are in their
seats, they gouge deep scars on those whom they are used to compliment and double up with
laughter as one.”
One might have thought he was talking about ‘disaffected youth’, the group of mostly young
satirists to which he himself belonged. They haunted the Agora, conversing affably with those who
were to be the targets of their ridicule in the theatre. But the κέντρον here is probably not the poets’
stylus; rather it is the juror’s finger-nail which scratches long lines in the beeswax to seal the
defendant’s fate. For, we can spot Philokleon in the Agora first being petitioned at the court-railings
and affably promising to go easy on the defendant, then turning back into a wasp once inside (560-
1) and afterwards bumbling home contentedly with wax-clogged nails (108).
*Collard, Christopher - Euripides’ Suppliants (Groningen, 1975)
Silence in court
ὅπερ ποτὲ φεύγων ἔπαθε καὶ Θουκυδίδης
ἀπόπληκτος ἐξαίφνης ἐγένετο τὰς γνάθους. (947-8)
Commentators are universally agreed that the dog’s inability to answer the charge refers to an
incident at the trial of Thoukydides son of Melesias a few years previously, because it appears to tie
in with a mention in Ἀχαρνεῖς (703-12). There, the elderly, conservative leader was said to have
been savaged by the brutal accusations of Euathlos (cf. 592), a fierce prosecutor many years his
junior. It has been assumed that the present passage refers back to this case and that the older
politician had ‘of a sudden become tongue-tied’ as a result of the young prosecutor’s vigorous
attacks. But the passage in Ἀχαρνεῖς does not state unequivocally that Melesias’s son had failed to
make his defence. He was, after all, a rhetor of long experience, a faction leader who had sparred
with Perikles in the Assembly. It is merely an expression of the aged chorus-leader’s sympathy with
the old politician for having had to face up to such a prosecutor at his advanced age. Besides, that
prosecution by Euathlos had taken place some years before, 426/5 B.C. at the latest, so it was hardly
topical news. Consequently, given the time that had elapsed since this clash of generations, one
cannot automatically assume that the same man is φεύγων; indeed it is much more likely that the
reference here is to a more recent prosecution of another Thoukydides.
At the time of our play, Kleon was away in Thrace attempting to put a stop to the activities of the
Spartan maverick Brasidas (cf. 475), who was busily sowing disaffection among Athens’ allies in
the region. Only a year or two before, the Spartan had achieved a diplomatic coup when he
managed to detach the town of Amphipolis from allegiance to Athens. The loss of this strategically-
important place was all the more of a blow to the Athenians, since it occurred under the nose, so to
speak, of an Athenian flotilla stationed near-by at Thasos. Although the force did manage to
prevent the military takeover of Eïon at the mouth of the Strymon, the general in command,
Thucydides son of Oloros, incurred the blame for the loss of the major entrepot further inland. Like
his namesake he too was a political heir of Kimon, with whose family he had close ties, and it was
no surprise that Perikles’ successors saw his failure to forestall Brasidas as a chance to weaken their
opponents. Predictably, he was arraigned on a charge of treason and Kleon himself could well have
been the prime mover. Indeed, Kleon is mentioned by one late-Roman source as having instigated
the prosecution (Marcellinus, Βίος Θουκυδίδου 46, ἐφυγαδεύθη ὑπ’ Ἀθηναίων, διαβάλλοντος αὐτὸν
τοῦ Κλέωνος), and though this testimony is not solid evidence, the Roman writer must have relied
on earlier information. But perhaps the strongest evidence that Kleon may have initiated the
prosecution is provided by the historian’s own scathing remarks regarding his opponent’s character.
As it is, we know nothing of any trial; we know only that he spent the next two decades in exile
from his homeland. If, then, one considers the likelihood that this passage refers to a more recent
event than the prosecution of the aging politician, it is possible to deduce a more practical reason for
the silence of the accused. It can be taken to evidence the likelihood that the στρατηγός was so
intimidated at his impeachment by Kleon that he preferred to keep his distance rather than return to
Athens and attempt to make his defence. Thus, the humour of the line lies in the irony of a man as
articulate as Thucydides (unlike Laches) being unable to open his mouth to counter the accusation
made against him. Bearing in mind that in the present case against Labes the jury has been calling
for the death penalty, which might allude to his situation, he was probably wise to stay away.
The earlier reference to the ἀνὴρ παχὺς, “one of those who betrayed us up in Thrace” (287-8) gives
the impression that the case is still pending and the use of ποτὲ (947) may be taken as a pointer to a
much earlier case, but it is worth keeping an open mind over the silent defendant.
The Trial of Aristophanes
“They think I’m the guy from the show. I’m not that guy…that’s a role. Get real!” - Larry David
Ambiguity plays a significant part in Old Comedy and it is often difficult for one to know whether
what is said is meant in all seriousness, or is a just a ‘joke’. This is due primarily to the relationship
of the comic actor with his audience. Unlike Tragedy, where the spectacle presented exists only as a
parallel universe to serve as a paradigm for the real world (both natural and supernatural), Comedy
invites the spectator into a modified reality to replace his own perception of the ‘real’ world, with
the result that the actors are sometimes interactive. For instance, at one point in Σφῆκες Philokleon
cries out for help to anyone in the audience who faces an upcoming prosecution and might therefore
want his support (400-2), just as in Νεφέλαι (1322-3) the previous year, Strepsiades had called out
to his ‘fellow-demesmen’ in the audience to come to his aid.
The spectators are put in the position of being neighbours who live across the street from the Father
and Son antagonists. They can witness the slaves’ unusual behaviour and realize that something is
going on in the courtyard opposite. So, it is only natural that Xanthias comes over to the gate in the
prologue to explain to them what the cause of the commotion is. His challenge to them to see if they
can guess the cause of the Father’s detention serves to emphasize the peculiarity of the situation. It
is as if he were saying to them, “You couldn’t make it up!”
But, the situation becomes even more confusing when the members of the chorus behave as if they
are capable of affecting the real world. It was customary for the leader of the chorus to ‘step aside’,
apparently out of character, in the so-called παράβασις. This direct address to the audience served to
give the actors and chorus-members a breather, while the poet often took the opportunity to engage
with his audience ‘in all seriousness’. Just how ‘real’ this engagement is, however, is rather hard to
gauge when, in the second παράβασις of Νεφέλαι, a chorus of heavenly clouds threatens to interfere
with the weather, if the judges of the drama-contest do not favour their play (1115-30). It becomes
downright disorientating in this play when the old juror imagines a court scene, in which the chorus
of his fellow-jurors is treated in court (581-2) as if they were the chorus of a drama!
So, a degree of skepticism seems warranted when reading these lines from the second παράβασις of
Σφῆκες (1284 - 91),
εἰσί τινες οἵ µ’ ἔλεγον ὡς καταδιηλλάγην,
ἡνίκα Κλέων µ’ ὑπετάραττεν ἐπικείµενος
καί µε κακίαις ἔκνισε. κᾆθ’, ὅτ’ ἀπεδειρόµην,
οἳ κατεγέλων ἐµὲ κεκραγότα θεώµενοι.
οὐδὲν ἄρ’ ἐµοῦ µέλον, ὅσον δὲ µόνον εἰδέναι
σκωµµάτιον εἴ ποτέ τι θλιβόµενος ἐκβαλῶ.
ταῦτα κατιδὼν ὑπό τι µικρὸν ἐπιθήκισα·
εἶτα νυν ἐξηπάτησεν ἡ χάραξ τὴν ἄµπελον.
“There are those who were claiming that I had come to an understanding with Kleon, when he was
laying into me and was trying to make life difficult for me, and chided me for my failings and who,
at the time when I was being flayed alive, used to roar with laughter at the sight of me bawling my
head off. They had no concern for my feelings at all; they only wanted to find out if his pressure on
me would at some point squeeze out a…witty remark! That’s why, when I saw how things were, I
played a little bit of a naughty trick…lo and behold the supporting pole has let down the vine!”
The ancient commentators were not quite sure what to make of these lines.
One says: ἄδηλον πότερον τῆς Καλλιστράτου εἰς τὴν Βουλὴν εἰσαγωγῆς καὶ νῦν µιµνῄσκεται, ὅτι
αὐτὸν Κλέων εἰσήγαγεν, ἢ ἑτέρας αὐτοῦ γενοµένης Ἀριστοφάνους, ἢ µὴ εἰσαγώγης ἀλλὰ ἀπειλῆς
τινος, ὅπερ καὶ µᾶλλον ἐµφαίνεται. (Σχ. 1284ε)
“It is not clear whether now too he is recalling the bringing of Kallistratos before the Governing
Council that Kleon instigated, or a different summoning by him of Aristophanes himself, or not a
summoning but a threat <of it>, which appears more likely.”
The first part of the comment seems to refer to a formal complaint lodged at the βουλευτήριον by
Kleon as a result of Aristophanes’ comic caricature of him in Βαβυλώνιοι (426 B.C.), for this is the
inference drawn by modern scholars from the words of ‘Dikaiopolis’ in Ἀχαρνεῖς (425 B.C.) when
he declares (377-82),
αὐτός τ’ ἐµαυτὸν ὑπὸ Κλέωνος ἅπαθον
ἐπίσταµαι διὰ τὴν πέρυσι κωµῳδίαν.
εἰσελκύσας γὰρ µ’ εἰς τὸ βουλευτήριον
διέβαλλε καὶ ψευδῆ κατεγλώττιζέ µου
κἀκυκλοβόρει κἄπλυνεν, ὥστ’ ὀλίγου πάνυ
“…and for my own part I am conscious of my own sufferings at the hands of Kleon on account of
last year’s comic-satire, because he dragged me into the Council-chamber, slandered me and used
his lying tongue on me, and very near drowned me as he drubbed me in a torrential stream, giving
me the works in his sewage.”
Later, the same character says,
µή µοι φθονήσητ’, ἄνδρες οἱ θεώµενοι,
εἰ πτωχὸς ὢν ἔπειτ’ ἐν Ἀθηναίοις λέγειν
µέλλω περὶ τῆς πόλεως, τρυγῳδίαν ποιῶν.
τὸ γὰρ δίκαιον οἶδε καὶ τρυγῳδία.
ἐγὼ δὲ λέξω δεινὰ µέν, δίκαια δέ.
οὐ γάρ µε νῦν γε διαβαλεῖ Κλέων ὅτι
ξένων παρόντων τὴν πόλιν κακῶς λέγω.
“Bear me no ill-will, gentlemen of the audience, if, though a man of humble means, I am still going
to speak about politics among Athenians in the course of performing comic-satire, because even a
satirist knows what is right and though what I’m about to say may seem a bit strong, it is just. Know
that Kleon won’t be slandering me this time anyway for defaming the city with foreigners present.”
Assuming that in these passages the character is speaking for the poet (which is not a certainty), one
could conclude that the politician had taken offence at Aristophanes’ unflattering caricature of him
in Βαβυλώνιοι at the City Dionysia the previous year and brought the matter up at a meeting of the
Council. As the scholiast says, it is also unclear from this whether the poet was the one charged or
the play’s official producer, Kallistratos. He is plainly unsure what conclusion to draw and suspects
that Kleon’s harassment may have amounted in fact to no more than the threat of prosecution.
But, the ancient scholiast puts us in a quandary, for even supposing that his interpretation provides
the key to understanding the poet’s words in Ἀχαρνεῖς, what relevance could there be to this passage
in Σφῆκες? Why would the poet resurrect a legal action of 426/5 B.C., three to four years later? Not
only would a reminder of an earlier legal action appear to be ‘old hat’, but it would completely
ignore the vigorous attack mounted on Kleon by the Ἱππεῖς in the meantime (424 B.C.).
This question had occurred to another ancient commentator who says that the remarks in Σφῆκες
ἐπέκειτο γὰρ αὐτῷ ὁ Κλέων, ὅτι ἐκωµῳδειτο ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ· ἄδηλον δὲ, εἰ µετὰ τὸ διδάξαι τοὺς Ἱππέας
λέγει. (Σχ. 1285)
“Because Kleon had attacked him, since he had been ridiculed by him. It is not clear whether he is
talking about <the period> after the production of Ἱππεῖς.”
This comment makes better sense of the temporal νῦν in the received text (1291), since the poet is
concerned to point out that his present comic creation is ‘letting down the vine’. Therefore, even if
there had been a formal complaint made prior to Ἀχαρνεῖς, any talk about an accommodation then
would have been rendered immaterial by the later onslaught in Ἱππεῖς; though even this would still
have been two years before Σφῆκες was produced. This, at any rate, appears to have been what was
believed in antiquity and modern commentators have had little or no hesitation in interpreting the
words of the second παράβασις in this literal fashion. A hundred years ago Rogers wrote, “It is, I
believe, the almost universal opinion that the poet is referring to some fresh onslaught made upon
him by Kleon after, and in consequence of, the performance of the Knights”.
Most commentators infer some formal undertaking had been given as a result of court proceedings
threatened or actually initiated by Kleon. They suggest that the demagogue, stung by the battering
he had received in Ἱππεῖς, had used litigation to get his own back and obtain leniency from the poet.
In the words of MacDowell, “Kleon attacked Aristophanes by an abusive speech…perhaps a legal
prosecution or the threat of one” and Sommerstein considers that these lines, “strongly suggest an
This view has become orthodox and it would appear heretical to disbelieve it, but there are grounds
for doing so. Firstly, as Rogers observed, it is incapable of proof, since there is no external evidence
for the use of judicial means to restrain Comedy. Thucydides had good reason to dislike his political
nemesis and would surely have made mention of proceedings brought by Kleon against comic-poets
if the courts had been used in this way. Secondly, it is unlikely that Aristophanes was the only poet
tilting at Kleon. Kratinos had certainly passed critical comment in Σεριφίοι and besides there would
have been a line of other political players behind Kleon, all waiting to take a bite out of the poet in
the court-room. Yet we are asked to believe that the caricature drawn by Aristophanes in Ἱππεῖς was
felt to be so damaging to the demagogue’s standing among his fellow-citizen’s that the satirist had
to be muzzled.
When we hear Aristophanes berate the younger ῥήτορες for their malice in instigating prosecutions,
it is perhaps too easy for us to draw comparison with the vexatious litigation of our contemporaries
and assume that the same attitudes of mind pertained. Certainly, Kleon would have felt the sting and
resented the criticism, but Athenian politics was not for wimps, whereas some of the weak-minded
politicians of today seem to envy the tortoises their shells. Indeed, not long ago, a particularly thin-
skinned demagogue was so humourless as to threaten legal proceedings against a satirist merely for
enquiring whether his father might have been an orangutan. The fact that he took the matter to court
was enough to make some suspect that there could have been grounds for thinking that the satirist’s
remark was something more than a joke. Although it may be that one could have brought a charge
of verbal abuse (λοιδορίας) in a fifth-century Attic court, the only evidence for this is the somewhat
fallible memory of Philokleon (cf. 1207). Far more likely was the chance of finding oneself on the
receiving end of further abuse, as calumny seems to have been a recognized legal weapon. It was
left to the jurors (and the gods as guarantors of oaths) to decide the truth of any assertion.
A similar license to speak the ‘truth’, or to offer ‘alternative facts’, obtained in drama-competitions.
It was not that the god of drunken jest gave comic-poets liberty to insult all and sundry under cover
of a limited armistice, but rather that he placed upon them ‘a duty to offend’ (as a recent speaker at
the Oxford Union put it). Thus, the principal objection to the possibility of any potential lawsuit is
simply that in ridiculing the great and the good of Athenian political life the comic-poet was merely
doing what was expected of him. In contrast with later comic-dramatists who poked fun at foibles
of human character and behaviour while abstaining from any shadow of ridicule of powerful men,
the poets of Old Comedy had such mockery as their mission-statement. Aristophanes points out on
more than one occasion that it is the big beasts that he is hunting, not the weak and defenceless. The
reason for this liberty (to give offence) was lost on some Roman writers and consequently continues
to confuse many modern commentators. It was not that the Athenians had developed a sophisticated
concept of freedom of speech, but that as instinctively religious people they had a healthy awareness
of divine φθόνος (cf. notes on 62, 1126, 1275) and it was their dread of divine envy which led to the
development of Comedy. So, when comic-poets boasted that they resembled Herakles as paradigms
of moral virtue, who fearlessly spoke the truth, disregarding the danger of reprisal from powerful
politicians (1021, κινδυνεύων), it was a vain boast, for they did so solely in the service of Dionysos.
How, then, are we to interpret Aristophanes’ complaint in the second παράβασις of Σφῆκες? If one
follows comedic logic by beginning at the end, we learn that the vine (and possibly the fruit it bears)
has been let down by the vine-prop, which was supposed to be keeping it off the ground and out of
the reach of ground-frost and predators. Apparently, there was a tacit agreement between the vine
and its prop that the latter would support the former. Obviously, ‘letting down the vine’ stands as a
metaphor for some incident that altered the status quo. Hermann thought that the vine-prop was the
public who had not been receptive to the innovative style of Νεφέλαι the previous year and had ‘let
down’ the poet (cf. 1044, πέρυσιν καταπρούδοτε καινοτάτας...διανοίας). He attributed the failure of
the earlier chorus to gain more than third place to the fact that the poet had ‘played the buffoon’. As
all this occurred in the past, he read an enclitic νυν, instead of the temporal νῦν (1291).
But the majority of commentators have felt that the poet’s claim to have ‘behaved like a monkey a
little bit’ (1290, ὑπό τι µικρὸν ἐπιθήκισα), is precisely what is being conveyed by the metaphor and
that he identifies himself with the vine-prop. There is only disagreement over whom he intended the
vine to represent. Starkie and Rogers, reversing the attributions of Hermann, considered that it was
the public who had been let down by the poet. Mastromarco (1993) thought that it was specifically
the other comic-poets who had been tricked. But most recent commentators have followed Graves’
assessment that Aristophanes had let down Kleon, since this is the only interpretation which ties the
metaphor to the first part of the speech. MacDowell, Sommerstein and Storey all agree that the vine
is the demagogue, who thought he had brow-beaten and intimidated the poet into treating him more
respectfully. When the slave declared in the prologue (63-4) that Kleon would not be targeted this
year, the apparent truce had seemed to be holding. But, as it turned out, he had been lying through
his teeth, like a monkey.
So much can be presumed with some confidence. But, what are we to make of the conditions which
are said to have brought about the agreement in the first place? It appears that his promise had been
extracted under extreme duress. Kleon had subjected the poet to judicial examination, whipping him
like a common slave. “Certain people” thought that this torture had forced Aristophanes to come to
an agreement with his persecutor. According to the received text, it was “those outside” (οἱ ἐκτός),
who considered that the poet had submitted to the harassment. But this phrase makes little sense in
this context and reconstruction seems to me to be the only solution. Consequently, if we leave aside
the presumption that we are dealing with an actual legal process, we can dispense with the awkward
hyperbole of judicial examination conducted as if it were a form of physical torture and doubts over
an ἀνάκρισις being held before a public gallery.
If my reconstruction of the text brings us closer to the original, then a rather different picture begins
to emerge. Storey observes that “Aristophanes is casting his depiction of <the contretemps between
himself and Kleon> in theatrical terms”, but what if he is in fact describing a theatrical encounter?
It may be that the speaker is referring to his role in another context and that the mistreatment of the
comic-poet was based on a scene in a comic-drama which had pitted the demagogue and the satirist
against each other as antagonists. Four clues lead one to this prognosis.
a) Kleon’s onslaught on the poet is described with the same words (µ’ ὑπετάραττεν ἐπικείµενος) as
were used to describe the attack on Kleon himself in Ἱππεῖς (251-2).
b) The phrase µε κακίαις ἔκνισε was presumably chosen because as a tanner Kleon would ‘chafe’ or
‘scrape’ hides. “He chided me for my failings” might seem uncharacteristically gentle for Kleon, but
it fits the context of an artistic, rather than a judicial conflict.
c) The hyperbole of the verb ἀπεδειρόµην can only be admitted because ‘flaying’ was characteristic
of a tanner’s work. In poetic terms it is reminiscent of the hideous fate of the satyr Marsyas.
d) The clincher, as it were, is the participle, which is usually used as a noun to denote ‘an audience
watching a theatrical performance’, (οἱ θεώµενοι).
Taken together these pointers strongly suggest that the poet is referring to a scene in a comic-drama
in which he himself was made the butt of ridicule when Kleon treated him like the arrogant satyr he
The play is lost; in fact it must have been lost quite early for there to have been no small fragment
for the ancient scholiasts to glean. A possible candidate is a lost work of Kratinos, which is known
only by its title ‘Satyrs’ (Σατύροι). The one mention of it is found in an ancient ὑπόθεσις (II.4) of
Aristophanes’ Ἱππεῖς which records that it was placed second in the same Lenaia competition (424).
Although there was another Σατύροι, by Phrynichos, which was probably roughly contemporary,
there would be some poetic justice in Aristophanes winning that competition by satirizing Kleon,
while his rival had portrayed him being flayed as the satyr who had lost a musical contest. After his
defeat old Kratinos returned with Πυτίνη which took the first prize over Aristophanes’ Νεφέλαι the
following year, and in which he is said to have cast himself as protagonist.
Mastromarco’s suggestion that the metaphor of the vine and prop might have been meant to refer to
Aristophanes letting down his comic-rivals was an attempt to draw the two ends of the ode together
and, although I think he fails to convince in identifying the ‘vine’ as the other comic-poets, he could
well be correct in seeing them as the ‘certain people’ (1284, τινες). It seems likely that Aristophanes
disdained to mention his rivals who had represented him as coming to an understanding with Kleon
as a result of the thrashing he received. But, in Σφῆκες he had proved them wrong, for though they
had mocked him and egged on Kleon, the ‘yolk’ was on them now!
Finally, there is the question of attribution. It is plain that these lines of the second παράβασις stand
apart from the drama and are meant to form part of the poet’s own dialogue with his audience. But,
whereas the earlier παράβασις (1015-59) had referred to the poet in the third person, so that we can
reasonably assume that the chorus-leader would have been addressing the audience on behalf of the
poet, this ‘aside’ seems to be spoken by the poet in his own persona. Some scholars have presumed
that here again the audience take it for granted that the κορυφαῖος was speaking for the poet in any
case, whereas others have suggested that the poet might have led the chorus himself and that having
spoken as κορυφαῖος in the first παράβασις, he now dropped this mask of pretence to reveal his true
identity and revel in the trick he had played on his detractors by ridiculing Kleon again. But, I doubt
that the masks ever came off in Comedy. Nor does it seem likely that a poet could have directed the
chorus while also taking the lead as singer and dancer. It does seem possible, however, that he could
have undertaken one of the lead roles and, since we find ‘Dikaiopolis’ speaking ‘the poet’s lines’ in
the two passages quoted above from Ἀχαρνεῖς, this passage in Σφῆκες might have been undertaken
by ‘Bdely-Kleon’ in the role of ‘Aristophanes’.
Although this correlation between the poet and his character is only hypothetical, it would certainly
give added piquancy to certain passages. When, for instance, the slave describes his master as being
the man in charge (68, ὁ µέγας) or later extols him as having exquisite manners (135, ἔχων τρόπους
φρυαγµοσεµνάκους τινάς), the audience would begin to suspect who would be undertaking the role
of the ‘Son’. They would smile wryly at the irony, when the ‘Son’ himself worries that he might be
taken for a character created by another lesser comic light (151, πατρὸς...Καπνίου κεκλήσοµαι) and
scoff later on, when the chorus criticizes his long, aristocratic locks (466, κοµητ-Αµεινία). They are
also reminded that ‘Bdelykleon’ is wearing a mask when he points out the difficulty of making any
real political impact as a comic-actor (cf. 650, µείζονος ἢ ’πὶ τρυγῳδοῖς). Finally, when he exits the
stage the old men of the chorus put in a plug for the poet as they laud “his filial piety (or patriotism)
and cleverness” (1465, διὰ τὴν φιλοπατρίαν καὶ σοφίαν).
This is not to say, as some have, that ‘Bdely-Kleon’ serves as the poet’s mouthpiece. This character
advances a particular, political viewpoint, but in undertaking the part Aristophanes would not be in
his own person in plain sight; he would be playing a role. The part might seem to fit him well, since
he was a member of the young, educated generation. But his play also mocks the pretensions of the
younger man, and not just the gullibility of the old. If, in fact, Aristophanes did cast himself in the
role of the effete ‘Son’, he did so to bring out the anomalies of the generational conflict, but also to
be able to continue a running gag by which in successive comic-competitions and in various guises
the poet crossed literary swords with his ‘arch-enemy’ and his fellow-poets.
* * *
I think it worth mentioning here that Plutarch (Περικλῆς 33.7) quotes a passage from a comic-drama
by Hermippos (frg. 47), which may have a bearing on the theme of this ode.
βασιλεῦ σατύρων, τί ποτ’ οὐκ ἐθέλεις
δόρυ βαστάζειν; ἀλλὰ λόγους µὲν
περὶ τοῦ πολέµου δεινοὺς παρέχῃ,
ψυχὴ δὲ Τέλητος ὕπεστιν;
κἀγχειριδίου δ’ ἀκόνῃ σκληρᾷ
παραθηγοµένης βρύχεις κοπίδος,
δηχθεὶς αἴθωνι Κλέωνι.
“Satyr-king, why are you loath to wield a spear? Instead, you arm yourself with clever words about
the war, while beneath them lurks a spirit like Teles’. When the hand-knife’s blade is being whetted
on a hard stone by a fiery Kleon, you grind your teeth from the sting <of the pain>.”
The Roman biographer attributes these lines to τἀνάπαιστα (“the anapaests”, i.e. a παράβασις) of a
comic-drama (presently thought to be Μοῖραι) by Aristophanes’ slightly older contemporary, which
he interprets as showing contempt of Perikles for his policy of avoiding any confrontation with the
Peloponnesians on land. He offers it as solid, historical evidence that Kleon ‘the tanner’ had fiercely
opposed the policy. Unfortunately, neither assertion stands up to examination, for, as often, Plutarch
has relied on sources who have taken comic-fiction for fact. In this case, the most likely culprit was
the third-century ‘historian’ Idomeneus of Lampsakos (cf. Plutarch Περικλῆς 35.4).
But, in general, Plutarch’s dubious, historical interpretation has been accepted without question and,
according to Storey (2011) vol. II.301, some recent scholars have seen Hermippos’ comment as “an
intertextual reference” to a comic representation of Perikles in a play of Kratinos. Taking the phrase
βασιλεῦ σατύρων to be a reference to Dionysos, they suggest that the drama which was most likely
to have featured the god is that entitled ∆ιονύσοι or ∆ιονυσ-Ἀλέξανδρος. Although it is known only
from a dozen or so meagre fragments, an ancient ὑπόθεσις has been found which gives an outline of
the plot, which confirms that Dionysos and his satyrs figured in the drama and, in its final sentence,
informs us that, κωµῳδεῖται...Περικλῆς µάλα πιθανῶς δι’ ἐµφάσεως ὡς ἐπαγηοχὼς τοῖς Αθηναίοις
τὸν πόλεµον. Storey, who has obligingly provided the text of this hypothesis (2011) vol. I.286-91,
translates, “Pericles is very persuasively made fun of through innuendo”. This interpretation of the
final sentence has given grounds for the claim that Hermippos was referring to Kratinos’ depiction
of Perikles as ‘king of the satyrs’. But, the argument rests upon rather flimsy foundations.
In the first place, one has to question why the writer of the ὑπόθεσις would leave the revelation that
the lead character, ‘Dionysos’, represented Perikles until the closing sentence. Surely, there would
have been clear indications which would have plainly delineated the parallel throughout the drama?
In fact, I would alter the emphasis of µάλα πιθανῶς and translate, “very probably Perikles is being
derided allusively for having brought war upon the Athenians”, so that it becomes obvious that the
author of the ὑπόθεσις is simply expressing his view that Perikles may be one of the κωµῳδούµενοι
in Kratinos’ play.
Also, it can be stated as a rule of Satire that for comic caricature to succeed it must be recognizable.
The comic-dramatist could briefly misrepresent his target’s character by basing a jibe on word-play;
often taking a name as an excuse (e.g. Sophron’s µωρότερος Μορύχου or Aristophanes’ φιλόξενος).
But, sustained satire requires that the audience can discern the κωµῳδούµενος through the theatrical
costume and it is hard to conceive of the notoriously aloof statesman (who is actually referred to as
‘Zeus’ in Kratinos’ Θρᾷτται, quoted by Plutarch Περικλῆς, 13.9) being successfully satirized in the
guise of a dissolute Dionysos.
The last, but perhaps most weighty, objection to identifying the ‘king of satyrs’ with Perikles is that
the latter part of Hermippos’ comment leads us to conclude, as Plutarch has, that Kleon was a fierce
opponent of Perikles’ naval policy. Yet, given the historical evidence we have for Kleon, including,
if one may, the picture of him drawn by Aristophanes, it does not appear remotely likely that Kleon
was opposed to Perikles’ populist politics or his war-strategy. There is, for instance, no support for
Plutarch’s claim in Thucydides’ account and, as I have already said regarding the likelihood of him
having prosecuted Aristophanes, historians disregard Thucydides’ silence at their peril. Therefore, I
suggest that Plutarch had been misinformed (probably by Idomeneus) and that Hermippos was not
referring to Perikles at all.
The historical corollary of this view, by the way, would be that the earliest appearance of Kleon on
the political stage would be his fervent advocacy of punishing the Mytilenians in 427 (Thucydides
3.37-40), matched perhaps on the comic-stage by Kratinos’ description of his ‘cruel look, beetling
brow and manic behaviour’ in Σερίφιοι (frg. 228).
I would agree, however, that Hermippos’ comment must be directed at a theatrical portrayal, and as
we have Aristophanes’ own confession in this second παράβασις of Σφῆκες that he was flayed alive
by Kleon, it seems more likely that he is the one being pictured as the ‘satyr-king’ for whom Kleon
is whetting his little flaying-knife. This interpretation would incidentally help to explain why Kleon
is described as αἴθων, which can convey both “fiery” (like the sun-god who vented his anger on the
unfortunate Marsyas), and the colour “fire-red”, as in the Homeric description of an eagle as αἰετὸς
αἴθων (Ἰλιάς 15. 690). It also suggests that Aristophanes’ consistent choice of the eagle to represent
the demagogue (cf. 15, Ἱππεῖς 197) and his use of ‘shine resplendent’ in line 62 (ἔλαµψε) were both
aimed deliberately at recalling the earlier, theatrical portrayal.
It follows from this that the play of Hermippos from whose παράβασις Plutarch drew his excerpt is
likely to have been closely contemporary with Σφῆκες. If Kratinos’ Σατύροι was indeed the source
of ‘Aristophanes’ depiction as ‘king of the satyrs’ (Lenaia, 424) and Hermippos is one of the comic-
rivals (“certain people”) who enjoyed his discomfiture according to Σφῆκες (Lenaia, 422), then one
may posit 423/2 as the date of Hermippos’ comment.
In the παράβασις of Νεφέλαι Aristophanes mentions his rival among those who copied elements of
Ἱππεῖς in order to pillory Kleon’s colleague Hyperbolos in similar style to his satire of Kleon. The
scholiasts identify this work of Hermippos as Ἀρτοπωλίδες. This play has therefore been thought to
date from 420/19 on the assumption that the extant text of Νεφέλαι is probably a revised version of
c. 418/7. But, the extent of the poet’s revision is uncertain and it could be that his references to the
other poet formed part of the original version produced in 423 at the City-Dionysia. Consequently,
it is possible that Ἀρτοπωλίδες had been produced previously at the same year’s Lenaia. This would,
to my mind, make Aristophanes’ complaint about his rivals’ plagiarism of Ἱππεῖς more topical and
also help to explain why there are repeated references to female bread-sellers in Σφῆκες.
Bakola, Emmanuela - ‘Cratinus and the art of Comedy’ (Oxford, 2010)
Biles, Zachary P. - ‘Intertextual biography in the rivalry of Cratinus and Aristophanes’ in American
Journal of Philology 123 (2002) 171-204 (on-line)
Csapo, Eric - review of Bakola (2010) in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.56 (on-line)
Mastromarco, Giuseppe - ‘Il commediografo e il demagogo’ in ‘Tragedy, comedy and the polis’
(Bari, 1993) 341-57, edited by Alan H. Sommerstein and others
Rosen, Ralph M. - ‘Old Comedy and the iambographic tradition’ (Atlanta, 1988)
Rosen, Ralph M. - ‘Cratinus’ Pytine and the construction of the comic self’ in ‘The Rivals of
Aristophanes’, editors D. Harvey and J. Wilkins (London, 2000) 23-39
Sommerstein, Alan H. - ‘Harassing the satirist: the alleged attempts to prosecute Aristophanes’ in
‘Free speech in classical antiquity’ edited by Sluiter, Ineke and Rosen, Ralph (Leiden, 2004) 145-74
Storey, Ian C. - ‘Wasps 1284-91 and the portrait of Kleon in Wasps’ in Scholia 4 (1995) 3-23, also
accessible on-line at Electronic Antiquity (September 1995)
Storey, Ian C. - ‘Fragments of Old Comedy’ volumes I and II (Harvard University Press, 2011)
Totaro, Piero. - ‘Le seconde parabasi de Aristofane’ (Stuttgart, 1999), revised edition 2000