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Introduction to Menander
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan


Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.



Athenian comedy has undergone a radical transformation by the time we reach the age of Menander in the latter half of the fourth century BC. [FN 1] In contrast to the highly topical subject-matter of Aristophanic Old Comedy, Menander's plays focus on the domestic travails of what would seem to be typical Greek households, with a particular focus on disputes between fathers and sons, husbands and wives, the plight of young lovers, and so forth. Gone are the bawdy jokes and outlandish costumes of Old Comedy: instead, we find ourselves in the prosaic, day-to-day world of the Athenian bourgeoisie, with characters who seem to interact with one another much as would their real-life counterparts.

The plays are still composed in verse, but the bulk of the lines are in spoken iambic trimeter or chanted trochaic tetrameter. [FN 2] Sung passages are extremely rare, and the chorus — which was showing signs of atrophying already in the later plays of Aristophanes — is now virtually gone. The first act of the typical Menandrian play concludes with someone noting the (quite artificial) arrival of a band of tipsy revelers, which serves as a cue for all of the on-stage characters to depart. But our manuscripts contain no indication of just what kind of song those "revelers" might have sung, or that the song had any relevance whatsoever to the play. Subsequent act-breaks are also marked by choral performances, but the only indication of this in our manuscripts is the single word ΧΟΡΟΥ ("choral bit"). [FN 3]

Things have clearly changed. On the one hand, drama has now become something much closer to "theater." Thus, while plays are still put on at the City Dionysia, the cultic associations of the dramatic performances have virtually disappeared. Not only the chorus, with its elaborate costumes as birds, or wasps, or clouds, or horseman, but the grotesquely padded costumes of the actors, the phalloi, the bawdy humor, the short bits of song and dance — all the various items that had encoded the comic performances as belonging to the world of Dionysiac ritual — are no longer to be found. Instead, we are in a world very like that presented by the late Euripidean stage — minus the mythological content, the exotic locales, the chorus, and the monodies.

The latter is no accident: tragedy had more or less died with the deaths of Euripides and Sophocles at the end of the fifth century. The genre continued, but in an attenuated form; [FN 4] already in the 380s people were looking back at the fifth century as the period when the "classics" were produced, by the grand masters Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. [FN 5] With the decline of tragedy, comedy rose to the fore as "the" dramatic genre, but, through a process that is difficult to reconstruct, in a form that saw it in effect reconstitute the essential elements of late Euripidean romantic melodrama. "Euripides" and "tragedy" became, in effect, one — an aesthetic and cultural icon that Menander appropriated in producing something that was at the same time both familiar and new.

What he produces might be termed a philosophical comedy of manners — a more genial form of Euripidean drama that employs the twists and turns of plot, the misperceptions and misidentifications, the mechanemata (cunning intrigues) and anagnoriseis (recognition scenes), to present mildly humorous reflections on human nature and the human condition. According to Sophocles, Euripides had brought the old stories of gods and heroes down to earth; Menander completes the process by turning them into tales of the family next door. He drops the mythological façade altogether: Xuthus (of Euripides' Ion) is no longer a forefather of the Athenian race, but a grumpy, somewhat bumbling poorer neighbor, the father of a young girl who, unknown to him, has gotten pregnant through a sexual assault; Creusa is no longer the queenly mother of Ion but a wife whose husband has discovered that she has earlier borne a child out of wedlock, and has abandoned her; Ion is now the impulsive boy next door who has raped a young girl, ruined her future prospects of happiness, and now faces the likelihood that the two can never marry.

Here is where Menander differs from Euripides, however. In play after play, we find that he presents essentially decent people who are placed in a difficult situation, often due to their own failings, and must make difficult decisions. Generally speaking their dilemmas lead, as well, to reflections on various features of Athenian society or Athenian attitudes.

In one play, for example, a young newly wedded husband finds out that his wife has previously given birth to an illegitimate child, having been raped by an unidentified assailant at a religious festival a few months before their wedding. Distraught at the revelation of his wife's murky past, he deserts her and moves in with a prostitute next door in an attempt to demonstrate his independence and reassert his own dignity. In the course of the play he discovers that he himself was his wife's rapist and, in addition, overhears his wife defend him passionately against her father's opposition. In the play's climactic scene the agonized husband is forced to confront both the double standard by which he has been living and his lack of compassion for his wife, who has proven herself so utterly loyal to him.
In another, a young soldier is living with a poorer woman in a mutual arrangement of a type commonly imposed on women of this class, who had no respectable male relations and no dowry. Having caught her embracing a young man who lives next door, he falls into a rage and has her head shaved (a mark of shame imposed on slaves). What no one other than the woman knew — including the young man next door — was that that young man was actually the woman's brother, separated at birth and, by chance, adopted by the wealthy family who now lives next door. Upon coming to his senses, the soldier attempts to make amends but discovers that the woman, for all of her poverty, is unwilling to compromise her dignity by living with a man who could treat her in such a fashion. The soldier summons an old family friend to help him; this man is present when the woman's property is being taken out of the soldier's house and, hearing of her most treasured possession — the baby things left to her by her now dead mother —recognizes that this is in fact his own daughter, given away at birth. Once this fact becomes known, the woman can marry the soldier as the daughter of a citizen, in a respectable match, and so preserve her own sense of honor.

Such comedies are not played for belly-laughs; they are generally quiet, sedate, and, although composed in verse, quite prosaic in tone.

They are also quite confusing, or outright offensive, in some of the things that they take for granted: that a father, for example, could see his infant children abandoned to an unknown fate, simply because his financial situation has taken a downturn. — or that the act of rape could be regarded as something for which a "nice" young man could be forgiven, on the assumption that youthful impetuosity, the effects of wine and nighttime, and a young man's natural sexual impulses constitute reasonable mitigating circumstances. These "slippages," if you will, between the assumptions that seem to be demanded of the ancient audience, and those that a modern audience would be willing to accept, offer excellent sites at which to begin to explore elements of Athenian society and social mores. Did the ancients love their infant children? Did fathers care about whether their daughters were happy in their marriages, or was their sole concern with the possible advantages offered by the match? Was rape so readily passed off as an act any decent young man could be expected to commit? These are the sorts of issues that Menander challenges us to explore.

Understandably, the issue of rape has loomed large in modern discussions of New Comedy, but here it is necessary to be careful. The fact that the audience is willing to accept sexual assault as, in effect, a plot device says much about contemporary attitudes and social practices. But there are reasons for questioning the degree to which it reflects anything of day-to-day reality. In one sense, the use of rape as a literary device (what we might call, rather uneasily, the rape motif) is part of the general inheritance from tragedy and the world of Greek myth, where gods routinely rape mortal women, often (as in Euripides' Ion) as part of an ethnic or local genealogical account. (Cf., e.g., the tales of the birth Heracles [Hercules], Perseus, Helen, Achilles, etc.) We can tell a great deal about ancient attitudes toward women, masculinity, marriage, etc. from the use of the motif to generate a dramatic plot, but virtually nothing about the statistical incidence of rape in ancient society.

For Menander's audience, however — and still more, it would seem, for later ages [FN 6] — the striking thing about his plays was likely their engagement with contemporary popular philosophy. Menander is said to have been a friend/student of the philosopher *Theophrastus (ca. 372-ca. 287), who was himself a student and successor of *Aristotle (ca. 384-322) who founded the *Peripatic school of philosophy in Athens. Aristotle was a man of wide interests (to put it mildly), but he has a number of occasions to address the question of human character, both how it can be presented (in his works the Rhetoric [dealing with oratory] and Poetics [dealing with epic, tragedy, and comedy]) and how it is formed, and can be identified and evaluated (in his two works on ethics, and in his Politics). For Aristotle, character is not a static trait, like having black hair or blue eyes, but something that is revealed in action: character is demonstrated, above all, in the moral choices that we make. One can argue that the key to understanding Menander is to recognize the intersection, in his plays, between Euripidean tragedy and Aristotelian ethical theory.

Theophrastus clearly followed Aristotle in his thinking, but we are less fortunate in his case, so far as the number of his works that have survived. We do have one work, however, which (if truly by him) is invaluable: *The Characters (or, better — following the most recent editor James Diggle's suggestion — Behavioral Types or Distinctive Marks of Character). This presents a series of character sketches of a sort that would be at home in the London of Swift or the pages of Punch. [FN 7] Commentators have indicated that many of these types reflect vices identified by Aristotle in his ethical writings, but the people portrayed here represent common stereotypes (one needn't take a philosophy course to know what a boor is, or how tedious it can be to be stuck sitting next to a pretentious individual); more importantly (as Diggle notes), these portraits seem to be presented for entertainment rather than instruction.

It is interesting to note just how often the titles of Menander's plays (most of them lost) parallel the types of sketches found in the Characters: The Grouch, The Distrustful Man, The Superstitious Man, The Man who Makes Promises, The Self-Tormentor, The Rustic, The Flatterer, The Misogynist, Anger, The Devoted Siblings. It would seem clear that Menander too is interested in exploring character types, but his studies go far beyond the humorous sketches found in Theophrastus. For one thing, his "types" are not, for the most part, satirical (as in Theophrastus) but focus on such figures as the loving father, the well-intentioned son, the affectionate but misguided husband, the devoted wife, the loyal slave. And even when he does play a stock type for its broad humor (as in his Grouch), the plot still concentrates on broader issues: human relationships, and how difficult these are to develop and maintain; the role of trust and respect in the relationship between father and son, or husband and wife; the arbitrary and unjust nature of many generally accepted social attitudes and practices; the ways in which the law and justice can come into conflict. [FN 8]

In exploring such themes, Menander was no doubt influenced by the teachings of Aristotle and his school. But (as the Characters demonstrates) he is also reflecting something of the temper of his times. Menander's Athens is a much different place from the Athens of Sophocles and Euripides. For one thing, it is much more bourgeois: the notional audience for which Menander writes is much more middle-class than that of Aristophanes. The "typical" family that he presents is, generally speaking, quite well-to-do, with a house in town and (often) a farm in the countryside — one that seems to require little attention from the head of the household or his son. Fathers, or their sons, are frequently abroad dealing with business matters, and their daughters are able to bring dowries that would make many an Athenian's eyes pop. [FN 9] This, in and of itself, need not tell us anything about the income of the typical audience member (one wouldn't want to conclude, e.g., that the audiences who enjoyed Fred Astaire's films in the 1930s all wore top-hats and sipped champagne on a regular basis), but there are other features of the plays that point in the direction of a more bourgeois crowd than that which enjoyed the plays of Aristophanes. The very nature of the plots and the humor (or lack thereof) tell us something: this is an audience that can spot Menander's re-appropriation of a particular scene from Euripides, and appreciate the witty relevance of an appropriately placed quotation. It is likely, then, an audience that could also appreciate Menander's reflections on various social and ethical issues, and perhaps have at least a glancing notion of how these tie in with the teachings of contemporary philosophers like Aristotle.

But it is not just the audience that has changed since the heyday of the Athenian empire in the late fifth century; Greece itself has undergone a startling transformation. In fifth-century Greece, city-states such as Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes represented powerful independent polities that dominated the region militarily, politically, and economically. This ceased to be the case following the rise of Macedon under Philip (382-336) and, subsequently, his son *Alexander (356-323). In the mid-fourth century Philip began a systematic campaign to extend his power over all of Greece — a campaign that achieved its goal with the defeat of Athens and Thebes at the battle of Chaeronea in 338. Athenian politicians chafed at Macedon's influence and even plotted revolt, but Greek independence was in effect dead, its various cities reduced to playing the role of recalcitrant subject states. Alexander's campaigns in the east (334-323) merely cemented this state of affairs: a relatively small community like Athens could not hope to have much influence in an empire that stretched from mainland Greece, through Asia Minor and the former Persian Empire to Egypt and India. From this point on, Athens and the other city-states of Greece become in effect provincial back-waters governed as part of a wide-spread dynasty and ruled over by a series of appointed administrators. While Athens was able to assert its freedom from time to time, particularly in the power struggles that followed Alexander's death, such periods were fleeting, and always attended by the knowledge that this freedom could only exist with the implicit approval of one of the dynasts currently in power.

History in a nutshell: [FN 10] On the death of Alexander in 323, the city-states of Greece rebelled against Macedonian rule. They were quickly subdued by Antipater (regent of Macedonia) who in 322 appointed Phocion as governor of Athens. Aided by a garrison of Macedonian troops, Phocion imposed an oligarchic constitution on Athens, putting an end to the Athenian democracy and ensuring that only the wealthier and, presumably, more conservative classes enjoyed the privileges of full citizenship. On Antipater's death in 319, a ten-year power struggle broke out between Polyperchon (whom Antipater had appointed as his successor) and Antipater's son Cassander. In a bid for support, Polyperchon promised independence to the Greek city-states, whereupon the Athenians executed Phocion and briefly re-instituted their democratic traditions (318). Cassander captured Athens in 317, however, and appointed *Demetrius of Phaleron as governor. (Demetrius was an Athenian orator and philosopher who was a pupil of Theophrastus and friend of Menander.) Demetrius is an interesting figure. He can be viewed as a philosopher king of sorts, a man of integrity who governed according to rational principles and instituted a series of important legal reforms. But the government that he administered was a pro-Macedonian oligarchy backed up by Cassander's military force: as a result, the pro-democratic faction in Athens regarded him as a ruthless puppet of Macedon, although he was lavished with public honors during his time in power. Demetrius was expelled in 307 by the similarly named Demetrius Poliorcetes ("City-besieger"), son of Antigonus Monophthalmus (a general under Alexander who became the founder of a new Macedonian dynasty). With the ousting of Demetrius of Phaleron, the democracy was restored and Demetrius Poliorcetes hailed as Savior (Soter). It was not, by all accounts, a pleasant time for those who, like Menander, had been friendly to the earlier regime. With one significant hiatus, Demetrius Poliorcetes remained the dominant power-broker in Athenian politics throughout the rest of Menander's life.

The first fourteen years of Menander's career, then (according to the traditional chronology) was spent under a pro-Macedonian oligarchic rule — a rule to which he seems to have been able to adapt quite easily. It is difficult not to find further confirmation here of the impression that Menander composes his plays for a much more narrow demographic range of the Athenian populace than did Aristophanes.

More important, however: as the independence and the political/military/economic significance of the city-state began to wane, people's engagement with the larger community began to weaken, along with their notion of their place in the world. This is the period that witnesses the rise of three new schools of philosophy, each indicative, in its way, of the spirit of the age.

The first is *Stoicism (a philosophical school found by Zeno of Citium (in Cyprus) [ca. 335-ca. 263]), two of the principal tenets of which are that: 1) we as individuals live in a rational universe, and 2) it is the universal principles that govern our world to which we owe loyalty, and by which we should define ourselves, not local geographical, ethnic, or nationalistic identities: each of us is a "child of the universe" (cosmopolites); our connection to a specific region or community is merely accidental and inconsequential.
The second is *Epicureanism, founded by the philosopher Epicurus of Samos (ca. 341-ca. 270). Epicurus argued that life should best be lived in isolation from the hubbub of day-to-day existence, by individuals who chose instead to gather in small groups and engage in philosophical discussions. The principal goal of the Epicurean philosopher is "freedom from perturbation" (ataraxia), the main key to which is withdrawal. Hence Epicurus' injunction to his followers: lathe biōsas ("live in obscurity"). [FN 11]
The third, which pre-dates the other two, is *Cynicism, which arose in the early fourth century BC and flourished, in its initial phase, to the end of the third. Cynicism is much more difficult to define than the other two: it is less a philosophical school of thought than, initially at least, a collection of individuals who shared similar outlooks and interests. Roughly speaking, the Cynics took their lead from the Athenian philosopher Socrates, but focused on a relatively narrow segment of his thought. They were social critics who challenged, often in a derisive fashion, society's values and practices (nomoi) as artificial and corrupt, and mocked such things as concern for wealth, fashion, social standing, and reputation. It is under the Cynics that the ancient philosophical discourse or debate (diatribē) becomes the modern "diatribe": the fiery speech denouncing the foolish way people live. Roman satire — the one literary genre that the Romans claimed to have invented on their own, rather than inheriting it from the Greeks — is to a great degree merely the Cynic diatribe dressed up in literary/poetic garb. The Roman poet Horace acknowledged this debt by giving his collection of satirical poems the title Sermones (= "Diatribes"), which then gives us the English "sermons." The Cynics were, in effect, the first "preachers." Like the Stoics and the Epicureans, the Cynics too put the individual at odds with the broader community: Diogenes of Sinope, one of the founding fathers of the movement, might well qualify as the world's first hippie.

Menander's comedies fit perfectly into such an age, where citizens can no longer engage in the sort of robust internal political debates common in the age of Aristophanes, and where the city-state itself — one's community —has been reduced to an insignificant backwater, overwhelmed by the much more powerful military and economic forces that hold sway on the international scene. It is scarcely surprising to discover people in such a world turning to issues of individual morality, and enjoying the escape offered by a type of comedy that celebrates domestic relationships and the at times harrowing but never truly harmful scrapes into which fallible but essentially decent human beings can get themselves.



Notes

[FN 1] Menander's career is traditionally dated to ca. 321- ca. 292. [Return to text]

[FN 2] The extent portions of Arbitration, often thought to be among Menander’s latest works, are composed exclusively in iambic trimeters. [Return to text]

[FN 3] While the chronology is somewhat uncertain, there is clear evidence that the nature of the acting space underwent a radical transformation at some point toward the end of Menander's career or (less likely) perhaps even as early as the 320s: rather than performing at ground level (i.e., at the level of the orchestra, or perhaps on a stage raised some three or four feet above that) the actors now performed on a raised stage one story above the level of the orchestra, utterly cut off from the space of the orchestra and the theatron proper. At that point the chorus was a dead letter and many of the earlier dramatic works were as a result performed only in excerpted form. [Return to text]

[FN 4] We have what would seem to be one complete fourth-century tragedy: the Rhesus, wrongly attributed to Euripides. It offers in essence a dramatized version of Book 10 of Homer's Iliad. [Return to text]

[FN 5] The identification of these three as a canonical group seems to have occurred relatively early. Aeschylus' plays were already being reproduced in the fifth century. In 386, the reproduction of a "classic" tragedy was instituted at the City Dionysia; by 339 "old" comedies were being reproduced as part of the festival as well. [Return to text]

[FN 6] Until the very end of the 19th century, virtually nothing of Menander survived other than scattered quotations and bits and pieces of papyrus fragments. Our current texts are based on papyrus finds that first began to come to light at the turn of the century. These are available specifically because of his popularity in later antiquity: along with Homer and Euripides, Menander is among the best represented authors in the papyri. [Return to text]

[FN 7] The list includes the Dissembler, the Toady, the Chatterbox, the Country Bumpkin, the Obsequious Man, the Man Who Has Lost All Sense, the Talker, the Rumor-Monger, the Shameless Man, the Penny-Pincher, the Repulsive Man, the Tactless Man, the Overzealous Man, the Obtuse Man, the Self-Centered Man, the Superstitious Man, the Ungrateful Grumbler, the Distrustful Man, the Offensive Man, the Disagreeable Man, the Man of Petty Ambition, the Illiberal Man, the Boastful Man, the Arrogant Man, the Coward, the Oligarchic Man, the Late Learner, the Slanderer, the Friend of Villains, the Shabby Profiteer. [Return to text]

[FN 8] Repeatedly, praise of Menander in antiquity focuses on his skill in delineating character: see, e.g., the fragmentary notice (hypothesis) to Arbitration, which notes that it "excels through the [display] of all character types" (Furley). Cf. Plutarch, Moralia 853; Dio Chyrsostom, Oration 68.6; and the famous remark of the Hellenistic critic, Aristophanes of Byzantium: "O Menander, O Life: which of you imitated the other?" [Return to text]

[FN 9] Menander cites dowries ranging from one talent to ten talents, the most common amount being two or three talents. (A talent = 6,000 drachmae; a good working wage in Menander's day was likely two drachmae per day. In the Roman playwrights, these numbers become still more grandiose.) Some of these numbers are exaggerated for a specific purpose (the ten-talent dowry is mentioned by a husband who laments agreeing to marry a battle-axe of a wife, even if she was rich; the four talents given with Charisius' wife in The Arbitration is intended to justify the outrage on the part of the girl's father when he abandons her) but most do not seem intended to arouse comment. It is generally argued that such families would be recognized by the audience as belonging to the wealthiest of the Athenian property classes. (In the fourth-century orators, who were paid to compose speeches for clients who themselves were likely at the upper end of the socio-economic scale, a dowry of 20 minae is said to be relatively modest [Isaeus 11.40]. But those same texts routinely cite dowries of 10, 20, 25, 30, 40, and 50 minae [1 mina = 100 drachmae]; dowries of one to two talents are also cited, however. A law is preserved that stipulates that a woman of the lowest property class, should she lose her father, was to be provided with a dowry of 150-500 drachmae by her other relatives, depending on the propery class of the relative.) [By way of comparison, the wealthiest members of the liturgical class in mid-fourth-century Athens — those citizens who could be called upon to contribute to the funding of a warship for one year at an average cost of approx. 40-60 minae per ship, and who likely possessed an estimated total wealth of at least 3-4 talents — constituted approx. 4% of the total number of adult male citizens (1,200 of approx. 30,000 in all).] [Return to text]

[FN 10] This account makes no claim to originality and draws heavily on material in James Diggle's edition of Theophrastus' Characters as well as the standard histories. [Return to text]

[FN 11] Epicurus represents, in a way, the philosophical equivalent of the 1960s' Timothy Leary: "tune in, turn on, drop out." [Return to text]



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