Assembly-Women (Ecclesiazousai) was probably staged at one of the dramatic festivals of 393, or perhaps 392, and therefore belongs to the last few years of Aristophanes' career. A gap of some twelve years separates it from the next earliest of the surviving plays, Frogs of 405. Athens's eventual defeat in the Peloponnesian War, in 404, had been an event of such gravity as to form a kind of watershed in the city's history. It brought to an end a long period, stretching back as far as the Persian Wars of 490 and 480, during which Athens had risen to a position of both political and cultural preeminence in the Greek world. While defeat by Sparta did not prevent an eventual and gradual resurgence of Athenian buoyancy, even (to a degree) imperialism, it dented the city's power and confidence in ways which had lasting repercussions. 1 It may not be entirely fanciful to detect hints of a somewhat jaded Athenian mood in certain passages of Assembly-Women, such as Chremes' report that the Assembly voted for a female government on the grounds that it was the only thing 'still left untried' (456-7). It is, of course, now impossible for us to trace, and perhaps anyway unnecessary to posit, anything like a close connection between Athens's (relative) decline after the Peloponnesian War and the changing trends in comic drama which can be glimpsed in Aristophanes' last two extant plays, Assembly-Women and Wealth. The evolution of comedy must have been affected by many factors, some of them internal to its own theatrical traditions. But, whatever the reasons for change, these two late Aristophanic works do allow us to observe something of the developments in Attic comedy which ancient critics subsequently came to denote by the distinction between Old and Middle Comedy.
From our own distant perspective, to regard Assembly-Women as 'transitional' is inevitably a simplification of comedy's complex and partially unrecoverable theatrical history; but it is none the less a useful starting-point from which to interpret the work's dramatic character. Such a judgement involves a recognition that the play____________________