The City as Comedy: Society and Representation in Athenian Drama

By Gregory W. Dobrov | Go to book overview

MALCOLM HEATH


Aristophanes and the Discourse of Politics

Aristophanic comedy contains echoes and representations of contemporary political discourse. If we are to identify these allusions and interpret them, we must know something of the political discourse that is being echoed and represented--or (as it may be) misrepresented. But how much do we really know about the discourse of late fifth-century Athenian politics, and what are the sources of our knowledge?

To a limited extent we enjoy direct access. For example, when we read pseudo-Xenophon's essay on the Athenian constitution we are reading a late fifth-century political text; but within the whole domain of contemporary Athenian politics this text is manifestly eccentric. Comedy played to, and was appreciated by, a mass audience; our primary concern, therefore, must be its relation to the political discourse in which the majority of the citizens participated. But our access to this mass political discourse is much more problematic; we do not, for example, have any speeches addressed to the fifth-century assembly.

We do have some fifth-century representations of speeches to the assembly In particular, Thucydides offers a compelling representation of political debate in Athens, and one that has been extremely influential. How far should we trust it? Doubts arise when one tries to correlate what we read in Thucydides with the implications of other indirect evidence. Consider for example how the topic of justice features in Athenian attitudes to foreign policy--or fails to feature: in

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