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This webpage reproduces the
Summary of a Comparison between
Aristophanes and Menander


as published in Vol. X
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1936

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

(Vol. X) Plutarch, Moralia

 p461  Summary of a Comparison between
Aristophanes and Menander


The work appears in pp459‑473 of Vol. X of the Loeb Classical Library's edition of the Moralia, first published in 1936. The Greek text and the English translation (by H. N. Fowler) are now in the public domain pursuant to the 1978 revision of the U. S. Copyright Code, since the copyright expired in 1964 and was not renewed at the appropriate time, which would have been that year or the year before. (Details here on the copyright law involved.)

Loeb Edition Introduction

This is at best a summary of one of Plutarch's lost essays, and it may well be that we have only part of the summary. Bernardakis believes that the beginning is wanting, and even for a summary the end, as we have it, appears somewhat abrupt.

The Old Comedy of the fifth century B.C., whose chief representative is, and always was, Aristophanes, with its brilliant wit, unrestrained ribaldry, and unashamed indecency, was followed in the fourth century, after the brief vogue of the Middle Comedy, by the New Comedy, whose chief representative is Menander. The New Comedy abstained from politics, indulged in no personal invective, was indecent only by innuendo, and produced dramas in which the life of the times was reflected somewhat after the manner of modern "society plays." Plutarch not unnaturally preferred Menander's polished comedies of character to the boisterous wit and humour of Aristophanes, and he seems to have had no appreciation of the earlier dramatist's vigour or of his poetic imagination.

 p463  (853) 1 1   [link to original Greek text] . . . . In general he​1 much prefers Menander, and in particular he adds what follows:

B"Coarseness," he says, "in words, vulgarity and ribaldry are present in Aristophanes, but not at all in Menander; obviously, for the uneducated, ordinary person is captivated by what the former says, but the educated man will be displeased. I refer to antitheses and similar endings and plays on words. For of these Menander does make use with proper consideration and rarely, believing that they should be treated with care, but Aristophanes employs them frequently, inopportunely, and frigidly; for his punning is applauded," he says, "in

because he soused the bankers —

Though they never were that but damn curs,​2


 p465  CThis fellow blows an ill north-east or calumny,​3


Give him a belly-punch in his bowels and guts,​4


By laughter driven I soon shall be in Laughter-town,​5


Whatever shall I do to you, you wretched pot,

When gone the way of pots?​6


Since, women, what he does to us are evils wild,

For one who e'en himself in the wild-greens market grew,​7


But look, the moths have eaten up my plumes entire,​8


 p467  Lam. I say, bring here my shield's round orb all Gorgon-faced.

Dic. I say, hand me a flat-cake's orb all faced with cheese,​9

and many things of the same sort. Moreover, in his diction there are tragic, comic, pompous, and prosaic elements, obscurity, vagueness, dignity, and elevation, loquacity and sickening nonsense. DAnd with all these differences and dissimilarities his use of words does not give to each kind its fitting and appropriate use; I mean, for example, to a king his dignity, to an orator his eloquence, to a woman her artlessness, to an ordinary man his prosaic speech, to a market-lounger his vulgarity; but he assigns to his characters as if by lot such words as happen to turn up, and you could not tell whether the speaker is son or father, a rustic or a god, or an old woman or a hero.

2 1   [link to original Greek text] "But Menander's diction is so polished and its ingredients mingled into so consistent a whole that, Ealthough it is employed in connexion with many emotions and many types of character and adapts itself to persons of every kind, it nevertheless appears as one and preserves its uniformity in common and familiar words in general use; but if the action should anywhere call for strange and deceptive language and for bluster, he opens, as it were, all the stops of his flute, but then quickly and plausibly clothes them and brings the sound back to its natural quality. And although there have been many noted artisans, no shoemaker ever made the same shoe, no  p469 mask-maker the same mask, and no tailor the same cloak, that would be appropriate at the same time for man and woman and youth and old man and domestic slave; Fbut Menander so blended his diction that it comports with every nature, disposition, and age, and he did this although he entered upon his career while still a young man and died at the height of his powers as playwright and poet,​10 when, as Aristotle says, writers make the greatest progress in the matter of diction. If, therefore, we were to compare Menander's earliest dramas with those of his middle and final periods, we should perceive from them how many qualities he would, had he lived longer, have added to these.

3 1   [link to original Greek text] 854"Some dramatists write for the common people, and others for the few, but it is not easy to say which of them all is capable of adapting his work to both classes. Now Aristophanes is neither pleasing to the many nor endurable to the thoughtful, but his poetry is like a harlot who has passed her prime and then takes up the rôle of a wife, whose presumption the many cannot endure and whose licentiousness and malice the dignified abominate. But Menander, along with his charm, shows himself above all satisfying. He has made his poetry, of all the beautiful works Greece has produced, Bthe most generally accepted subject in theatres, in discussions, and at banquets, for readings, for instruction, and for dramatic competitions. For he shows, indeed, what the essence and nature of skill in the use of language really are, approaching all subjects with a persuasiveness from which there is no escape, and controlling  p471 every sound and meaning which the Greek language affords. For what reason, in fact, is it truly worth while for an educated man to go to the theatre, except to enjoy Menander? And when else are theatres filled with men of learning, if a comic character has been brought upon the stage?​11 And at banquets for whom is it more proper for the festive board to yield its place and for Dionysus to waive his rights?​12 And just as painters, when their eyes are tired, turn to the colours of flowers and grass, Cso to philosophers and men of learning Menander is a rest from their concentrated and intense studies, inviting the mind, as it were, to a meadow flowery, shady, and full of breezes.

4 1   [link to original Greek text] "Although the city produced in that whole period many excellent performers of comedy, only Menander's comedies contain an abundance of salty wit and merriment, which seem like the salt​13 derived from that sea out of which Aphroditê was born. But the witticisms of Aristophanes are bitter and rough and possess a sharpness which wounds and bites. And I do not know wherein his vaunted cleverness resides, whether in his words or his characters. Certainly even whatever he imitates he makes worse; Dfor with him roguishness is not urbane but malicious, rusticity not simple but silly, facetiousness not playful but ridiculous, and love  p473 not joyous but licentious. For the fellow seems to have written his poetry, not for any decent person, but the indecent and wanton lines for the licentious, the slanderous and bitter passages for the envious and malicious."

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 "He" seems to mean Plutarch; the compiler of this summary (or the editor who included it among Plutarch's works) regarding Plutarch as the author of the statements which are introduced in this first sentence.

2 This quotation is not found in any collection of the fragments of Aristophanes (Bernardakis). The play on words in the Greek consists in the change of the initial letters of the words tamias ("treasurers") and Lamias, fabulous creatures such as the bugbears with which children are frightened by their nurses.

3 Knights, 437. In the Greek "north-east" and "calumny" both have the same endings in ‑ías, characteristic of the names of winds.

4 Knights, 454. The play here consists in the use of gastrize, usually meaning "stuff the belly" with food, as "punch in the belly." The language is intentionally coarse as being characteristic of the Sausage-dealer, Cleon's rival for political leader­ship.

5 Kock, Com. Att. Frag. I p546, no. 618. The play is on the word gelōs "laughter" and the city of Gela in Sicily.

6 Kock, ibid. p543, no. 593. The speaker seems to be about to smash a pot in order to get some ostraka or potsherds on which to inscribe the name of the politician for whose "ostracism" he desires to vote.

7 Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria, 455. One of the assembled women is arraigning Euripides for the wrongs he has done to the sex in his tragedies. The reference in the second line is to the then current story that the poet's mother earned her living by selling wild greens and vegetables.

8 Acharnians, 1110. The speaker is the general Lamachus, who comes on the scene in his full officer's regalia. The word for moth in Greek is trichobros "hair-eater."

9 The first line is spoken by Lamachus, who has been ordered to lead out his forces for the defence of the frontier in blustery wintry weather. Everything he says is parodied by the pacifist Dicaeopolis, the charcoal-burner, who for his part is preparing for a grand banquet.

10 Menander was born in 342 B.C., and died in 292‑291 B.C. at the age of fifty-two. His first play, probably the Heautontimoroumenos, was brought out when he was somewhat under twenty years of age. See Clark, Class. Phil. I (1906) pp313 ff.

11 i.e. when comedies are given only those of Menander draw the crowds of men of culture.

12 That scenes from Menander's plays may be recited or acted.

13 Cf. Cicero, De Officiis I.37.133 "sale vero et facetiis Caesar vicit omnes," where facetiis corresponds to Emperius's conjecture ἱλαρῶν.

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