In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek Old Comic Fragments

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Essays
  • Comprehensive Collections
  • Texts
  • English Translations
  • Bibliographies
  • The “War” between the Poets
  • The Politics of Old Comedy
  • Utopia in Old Comedy
  • Specific Themes in Old Comedy

Classics Greek Old Comic Fragments
Ian C. Storey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0124


Although there must have been various sorts of humorous entertainment at Athens in the 6th century BCE, comedy did not become a formal part of the state-sponsored competitions until the early 5th century BCE. The canonical date is 487/6, which Olson 2007 (cited under Texts), pp. 379–391, shows to be a reasonable conjecture, given the evidence. The ancient scholars at Alexandria divided Greek comedy into three chronological periods: Old (5th and early 4th century BCE), Middle (roughly 380–325), and New (late 4th and 3rd centuries BCE), a division that is maintained in textbooks to this day. While there is a distinct and substantial difference between Old Comedy (Aristophanes) and New (Menander), the existence and nature of Middle Comedy remains a matter of debate. A useful rule of thumb for Old Comedy is 487/6 to c. 385, the latter date being the end of Aristophanes’ career. Old Comedy clearly developed and changed over that hundred years. We may distinguish four “generations” of comic poets, for the first of which (486–454) we know something about only one playwright (Magnes), whose comedy seems to be primitive stuff, heavy on hijinks and choral performance. Cratinus (debut 454) and his fellow poets represent the generation before Aristophanes (debut 427), and here comedy becomes something more substantial, with coherent plots, sophisticated burlesque of myth, and, above all, personal jokes and a satirical take on politics. In the 420s Aristophanes and his contemporaries (Eupolis, Phrynichus, Platon) burst on the scene, and here we encounter what critics, both ancient and modern, regard as stereotypical Old Comedy, with political and topical themes and plays directed against whole individuals. The final “generation” takes comedy into the 4th century BCE. We can already see the seeds of change in Aristophanes’ last plays, as a number of new poets, as well as Aristophanes and Platon, take comedy in a new direction. Rather than structured comedy with linear plots and subtle characterization, Old Comedy is farce, of which the primary ingredient is imagination. An Old Comedy often depends on a “great idea,” which the comic “hero” puts into practice and we the spectators witness the (il)logical consequences of its institution. It can feature knockabout slapstick, elaborate song and dance (Old Comedy depends heavily on the chorus), sophisticated parody of myth and literature, grotesque costumes and masks, “bad” language, personal humor, and political satire. Of the sixty or so poets of Old Comedy, Aristophanes (career: 427 to c. 385) is the only poet for whom we have complete plays (eleven). The ancients identified a “Big Three” (Aristophanes, Cratinus [career: 454–423], Eupolis [career: 429–411]), to which we might add Pherecrates (career: c. 440–410) and Platon (career: late 420s to at least 380). The ancients saw in Pherecrates’ work something different from stereotypical Old Comedy, with more than a little in common with later comedy, while several ancient sources consider Platon as the exemplar of Middle Comedy. Note that apart from the eleven extant plays by Aristophanes, Old Comedy is known through “fragments” (“F”) of the lost poets and their plays. The standard collection is Kassel and Austin 1983–2001 (Poetae Comici Graeci, cited under Comprehensive Collections), which is abbreviated as “K.-A.” or “K-A.” Fragments cited by number only are from this collection, which is arranged in eight volumes, alphabetically by poet. Some earlier studies will refer to the collection in Kock 1880 (Comicorum Atticorum Fragmenta, cited under Comprehensive Collections), abbreviated as “K.”

General Overviews

Aristophanes (career: 427 to c. 385 BCE) and his eleven extant plays understandably dominate the critical discussion of Old Comedy, but many of the standard treatments of Aristophanes also bring in material and themes from the other poets—often found in the appendices. The works listed below are those that either concentrate principally on the other poets or amplify a discussion of Aristophanes with considerable material about his rivals. Norwood 1931, Lowe 2007, and Storey 2010 present the most accessible and comprehensive introductions in English to Old Comedy. For German readers, Schmid 1964 is a very full survey, and Zimmermann 2006 is an excellent overall study. Ehrenberg 1962 provides a very readable analysis of “the sociology of Old Comedy,” while Geissler 1969 is still indispensable for investigating the dates of the lost plays. Mensching 1964 builds on the dating supplied by Geissler and others in an attempt to recreate the careers of the poets of Old Comedy. Ruffell 2012 assesses the view of Old Comedy as presented in Rusten 2011 (cited under English Translations) and Storey 2011 (cited under Comprehensive Collections).

  • Ehrenberg, Victor. 1962. The people of Aristophanes: A sociology of Old Attic Comedy. 3d ed. New York: Schocken.

    Ehrenberg’s work is concerned more with what we can learn about contemporary people and society than it is about the poets and plays themselves. But his discussion is always well presented and well informed, and the reader will learn much about contemporary Athenian society.

  • Geissler, Paul. 1969. Chronologie der altattischen Komödie. 2d ed. Zurich, Switzerland: Weldmann.

    Geissler examines first the inscriptional evidence for dating Old Comedy and the various competitions at the Lenaia and Dionysia, and then the various authors and comedies, arranged in five periods: before 431, the Archidamian War (431–421), 421–411, 410–400, and 4th-century BCE comedy. The 1969 edition adds nineteen pages of addenda and corrigenda.

  • Lowe, Nicholas J. 2007. Comedy. Greece and Rome: New Surveys in the Classics 37. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Lowe provides a brief but thorough introduction to ancient comedy. His second chapter deals with “Old Comedy and Aristophanes,” inevitably with most of the attention given to Aristophanes. But the other poets do get a look in. Good bibliographic notes at the end of each section. See especially pp. 21–62.

  • Mensching, Eckart. 1964. Zur Produktivität der alten Komödie. Museum Helveticum 21:15–49.

    Mensching examines what we can say about the poets of Old and Middle Comedy in terms of the numbers and titles of their comedies, the statistics of their productions, and the possible dates of the lost plays.

  • Norwood, Gilbert. 1931. Greek comedy. London: Methuen.

    Norwood’s enthusiasm and commonsense approach can still be recommended despite its early date of publication. He does, however, exaggerate the evidence for “the School of Crates,” and his study of New Comedy predates the discovery of Menander’s Grouch in the 1950s and other papyri of the 1960s.

  • Ruffell, Ian A. 2012. Review article: Comedy. Journal of Hellenic Studies 132:157–171.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0075426912000110

    A thorough review of Rusten 2011 (cited under English Translations) and of Storey 2011 (cited under Comprehensive Collections), concentrating on common issues such as the periodization of comedy, personal humor and satire, the spirit of the competitions, and the visual evidence.

  • Schmid, Wilhelm. 1964. Geschichte der griechischen Literatur. Teil 1, Die klassische Periode der griechischen Literatur: 5. Band: die griechische Literatur zur Zeit der attischen Hegemonie nach dem Eingreifen der Sophistik, zweite Hälfte, zweiter Abschnitt. Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft 7.1.5. Munich: Beck.

    The bulk of this volume is devoted to Aristophanes, but the first section (pp. 1–173) discusses the origins and nature of Old Comedy, with an entry on each comic poet. Those on Cratinus and Eupolis are quite substantial. Schmid’s study cannot be ignored by the serious student of comedy.

  • Storey, Ian C. 2010. Origins and fifth-century comedy. In Brill’s companion to the study of Greek comedy. Edited by Gregory W. Dobrov, 179–225. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    Surveys first the origins of Old Comedy, followed by “the early years” (Magnes), “the second generation” (Cratinus, Callias, Hermippus, Crates, Pherecrates), “the next generation” (Eupolis, Platon), and “the final generation” (Strattis, Archippus, Theopompus). The last section discusses “themes of Old Comedy” (utopia, burlesque of myth, ideas, domestic comedy, politics, personal humor).

  • Zimmermann, Bernhard. 2006. Die griechische Komödie. 2d ed. Frankfurt: Verlag Antike.

    Zimmermann’s study is a short but insightful introduction to all eras of Greek comedy. His comments on the other poets of Old Comedy, while brief, are well worth reading, although he does at times accept the opinio communis too readily. See especially pp. 154–165.

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