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

  • Introduction
  • Defining Middle Comedy
  • General Overviews
  • Mythical Themes and Plot Development
  • Language, Costumes, and the Chorus
  • Middle Comedy and Politics
  • Transmission
  • Editions, Commentaries, and Translations in General

Classics Greek Middle Comic Fragments
Heinz-Günther Nesselrath
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0276


Athenian Middle Comedy is the least well-attested phase of Attic Comedy; its very existence has been doubted by a number of serious scholars. Although, however, we have only a heap of often very disheveled fragments from plays that might conceivably have belonged to the Middle Comic period, these fragments can help us to perceive at least some of the traits which were probably characteristic of comic plays during this period: a penchant for mythical themes (often in the form of parodic re-treatment of the plot of preceding tragedies), presented, however, not in the fairytale-like fashion of Old Comedy, but in the more down-to-earth style of Athenian everyday life; the inclusion of long aria-like pieces in dithyrambic wording and anapaestic meter, paradoxically presented by low-level characters (e.g., cooks and slaves); and the development of typical roles (the bourgeois father/husband, mother/wife and son; the wily slave; the pompous cook; the swaggering soldier; the greedy pimp; the seductive hetaera; the ever hungry parasite). With these traits, Middle Comedy paved the way to subsequent New Comedy. As Middle Comedy was soon overshadowed by this following phase, this led to forms of transmission (or lack of such) that were peculiar to Middle Comedy: whole plays ceased to be read rather soon (it seems), and apparently none (or only very few) of these plays served as models for later Roman Comedy; nevertheless, striking passages were excerpted and found their way into lexica and encyclopedic works, and these fragments still give us an idea of some of the more productive Middle Comic poets (most of all Alexis, Anaxandrides, Antiphanes, Eubulus, and Timocles). Except for a very few cases, the following survey deliberately does not go back beyond 1983, the year in which the first volume of Kassel’s and Austin’s Poetae Comici Graeci (Kassel and Austin 1983–1995, cited under Editions, Commentaries, and Translations in General) appeared and the study of Middle Comedy was put on a totally new footing. For invaluable help in getting hard-to-come-by scholarly literature especially from southern Europe, I would like to express my thanks to my colleague Giovanna Alvoni at Bologna.

Defining Middle Comedy

Since the 19th century (see, e.g., Wilhelm Fielitz, De Atticorum comoedia bipartita. PhD Diss. Bonn: Georg, 1866), the discussion whether there really was such a thing as Attic Middle Comedy has continued into present times; a history of the debate is provided by Nesselrath 1990, pp. 1–28. An affirmative answer to this question largely depends on whether we are prepared to accept the judgment of Alexandrian classical philology (see Nesselrath 1990, pp. 172–187 and, more recently, Nesselrath 2015) or not (for a very sceptical voice see Csapo 2000). There have been rivalling conceptions of Middle Comedy even in Antiquity (see Nesselrath 1990, pp. 28–57); for modern voices supporting the notion that the comic poet Plato, a younger contemporary of Aristophanes, might be regarded as the main representative of a “Middle” Comedy in terms of content and not chronology, see Rosen 1995 and Sanchis Llopis 1997 (but, in response to this, see Pirrotta 2009). The notion that Middle Comedy is a useful term for periodizing Attic Comedy continues to be challenged (Sidwell 2000, somewhat modified in Sidwell 2014; Konstantakos 2000, cited under Antiphanes; Wright 2013, who prefers “later Greek Comedy” instead of “Middle” and “New” Comedy [p. 603; see also 622]). Henderson 2014 (cited under Middle Comedy and Politics) detects “no revolutionary breaks between the eras” (p. 181); see also Zimmermann 2011. For judicious remarks both on the value of the tripartition of Attic Comedy and its limitations see Olson 2007, p. 22–26 (cited under Editions, Commentaries, and Translations). Papachrysostomou 2008 (cited under Editions, Commentaries, and Translations in General) regards Middle Comedy as a particularly intensive period of experimentation (p. 13).

  • Csapo, Eric. 2000. From Aristophanes to Menander? Genre transformation in Greek Comedy. In Matrices of genre: Authors, canons, and society. Edited by Mary Depew and Dirk Obbink, 115–133. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Challenges conventional notions of the development of Athenian Comedy and argues for a more complex picture in which many phenomena coexisted rather than followed one upon the other.

  • Nesselrath, Heinz-Günther. 1990. Die attische Mittlere Komödie. Ihre Stellung in der antiken Literaturkritik und Literaturgeschichte. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110888997

    Traces the debate about Middle Comedy as a genre and argues that it has defining features of its own.

  • Nesselrath, Heinz-Günther. 2015. Zur Periodisierung der griechischen Komödie in hellenistischer (und späterer) Philologie. In Fragmente einer Geschichte der griechischen Komödie/Fragmentary history of Greek comedy. Edited by Stylianos Chronopoulos and Christian Orth, 16–34. Heidelberg, Germany: Verlag Antike.

    Presents an abbreviated and updated version of Nesselrath 1990, pp. 1–187.

  • Pirrotta, Serena. 2009. Plato comicus. Die fragmentarischen Komödien. Berlin: Verlag Antike.

    Looks at the position the comic poet Plato held within the genre and situates him within Old Comedy. See pp. 50–61.

  • Rosen, Ralph M. 1995. Plato Comicus and the evolution of Greek comedy. In Beyond Aristophanes: Transition and diversity in Greek comedy. Edited by Gregory W. Dobrov, 119–137. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

    Argues for peculiar traits of Plato Comicus that would make him a representative of Middle Comedy.

  • Sanchis Llopis, Jorge Luis. 1997. Platón el cómico y la evolución de la comedia griega. In Sociedad, política y literatura: comedia griega antigua. Edited by Antonio López Eire, 329–337. Salamanca, Italy: Logo.

    Wants to show that Plato Comicus was sometimes considered a poet of Middle Comedy (which the author regards as something transitional: pp. 329, 336) because he seemed to be more innovative than other Old Comedy poets (p. 336).

  • Sidwell, Keith. 2000. From old to middle to new? Aristotle’s poetics and the history of Athenian Comedy. In The rivals of Aristophanes: Studies in Athenian Old Comedy. Edited by David Harvey and John Wilkins, 247–258. London: Duckworth.

    Wants to subsume Middle Comedy under Old Comedy, because Aristotle (EN 4.14 p. 1128a22–24) distinguished only between “old” and “new” varieties of comedy.

  • Sidwell, Keith. 2014. Fourth-century comedy before Menander. In The Cambridge companion to Greek Comedy. Edited by Martin Revermann, 60–78. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Develops his reasoning of Sidwell 2000 further and now posits “two separate highways, one for satirical comedy and the other non-iambic comedy of plot” (p. 72) running side by side. In this way, Sidwell tries to make sense of the rather different accounts of developmental stages of comedy in the transmitted Comic Prolegomena.

  • Wright, Matthew. 2013. Poets and poetry in later Greek Comedy. Classical Quarterly 63:603–622.

    DOI: 10.1017/S000983881300013X

    Regards the labels “middle” and “new” comedy as unsatisfactory, because they suggest an evolutionary development. Stresses continuity “in comic technique and subject matter” regarding “the area of poetics” (p. 604) and the stability of “the comedians’ intellectual and poetic outlook” (p. 622) in the 5th and the 4th century.

  • Zimmermann, Bernhard. 2011. Die attische Komödie: Periodisierung. In Handbuch der griechischen Literatur der Antike, Erster Band: Die Literatur der klassischen und hellenistischen Zeit. Edited by Bernhard Zimmermann, 671. Munich: Beck.

    Advocates “gradual transitions” (“gleitende Übergänge”) instead of fixed boundaries between the three phases of Attic Comedy; for a similar notion see already Nesselrath 1990, pp. 333–336.

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