Classics Aristophanes’ Clouds
Jeffrey Henderson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0305


Aristophanes’ Clouds was produced at the City Dionysia of 423, following a remarkable record of success in national competition since the young poet’s debut in 427, most strikingly with a series of innovative plays attacking populist politics. With Clouds Aristophanes returned to the theme of his debut play, Banqueters: generational conflict over what kind of education best prepares young men to be successful heads of family, good neighbors, and productive citizens. This time his focus was on the thinker and public gadfly Socrates. Building on the stereotype of the intellectual huckster, long a fixture of the comic tradition, the play portrayed Socrates as an arch-Sophist as it explored the development of untraditional forms of scientific inquiry and new techniques in the education of well-to-do young men, particularly rhetorical training, and depicted these as useless, amoral, and atheistic but also effective and therefore dangerous: in a debate Better Argument, an old gentleman who represents traditional customs, beliefs, and virtues, proves ineffective against Worse Argument, a young dandy who advocates the techniques of unscrupulous self-promotion in the service of selfish hedonism. The Chorus of Clouds in their protean whimsicality seem appropriate goddesses for a Sophistic Socrates, but throughout they make it clear that they honor the traditional gods and concepts of justice, and they gradually reveal themselves to be a wishing-mirror for people in love with wickedness, luring them to a well-deserved punishment. Clouds did not win one of the top two prizes, Aristophanes’ poorest showing yet. He rebuked the spectators in Wasps the following year and again in a new parabasis speech written for a revision of Clouds apparently abandoned between 419 and 416, claiming to have overestimated the Athenians’ ability to appreciate the play’s originality and sophistication. But the play’s unusual moral and political ambiguity, the unlikeability of its characters, its rather tragic denouement, and the quality of the competing plays may also have been factors. Both the revision and the original festival script circulated in antiquity, but only the revision has survived. Clouds was the most influential of the comedies that featured Socrates as a character. Its importance, certified by Plato’s Apology, for both apologists and detractors of Socrates and of philosophers generally, guaranteed its survival and canonical status. It was influential among Second Sophistic writers like Lucian and Antonius Diogenes and became one of the Byzantine triad along with Frogs and Wealth, the first plays to be widely available in translation and the only ones available in English before the 19th century. See the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Classics articles Aristophanes and Socrates.


Clouds has a large and ever-growing bibliography, much of which is captured in general bibliographical surveys. L’Année philologique is the most up-to-date and inclusive. Lowe 2007 updates the more detailed Ussher 1979. Storey 1987 and Storey 1992 are inclusive to their dates. For bibliography about the portrayal of Socrates in Clouds the place to begin is Morrison 2011, cited under Socrates.

  • L’Année philologique. Paris: Société d’edition “Les Belles Lettres.”

    The bibliography of record for the field of classical studies, current within months of publication and available online by subscription.

  • Lowe, Nick J. 2007. Comedy. New Surveys in the Classics 37. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Aristophanes is discussed on pp. 21–62, with bibliography collected in the footnotes and in a bibliographical note at the end.

  • Storey, Ian C. 1987. Old Comedy: 1975–1984. Echos du Monde Classique/Classical Views 6:1–46.

    Thorough annotated bibliography for the dates included.

  • Storey, Ian C. 1992. “Dekaton men etos hod”: Old Comedy 1982–1991. Antichthon 26:1–29.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0066477400000666

    Continues Storey 1987.

  • Ussher, Robert G. 1979. Aristophanes. New Surveys in the Classics 13. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An overview of Aristophanic studies to that date, with bibliography.

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