B. PÜTZ, The Symposium and Komos in Aristophanes (Drama: Beiträge zum antiken Drama und seiner Rezeption, Beiheft 22). Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler Verlag, 2003. Pp. x + 306. ISBN 3-476-45318-9. 39.95 (Pb).
Review by Keith Sidwell
Pütz’ book is a revised version of her St Andrews PhD dissertation. It falls into three distinct parts. Part one deals with the symposion (‘drinking party’) in Aristophanes, part two with the komos (‘revel’) in his plays, and the final part the appendices with practical aspects of these two social phenomena, especially as evidenced by all comedy (and in particular the comic fragments). Pütz’ thesis is that close examination of the sympotic and komastic scenes in Aristophanes (such as that at the end of Acharnians or those mentioned and shown in Wasps) can throw light on the way plot and character are shaped. In addition, she infers from the evidence presented that the symposion was not an exclusively aristocratic phenomenon (as it often suggested) but that knowledge of it, its rules, regulations and associated practices, must have extended right down the social scale. On her two main topics she concludes (p. 197): ‘both symposium and komos predominantly express exuberant happiness, feelings of community, and victoriousness, and they share an association with a certain amount of wealth and luxury in the comedies. Such celebrations are shown to be possible only when peace and a certain degree of order exists in a community, which has usually been achieved by the protagonists of the plays themselves.’ The book closes with a full and useful bibliography, eight illustrations (vase-paintings) and an index of comic fragments. However, there is no name or subject index.
This is an extremely detailed investigation of important Athenian social phenomena which clearly inform the comedy of Aristophanes and other Athenian comic poets. It has many merits, which include detailed discussion of many problematic passages in the comic fragments and elucidation of sympotic and komastic practice. As a work to consult about these issues, then, it will serve the Aristophanic scholar well to have a copy on the bookshelf. It is not, however, a general book about Aristophanes and its methodology and manner of presentation incline me to suggest that it will not be likely to aid the general reader in his or her attempts to understand the plays better.
Let me make a remark under each of these heads. First, on methodology: there is a tendency here visible to an extent in almost all PhD theses - for the topic in hand to be regarded almost as a key to the interpretation of the whole area tackled (here the plays of Aristophanes). The problem I see with the actual methodology used is a certain circularity in the argumentation. I would have preferred to see sympotic and komastic practice established from non-comic sources before comedy was tackled at all (and the author is aware of the problem, since she keeps adding the caveat that you can never quite tell what comedy is telling you because of the risk of parody or the necessity of making people laugh in some other way). Another issue I have is that the argument about the social status of the symposion is based upon two assumptions that are never argued: one, that the audience of comedy must have been drawn from all social classes (yet the theoric fund, which helped poor Athenians pay for their tickets, was probably not introduced until the 4th century); two, that the characters in Old Comedy do not normally represent real individuals (so if Philokleon represents a real person recognisable to the audience, the jokes about his social status may not be what they appear on the surface to be).
On the presentation, a particular problem for the general reader is the practical issue of availability of texts of the comic fragments. The discussions in part three of the book are learned and informative, but no text of the fragment under discussion is given. Also, in the main body of the work, the general reader (and in particular the general reader with little or no Greek) will find it disconcerting that Greek is quoted without translation. There are quite a lot of typographical errors and some errors of other kinds which might be misleading, because the correction is not immediately obvious (on one occasion (p. 211), the poet Eupolis appears as a character in Birds (for Euelpides) and on another (p. 100) ‘Plutus’ invitation’ (in Frogs) must be ‘Pluto’s’). Some of these issues will make the book more daunting than might have been the case and I wonder also that the typographical presentation could not have been made a little more inviting. Finally, the lack of a name or subject index will make access to the important and interesting discussions the book does contain rather more difficult than it should have been.