Laughing at the Present: An Examination of Nostalgia in Aristophanes’ Frogs

§1.1 Anyone who has read Don Quixote knows that comedic circumstances can be used to convey important themes. I would venture to say that the Athenian playgoers at the Lenaea of 405 B.C. could have used a good laugh. Between the costly battle of Arginusae in 406 and the ever-increasing Persian support for the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians certainly sensed that their city was declining from its former prosperity. However, Aristophanes’ Frogs was not merely a humorous diversion from Athenian problems; rather, it provided humor by tackling these issues head-on. Aristophanes carries this out through satire directed against the present day and glorification of the past. It is my contention that there is a profound sense of nostalgia exhibited in the Frogs and that this nostalgia is evidenced by Aristophanes’ treatment of political and social issues as well as by his discussion of the art of poetry.

§1.2 However, before discussing the theme of nostalgia in the play itself, it would perhaps be beneficial to give at least a cursory definition of the term and to touch upon the basic way in which Aristophanes employs it. Although the term nostalgia came in the English language in the late eighteenth century as a medical term referring to homesickness, which was considered a disease, the terms Greek root words— nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain, grief)—more accurately convey the sense in which Aristophanes is using the word. Since pain, as St. Augustine would argue, is produced by the lack of something, in this case, the prosperity and old-fashioned values of days gone by, Aristophanes uses his poetry as a vehicle by which he can reach out to the pain-filled audience of Athens by comically glorifying the past and, to an even greater degree, laughing at the lamentable conditions of the present.

§1.3 Although the play begins with a few scenes poking fun at the relationship between master and slave and Dionysus’ encounter with the chorus of frogs, Aristophanes certainly wastes no time in putting forth political views for the audience’s consideration. In fact, when the new chorus of Eleusinian initiates arrives onstage and begins their parodos, Aristophanes gives the chorus leader a speech which would not normally occur until the parabasis. Sir Kenneth Dover sums up this speech perfectly when he says that it is “ostensibly a proclamation to the impure and uninitiated to stand aside from the procession of initiates,” which “is turned into praise of comedy and denigration of various disagreeable individuals and types” (Dover 1972:174). Before the chorus leader launches into his list of poetic and political offenses, he begins his speech by saying, “εὐφημεῖν χρὴ κἀξίστασθαι τοῖς ἡμετέροισι χοροῖσιν” (354). This line is particularly important because (1) the exclusion of political offenders which the chorus leader proposes in the Underworld parallels the actual exclusion of murderers and foreigners in Athens, and (2) this theme of inclusion and exclusion directly relates this speech, the anapestic portion of a typical parabasis, to the epirrhema and antepirrhema which occur later in the play. Aristophanes then proceeds to list a plethora of corrupt and otherwise despicable practices going on in Athens (359-368). When one reads this sharp invective, some of which is blatantly directed against individuals, one cannot help but gain the sense that although this criticism is comedic, Aristophanes still certainly sees quite a number of flaws in the politics of contemporary Athens. Hence, although this passage does not contain an explicit longing for the past, the satire of present politics is sufficient to suggest at least an implicit sort of nostalgia.[1]

§1.4 Douglas M. MacDowell could not be more correct in saying that “the two speeches of the parabasis”—the epirrhema and the antepirrhema—are “significant” (MacDowell 1995:285). Indeed, it is hard to miss the political nature of the epirrhema when the chorus leader speaks of the slaves who were given citizenship as a result of their service in the Battle of Arginusae:

καὶ γὰρ αἰσχρόν ἐστι τοὺς μὲν ναυμαχήσαντας μίαν
καὶ Πλαταιᾶς εὐθὺς εἶναι κἀντὶ δούλων δεσπότας.
693-694

The chorus leader’s reference to the slaves serves to heighten the audience’s sense of indignation at the government’s harsh treatment of other citizens who have been disfranchised for one reason or another. Whether the offender has supported the oligarchy (689) or committed some other offense against the state, the chorus leader argues that no one in Athens should be punished (692).[2] Although MacDowell gives very much relevant information about the political content of the epirrhema , he fails to provide a close examination of the last three lines of this speech:

εἰ δὲ ταῦτ᾽ ὀγκωσόμεσθα κἀποσεμνυνούμεθα,
τὴν πόλιν καὶ ταῦτ᾽ ἔχοντες κυμάτων ἐν ἀγκάλαις,
ὑστέρῳ χρόνῳ ποτ᾽ αὖθις εὖ φρονεῖν οὐ δόξομεν.
703-705

The chorus leader owes the phrase “ἔχοντες κυμάτων ἐν ἀγκάλαις” to Archilochus (fr. 213). It is clear that this quotation is given in a context, which, although it does not exhibit a direct longing for the past, does exhibit a consciousness of the tendency to look backward to previous generations. Thus, much like the iambs of the parabasis, the epirrhema is implicitly nostalgic through its criticism of the lamentable political and social practices of the day and hints at the nostalgia that will become more pronounced as the play continues.

§1.5 Perhaps the best indication of nostalgia with regard to politics is found in the antepirrhema. Consider the opening three lines, which constitute a political metaphor:

πολλάκις γ᾽ ἡμῖν ἔδοξεν ἡ πόλις πεπονθέναι
ταὐτὸν ἔς τε τῶν πολιτῶν τοὺς καλούς τε κἀγαθοὺς
ἔς τε τἀρχαῖον νόμισμα καὶ τὸ καινὸν χρυσίον.
718-720

To the uninformed reader, the use of gold coins instead of silver ones seems a testament to the wealth and power of Athens. However, this reference is actually an acknowledgment of the uncomfortable economic state of Athens, and it conveys a longing for the economic normalcy of before the war. Although “even a small gold coin has a high value” and is consequently “not much use for everyday shopping,” the practice of melting dedications on the Acropolis to make gold coins became a necessity in Athens in the late years of the Peloponnesian War, after the Spartans occupied Dekeleia and thus cut off access to the silver mines which supplied the metal for “the good old silver coinage which was respected throughout the world” (MacDowell 1995:287, Dover 1972:175). In addition, the word kainos is associated throughout the play with Euripides and his modern style of poetry.

§1.6 Aristophanes elucidates the meaning of this metaphor throughout the remainder of the speech. He calls the old coinage mentioned above “καλλίστοις ἁπάντων … νομισμάτων” and says that it is meant to represent the citizens who are known to be “εὐγενεῖς,” “σώφρονας,” “δικαίους,” “καλούς,” and “κἀγαθοὺς,” those citizens who were trained the right way, “ἐν παλαίστραις καὶ χοροῖς καὶ μουσικῇ” (722, 727-729). Certainly such heavy praise for what Aristophanes has introduced as “τἀρχαῖον” cannot be interpreted as anything except nostalgia. This praise for the past is immediately followed by contempt for the present:

… τοῖς δὲ χαλκοῖς καὶ ξένοις καὶ πυρρίαις
καὶ πονηροῖς κἀκ πονηρῶν εἰς ἅπαντα χρώμεθα
ὑστάτοις ἀφιγμένοισιν, οἷσιν ἡ πόλις πρὸ τοῦ
οὐδὲ φαρμακοῖσιν εἰκῇ ῥᾳδίως ἐχρήσατ᾽ ἄν.
730-733

The reference to χαλκοῖς is particularly interesting because, as Dover says, “here an element which belongs to one member of the comparison intrudes into the other” (Dover 1997:162). Earlier in the speech, the chorus leader makes a reference to bronze coins:

… ἀλλὰ τούτοις τοῖς πονηροῖς χαλκίοις
χθές τε καὶ πρώην κοπεῖσι τῷ κακίστῷ κόμματι.
725-726

MacDowell explains this reference thus: “A few months before the performance of Frogs … [the Athenians] produced some bronze coins plated with silver,” which were “unpopular” and thus “constantly in circulation , while the silver and gold disappeared” (MacDowell 1995:287). Aristophanes feels the need to reinforce this idea of nasty bronze coins minted very recently when he speaks of their political equivalents: the low-bred, foreign Thracians who have just arrived in Athenian society for the first time. Although the tones of the epirrhema and the antepirrhema are certainly different in that the former seems inclusive and the latter seems exclusive, there is no inherent contradiction between the two “because we are concerned now with political leadership, not merely citizenship” (Dover 1997:162). Notice the undeniably nostalgic language Aristophanes uses to denounce such “bronze” men. It is not just that these men are foreign and low-born. Aristophanes makes sure to mention that they are “ὑστάτοις ἀφιγμένοισιν,” a distinction that shows clearly his rejection of what is modern in favor of preserving Athens as it was. After emphasizing the unappealing nature of such men, he makes sure to include the fact that “πρὸ τοῦ” (before now) Athens wouldn’t have used such people even as random scapegoats, let alone let them hold any sort of important political or military office.

§1.7 If modernity consists of niggardly actions such as destroying the beautiful dedications on the acropolis for the making of small gold coins, then it is certainly not a far stretch to see that the fact that Euripides will file down words (828) and the fact that he is concerned with things as unimportant as the head of a sprat (984-985) identify him with these niggardly practices. Aristophanes is not content to convey his nostalgia through merely his political advice and criticism. He also elucidates this difference between the present and the past through his contrast of the two great playwrights vying for the chair of tragedy. Aeschylus, who lived from 525 B.C. to 456 B.C., is shown throughout the play to be a wise poet whose eloquence cannot be equaled in the present day. Euripides, on the other hand, who died in 406 B.C., just a year before the production of Frogs, is continually associated with the practices and attitude of modernity. Although Elizabeth W. Scharffenberger argues against the conventional interpretation that the character of Aeschylus is used to convey Aristophanes’ conservative political agenda, she admits that in most scholarship, “Euripides is seen as the embodiment of all that Aristophanes finds dangerous: demagogic populism, sophistical questioning of time-honored value, and uncontrolled innovation in music and drama” (Scharffenberger 2007:234).

§1.8 Even a brief survey of the language associated with the characters of Aeschylus and Euripides shows the clear temporal distinction between the two. This distinction is even present before the characters themselves speak. The chorus refers to Aeschylus as “ἐριβρεμέτας ” who will be responsible for “ἱππολόφων τε λόγων κορυθαίολα νείκη” (814, 818). He is portrayed as “φρίξας … αὐτοκόμου λοφιᾶς λασιαύχενα χαίταν” (822). He will pour forth “ῥήμαθ’ ἱπποβάμονα,” “ῥήματα γομφοπαγῆ, πινακηδὸν ἀποσπῶν/γηγένει φυσήματι” (821, 824-825). This introduction to Aeschylus, as it were, is important for a number of reasons. First, it uses epic language, which, aside from imitating Aeschylus’s style of writing, identifies him with Homer, the quintessential example of a talent that is characteristic of a bygone age. However, it is equally as important to note that the glory of the Homeric age comes directly through its strife, hence, the rough images of galloping horses, shaggy-necked manes, and flashing helmets.[3] The concentration on “ῥήματα,” which itself is rather formal diction in comparison to Euripides’ “ἔπη,” presents Aeschylus’s language as lofty and piled-high. His words are likened to boards which he will hurl at his opponent.

§1.9 The chorus introduces Euripides in a way that directly contrasts him with Aeschylus.

§1.10 Unlike Aeschylus, who recklessly hurls forth whatever lofty phrase enters his mind, Euripides is presented as more prudent in his word choice: he is introduced as an “ἐπῶν βασανίστρια” ( examiner of words, 826). Unlike Aeschylus, who presents the rough images of epic strife, Euripides has a “λισπη/γλῶσσ’” (smooth tongue, 826-827). Unlike Aeschylus, who does his best to pile on lofty phrases and hurl them like heavy planks of wood, Euripides’ smooth tongue is portrayed as “δαιομένη” (dividing up) Aeschylus’s “ῥήματα”; it will “καταλεπτολογήσει” the comedic “πλευμόνων πολὺν πόνον” of Aeschylus (828-829). Even if one were to ignore the obvious difference in the language used to describe each of these poets, the sheer fact that Aeschylus’s poetic strategy against Euripides is introduced in twelve lines (814-825) while Euripides’ is introduced in only four (826-829) shows that any discussion of Aeschylus must be piled high with words while any discussion of Euripides must be filed down and niggardly.

§1.11 Aside from this introduction, the chorus makes this distinction and other similar ones between the two poets throughout the remainder of the play. Consider the following lines:

προσδοκᾶν οὖν εἰκός ἐστι
τὸν μὲν ἀστεῖόν τι λέξειν
καὶ κατερρινημένον,
τὸν δ᾽ ἀνασπῶντ᾽ αὐτοπρέμνοις
τοῖς λόγοισιν ἐμπεσόντα
συσκεδᾶν πολλὰς ἀλινδήθρας ἐπῶν
900-904

Here again we see the comparison of Euripides’ words to something “κατερρινημένον” (filed down, 901b). On the other hand, the words “αὐτοπρέμνοις/τοῖς λόγοισιν” suggest “that [Aeschylus] will wield his arguments like trees uprooted” (902-903, Dover 1997:179). Notice that Aeschylus is described as “ἐμπεσόντα,” a word which suggests the fervid action of the battlefield. Dover likewise notes the bellicose connotation of “πολλὰς/ἀλινδήθρας ἐπῶν”: “The idea seems to be that Aeschylus, wielding enormous words, will scatter to the sky all the dust of the battle-ground” (904, Dover 1997:179).

§1.12 One more choral section which is particularly important comes just before Aeschylus and Euripides begin to judge certain lines of each other’s poetry. At one point in the strophe, the chorus states,

χαλεπὸν οὖν ἔργον διαιρεῖν,
ὅταν ὁ μὲν τείνῃ βιαίως,
ὁ δ᾽ ἐπαναστρέφειν δύνηται κἀπερείδεσθαι τορῶς.
1100-1102

Certainly, the fact that Aeschylus “τείνῃ βιαίως” conveys his tendency toward the glorious strife of the past (1101). On the other hand, Euripides “ἐπαναστρέφειν δύνηται κἀπερείδεσθαι,” an ability which connotes both Euripides’ meandering poetic style and the crooked politics of the day (1102). Several lines later, the chorus expresses the desire to hear “τά τε παλαιὰ καὶ καινά,” an additional affirmation that Aeschylus is associated with the past and Euripides, with the present (1107).

§1.13 Many other characters aside from the chorus reference Aeschylus and Euripides, including the poets themselves when they mock and parody each other. Some of the first important information we get about the character of Aeschylus comes when Xanthias asks Pluto’s slave whether Aeschylus has any allies in the Underworld: “ὀλίγον τὸ χρηστόν ἐστιν, ὥσπερ ἐνθάδε” (783). Scharffenberger addresses this quotation thus: “Pluto’s slave identifies [Aeschylus’s] supporters in the underworld as ‘the better element’…and during the contest he is implicitly connected with elite figures embodying aristocratic excellence, particularly Achilles, by whose name he is at one point addressed (φαίδιμ’ Ἀχιλλεῦ, 992)” (Scharffenberger 2007:233). Regardless of whether Aristophanes is arguing in favor of the aristocracy, it is clear that Aeschylus is associated with the epic figures of the past and that he is somehow “better” than Euripides.

§1.14 Before the actual contest begins, Aristophanes gives us an interesting glance into the nature of his two poetic gladiators when Aeschylus and Euripides invoke the gods to help them in their battle. Aeschylus makes a reverent prayer to Demeter, a traditional goddess whom everyone would have recognized (886-887). Euripides, on the other hand, makes a somewhat radical invocation to gods such as “αἰθὴρ” and “μυκτῆρες ὀσφραντήριοι” (892-893). However, more important than the invocation itself is the conversation just before it between Dionysus and Euripides. Once Euripides indicates to Dionysus that he will not be praying to traditional gods, Dionysus asks, “ἴδιοί τινές σου, κόμμα καινὸν;” (890). The fact that the gods are “ἴδιοί” connotes Euripides’ uncontrolled innovation; in addition, “κόμμα καινὸν” is reminiscent of the old- and new-coin image, once again placing Euripides into the realm of the modern.

§1.15 However, some of the most important information about these two characters comes from the comedic jabs that Aeschylus and Euripides take at each other. Before Aeschylus even has his first lines in the play, Euripides has an ingenious way to make fun of him and his style of poetry. Within the same breath, he calls Aeschylus an “ἄνθρωπον ἀγριοποιὸν αὐθαδόστομον” (a savagely-poetical man, reckless of others) and “ἀπεριλάλητον, κομποφακελορρήμονα” (incapable of witty chatter, pomp-bundle-worded, 837, 839). The three-word trimeter Euripides presents in line 837 is a typical technique applied in Aeschylus’s tragedies; however, the two-word trimeter of line 839 must have struck the audience as quite a zinger. Using these poetic techniques, Euripides has successfully employed Aeschylus’s own technique just to satirize it. It is clear that Euripides is not impressed by Aeschylus’s lofty language, and the fact that this language is unclear comes to be one of his chief criticisms (cf. 928-930).

§1.16 Although Aeschylus spends a great deal of time arguing with Euripides and criticizes his poetry in various ways, he makes one speech that summarizes his most convincing argument very well and connotes the nostalgia of the play. I would argue that Aeschylus seals his victory when he gets Euripides to agree that the true aim of poets should be to improve the citizenry (1009-10). Aeschylus replies with a speech that directly links men with positive qualities—“γενναίους καὶ τετραπήχεις”— with his epic style, reminiscent of the glorious past—

… πνέοντας δόρυ καὶ λόγχας καὶ λευκολόφους τρυφαλείας
καὶ πήληκας καὶ κνημῖδας καὶ θυμοὺς ἑπταβοείους
1016-1017

(1014). On the other hand, he links the pathetic men which Euripides’ produces—“διαδρασιπολίτας,” “ἀγοραίους,” “κοβάλους,” and “πανούργους”—with modernity: “ὥσπερ νῦν” (1014-1015). Dover recognizes the nostalgia conveyed through Aristophanes’ Aeschylus when he says, “[T]here must have been a great many people whose reaction to Aiskhylos was, ‘that’s the sort of stuff that made them the men they were in the good old days’. The tradition of didacticism in poetry…will have reinforced the tendency to think in those terms, and Aristophanes exploits it very fully” (Dover 1972:188).

§1.17 As arrogant and bombastic as Aeschylus comes across at times, he is ultimately right. His weighty words literally tip the scales in his favor; and although Dionysus admits that he enjoys Euripides, he must admit that Aeschylus is certainly wise (1413). The concept of nostalgia may not make much sense given that it can be expressed in any and every age; but whether you’re contrasting the effeminate Cleisthenes with the glorious Homeric heroes or Justin Bieber with the legends of classic rock, it sure makes for good comedy.

Bibliography

Arnott, Geoffrey W. “A Lesson from the ‘Frogs’.” Greece & Rome 38.1 (1991): 18-23.

Dover, Kenneth. Aristophanes Frogs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Dover, K. J. Aristophanic Comedy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

MacDowell, Douglas M. Aristophanes and Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Scharffenberger, Elizabeth Watson. The Motif of Nostalgic Idealization in Aristophanes. Diss. Columbia University, 1988.

Scharffenberger, Elizabeth W. “‘Deinon Eribremetas’: The Sound and Sense of Aeschylus in Aristophanes’ ‘Frogs’.” Classical World 100.3 (2007): 229-49.

Footnotes

Note 1
Here, I must take issue with Douglas M. MacDowell’s assertion that, “Political topics are notably absent from the early part of Frogs but become more prominent toward the middle of the play, where jokes are made about three individual politicians” (MacDowell 1995:284). He goes on to note Aristophanes’ comic jibes at Theramenes, Cleophon, and Cleigenes, the earliest of which occurs in line 541: “ καὶ φύσει Θηραμένους ” (MacDowell 1995:284-285).

Note 2
There is some disagreement in scholarship over line 692 and its function in relation to the message Aristophanes is trying to convey. MacDowell claims that it is “for fifth-century Greece, an astounding proposal” while W. Geoffrey Arnott refers to it as mere “emotive confectionery … which was inserted presumably just because every Athenian could be expected to support bromides of this kind with enthusiasm” (MacDowell 1995:287, Arnott 1991:20). I would agree with MacDowell in this case because this desire for equality fits within the larger context of this speech, which criticizes the political decisions of the day.

Note 3
It would be a grievous oversight to overlook Scharffenberger’s counterargument on this point: “The astute spectator, I believe, as a citizen of a state wearied by war, would be immediately troubled by the fact that the only virtue commended in these men is their eagerness to fight” (Scharffenberger 1988:225). Although this is a powerful argument, perhaps the average playgoer would overlook his weariness in light of the grandeur of Homeric diction, which, I suppose, is just what Aeschylus would have wanted.

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