Aristophanes (c 448 BCE-380 BCE) was an ancient Greek satirical and comedic playwright about whom we know very little. In fact, everything we know about him comes from his plays, or from what other ancient sources tell of him.¹
In the absence of clear biographical facts about Aristophanes, scholars make educated guesses based on interpretation of the language in the plays. Inscriptions and summaries or comments by Hellenistic and Byzantine scholars can also provide useful clues.²
His surviving works amount to eleven plays and 32 titles and fragments. They provide invaluable insights into the ways and wiles of the ancient world. Indeed, Aristophanes is often regarded as the father of comedy, using subtle puns and distorted literary allusions. But most of his humor is lost not only through translation but also through the passing of the intertwined literary, philosophical, social and political realities in which he lived.
Aristophanes satires were, for the most part, sharp and pointed. His plays variously won first and second prize at ancient dramatic festivals. Among his more memorable works are The Frogs, The Clouds, The Wasps and The Birds.
In The Clouds Aristophanes writes about Socrates as if he were just another corrupt sophist. Accordingly, Plato suggests in his Apology that Aristophanes contributed to the denigration and eventual death of Socrates. However, other ancient satirists also trashed Socrates’ character, which probably helped to turn public opinion against him.
Are things so different today?
¹ Depictions of Aristophanes are for the most part, imaginary—such as the one presented here at top right. Sources indicate that in real life he might have been prematurely bald.