Aristophanes: Get to Know the Master of Ancient Greek Comedy

Most of our knowledge of Ancient Greek comedy comes from the works of Aristophanes, a playwright famous during and after his lifetime for his quick wit, bold writing, and innovation.

Apr 14, 2024By Laken Bonatch, MA History and MS Archives Management (in-progress), BA History & Classics,

aristophanes ancient greek comedy


Aristophanes was a playwright who lived in Athens during the 5th century BCE. He produced some of the only remaining extant Greek comedies, and his work helped shape the sub-genres of Old and Middle Comedy. His plays often included crude humor, criticisms of public figures, and commentary on Athenian society. However, his works were sometimes too realistic, leading to constant issues with the politicians he ridiculed in his plays. Although much about the man himself is up for speculation, Aristophanes had a fascinating career and legacy.


Early Life of Aristophanes

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Aristophanes Portrait Bust, Laurens, 1825, via The British Museum, London


Like many ancient figures, our knowledge of Aristophanes’ life primarily comes from later authors. However, the playwright also references his life in his own work, but due to the genre he was writing in, we cannot be certain of the accuracy of his statements. If we combine the information we know from his works, other authors, and social trends in 5th-century Athens, we can infer a few things about Aristophanes.


Aristophanes was born in 450 BCE in Athens, immediately following the second Persian invasion of Greece. He lived through the social upheaval in Athens after the end of the Greco-Persian Wars, including the reigns of Peisistratus and his sons, multiple coups, and the Peloponnesian War. He was most definitely an Athenian citizen, meaning his parents were both citizens, and he was obliged to participate in the military at some point in his life. As a playwright good with language, history, and social commentary, he was highly educated and likely mentored by an older Athenian man once he was a teenager.


pietro testa symposium sketch
The Symposium by Pietro Testa, 1648, via the Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis


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In 427 BCE, when Aristophanes was 23, he produced his first play titled The Banqueters, which has not survived in full. This was over a decade after the City Dionysia allowed comedy performances, so he would have been able to enter his works into both the Lenaia and City Dionysia. He would produce dozens of plays in his lifetime, of which only 11 survived.


One of the only authors who lived during Aristophanes’ lifetime and mentioned him often was Plato. In particular, Aristophanes is a notable character in Plato’s Symposium, a work where a group of men, including Socrates, attending a banquet, give a series of speeches on love. Aristophanes often created parodies of Socrates, Plato’s teacher, in his works, so this was possibly a reference to the playwright’s habits. In the Symposium, Aristophanes is a man who continuously pokes fun at the other banquet members while also appearing un-serious himself as he is afflicted with hiccups almost the entire work. The speech on love or Eros that Aristophanes gives in this work has now become popular, as it presents the popular soulmate myth that humans in relationships were once one being that was divided into two.


Innovation in Comedy

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Terracotta bird-man flask (likely from The Birds), artist unknown, 5th century BCE, the MET, New York


As this article has mentioned, much of our knowledge of classical comedy originates from Aristophanes’ works. Certainly, there were other comic playwrights who wrote before and after him, but his plays are some of the only complete comedies from that era. In his works, Aristophanes created a formula that allows modern scholars to recognize his plays. His comedies begin with a prologue, an introductory segment that addresses the audience and explains the premise. Similar to tragedy, Aristophanes followed the prologue with a parodos, which brought the chorus onto the stage and began an exchange between the chorus and actors. The middle of the play would include a parabasis, or choral verses, and an agon, or debate between characters. Episodes, or scenes of dialogue between characters, would primarily fall in the second half of the comedy, and the characters and chorus departed the stage in the exodus.


In addition to creating a consistent structure that his comedies would almost always follow, Aristophanes also employed various speech conventions in his works. All poetry in ancient Greece used specific meters depending on the work. Aristophanes primarily used iambic trimeter, which was also used in tragedies. Aristophanes was a master at using meter and language in his works, likely due to his high education. Old Comedy, one of the three eras of comedy, is primarily defined by Aristophanes’ style. These works centered on political commentary, typically in the form of insulting prominent Athenian politicians and elite members of society. They also combined philosophy and humor in these commentaries, demonstrating Aristophanes’ strong use of language and his excellent education.


At the end of his lifetime, Aristophanes began to write less about political figures and elite members of Athenian society. Instead, he turned to parodying everyday life, often poking fun at the domestic sphere. This was primarily seen in his final work, Plutus, and it marked a transition period from Old Comedy to Middle Comedy.



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Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus Athens, via Wikimedia Commons


Aristophanes wrote over 40 plays in his lifetime, but only 11 have survived in full. Most of these works are now classified as Old Comedy, but as mentioned in the previous section, his last surviving work, Plutus, is an example of Middle Comedy. Aristophanes’ plays won at least a few awards at the Lenaia, with The Archarnians, The Knights, and The Frogs all winning first place. As far as records show, he did not win as often at the City Dionysia, but it is likely he was awarded at least a few times in his life for his comedies there. Although all of his surviving works have received attention in scholarship, The Birds, The Clouds, Lysistrata, and The Frogs are often his most translated works.


His 11 surviving plays are The Acharnians (425 BCE), The Knights (424 BCE), The Clouds (423 BCE), The Wasps (422 BCE), Peace (421 BCE), The Birds (414 BCE), Lysistrata (411 BCE), Thesmophoriazusae (411 BCE, also known as Women at the Thesmophoria), The Frogs (405 BCE), Ecclesiazusae (392 BCE, also known as The Assemblywomen), and Wealth (388 BCE, also known as Plutus).



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Terracotta calyx-krater (mixing bowl), artist unknown, 350-325 BCE, via the MET, New York


Due to his unique brand of humor that relied on poking fun at political figures and Athenian elites from his own lifetime, Aristophanes’ works were not always met with universal praise or approval. Unlike other prominent figures in Athens during the 5th century, Aristophanes was never exiled for his plays. However, there are instances where he offended specific individuals to the point where he risked getting in trouble with the Athenian government.


One of Aristophanes’ most controversial plays only survives in fragments. Titled Babylonians, this play was produced only three years after a regime change in Athens in 426, with politician and prominent general Cleon as leader of the city-state. Supposedly, this comedy criticized Cleon and the current state of Athenian democracy, leading the politician to impeach the playwright. In ancient Athens, impeachment was related to the practice of ostracism, which involved removing figures from government offices and exiling them for a period of time. Aristophanes escaped punishment in this case, but he came close to being pushed out of Athens as a result of his play.


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Marble portrait head of Socrates, artist unknown, 170-195 AD, via the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Another one of Aristophanes’ famous works, titled The Clouds, criticized the system of education in Athens. Specifically, Aristophanes criticized the Sophists, a group of philosopher teachers, with Socrates as the main representative. It is unclear if Socrates himself reacted to Aristophanes’ criticisms, but some believe Plato remembered these remarks on his teacher, leading to him using Aristophanes as a character in the Symposium. Others believe that Plato and Aristophanes were good friends, so the results of Aristophanes’ attacks on Socrates are less obvious than the former example with Cleon. However, Aristophanes’ opinion of the Sophists and Socrates was a common one among Athenians, and widespread disapproval of the philosopher eventually led to Socrates being sentenced to death.


In addition to politicians and prominent figures, Aristophanes also enjoyed including other playwrights in his comedies. Both the Thesmophoriazusae and The Frogs featured Euripides, a tragedian, as a character. In the Thesmophoriazusae, the women of Athens are frustrated at their treatment in Euripides’ tragedies, leading them to plan an attempt on his life.


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Oinochoe of Xanthias from The Frogs, artist unknown, 370-320 BCE, via The British Museum, London


In The Frogs, Dionysus is concerned about the state of tragedy after the death of Euripides, so he goes to the Underworld to bring the playwright back to the world of the living. In the Underworld, a competition is held between the spirits of Aeschylus and Euripides to decide the better tragedian, and Aeschylus eventually wins. Some scholars believe that Aristophanes disliked the experimentative nature of Euripides’ tragedies that broke away from the more traditional formats of Aeschylus and Sophocles, but there’s no definitive answer to why Aristophanes parodied the tragedian in both of these works.


Aristophanes: End of Life 

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Theater Scene from “The Birds” by Aristophanes by Henry Gillard Glindoni, 1884, via the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia


We do not know much more about the end of Aristophanes’ life than we do about the rest. Based on the transition from Old Comedy to Middle Comedy in his works, his mindset seemed to have changed near the end of his life. He no longer wrote about politics or war and instead turned to domestic and everyday life comedies. Perhaps he grew to enjoy more simple topics for his works, or maybe he underwent a change in how he approached Athenian politics and political commentary.


The year that Aristophanes died is also unknown. Many authors fluctuate between numbers, but it is usually placed between 388 and 380 BCE. His final extant work was in 388. Hence the decision some scholars made to mark his death that year, but the actual date is not confirmed. His cause of death is also unknown, and he would have been in his 60s when he passed away.


Although much is not known about Aristophanes’ life outside of his works, we can catch glimpses of the man through his comedies and appearances in the work of other authors. He made a lasting mark on the comic genre, defining two eras of Greek comedy. He also provided readers with insights into other aspects of Athenian society in the 5th century BCE, all the while demonstrating a mastery of language and a unique sense of humor that impacted future generations of comedy.

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By Laken BonatchMA History and MS Archives Management (in-progress), BA History & Classics, Laken has a BA in History and Classics from Bryn Mawr College and is currently pursuing an MA in History and MS in Library Science with a concentration on Archives Management from Simmons University. She is working toward becoming an archivist in order to help others in their research while preserving history at the same time, and her academic interests include medieval and ancient history.