Old Comedy as civic discourse in 5th century Athens

Comic scene on Apulian bell krater in the Museo Civico Archeologico, Milan.


ORIGINS OF COMEDY? (according to Aristotle)

  • Phallic processions (phallic procession to a cult center was a common feature of Dionysiac celebration in the Greek countryside; featured obscenities and verbal abuse)
  • Komos (related procession in which participants were sometimes depicted with padded costumes)



  • 5th century
  • political satire
  • Aristophanes
  • Actors wore masks and padded costumes; male costumes equipped with very large leather phallus (see vase painting above).

MAIN IDEA (taken from J. Henderson, "The Dêmos and the Comic Competition" (1990).

Comic poets were competing for the favor of the dêmos in an institutionalized forum for civic discourse during the period of radical democracy; they sought to and in fact did influence civic ideology and the standing of certain individuals in the city of Athens. OLD COMEDY IS THUS AT THE SAME TIME SERIOUS AND HUMOROUS.

Public fora for civic discourse

  • assembly
  • law courts
  • dramatic stage

3 functions of Old Comedy

  • ridicule
  • inform
  • give useful advice


  • old comedy deploys obscenity to ridicule a recognizable figure (without naming names) or an "exaggerated demos-figure" for something related to a civic value or political issue
  • social function is to enforce social norms (aristocratic norms)

Comic heroes

  • Not the heroes of myth, but contemporary figures
  • Often a plucky and pertinacious guy who conceives an outrageous solution to a common problem, and usually comes out on top

For more on ancient comedy, visit the Classics Department site Introduction to Ancient Comedy.

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