This file is also available in Adobe Acrobat PDF format
NARRATIVES OF RESISTANCE AND ROMANCE
DEMOCRACY AND COMEDY IN THE EARLY HELLENISTIC PERIOD
Resilient Democracy and the Rise of Romantic Comedy
Athenian history between the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. and the end of the Chremonidean War in 260 is punctuated by one military disaster after another. At Chaeronea, Philip of Macedon won a decisive victory over Athens and its allies, enabling him to gain effective control of Athenian foreign policy. In 322 Athens suffered a much more catastrophic defeat in the Lamian War, the Greek-led rebellion against Macedonian rule. In the ensuing peace settlement, Antipater, the de facto ruler of Macedon, installed Macedonian troops in the city, replaced the democratic government with an oligarchy, executed leading democratic politicians, and relocated many disfranchised democrats to Thrace. These measures, despite their severity and scope, did little to disturb the Athenian commitment to democracy. Following Antipater's death in 319 the Athenians restored the democracy, apparently in the hope of regaining the pre-Lamian War status quo. The problems that erupted with Alexander's unforeseen death, however, had not really been solved. Alexander's would-be successors were still in the process of attempting to seize and define their own spheres of control. Accordingly, without the military power to defend themselves against the emergent military kingdoms, the Athenians were soon forced to capitulate yet again, this time to Antipater's son Cassander. Like his father before him, Cassander continued to employ highly coercive measures to control the Greek cities, including the imposition of oligarchic constitutions and the installation of military garrisons. While the wealth requirement for citizenship under this second oligarchic regime was fairly low, Cassander took an additional, more invasive, step of installing a manager of domestic affairs within the city itself. For the next ten years, Demetrius of Phaleron ruled Athens as a virtual regent on Cassander's behalf.1
Although Demetrius of Phaleron is generally credited with ruling well--even hostile sources acknowledge the material prosperity his regime brought to the city--the Athenians were only too eager to restore the democracy.2 They seized the first opportunity to oust him from power, even though doing so meant dealing with autocrats. When Demetrius Poliorcetes, one of Cassander's chief rivals in the struggle for the empire and the Greek cities, made an unexpected appearance in the Athenian harbor in 307, the Athenians readily accepted his assistance and reestablished the democracy.3 While fifteen years of oligarchic domination seems not to have diminished the Athenian preference for democracy, it did give the Athenians time to come to terms with the new realities of international politics and their city's diminished place within them. By 307 the Athenians were ready to compromise with external autocratic rulers for the sake of maintaining democracy in the city. In fact, the policy of liberating the Greek cities from oligarchic rule adopted by Demetrius Poliorcetes and his father, Antigonus Monophthalmus, made it seem like the Athenians were not compromising at all.
But the reality of Athens's subordinate position became clear when Demetrius Poliorcetes took up residence in the city and, according to some reports, actually moved into the Parthenon. Whatever the truth of the situation, his continued presence in Athens revealed the incompatibility between democracy and dependence on autocratic rule. Athenian relations with Demetrius deteriorated to such an extent that in 301 they refused him entrance to the city. Although Athens declared its neutrality in the affairs of the diadochoi (successors), in 295 Demetrius was able to regain control of the city. This time there seems to have been little or no attempt to make even a pretense of maintaining democratic proprieties; the period is explicitly described in later Athenian sources as an oligarchy.4 Once again, however, the familiar pattern recurs: in 287 the Athenians restored the democracy and, more significantly, managed to retain it for another twenty-five years or so in a period that was both intensely democratic and nationalistic. But in 260, Demetrius's son, Antigonus Gonatas, recaptured the city and imposed measures that seem to have finally and effectively curtailed the possibility of effective political resistance.5
The history of this period--roughly the transition to the Hellenistic age--might be told as a story of decline, the downfall of the polis and democracy in the face of the more powerful emergent military kingdoms. While this narrative characterizes Athens militarily, it does not capture the complexities of the domestic political scene. Although the constitutional seesawing of the period brought nearly 150 years of democratic stability to an end, Athens's insistent if ultimately ill-fated democratic rebellions speak to the continuity of democratic ideology--the set of beliefs and practices that sustained the identity of Athenian citizens as specifically democratic citizens.6 The more vigorously the Macedonians attempted to eliminate the democracy, the more passionately committed to it the Athenians became. The indelibility of democracy in the Athenian imagination is attested by a decree honoring the mercenary Kallias of Sphettos for (inter alia) abiding by democratic law during a period of oligarchic rule.7 By attributing an existence to the democracy during a period of oligarchic rule, the decree invests the democracy with an ontological permanence, declaring it impervious to the ephemeral Macedonian interventions.
The resiliency and intensity of Athens's democratic ethos during this period is remarkable and indeed puzzling because the conditions that made democracy possible were either interrupted, altered, or no longer in existence at all. Under the classical democracy, political institutions were the primary arena in which democratic ideals were instantiated and enacted.8 In addition, they provided the key site in which social and political tensions were mediated and negotiated.9 During the transition to the Hellenistic age, however, these institutions for many years ceased to operate according to democratic principles. At the same time, the emergence of Macedonian military kingdoms undermined the ideal of the citizen-soldier, a crucial pillar of the democracy's ideological foundation. The ability and duty of every citizen to fight for the state, whether as a hoplite or thete, underwrote the egalitarian logic of the democratic political order.10 Every citizen could claim an equal stake and standing within the democracy, no matter what his place in the social hierarchy, because in the end he was willing to fight and give his body in service to the state. Although the Macedonians took away this power, drastically attenuating the citizen-soldier ideal, all available evidence demonstrates that Athens's commitment to democracy remained strong, becoming perhaps even more deeply ingrained than before.
The persistence of the Athenian democratic ethos during a period in which the democracy had lost its institutional and military mooring raises a number of important questions. How was democratic culture produced and reproduced in the absence of democratic political institutions? How did individuals continue to identify as democratic citizens? What sources of democratic identity emerged to fill the gulf left by the loss of the citizen-soldier ideal and the suspension of democratic institutions? Lycurgus's prosecution of Leocrates contains an important clue. In the aftermath of the battle of Chaeronea, the Athenians passed a number of emergency measures, including one stipulating that every able-bodied man could be called on to defend the city against the Macedonian invasion that, at the time, seemed imminent (Lycur. 1.16-17, 1.41). Leocrates, however, fled the city, allegedly in violation of this decree. When he returned to the city eight years later, Lycurgus, architect of democratic renewal after Chaeronea and avid public prosecutor, sought to make an example of him by prosecuting him for treason. To emphasize the egregiousness of Leocrates' disloyalty and default on his civic obligation, and in effect to depict him as the sort of citizen who was really responsible for the defeat at Chaeronea, Lycurgus describes the atmosphere of desperation and panic in the city immediately after the battle:
When the defeat and disaster had been reported to the people and the city was tense with alarm at the news, the people's hope of safety had come to rest with the men over fifty. Free women could be seen crouching at the doors in terror inquiring for the safety of their husbands, fathers, or brothers, offering a spectacle degrading to themselves and to the city. The men who were far past their prime, advanced in life, exempt by law from service in the field, could be seen throughout the city, debilitated with age wretchedly scurrying with cloaks pinned double about them. Many sufferings were being visited upon the city; every citizen had felt misfortune at its worst; but the sight which would have most surely stirred the onlooker and moved him to tears over the sorrows of Athens was to see the people vote that slaves should be released, that aliens should become Athenians, and the disfranchised regain their rights: the nation that had once prided itself on being autochthonous and free. (Lycur. 1.40-41)11
Remarkably, Lycurgus does not claim that the most devastating consequence of Chaeronea was the catastrophic loss of citizen lives or even the city's desperate dependence on the elderly. Rather, it was the fact that the Athenians approved a proposal to free the slaves and to enfranchise foreigners and those who had been disfranchised. According to Lycurgus, this measure--proposed but never actually implemented--was the real tragedy of Chaeronea. The implementation of the emergency decree would have destroyed the city more completely than any mere battle, Lycurgus suggests, because it would have contaminated the autochthonous ancestry or "racial purity" that made the Athenians who they were and underwrote the city's democratic identity.12
The myth of autochthony was fundamental to the cultural imaginary of the Athenian democracy.13 To emphasize this point is not to make any claim about whether the Athenians literally believed their ancestor or ancestors were "sprung from the earth."14 Rather, the political significance of the myth arises from the kind of story it enabled the Athenians to tell about themselves. It supplied a narrative about the shared origins and ultimate relatedness of a people of diverse origins and statuses. In so doing, it provided a crucial theoretical justification for democratic egalitarianism and exclusivity.15 Supposed common kinship furnished a basis for commonality and hence equality between citizens and, at the same time, a reason for differentiating citizens from all noncitizens. But paradoxically, though the myth provides a model of generation that justifies the exclusion of foreigners and women from the political order, the Athenian discourse of autochthony is "inextricably tied to sexual reproduction,"16 and hence to the very realm of women it seems to exclude. This slippage was perhaps inevitable since in practice the autochthonous purity of the citizen body was maintained and secured through the polis's rules of sexual reproduction.
In 451/0, on Pericles' proposal, the Athenians passed a law limiting citizenship to those born from two native Athenians.17 Although the law as we have it does not mention marriage per se, it effectively redefined what counted as a legitimate marriage.18 Previously, the state had allowed a citizen to marry and father children with either an Athenian or a foreign-born woman. After the passage of the Periclean law, however, children born from foreign women were no longer eligible for citizenship, and correspondingly, foreign women were no longer eligible for Athenian marriage.19 Thus, the practical effect of the law's requirement was to invoke rules of sexual reproduction--that is, to delineate who could bear legitimate children with whom--in order to produce the democratic citizen body and to separate citizens from noncitizens.20 It has recently been argued that the passage of this law was a symbolic statement of autochthonous pride.21 Whether or not the Athenians were thinking in such terms when they passed the law, the operation of the law did, over time, foster the perception that Athenian citizens were racially distinct from other Greeks and from all noncitizens.22 The very requirement of bilateral native parentage for citizen status promoted the belief that both parents transmitted "Athenianness" to their children, and hence that the rules of sexual reproduction preserved the racial purity of the citizen body.23 While fidelity to the rules of sexual reproduction enshrined in the Periclean law was correlated to the generation of good Athenian and good democratic citizens, deviation from the state's reproductive rules was believed to produce "citizens" characterized by an innate hostility to the city and its democracy. To cite an extreme example, among the many abominations attributed to Alcibiades, the bad boy of the fifth-century democracy, was his having produced a son with a Melian slave woman, effectively breeding an enemy of the democratic state (And. 4.22-23).
The state's rules of sexual reproduction composed and maintained the internal and external boundaries of the citizen body. At the same time, they preserved and transmitted the Athenianness and autochthonous ancestry that underwrote democratic national ideology. It is thus not surprising that Lycurgus identifies these status distinctions as the one thing that the Athenian polis could not survive without. The Athenians could lose everything, Lycurgus suggests--men, military power, and their foreign policy--so long they retained the status distinctions (created and iterated by the rules of sexual reproduction) that effectively made them who they were. These long-standing associations indicate that it is quite possible (if indeed not probable) that the state's matrimonial citizenship system--and all practices, ideologies, and identifications that went with it--compensated for the attenuation of the traditional sources and practices of democratic identity in the period between Chaeronea and the Chremonidean War. Macedonian military supremacy and interventions in domestic democratic politics did nothing to interfere with the production of democratic citizens and civic ideology from below in the seemingly mundane practices of marriage and sexual reproduction. Unfortunately, lack of evidence makes it impossible to investigate whether and how actual marriage and gender practices assisted in reproducing democratic ideology during the period of Macedonian takeovers. Nevertheless, although we cannot evaluate the role of marriage and gender practices in compensating for the recurrent loss of democratic institutions and manhood practices, we can consider their depiction on the comic stage. By a remarkable coincidence, New Comedy, a genre whose plots obsessively adhere to and enact the Athenian state's matrimonial and reproductive norms, emerged in Athens at about the same time the Macedonians began their efforts to undermine and eradicate the democracy. In fact, New Comedy's productive period (the last "new" Athenian cultural form) exactly coincides with the tumultuous period of the successor wars (roughly 323-260 B.C.), out of which the settled pattern of Hellenistic kingdoms finally emerged.24
So far, out of the sixty-four known poets of New Comedy, only the works of Menander have been recovered to any extent.25 We have one complete play, the Dyskolos; one nearly complete play, the Samia; and substantial portions of five other plays, as well as scenes and fragments from many of Menander's works.26 In addition, there are seven certain Roman adaptations of Menander's plays that can be used to supplement the evidence. Although Menander's extant plays and fragments do not represent New Comedy in its entirety, they do constitute a considerable subtype of the genre.27 Moreover, Menander was not only a prolific exponent of the genre, writing more than one hundred plays in a career of about thirty years, but he was also, according to ancient authors, its star.28 And, in contrast to many New Comic playwrights, Menander was a native Athenian, the son of a flamboyant anti-Macedonian general, with an insider's knowledge of Athenian law and democratic culture.29
Yet, on the face of it, Menander's comedy seems to offer little insight into contemporary Athenian affairs. The extant plays and fragments not only generally eschew politics but also tell the same basic story of how a young citizen in love overcomes various obstacles to win the young woman of his choosing. In most cases, the plays culminate with the marriage of the citizen hero and heroine, or with the reconciliation of a marriage after an estrangement.30 Although the emergence of this cultural narrative--with its unprecedented focus on ordinary citizens who marry for love--has traditionally been thought to have nothing to do with democracy, the rise of Menander's family romances, I will argue, is inextricably tied to the continuity of Athenian democratic and transnational polis culture during the initial and most fraught period in the transition to the Hellenistic era. My central claim is that Menandrian comedy not only depicts and champions fundamental precepts of Athenian democratic ideology but that it also, in certain cases, offers reactions to and commentaries on immediate political events. Comic narratives defend polis life against the impinging Hellenistic kingdoms, often by transforming their representatives into proper inhabitants of the polis, and by breaking down internal divisions between citizens based on status and economic class.31 With such representations, the performance of Menander's comedies filled the void left by the suspension of democratic institutions and the attenuation of democratic manhood practices.32
Like several recent studies, this book attempts to resituate Menander's comedy in its contemporary political contexts.33 It gives an account of the role of Menander's comedy in the political struggles between the Hellenistic kingdoms and the Greek cities and in the reproduction and subversion of democratic status boundaries. To these ends, it draws on the New Historicist insight that literary representations do not reflect or mirror political and cultural histories taking place elsewhere--that is, outside the text--but rather are active participants in the cultural and political negotiations of their times.34 Comedy, I maintain, made things happen in the world by offering narratives that enabled civic audiences to make sense of the manifold changes taking place in the early Hellenistic period within a traditional polis-based conceptual framework, and at the same time crucially reinforced democratic matrimonial and gender practices. Thus, although like David Konstan and Vincent Rosivach, I attend to the ideology of comic texts, I focus primarily on comedy's role as a producer rather than as a product of ideology.35 If ideology is not natural but rather a distortion of the way "things really are," to paraphrase Althusser, then it follows that ideology must be constantly constructed and replenished to maintain its imaginary appearance as natural or real. Menander's family romances were just such producers of democratic orthodoxy: they make the democratic cultural order seem natural and thus the only one imaginable in spite of the manifold conditions challenging its dominance.
Comedy's constituting or ideological work can be conceptualized by likening the comic narrative to a performative speech act, an utterance that does what it says. Although comic narratives are fictional and consequently do not literally bring about citizen marriages, the marriages they enact promise the birth of new citizens and hence the perpetuation of the democratic polis. Thus, the performative efficacy of a comedy is not identical with the play itself, but rather arises from the narratives it offers audience members to think about and identify with.36 With its recurrent tales of citizen making, comedy scripts or performs the survival of democratic culture before the fact. By deploying certain conventions of perspective, plot pattern, character, and theme, comic narratives or speech acts interpellate theatergoers as citizens and acculturated polis inhabitants--which is just to say, they provide stories that enable audience members to identify as democratic citizens without reference to the political regime actually in power.37
Although I argue that the comic marriage plot operates as a vehicle for political and cultural reproduction, I am not claiming that these processes were either seamless or totalizing. My central thesis is that Menander's comedy is constituted by countervailing narrative trajectories to reproduce and resist the civic social order. When considered from the perspective of the contest between the Greek polis and the Hellenistic kingdom, comedy's propensity to preserve and reproduce democratic culture against encroachment from the Hellenistic kings and kingdoms appears paramount. In other words, the historical circumstances threatening the culture of the polis and democracy transform what under ordinary circumstances would be processes of cultural and political reproduction into vehicles of implicit political resistance. At the same time, however, comedy's family romances are often subversive of the democratic cultural order they instantiate. In part, this is because comedy's reproduction of democratic culture against various Hellenistic outsiders allows for a relaxation of the internal status boundaries that traditionally secured the citizen's place in the intrapolis hierarchy (i.e., the boundaries between free persons and slaves, men and women, and citizens and foreigners). In addition, the reproduction of democratic civic ideologies in the comic marriage plot makes all too clear what the official ideology normally elides: the contradictions and arbitrary exclusions of women, foreigners, and slaves on which the democratic political order was based. Finally, comedy's subversive emphasis also arises from its generic convention of empowering women to plot and promote the interests of the democratic polis and to serve as moral exemplars for men. By enabling women to act with more agency and moral authority than democratic culture traditionally allowed or recognized, comedy clears the terrain for a remodeling of conventional gender and status categories.
The Politics of Marriage and the Comic Marriage Plot
Menander's comedy has traditionally been judged nonpolitical on two grounds: because of what the comedies say and what they do not. To take the former point first, Menander's comedy is considered nonpolitical, or as representing an "escape" from politics, because its subject matter--stories of love, marriage, and romantic intrigue--has seemed to many commentators to be by its very nature nonpolitical.38 This position, however, tells us more about the culturally conditioned assumptions of modern critics than about the historically specific meanings of Menander's marriage plays. Marilyn Katz's recent work on the history of the study of ancient Greek women is helpful here. Katz convincingly argues that the categories through which ancient women have been studied--domesticity, education, marriage, and social life--are the legacy of the nineteenth-century cult of bourgeois domesticity and the naturalized conception of neatly demarcated public and private spheres on which it was based.39 In other words, according to Katz, classical scholars have not thought it relevant to investigate the political importance of women, including the theoretical and practical significance of their exclusion from political rights in Athens, because of unexamined assumptions about what properly constitutes the parameters of women's lives.
Although Katz is primarily concerned with the study of women in ancient Greece, her conclusions are equally applicable to the study of Menander's comedy. The preconceptions of modern critics concerning what can be construed as political have inhibited inquiry into the political and ideological significance of Menander's romantic comedies. Yet matters of marriage and the family are today highly political, as ongoing debates concerning polygamy and same-sex marriage well attest, and in ancient Athens they were no less so. In the United States, state governments define and so construct marriage by requiring that a person be married only to one person at a time and that marriage partners be of opposite sexes.40 Similarly, though ancient Greek has no precise word for marriage or the conjugal family, the democratic polis nevertheless defined marriage and the legitimate form of the citizen family by stipulating who could bear legitimate children with whom.41 Furthermore, in democratic Athens the link between marriage and the state was more pronounced and transparent than it is in modern Western nation-states. For the polis both defined what counted as a legitimate marriage and it also employed marriage to constitute, reproduce, and maintain the integrity of the citizen group.
Because the Periclean citizenship law evoked marriage, or rules of legitimate sexual reproduction, to define the democratic citizen group, these rules and their attendant practices and processes came to be thought of not only as constituting and transmitting "Athenianness" but also, over time, as ensuring the production of citizens endowed with the values and aims of the citizen group itself. There is, of course, nothing intrinsically democratic about norms of sexual reproduction and marriage or the forms of social identity attached to them. But the very fact that the Periclean law of citizenship invokes these processes to delineate membership in a democratic citizen group created the conditions whereby they could be inflected with democratic significance. Accordingly, abiding by the state's rules of sexual reproduction was thought to produce not just noble, patriotic, and loyal citizens--that is, citizens with the right "racial" credentials--but also citizens endowed with an innate democratic disposition. According to the Athenian orator Aeschines, democratic citizens must have free birth on both their mother's and father's sides (which is another way of saying that they must be born according to the laws) to ensure their support for democratic law and to prevent antidemocratic behavior (Aes. 3.169). There is, to be sure, some slippage between the idea that having the right birth credentials made the citizen "Athenian" and hence naturally loyal to the Athenian state and the idea that the possession of these prerequisites made the citizen innately democratic.42 To render this overlap, which ultimately stems from the state's tethering of political reproduction to state-authorized rules of sexual reproduction, I employ the concepts of democratic nationalism and democratic culture.43 I use these concepts to underscore that the identity of democratic citizens (and hence democratic political ideology) was constituted through processes of gender, kinship, race or Athenianness, and sexual identity--in other words, through processes related to sexual reproduction that we today associate with national and or cultural processes rather than with democratic politics.44
Menander's comedy stages the national culture of Athens's democracy or, more simply put, democratic culture. According to one recent commentator, New Comedy was "the most rule bound and programmed of all classical narrative genres."45 For present purposes, what is significant about comedy's standardized conventions and rules is that they are precisely the legal and social norms underpinning the national culture of Athens's democracy. If genre is defined "as a discursive form capable of constructing a coherent model of the world in its own image,"46 then the model that comedy constructs is the democratic cultural order. Menander's plays never allow a violation of the laws or ideology pertaining to Athenian citizen membership.47 For instance, although female citizens in comedy sometimes bear children outside the marriage context, in every case the status of these children is eventually normalized by the belated marriage of their parents. More significantly, Menander's comedies often conclude by enacting the laws of citizen marriage (or the closest equivalent to such laws that Athenian culture possessed). The romantic plot regularly culminates with a performance of the engue, the speech act that was adduced to establish the existence of a marriage in Athenian legal discourse.48 In this ceremony, one citizen pledged his daughter or ward to another citizen for the explicit purpose of producing (or "plowing," in the agricultural metaphor of the formula), gnesioi (legitimate children). Consequently, comic performances both create the conditions for reproducing the polis and perform the state's laws of familial and political reproduction. By enacting the engue ceremony, comedy promises the generation of new citizens--that is, young men who possess the requisite birth requirement for civic and familial membership. In this way, comedy produces and reinforces the overlapping pattern of familial and political membership at the heart of democratic national culture.
By using citizen marriage and its promise of the civic fertility as its privileged narrative outcome, Menander's plays stage the culture of democratic citizenship. Even those plays that deviate from the marriage plot pattern uphold the norms and laws of citizenship. Although the correspondence between the laws of genre and the laws of citizenship invests Menander's comedy with a deeply nationalistic perspective, the plays never promote the citizenship system in a heavy-handed way: Menander's protagonists marry for considerations of love rather than law. Yet the passions of Menander's protagonists always--in the end--happily dovetail with the norms of civic law and ideology. The marriage of hero and heroine often initially seems to be impossible, usually for reasons of the heroine's presumed noncitizen status, but in the end all barriers are removed by last-minute recognitions, amazing coincidences, twists of fate, and the elimination of obstacles that seemed insurmountable. Thus, comedy stages the citizenship law by deploying the characteristic devices of the narrative mode of literary naturalism.49 Although these devices often lead to situations improbable in the extreme, they nevertheless have the effect of lending the norms of civic matrimony an air of inevitability. According to Kathleen McCarthy, the naturalistic mode in comedy "perform[s] the function of hegemonic discourse" by making "the world around us seem to be the one that is destined."50 In the case of Menander's plays of citizen marriage, what seems to be destined are precisely the familial and romantic arrangements necessary to reproduce the democratic state. In Menander's comedy, the devices of literary naturalism operate to naturalize (i.e., to make essential and impervious to change) the correlation between sexual and political reproduction enshrined in Athenian law. In so doing, the formulaic marriage plot offers a powerful affirmation of citizen identity as well as a myth of the democratic polis as natural and self-generating.51
Comedy's Constitutive Political Silence
The political import of comedy's stories of citizen marriage must be taken together with what comedy excludes from representation. Although Menander wrote in what was arguably among the most tumultuous and eventful periods in Athenian history, the chaos of the times barely surfaces in his extant plays and fragments. Critics and historians have often taken this silence at face value, as a reflection of political decline and apathy engendered by the emergence of the Hellenistic kingdoms. According to this view, comedy eschewed contemporary affairs because they were too desperate and depressing for a citizen audience longing for retreat into escapist fantasies.52 Certainly, contemporary events may have been at times too grim to contemplate; one need only think of the report that the Macedonians cut out Hyperides' tongue.53
In contrast to previous commentators, however, I maintain that rather than mirroring the political apathy of the citizenry, comedy's political silences tell us something about the ideological work of comedy. Although Macedonian-backed oligarchies held power in Athens for more than half of Menander's career, Menander's extant plays and fragments never acknowledge this fact.54 Comedy's elision of this state of affairs is, I would argue, performative rather than descriptive: that is, comedy creates a reality rather than simply reflecting the status quo. By eliding or ignoring contemporary politics, comedy denies Athenian subordination to Macedonian rule, effectively misrecognizing the polis's "real" conditions of existence.55 Viewed from this perspective, comedy's political silence can, at least in some cases, be understood as a form of resistance in its own right.56
Although Menander's plays never depict Macedonian power in Athens, they do acknowledge the Hellenistic kingdoms and the manifold threats that they posed for the Greek cities. But comedy redefines polis-kingdom relations from its own civic perspective and, in so doing, prioritizes and disseminates its own civic moral norms.57 It developed conventions for representing the Hellenistic threats that allowed the polis to contain and control them. For instance, female citizens are often dislocated from family and community because of the disorder caused by conditions of chronic warfare. Women are abducted by pirates, sold as slaves, captured in warfare, and so on. Yet in every case, lost female citizens are "found," or restored to their true social statuses, enabling them to fulfill their civic destiny of becoming lawful wives and bearers of legitimate children.58 Plays following this plot pattern offered audiences a transnational political myth allegorically coded in stories of threatened female fertility, equating the fulfillment of female reproductive destiny with the reproductive fate of the polis itself.59
Constituting Citizens: The Laws of Genre and State
Menander's flexible but formulaic plot patterns establish a correspondence between the processes of biological and political reproduction that is the cornerstone of comedy's work both in and out of Athens. At the same time, however, the fact that the marriage plays naturalize the legal and social conventions of the classical democracy provides important information about law and cultural practice in democratic Athens.60 In Menander's time the very survival and reproductive future of the democratic polis were at stake. For the most part, comedy denies or refuses to countenance the undeniable dangers facing the city. Instead, it deals with threats to the democratic polis by making it immune to real change through strategies of naturalistic nationalism. That is to say, comedy employs the devices of literary naturalism to naturalize exactly the conditions needed to perpetuate the national culture of Athens's democracy. For this reason, comedy provides us with an important window on the norm-producing (i.e., the "norming") power of Athenian democratic culture, despite its being largely a product of the early Hellenistic era. To be more specific: by repeatedly dramatizing the citizenship system in action, comedy also dramatizes the role of Athenian law in shaping sexual, gender, racial, and kinship identities--and, by implication, the role of these identities in structuring and sustaining democratic political identity.61
It seems useful to clarify the most contentious element of this claim, namely that Athenian law had a hand in fashioning the sexual identity of democratic citizens, since questions of sexuality, and indeed whether there is a "history of sexuality," remain tremendously fraught in recent scholarship.62 A central area of contention centers on whether "sexuality" is constructed or essential. Rather than reducing the investigation of sexual practices and attitudes to what are ultimately ontological questions, one can consider the range of meanings and associations that a given culture attaches to sexual activity and attitudes.63 In the Athenian case, it is clear that the Periclean law of citizenship attached a heterosexual imperative to democratic citizen identity. Although the citizenship law does not compel any specific behaviors, by stipulating the conditions for citizen status it also informs the bearers of that status of how they are supposed to behave.64 Because the law constructs citizen status with reference to the sex act between two married or subsequently married natives, it enjoins the good democratic citizen to live up to his identity by procreating in the politically sanctioned format. Consequently, the law implicitly urges heterosexual practice, not as a fundamental source of human identity but rather as an input into democratic citizen identity.
Menander's comedy sheds light on the historically specific intermingling of "sexual" and political identity in democratic Athens. As it uses the laws of democratic citizenship and marriage as its own generic conventions, comedy dramatizes how juridical norms inform what seem to be freely chosen social practices by (inter alia) establishing the prior conditions that define what counts as legitimate sexual reproduction. In contrast to previous and perhaps contemporary Athenian comedy, Menander's extant works do not depict love between men. In fact, Plutarch famously identifies the absence of pederasty from Menander's plays as a source of their ethical utility (Mor. 712c).65 This interpretation obviously tells us more about Plutarch's cultural milieu and his own preconceptions than about the originary conditions accounting for the elision of love between men in Menander's plays. Unlike Plutarch, I see this absence as the result of political norming rather than ethical considerations. Comedy portrays the laws of Athenian citizenship in action, laws that tacitly enjoined the citizen to marry and father legitimate citizens. By naturalizing these laws, comedy forecloses the possibilities and contexts for non-reproductive sexualities.66 Thus, although comedy does not depict how citizens actually complied with the law, it does expose the law's implicit power to channel the erotic energies of Athenian citizens, and in that way to employ a form of "heterosexual" identification to buttress the identity of democratic citizens.
Comedy's Poetics of Political Membership
By using the laws of citizen marriage to structure its romantic plots, comedy illuminates the processes of democratic nationalism as well as mechanisms of political survival in the transition to the Hellenistic age. Nevertheless, the plays cannot be pillaged as a direct source of information for "the way things were" in either the classical or the Hellenistic periods, for comedy dramatizes the citizenship law in action using its own conventions, themes, plot devices, and formulaic narrative patterns. In so doing, it adds to and transforms the raw materials of democratic matrimonial practices. Comic plots convey important political information, set up patterns of audience identification, and participate in broad politico-cultural processes because they obsessively iterate the norms of citizenship, and more specifically, because of the literary and generic strategies that they use in those iterations.
The standard Menandrian play begins with a problem.67 The young citizen protagonist is always already hopelessly in love; something or someone, however, stands in the way of his romantic happiness. The narrative trajectory focuses on how the romantic difficulty is resolved. The ideological meanings and messages conveyed by a given play issue from what has to change in order to bring about the formulaic happy ending. What is the barrier to the protagonist's desire and how is it removed? In Menander's seven best-preserved plays, the problem is an ethical flaw, either internal to the protagonist or externalized in a blocking character or romantic rival.68 For instance, in the Aspis, Smikrines, an obsessively greedy old man, tries to marry an heiress to get his hands on her newfound fortune. The staging of his romantic defeat becomes the subject of the comedy itself when the characters put on a play within the play, dangling another, even wealthier, heiress before Smikrines' eyes. That the greedy character loses out in the romantic contest offers a strong negative commentary on his overvaluation of economic forms of wealth. At the same time, that he acts so outrageously and shows himself to be the wrong man for the heroine increases the sense that the romantic hero is the right man. Accordingly, the nature of the obstacle or blocking character implicitly articulates the sociopolitical values promoted in the comedies by calling attention to the kinds of people who are, and are not, fit to inhabit and to propagate in the new comic society.
But in many plays and fragments, the emphasis is less on bringing about the defeat of hyperbolically villainous rivals and blocking characters than on how the young citizen protagonist eventually obtains the woman he "loves" in marriage. In the Dyskolos, Perikeiromene, Misoumenos, Sikyonioi, and to some extent the Samia, the hero gets the girl not only because he is less offensive than his perceived rival (if there is one) but also and more centrally because of his own character as he discloses it in his efforts to win the heroine.69 In most cases (excepting the Perikeiromene and Misoumenos), the hero does not have to please the heroine or win her consent to the marriage. Rather, in these comedies it is the man or men who control access to the heroine whose expectations the protagonist must meet. Accordingly, Menander's romantic comedies are thoroughly homosocial: that is, the citizen's love for a woman operates to produce and strengthen bonds between men rather than between men and women.70 For example, in the fragmentary Sikyonioi the hero's eventual romantic success hinges on his ability to convince a democratic assembly that he is eligible and worthy of winning the girl. The assembly scene (discussed in chapter 7) offers a particularly good illustration of the homosocial plot pattern: male deliberation about the heroine's romantic and social fate creates and cements specifically political bonds between men. In this play, the marriage contest serves less as a surrogate for democratic institutions (as often in other plays) than as the stuff of democratic politics itself.
By fitting the Periclean law to the agonistic comic plot form in which the protagonist must somehow win the heroine, Menander's comedies often add new sociopolitical significance to the civic marriage system. In comedy, citizens are those characters with "connubial rights," as David Konstan puts it.71 The right to marry signifies civic membership, a right that was in theory ascribed at birth: you were either born with the requirements for citizenship or not. In comic plots, however, this status is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for citizen marriage. The mere fact that a young man is a citizen often carries little or no weight with the heroine's guardian. Instead, the protagonist has to live up to the guardian's standards of what makes a man worthy. In the Dyskolos, Sostratos wins the heroine because, according to her brother, he was willing "to treat a poor man as his equal" (767-69). In other words, he gets the girl specifically because his actions demonstrate an egalitarian attitude. The insistence that economic status does not make the man, so to speak, is a central tenet of the Athenian democracy.72 Thus, by linking the protagonist's romantic success to his egalitarian commitments, the Dyskolos promotes a kind of democratic natural selection. Sostratos gets the girl and affirms his citizenship neither because he is a citizen by birth nor because he is young and rich. Rather, what makes him eligible for marriage in this play is his display of the beliefs and values that made democracy possible. In the Dyskolos, then, Sostratos's entry into the citizen marriage system hinges on his ability to meet specifically democratic entrance criteria.
Opposites Attract: Rape, Romance, and Democratic Selection
The culmination of Menander's plays usually engenders a social transformation. Simply put, the plays begin and end in very different places. The resolution of the comic problem, whether it involves removing obstacles or winning over initially intractable blocking characters, brings with it the foundation of a new society free from whatever injustices and illusions initially held sway.73 The narrative emphasis on making the new community generally means that the comedies do not depict the new community in action. In many cases, however, the matrimonial union itself encapsulates in microcosm the principles and norms of the resultant society.
Many Menandrian plots bring about the marriage of a wealthy citizen to the daughter of a seemingly poor, or at any rate less wealthy, citizen.74 This is striking because economically mixed marriages were the exception rather than the norm in Athenian society. In theory, all that a man or woman needed to be eligible for citizen marriage was citizen birth. The marriage system operated to constitute and delimit the Athenianness of the democratic population. Yet as the marriage system produced and protected the external boundary between citizen and noncitizen, and Athenian and non-Athenian, it also produced and reproduced stratifications within the democratic citizenry. The norms of marriage were crucially responsible for the reproduction of economic inequalities in Athens. The social convention of dowering daughters to husbands who stood to inherit roughly proportional patrimonies ensured that the wealthy and the less wealthy would marry their respective economic peers rather than each other.75 Consequently, the marriage system reproduced an intergenerational pattern of economic stratification within the polis along with the democratic family form.76
Although Menandrian comedy is scrupulously faithful to Athenian laws of citizenship and marriage, the same cannot be said for its depiction of the dowry system. Comedy frequently uses literary strategies and tropes that work to dismantle or evade the dowry system, thus enabling the formation of economically mixed marriages. To this end, it privileges passion rather than traditional economic considerations as the most important element in the making of citizen marriages.77 In many cases, however, passion is not sufficient to bypass the social convention emphasizing the importance of economic status in the making of marriages. To circumvent this deeply entrenched system, comedy frequently deploys a "rape plot" in which a wealthy citizen rapes the daughter of a less wealthy citizen.78 While the fact of premarital rape probably had no formal implications for the dowry, in practice it had a leveling effect.79 It enabled the victim's family to provide a dowry commensurate with their own socioeconomic status rather than proportional to the husband's expected inheritance. In this way, rape takes economics out of the matrimonial equation. Accordingly, comedy deploys rape, at least in part, to make a fresh start. With one violent act, it dismantles deep-seated social stratifications, reassembling the social order according to more egalitarian norms.
This productive power issues from the specifically civic harm that rape engenders; in the world of Menander's comedy, rape is an injury not to the "individual" but rather to citizen status. It is precisely because women possessed citizen status--a specifically sexual and reproductive status--that this form of injury cannot be repaired by the courts or recompensed in economic terms; no amount of money can restore the victim's civic chastity.80 Rape entailed sexual experience, and that fact alone called a woman's perceived ability to bear legitimate children into question, thus undermining her civic status.81 Similarly, monetary compensation cannot normalize the status of the bastard child inevitability born in cases of rape. The only civic solution to these status injuries is the marriage of rapist and victim. In this way, the rape creates a civic matrimonial imperative that transcends and renders irrelevant traditional matrimonial considerations based on class, status, and kinship. It provides a means of rebuilding the social order in accordance with principles antithetical to its own already operative and deeply entrenched conventions. To be sure, in some cases the impoverished heroine unexpectedly turns out to be wealthy or comes upon a considerable dowry.82 But by that time, the ideological damage has been done: the plays always send the message that the protagonist's desire to marry the heroine overrides economic considerations.
Thus, although comedy represents wealth as a good thing and poverty as something to endure and to hide, it escapes the elitist associations of this position by creating new societies in which everyone is wealthy or well-off. Accordingly, this emphasis represents not a concession to an elitist ideology but rather an adaptation or bourgeoisification of the Old Comic fantasy of a return to a golden age of abundance.83
In two of the plays, the Dyskolos and the fragmentary Georgos, intermarriage between the rich and the poor is prompted by the apparent moral exemplarity of the heroine's brother as well as by the heroine's desirability. In the Georgos, a wealthy young man has raped and impregnated a poor neighbor woman. He professes to be in love with her and has promised her mother, Myrrhine, that he will marry her. When the play begins, however, the heroine is on the verge of delivering the baby and the young man is about to be married off to his own (homopatric) half-sister (Geor. 10). Although Athenian law allows this type of marriage, it is always presented as the wrong marriage in the extant plays and fragments.84 In some cases, comedy depicts and celebrates close kin marriages. In the Aspis, Kleostratos probably marries the daughter of his paternal uncle, and his sister certainly marries his paternal uncle's stepson. The reason that comedy discriminates against homopatric half-sibling marriage in particular, rather than against close kin marriages generally, is probably the underlying class bias associated with the former marriage strategy. Aristocrats and elites anxious to preserve bloodlines, status, and wealth are associated with half-sibling marriage.85 In this type of marriage, the dowry and patrimony remained in the same family, ensuring the reproduction of economic and social status. Although many details of the Georgos are unknown, it is certain that the youth managed to evade the planned half-sister marriage in order to marry his impoverished rape victim.
Given the pattern found in other Menandrian plays, it is likely that the Georgos concluded with the formation of two marriages and possibly with the restoration of a third. It is a general rule of comedy's reproductive economy that no fertile female citizen remains unattached in a play's conclusion.86 It is therefore highly likely that the protagonist's wealthy half-sister, like the heroine rape victim, was also given in marriage in the end. Since the only other young available citizen (known) in the play is Gorgias, the heroine's brother, he is the most likely candidate for the role of groom. Like the Dyskolos, then, the Georgos probably contained two interclass marriages, with one structured by the unusual pattern of the male "marrying up"--that is, marrying a woman more wealthy than himself.87 In both plays, what makes such a marriage possible is the characterization of "Gorgias" (in each case, the name of the male character who marries a more wealthy woman) as the play's moral exemplar. In both works, Gorgias's selfless concern for the well-being of others wins him and his family a (potential) way out of poverty.88 In the Georgos, however, the underlying (civic) solidarity of rich and the poor is emphasized by the correlated contrasts between free persons and slaves and between Greeks and barbarians. The play sets Gorgias's willingness to minister to his wounded wealthy employer "like a father" against the callous neglect of the barbarian slaves. In this way, comedy subordinates the economic distance between the rich and poor by emphasizing the common structure of feeling existing among citizens arising from kinship, status, and, in this case, ethnicity.
When the social dynamics of comedy's matrimonial unions are considered, Menander's place in the tradition of Greek political thought emerges more clearly. The modification of the family and the use of marriage strategies to abolish economic inequalities and the attendant social ills of greed and self-interest have a long history in political philosophy and Old Comic political commentary. For instance, to solve the social and political problems arising from economic inequality, Praxagora in Aristophanes' Ecclesiazusai and Socrates in Plato's Republic each propose to abolish individual "nuclear" families. Both protagonists argue that the elimination of conjugal kinship will end private acquisitiveness and ownership as well as the intergenerational transmission and accumulation of wealth. In each case, however, the disappearance of individual families leaves the new society vulnerable to certain reproductive difficulties, including incest, a failed or sterile form of reproduction. Rather than doing away with the matrimonial family, Menander's comedy uses literary, ethical, and gender strategies to adapt the existing family structure to produce new egalitarian ends. Comedy's attempt to work within existing social conventions rather than to do away with them recalls the theory of one ancient lawgiver. According to Aristotle (Pol. 1266a40-b5), the Chalcedonian Phaleas argued that the institution of economic egalitarianism (specifically through the equalization of land allotments) was possible only when cities were first being founded. In cases of already existing cities, he believed that a redistribution of the land along more equitable lines would provoke rather than ameliorate social tensions. Thus, to remodel existing societies Phaleas proposed that the rich should give but not receive dowries; likewise, the poor should receive but not give dowries to their daughters.
In Menander's comedy, the union of sexual opposites in marriage provides a context for bringing together social opposites, and hence for building a community free (or at least more free) from stratifications of class and social status.89 But the power of marriage to unify diverse social constituencies relies on a pattern of gender differentiation. Although comedy allows wealthy men to marry the daughters of the poor--and, in so doing, to reinstitute the social order along more homogeneous lines--the same is not true in reverse. When male characters actively seek to marry women more wealthy than themselves--or contemplate doing so--the motivation for the marriage is always presented in terms of economics rather than passion and sentiment.90 In every case, the privileging of financial considerations proves disastrous for the men in question. These characters either lose out in the matrimonial contest or end up being dominated by too powerful wealthy wives. Simply put, marriages based on money invert the traditional gender hierarchy. As a speaker in a fragment from an unidentified Menandrian play puts it:
When a poor man marries
and accepts property with the wife
he gives himself rather than taking her.
The speaker here adapts the conventional betrothal formula according to which active men "give" and "take" passive female reproductive objects. He suggests that when poor men marry wealthier women, they become like women--objects--ceding their gender power to their wives' economic power. According to the speaker in a fragment from a comedy by Anaxandrides, a woman's economic superiority in marriage transforms marriage into slavery, rendering the dowered wife a despot and the poor husband a slave (53.4-7 K.-A.). A speaker in Menander's Misogunes describes the gender inversions elicited by the overwealthy wife in explicitly antidemocratic terms:
A rich wife is a burden. She doesn't allow her
husband to live as he pleases. Nevertheless, there is
one good to be gained from her: children.
According to the speaker, there are two sides to every coin, even to a rich wife. On the positive side, a rich wife can give a man children. The speaker's sentiment reflects the prevailing ideology, which defined female identity by (and confined it to) attributes of gender. In theory, if not in practice, female social identity was supposed to be limited to functions of gender--most especially, to the sexual significance attached to the female body. The problem with the rich wife, according to the speaker, is that her wealth gives her a power above and beyond her gender identity. More specifically, it is a power to curtail a man's distinctively democratic freedom to "live as he pleases."91 This marked reference to a key democratic catchphrase makes vividly clear the antidemocratic political consequences of marrying up, for men at any rate.92 In every case, men who marry for money end up being dominated by overly powerful wives; the net result is not greater economic equality but rather the loss of democratic freedom. In these matrimonial unions, the antitype to comedy's right happily-ever-after wedding, marriage becomes a figure for oligarchic and tyrannical oppression. Moreover, as so often in Athenian tragedy, the antidemocratic household is ruled by a woman.93 By emphasizing what can go wrong when women are on top, so to speak, these marriages also tacitly adumbrate what the normative gender hierarchy secures for the male citizen: democratic freedom and equality.
The Power of Love: Female Selection and Male Education
In Menander's egalitarian marriage plays, marriage guarantees the reproduction of democratic citizens and the production of a more egalitarian social order. In plays of this type, political processes and negotiations are played out in a homosocial context. Romantic protagonists win their heroines by winning the approval of other men. Generally speaking, this approval requires only that the protagonists be who they already are. They must demonstrate egalitarian ethical competencies or, at the very least, show that they are not opposed to them or the sexual ideology of the democracy. The hero's romantic quest does not usually entail any kind of personal transformation within the confines of the plot.94 Rather, the transformative dimension of the plot occurs on the societal level in an imagined but unrepresented future. The protagonist's love changes how society will reproduce, because it creates a more egalitarian union or because he has been democratically selected for reproductive success over and against an oligarchic opponent (as in the Aspis and Sikyonioi).
Although Menandrian plays generally allow little scope for depicting the process of change at the level of individual character, one plot pattern hinges on issues of personal transformation and resocialization. Plays of this type depict the ethical transformation or reform of the male protagonist within the context of the romantic relationship itself. This more radically transformative and politically trenchant dynamic occurs in the "plays of reconciliation."95 In the three fragmentary specimens of this plot pattern (Perikeiromene, Misoumenos, and Epitrepontes), the narrative emphasis is on repairing an already-established relationship rather than on building a marriage from scratch. In each case, the hero oversteps the bounds of propriety, committing a real or imagined harm against the comparatively powerless heroine. The emphasis of the plot then focuses not on redressing the harm per se, but on remaking the relationship on terms that prevent the perpetration of similar harms in the future. In each case, the message is the same: the superior power and privileges of the male protagonist do not entitle him to trample on the rights or feelings of his partner.
This ethical trajectory is made possible by two conventional devices. Comedy's fidelity to the gender ideology of democratic citizenship requiring that respectable citizen women be neither seen nor heard generally forecloses a depiction of the relationship dynamics between lover and beloved. But the reconciliation plays skirt the ideology of sexual separation by featuring heroines who are lost or displaced citizens or, as in the Epitrepontes, already respectably married women. These conceits allow the heroine to act outside the constraints of female respectability. In each case, the protagonist's passion for the unusually autonomous heroine gives her the power to domesticate and educate her unruly partner. Thus, while the male protagonist has infinitely more social and political power than the heroine, his love causes him to cede this power, at least in the temporary effort to win the heroine back. Conveniently, the heroine remains immune to love's debilitating effects. Although Menander's comedies manipulate female social identity in the interests of plot, they never sacrifice the ideology embodied in Athenian law that denied female citizens an autonomous sexual desire.
The reconciliation plays portray the heterosexual romantic relationship as a site in which the play of power is urgently at stake. This emphasis has a special political significance in the Perikeiromene and Misoumenos because the protagonists in these works are mercenaries. These plays (along with the Sikyonioi) depart from New Comedy's conventional construction of the romantic protagonist as defined primarily by his eros rather than by attributes of social position. Although this convention tends to make Menandrian protagonists rather flat, not to say boring, characters, hardly deserving of the label "protagonist" at all, they nevertheless operate as potent figures of wish fulfillment and identification. Precisely because they are so neutral, Menander's protagonists also usually lack the social attributes that would interfere with the audience's investment in their cause.96 They become figures of identification more because of their position in the narrative as the romantic winners than because of any traits or redeeming qualities they possess in their own right.97 But Menander's mercenary protagonists are hardly blank slates capable of absorbing myriad fantasy projections: in fact, they are burdened with a too-recognizable social identity. They are associated with the Hellenistic rulers and, by default, with the threats that the mercenary was seen to pose to the life and values of the Greek polis community.98 Accordingly, like the flatterers and parasites that sometimes attend them, Menander's mercenaries stand out as political figures within the ostensibly domestic space of comedy.99
When a mercenary plays the romantic lead in Menander's comedy, he alienates the heroine by overly aggressive and assertive behavior--in other words, by acting too much like a mercenary. In each case, the mercenary's romantic reconciliation requires that he disavow and distance himself from his offending behavior and that he act like a citizen rather than a soldier. Comedy thereby encloses the contemporary political confrontation between military kingdoms and the Greek cities within the romantic relationship. In these transnational or transpolis comedies, the protagonist's acquisition or display of ethical and cultural competencies takes precedence over the democratic parochialism associated with romantic success in the more nationalistic homosocial plots.100 By portraying the mercenary as passionately attached to the heroine, comedy employs eros to civilize the mercenary through self-interest rather than coercion. In the end, the mercenary willingly gives up his transient life of violence to become a citizen husband. With this narrative pattern, comedy offered a script enacting and ensuring the survival of the Greek cities before they had actually escaped the Hellenistic rulers. But insofar as the power of love in comedy turns out to be the city's power, it is also a woman's power.
Reproduction and Resistance
It seems that in some cases at least, there is a price for enclosing political conflicts within the romantic relationship. In the reconciliation plays, women seize new authority as the domesticators and educators of unruly and uncivilized men. Although comedy developed the convention of deploying displaced female citizens as ethical exemplars to reproduce polis culture by containing and transforming the Hellenistic threat in the romantic relationship, the very use of the convention cuts in two directions. By depicting women--who stand in for all those without full membership rights, and who assist in reproducing both citizens and civic competencies--it allows figures normally excluded from political consideration to resist that exclusion (if only tacitly).101
On one level, the empowered heroines of Menander's reconciliation plays have the functional role that Froma Zeitlin attributes to female characters in Athenian tragedy. She states:
Even when female characters struggle with the conflicts generated by the particularities of their subordinate social position, their demands for identity and self-esteem are nevertheless designed primarily for exploring the male project of selfhood in the larger world. These demands impinge on men's claims to knowledge, power, freedom, and self-sufficiency--not, as some have thought, for woman's gaining some greater entitlement or privilege for herself and not even for revising notions of what femininity might be or mean. Women as individuals or chorus may give their names as titles to plays; female characters may occupy center stage and leave a far more indelible emotional impression on their spectators than their male counterparts (Antigone, for example, with respect to Creon). But functionally women are never an end in themselves, and nothing changes for them once they have lived out their drama on stage.102
Comic heroines may ultimately be empowered to suit male purposes and needs, as in tragedy. Yet it is possible to draw a distinction between the immediate needs informing comedy's literary choices and the ideological effects of those choices. In other words, that comic heroines are empowered at all has a significance that exceeds the motivations or plot requirements responsible for that empowerment.
In any case, we cannot simply assume that comedy's ideological effects mirror those of tragedy (however repressive or liberatory we might believe them to be), because comedy is informed by very different generic conventions and historical circumstances. In contrast to the aristocratic heroines of tragedy, the heroines of Menander's reconciliation plays are depicted as ordinary "girl next door"-type figures. Unlike the actual female citizen next door, however, the heroines of the Perikeiromene and Misoumenos are in disguise; their true social and political identities are temporarily held in abeyance. Here again the parallel with tragic convention is illuminating. Tragic "displacement plots" focus on aristocratic women, once free, who have lost their status by being enslaved in the aftermath of war. According to Edith Hall, these plots express "the Athenians' desperate dependence on recognized membership of the polis."103 In comedy, by contrast, the loss of social identity does not render its heroines primarily objects of pity but rather provides the crucial enabling condition for their agency. By masking the heroine's true civic identity, comic displacement plots make it possible for their heroines to evade the constraints of their conventional social position.104 This release--temporary though it may be--exposes the arbitrariness of traditional female social roles.
It should be clear that I am not framing questions of comedy's ideological work in a theoretical rubric that posits subversion versus containment as mutually exclusive models.105 Rather, I treat comedy as a participant in the complex political and cultural negotiations of its times. Because comedy is composed of narrative impulses that reproduce as well as resist the civic status quo, it can straddle both sides of the subversion/ containment fence. It is true that comedy's formulaic closure in marriage seems to temper the subversive energies unleashed by the temporary empowerment of female characters. Yet the fact that comic heroines ultimately become wives, assuming a traditionally subordinate female position, in no way erases or cancels out their prior depiction in the narrative. Rather, it is precisely the safe restoration of the empowered women of the reconciliation plays to the traditional gender system that allows comedy to get away with turning over more authority to these women than was culturally available to them. In other words, the conservatism of the marriage plot form allows comedy to contest prevailing gender categories in a way that seems not to be subversive. For despite the emphasis on containment built into its generic end--marriage--the means by which comic narratives sometimes achieve this end effectively installs the figure of the empowered woman in the cultural imaginary.
It is, of course, difficult to demonstrate how such instantiations might have achieved concrete effects in the social world, given the nature of our evidence. But anyone with doubts about the power of dramatic representations to reshape existing gender categories has only to recall Lycurgus's fifty-five-line citation of Euripides' Erechtheus in his speech against Leocrates (1.100; cf. Demades 1.37). Lycurgus recites the speech of Praxithea, wife of Erechtheus, who willingly sacrificed her virgin daughter to defend the city against invasion. According to Peter Wilson, with this citation (and others) Lycurgus is appropriating tragedy and its generic prestige to construct models for contemporary political behavior.106 Yet if Lycurgus is using tragedy, tragedy is also using him. His appeal to Praxithea, a woman, as a paragon of civic virtue and a positive exemplar for citizen men is unparalleled in extant Athenian oratory.107 Thus, tragedy's depiction of a heroine endowed with superior civic loyalty and patriotism paved the way for a woman--albeit a fictional and noble one--to enter into democratic civic discourse as a political exemplar for citizen men.
Similarly, as I will argue in later chapters, comedy's empowerment of female characters in the service of civic ends effectively depicts women as standing in relation to the sociopolitical order "as what calls to be included within its terms, i.e., a set of future possibilities for inclusion, what Mouffe refers to as part of the not-yet-assimilable horizon of community."108 Previous commentators have identified a utopian tendency in Menander's comedy, arguing that the creation of emancipatory possibilities is an immanent feature of literary and artistic practice.109 Reproducing Athens will show, however, that there are specific historical factors animating comedy's contradictory propensities to reproduce and resist the civic status quo. I began this chapter by suggesting that Lycurgus's histrionic reference to Hyperides' "tragic" proposal to free the slaves and to enfranchise the metics and atimoi reveals important information about the constitutive role of internal status boundaries in the making of Athenian democratic identity. For Lycurgus, these internal boundaries--maintained through strict rules of sexual reproduction--were the sine qua non of Athenian identity. But Lycurgus is, of course, making this claim as part of an attempt to revise the Athenian defeat at Chaeronea to make it less devastating, less final. To that end, he makes Hyperides' proposal, which was passed but never implemented, the worst consequence of the defeat. While this was no doubt an effective rhetorical strategy, it may concede more than Lycurgus would have wished. His appeal to the necessary Athenianness of the citizen body is inscribed within a context that bears witness to the democratizing effects created by the rise of an external enemy larger and more powerful than the polis. That Hyperides' proposal was made at all testifies to the democratic and inclusionary possibilities elicited by the international transformations taking place. The pressing external threat effectively, if temporarily, diminished the significance of internal status boundaries between citizens and noncitizens of all types.
To be sure, these changes were much more pronounced in Menander's time than in the previous Lycurgan generation. The existence of Macedonian military kingdoms had become a more or less ineradicable feature of the international landscape. So too the decline of the polis as an independent or viable military power had become a reality impossible to ignore. While these circumstances did not bring an end to Athenian democratic culture, they did create a new urgency to define and redefine civic identity in ways attentive to the polis's new conditions of possibility. The rise of large-scale autocratic military kingdoms at least partially reoriented the coordinates of civic identity: it suddenly became important to define and distinguish polis inhabitants from the Macedonian outsiders, and it became correspondingly less crucial to maintain rigid internal status distinctions between citizens and everyone else.
The constitutive coexistence of opposing impulses within Menander's comedy is a product of this transitional historical epoch.110 The paradigmatic marriage plot performs the reproduction of the citizen body, and with it the status distinctions separating citizens from everyone else. At the same time, however, the formal and thematic conventions that bring about the performance of this paradigmatic narrative resist the reproduction of the civic status quo. The use of eros to forge unions across status barriers and the empowerment of displaced female citizens raise the possibility of alternative social arrangements, of doing away with the divisive and exclusionary internal status boundaries.111 The dynamic tension between these competing reproductive and transformative trajectories attests to comedy's negotiation of the stresses and strains that the tumultuous Hellenistic period placed on traditional democratic cultural arrangements.
Although comic narratives simultaneously reify and rebel against the constraints of citizen status, the manner in which and extent to which they do so are conditioned by whether a specific play is more heavily national or transnational in its orientation and outlook. In nationalistic comedy (plays with a pronounced Attic or Athenian setting), the status-conserving impulse is stronger than in the transnational or transpolis plays.112 Because the orientation is internal to the polis, internal status divisions between citizens and slaves as well as gender divisions retain a strong constitutive importance in defining the privileged status group of male citizens. Yet even in the most nationalistic plays, an implicit critique of the arbitrariness of internal status and gender boundaries often accompanies the reproduction of civic norms. For instance, the plot devices that enable slaves and courtesans to act as surrogates for female citizens in the Epitrepontes and Samia expose the conventional and permeable boundary separating citizens and noncitizens.
By contrast, plays with a pronounced transnational coloring powerfully upset the conventional gender hierarchy.113 Because these plays are more explicitly concerned with defining and reproducing polis culture against the Hellenistic kingdoms, gender difference assumes less importance as a constitutive axis of male civic identity within the polis community. In fact, in the Perikeiromene and Misoumenos the traditional gender system is significantly undermined in the service of rebuilding polis culture against the Hellenistic "mercenary" kingdom. These plays temporarily release their heroines from the constraints of civic respectability so that they may assist in the mercenary's civic education. In so doing, the works call attention to the artificiality of existing gender asymmetries within the organization of polis culture.
In my reading of the plays, I attend to comedy's countervailing tendencies to reproduce democratic and civic culture against various Hellenistic threats and to subvert internal status boundaries between citizens and noncitizens and between men and women. This dual focus will enable us to consider comedy's work and meaning in its own historical epoch and to consider what comedy tells us about classical democratic culture. For by adapting the norms of citizen status to its own narrative patterns, comedy offers important evidence of the interconstitutive relationship between the public and private in democratic Athens, the role of gender and sexual ideologies in sustaining the norms and ideology of democratic citizenship, and the immanent tensions and instabilities within the citizenship system. Comedy's very ability to deploy conventions involving displaced female identity, harms to female citizens, and role reversals between female citizens and courtesans of slave and foreign status tells us something about the logic and possibilities of classical democratic culture. By deploying courtesans as stand-ins for female citizens, comedy reveals the underdetermination of the citizenship system as well as its latent potential to include rather than exclude outsiders.
Before turning to the comedies, in the next chapter I consider the historical setting in which Menander's plays were performed. This will set the stage for interpreting comedy's cultural and political poetics in subsequent chapters. In addition, I clarify what I mean by the "reproduction" of democratic culture--for to elaborate the ways in which democratic culture was reproduced in the early Hellenistic era is not to claim that things went on exactly as before, as we will see. Rather, I chart the negotiation between received democratic practices and principles and changed historical circumstances that enabled the Athenians to assert the continuity of democratic culture in the midst of radical change.
Return to Book Description
File created: 8/7/2007
Questions and comments to: email@example.com
Princeton University Press