Roman frieze

“Technical terms and criticism in Aristophanes’ comedy: the clownish figures”
Rosanna Lauriola (University of Idaho)

Comic and tragic playwrights, composers of dithyrambs, sophists and politicians are all targets of Aristophanes’ criticism. While the poet’s criticism on the comic playwrights is usually expressed in parabasis, that concerning the other targets is either scattered, so to say, throughout the dramatic action within a comedy, or overtly concentrated in a specific comedy. In either case, however, scholars have singled out the occurrence of terms that the poet would used to specifically address his criticism to circumscribed categories of persons, which are in turn regarded as compartments to be differently and separately connoted. Undoubtedly, Aristophanes’ language is multifarious, and nobody can deny that in his plays there is a constant occurrence of the same words to address persons that belong to the same category. A well known case, for instance, is that concerning the comic playwrights for whom words like phortikos, phortos, agoraios, asteios are constantly used by Aristophanes to denote the low level of their jokes. There is, however, another trait that has received little attention: the use of same words to qualify different categories of persons, words that the poet seems to employ as catchwords to communicate his critical point of view, which, in the end, is the same for all the diversified persons connoted by those catchwords. The term bomolochos and its cognates are the most representative case. Literally meaning ‘buffoon, clown’, and usually connoting the rival comic playwrights within the discourse carried on in parabasis, bomolochos has usually been considered as a specific, technical term of Aristophanes’ literary criticism pertaining to the current comic theater. To a closer analysis, it turned out that the word is also used outside the parabasis with reference to persons that barely can be connoted as ‘clown’, at least at the same level as the contemporary comic poets. The most striking case is certainly that of Euripides: the most tragic of poets is three times connoted as bomolochos. An etymological analysis of the term allows us to identify a semantic common denominator behind its usage for diversified categories of persons. This semantic common denominator reveals, in turn, uniformity of purpose in Aristophanes’ criticism: what the poet insistently points out is the deception that all categories of persons equally connoted as ‘clownish’ carry on at the people’s expense. Given that to Aristophanes’ eyes a good poet is the one who makes men better citizens by wise advice (Frogs 1009 f.), bomolochos is thus one of the catchwords that the poet uses to caution the community about manipulative tricks rather than simple buffooneries.

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