Aristophanes, son of Philippus, of the deme Cydathenaus, was a comic playwright of ancient Athens. Eleven of his 40 plays survive virtually complete. These, together with fragments of some of his other plays, provide the only real examples of a genre of comic drama known as Old Comedy, and they are in fact used to define the genre. Also known as the Father of Comedy and the Prince of Ancient Comedy, Aristophanes has been said to recreate the life of ancient Athens more convincingly than any other author. His powers of ridicule were feared and acknowledged by influential contemporaries — Plato singled out Aristophanes' play The Clouds as slander contributing to the trial and execution of Socrates although other satirical playwrights had also caricatured the philosopher. His second play, The Babylonians (now lost), was denounced by the demagogue Cleon as a slander against the Athenian polis. It is possible that the case was argued in court but details of the trial are not recorded and Aristophanes caricatured Cleon mercilessly in his subsequent plays, especially The Knights, the first of many plays that he directed himself. "In my opinion," he says through the Chorus in that play, "the author-director of comedies has the hardest job of all."
Less is known about Aristophanes than about his plays. In fact, his plays are the main source of information about him. It was conventional in Old Comedy for the Chorus to speak on behalf of the author during an address called the 'parabasis' and thus some biographical facts can be got 'straight from the horse's mouth', so to speak. However, these facts relate almost entirely to his career as a dramatist and the plays contain few clear and unambiguous clues about his personal beliefs or his private life. He was a comic poet in an age when it was conventional for a poet to assume the role of 'teacher' (didaskalos), and though this specifically referred to his training of the Chorus in rehearsal, it also covered his relationship with the audience as a commentator on significant issues. Aristophanes claimed to be writing for a clever and discerning audience, yet he also declared that 'other times' would judge the audience according to its reception of his plays. He sometimes boasts of his originality as a dramatist yet his plays consistently espouse opposition to radical new influences in Athenian society. He caricatured leading figures in the arts (notably Euripides, whose influence on his own work however he once begrudgingly acknowledged), in politics (especially the populist Cleon), and in philosophy/religion (where Socrates was the most obvious target). Such caricatures seem to imply that Aristophanes was an old-fashioned conservative, yet that view of him leads to contradictions.
The writing of plays was a craft that could be handed down from father to son, and it has been argued that Aristophanes produced plays mainly to entertain the audience and to win prestigious competitions. The plays were written for production at the great dramatic festivals of Athens, the Lenaia and City Dionysia, where they were judged and awarded places relative to the works of other comic dramatists. An elaborate series of lotteries, designed to prevent prejudice and corruption, reduced the voting judges at the City Dionysia to just five in number. These judges probably reflected the mood of the audiences yet there is much uncertainty about the composition of those audiences. They were certainly huge, with seating for at least 10 000 at the Theatre of Dionysus, but it is not certain that they were a representative sample of the Athenian citizenry. The day's program at the City Dionysia for example was crowded, with three tragedies and a 'satyr' play ahead of the comedy, and it is possible that many of the poorer citizens (typically the main supporters of demagogues like Cleon) occupied the festival holiday with other pursuits. The conservative views expressed in the plays might therefore reflect the attitudes of a dominant group in an unrepresentative audience. The production process might also have influenced the views expressed in the plays. Throughout most of Aristophanes' career, the Chorus was essential to a play's success and it was recruited and funded by a choregus, a wealthy citizen appointed to the task by one of the archons. A choregus could regard his personal expenditure on the Chorus as a civic duty and a public honour, but Aristophanes showed in The Knights that wealthy citizens could regard civic responsibilities as punishment imposed on them by demagogues and populists like Cleon. Thus the political conservatism of the plays might reflect the views of the wealthiest section of society, on whose generosity comic dramatists depended for the success of their plays.
When Aristophanes' first play The Banqueters was produced, Athens was an ambitious, imperial power and The Peloponnesian War was only in its fourth year. His plays often express pride in the achievement of the older generation (the victors at Marathon) yet they are not jingoistic and they are staunchly opposed to the war with Sparta. The plays are particularly scathing in criticism of war profiteers, among whom populists such as Cleon figure prominently. By the time his last play was produced (around 386 BC) Athens had been defeated in war, its empire had been dismantled and it had undergone a transformation from the political to the intellectual centre of Greece. Aristophanes was part of this transformation and he shared in the intellectual fashions of the period — the structure of his plays evolves from Old Comedy until, in his last surviving play, Wealth II, it more closely resembles New Comedy. However it is uncertain whether he led or merely responded to changes in audience expectations.
Aristophanes won second prize at the City Dionysia in 427 BC with his first play The Banqueters (now lost). He won first prize there with his next play, The Babylonians (also now lost). It was usual for foreign dignitaries to attend the City Dionysia, and The Babylonians caused some embarrassment for the Athenian authorities since it depicted the cities of the Athenian League as slaves grinding at a mill. Some influential citizens, notably Cleon, reviled the play as slander against the polis and possibly took legal action against the author. The details of the trial are unrecorded but, speaking through the hero of his third play The Acharnians (staged at the Lenaia, where there were few or no foreign dignitaries), the poet carefully distinguishes between the polis and the real targets of his acerbic wit:
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