Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 32.

S. Douglas Olson, Broken Laughter: Select Fragments of Greek Comedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xviii + 476. ISBN 978-0-19-928785-7. US$175.00 / UK£79.00.

Andrew Hartwig
Classics, The University of Sydney, Australia

The fragments of the Greek comic poets are numerous but largely underexplored. Only Eubulus and Alexis have been treated to a traditional full-scale commentary, while Eupolis has been covered in a monograph by Storey.[[1]] Access to other comic authors must be gained through the formidable and, for the beginner, largely inaccessible edition of Kassel and Austin.[[2]] This is where Olson's work is a welcome and valuable arrival. As he states in his introduction (p. 1): '[t]he corpus is . . . vast and difficult, and this book is intended to make some of the most interesting and important portions of it accessible to a non-specialist audience'.

The book consists of three sections: (1) a wide-ranging introduction on ancient comedy, (2) text and commentary of 223 fragments in ten 'chapters' (A-J), and (3) several appendices containing translations, biographical notes, and epigraphic evidence for the comic poets.

The introduction covers many prominent questions related to comedy. On the origins of Attic comedy (pp. 2-6) Olson has packed a lot of material into a short space, and the discussion loses clarity as a result. The obscure and confused nature of our ancient sources, of course, does not help matters. Perhaps mention of Susarion, or at least a cross-reference the discussion of Susarion fr. 1 [= Olson I1] (pp. 328-29), could have been included here.

On fifth century Sicilian comedy (pp. 6-12) Olson adopts what is largely a minority position (p. 11): 'no positive evidence exists to suggest that Sicilian comedy . . . directly influenced any Attic author before the time of Plato and Xenophon'. This puts aside the statement found in [Arist.] Poet. 1449b5-9 that Sicilian comedy supposedly influenced Crates. But Olson had earlier called the reliability of this passage into question during his discussion of origins (p. 2). While this reader is not fully converted to Olson's position, Olson makes a reasonable case which he follows up in his commentary when discussing individual fragments, arguing for broader thematic similarities rather than the direct influence of Epicharmus over fifth century Attic dramatists (including tragedy). Perhaps Olson could have included similar discussion on Epicharmus fr. 32 [A13] which many scholars believe influenced the depiction of the parasite in Eupolis fr. 172 [B45].

On fourth century Sicilian comedy before Rhinthon (pp. 13- 16), Olson makes the interesting suggestion, based on the evidence of the wrongly named 'phlyax' vases and the excessive number of known play titles by some Middle Comedy poets, that this was entirely imported from Attica (p. 15). On fifth century Attic comedy (pp. 16-22) Olson endorses the view that five comic poets competed at the City Dionysia and Lenaia during the Peloponnesian War years rather than a reduction to three (p. 19). One minor observation here: Olson also cites the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (56.3) in support of this view which treats five poets as the traditional number. However he then weakens this evidence with the qualification: 'although by this time the choregia had been abolished'. If we accept Rhodes' dating of this work to the 330s,[[3]] then the choregia was still in full- swing -- it had only been reformed along tribal lines for comedy -- and Olson unnecessarily diminishes his own argument.

In the section on Old, Middle and New Comedy (pp. 22-26), Olson shows up the deficiencies of such classifications noting not only that the Alexandrian scholars seem to have left a period of classificatory limbo in the years between 'Old' and 'Middle' and between 'Middle' and 'New' Comedy, but also that they did not bother to classify contemporary comic poets of the late third and second centuries at all.

Lastly in the introductory sections (pp. 26-32), Olson gives a useful overview of the history of Hellenistic scholarship on comedy, and notes that many of our sources, especially those from the Roman and Byzantine eras, often preserve the fragments only at second and third hand, having lifted them from excerptors' compilations made during the Hellenistic period.

Olson's text and commentary of the various fragments (pp. 33-377) are the meat of this book. Faced with the difficulty of how to arrange the material, Olson appears to have made the right choice. There are separate sections on Sicilian comedy, Old Comedy, and Middle and New Comedy (A-C), while the remaining sections (D-J) are grouped thematically, irrespective of chronology, covering the reception of other poetry, politics, philosophy, food and dining, wine and symposia, women, and aspects of daily life. The sections on Old Comedy and Middle and New Comedy are further divided up thematically: Old Comedy fragments (section B) according to the structural elements of comedy (for example, prologue, parodos, agon, parabasis), and Middle and New Comedy fragments (section C) according to stock characters (for example, cooks, slaves, parasites). The remaining sections (D-J), which blend these various chronological eras, nicely emphasize the thematic continuities within Attic comedy.

A particularly welcome aspect of Olson's book are the fragments of Epicharmus (section A) and the lion's share of fragments from Cratinus' The Wineflask (B1-B12) and Dionysalexandros (B13-B20), two plays of which we have a basic idea about the plot despite their fragmentary nature, and which have never been treated to a commentary before. In fact the great majority of fragments in this book have not been discussed before, and Olson does a fine job in explaining them. The style of commentary is stripped down and avoids the cumbersome piling up of details typical of such works. For a work aimed at the non-specialist, this is the right approach. A comparison, for example, with Arnott on Alexis fr. 16 [G6] shows four pages Arnott compared with one page Olson. Instead, Olson often refers to other works, usually his own Aristophanic commentaries, if the reader wishes to pursue a matter further.

Olson's text for the most part follows that of Kassel- Austin and provides a minimal critical apparatus. Where his text differs from K-A it is usually for the better. For example Cratinus fr. 342 [B41] where he removes the full-stop; Antiphanes fr. 189.5 [D6] where his adoption of Coulon's text makes better sense; Alexis fr. 259.2 [G15] where TE makes far better sense than GE; while at Eupolis fr. 384.2 [E4] the case for Van Herwerden's U(MI=N instead of H(MI=N seems finely balanced either way.

A couple of minor observations on the commentary: at Cratinus fr. 360.3 [B37] (p. 108) could the ikria not simply refer to the wooden seating in the fifth century theatre of Dionysos? Hence the noise caused by spectators banging their heels against the bleachers (see Pollux 2.197 and 4.122 PTERNOKOPEI=N). At Plato Comicus fr. 202 [E9] p. 204 it is not at all clear that the politicians are being implicitly compared to vipers in the first two lines. What Plato means by PONERO/J in line two remains unclear. At Pherecrates fr. 76 [H10] we may have a para prosdokian joke. At line four one might have expected speaker B to make a water to wine ratio of 2:1 (already stronger than the more typical 3:1 or 4:1 ratios cited by Olson in his commentary). Instead Pherecrates thwarts our expectations by substituting 'four' in place of 'one' at the end of the line (that is, a ratio of 1:2).

Rounding out the book are four appendices. Appendix I (pp. 379-91) deals with epigraphic evidence for victorious comic poets at the City Dionysia and Lenaia festivals (IG II/2 2325). This information is usually hidden away from the non-specialist, yet provides some of the best hard evidence available for the comic poets, making its presence here all the more valuable.

Appendix II (pp. 392-401) provides a conspectus numerorum of all the passages in this book, one in chronological order and the other in alphabetical order. For a book in which the point of entry for many readers will be through the conspectus, it would have been better placed near the end. Here the utility of the chronological list is also doubtful. There are potential pitfalls in that it is arranged by poet rather than individual fragment. Many fragments of later authors, however, often precede chronologically those of older playwrights (for example, Aristophanes fr. 233 [D2] was produced earlier than Cratinus frr. 193-211 [B1-B12]). The list also puts Phrynichus after Aristophanes and Eupolis, although Phrynichus had certainly appeared on the comic scene before them (see Suda Phi 763), and had possibly won his first victory at the Lenaia before either made their dramatic debut (see the victors' list on p. 387).

Appendix III (pp. 402-18) provides brief biographical information on all the poets within this book. This is a very useful feature which far surpasses the often scanty biographical information to be gleaned from the OCD.

Appendix IV (pp. 419-66) contains translations of all the fragments. This was only added as an afterthought at the insistence of the press, and its presence here is welcome. The translations are unpretentious and stick reasonably closely to the Greek. Sometimes when we wish Olson had said more on language in his commentary, we can usually gather this information from his translation. A Greek index and a general index close the book.

In summary this book would be well-placed in the library of anyone who is interested in Greek comedy. It has sufficient depth to interest specialist and non-specialist alike. It also brings benefits to the classroom where students of comedy will no longer be restricted to reading Aristophanes and Menander now that they have such a guide at their disposal. The book is attractively produced and priced in line with similar works by the Oxford University Press.[[4]]


[[1]] R. Hunter, Eubulus: The Fragments (Cambridge 1983); W. G. Arnott, Alexis: The Fragments (Cambridge 1998); I. C. Storey, Eupolis: Poet of Old Comedy (Oxford 2003).

[[2]] R. Kassel and C. Austin, Poetae Comici Graeci (Berlin / New York 1983- ).

[[3]] P. J. Rhodes, A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (Oxford 1981) p. 9 n. 39.

[[4]] Errors are relatively few without causing major difficulty for the reader. Those I noticed are as follows: p. 22 'thrity' should read 'thirty'; p. 55 (A13 bottom of first paragraph) 'Eub. fr. 172' should read 'Eup. fr. 172'; p. 68 (A22 line 1) breathing misprint for (HRA/KLEIJ; p. 128 (C2 line 12-13) CENI/ZOUSA printed twice; p. 179 (D11 line 2) English text in Greek font; p. 205 (E10-E14) 'poltical' for 'political'; p. 210 (E15 line 2) 'after promising two' should read 'three'; p. 321 (I2 line 1) '0' in the Greek text.