More Menander: Fragments in Quotations

Athenaeus quotes a character who is unhappily married telling a younger person not to marry: “of married men, not even one is saved”. This reminds me of the joke about the difference between a wedding and a funeral: in the funeral, the man is a dead duck before he goes down the aisle.

The papyrus known as “Oxyrhinchica 1235″ seems to have been the Wikipedia of the ancient world: it listed plot summaries of many Menander plays. What bothers me most about Wikipedia’s entries for movies and stories is that they too often focus on plot to the exclusion of theme and other considerations. Anyway, Oxy. 1235 has a very complete summary of–and one brief quotation of–a play that would have otherwise been entirely lost to us: Hiereia (“The Priestess”).

Clement of Alexandria quotes (hmm: with reason or not?) the following:

You see in marriage what distresses you
And what will cause you pain, but don’t look at
Its goods. You’ll find there’s no good in the world ,
Simylos, to which there’s not some bad attached.

There is also a very positive comment on the “spendthrift wife”. On the other hand, there is also a husband protesting to his wife that she spends too much. The two quotations are attributed to different plays; otherwise, I would have liked to have imagined the wife defending herself with the words I read.

Some Romans were discriminating: Aulus Gellius compared Caecilius’ adaptation of Menander’s Plokion (“The Necklace”) to the original, and found the adaptation wanting.

“My wife’s an heiress and a true monster-who-eats-human-flesh”: Good heavens! Marriage definitely wasn’t for the speaker of that line! It’s a pity there wasn’t more context for this; marriage is usually the goal and final event of a Menander plot. Perhaps it was a character seeking to dissuade another from hitching up.

An interesting set of lines on Luck: “All that we think or say or do is luck; / We only write our signatures below.”

“Examine it to see if it’s good coin”: there are quite a few references in both Aristophanes and Menander to coined money. One ancient coin I would love to have (though it is beyond my means) is a small silver Athenian tetradrachm with a large-eyed owl, some olive leaves, and the letters “Athe” (for “Athens”) on it. I first saw this coin in a writing textbook for ESL writers.

Hmm: quite a few rather misogynistic lines are attributed to Menander’s characters. I’m assuming these attributions, when they are valid, are to the very worldly-wise characters who are foils for the young and restless who always end out being married “happily ever after”.

Against racism: “The man who’s born with a / Good character, he is the true ‘well-born’, / Though he may be an Ethiopian”. Nice!

Stobaeus has another interesting quotation, this time touching on the subject of the nature of deity and materialist philosophy:

“Epicharmos tells us that the gods are winds,
Sun, earth, and water, fire and stars, but I
Supposed silver and gold alone were gods
Which were some use to us. Set up these gods
Within your house and pray for what you want;
You’ll get it all….”

An Ecclesiastes-type comment: “All living animals are happier and have more sense than man, far more.” The idea is that man brings his troubles on himself, but beasts don’t.

“Once I held her in my arms and kissed her, I was sunk for good and all.”

“Was it not right Prometheus should be nailed to the rocks, as painters show…”. This intrigued me a good deal because Prometheus has continued to be painted into far more recent times, the nineteenth century providing several very notable examples.

There: tomorrow I will read and post on the chapter “Fragments of Doubtful Authorship”, and then a final post on Menander, and a very short post on classical Greek drama in general. Then I will have read all the extant classical Greek drama that I know of.


For the Literature Index, please click here.

Menander’s Perinthia (“The Girl from Perinthos”), Karchedonios (“The Man from Carthage”), Koneiazomenai (“The Women Drinking Hemlock”), and a Play without a Title

We’re down to, essentially, two and a half pages, including annotations for this play, now–that’s how fragmentary these plays are. Perinthia (or, “The Girl from Perinthos”) is mentioned, along with other Menander plays, by Terrence. In some cases Terrence took characters from several different Menander plays and through them together into a single work.

Menander’s Karchedonios (or, “The Man from Carthage”) survives in about sixty lines in the manuscript, but only seven of those lines are complete! The play bears witness to the name “Hamilcar”; the character in question is identified as a Carthaginian general; my Oxford Classical Dictionary places Hannibal’s father’s activities a full half century after Menander’s death, so obviously this is a typical or dynastic name that is referenced here. Stobaeus ascribes an interesting proverb to this play: “Virtue no doubt is stronger than the law”.

The play Koneiazomenai (or, “The Women Drinking Hemlock”) barely survives at all. The only thing that caught my eye was a reference to a personified Luck. In Menander, we have Misapprehension, Chance, and, it seems, Luck often occurring in place of the deities of Olympian religion. No one took them seriously anymore, it would seem. Stobaeus also has a nice little quotation which he ascribes to this play: “The saying ‘Know thyself’ means you must know your own position and what you should do”.

There is one more play which is much better preserved than the last half-dozen or so I have just blogged, but we do not know its title. It exists in several different fragments from different sources. It seems there was the same character development from an impulsive young man who committed an act of sexual assault on a woman to a person capable of truly loving the woman. I have tired of the ubiquity of this motif in Menander, and find it difficult to stomach in any case. I suppose the best that one can say is that at least character development does occur.


For the Literature Index, please click here.

Menander’s Kolax (“The Flatterer”), Theophoroumene (“The Girl Possessed”), & Leukadia (“The Girl from Leukas”)

Menander’s fragmentary play Kolax (or, “The Flatterer”) had a courtesan (and thus no sexual assault of a “virtuous” girl–see the previous post for an explanation). The play is interesting because archaeological evidence has uncovered a mosaic scene that depicts a scene from a part of the manuscript that has been too badly damaged to recover. From this play, I also learned a very choice insult: “you’re a Cypriot bullock”).

Theophoroumene (or, “The Girl Possessed”) is interesting in that it touches on questions of what we would now call mental health.

Leukadia survives more in quotation from other authors than from the manuscript of Menander. An interesting quotation given by Stobaeus is attributed to this play: “Men always believe the gods protect the poor”.


For the Literature Index, please click here.

Menander’s Heros (“The Hero”), Kitharistes (“The Lyre-Player”), Georgos (“The Farmer”), & Phasma (“The Apparition”)

I just can’t let these four plays go without a comment–hence an entire blogpost for four very fragmentary plays. Like in Epitrepontes, the sexual forcing of a woman by a man who later marries her (without knowing she was his victim) is the subject of Heros (or, “The Hero”) and Kitharistes (or, “The Lyre-Player”). Plots based around the idea of rape are an instant turn-off for me. What’s worse, it’s extremely upsetting that the man in Heros who rapes the woman is apparently excused by the audience on the grounds that he was drunk, even if the character himself is sorry and regretful.

I suppose that the best we can say is that in Menander there are women who are sexually assaulted, women who are not sexually active or assaulted, and women who are prostitutes–and each kind can become happily married in the end. There are no non-courtesan women who are sexually active by choice and not assaulted, though. (Or at least, they are not in the plays I’ve read so far.) For that, one has to go back in time to Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.)

Georgos is noteworthy for the fact that it apparently hearkens back to a legal if unapproved practice of marrying one’s step-siblings. On the positive side, if we had the full play, I would say that the play was probably undermining the legality of step-sibling marriage as the protagonist is deeply in love with a woman who is not related to him; he ends up marrying her, apparently, rather than his half-sister. On the other hand, apparently there was a sexual assault in this play, too, as there was also in Phasma (or, “The Apparition”).

The constant repetition of this motif in so many of the plays of Menander is not easy to forgive, and makes for depressing reading. The modern reader will not find herself in much sympathy with these particular dramas written by the ancient playwright. We may have regressed behind ancient Greece on the question of prostitution, but we are unquestionably ahead of them on the issue of allowing women to control their own bodies, and on requiring men to refrain from sexual assault.


A quotation attributed by Stobaeus to Heros is interesting: “There is no power greater than love, not even Zeus, who rules the gods in heaven; in all his acts he is compelled by love”. The latter part of the quotation kind of ruins it for me, if by “Zeus” we understand literally the mythical “father” (!) of gods and men.

An equally interesting quotation–on the principle of non-harm–is attributed by Stobaeus to Kitharistes: “To learn to do no wrong, in my opinion, Laches, is a fine enterprise for life”.


On an personal note, my goal is to finish my Menander volume by the end of tomorrow; on Friday, I am expecting Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the mail, together with one of the most outstanding recordings of the Strauss composition named after and inspired by the book.


For the Literature Index, please click here.

Menander’s Dis Exapaton (or, “Twice a Swindler”)

Menander’s play Dis Exapaton (or, “Twice a Swindler”) continues some of the motifs of his earlier plays, though with an emphasis on doubles. Where a courtesan was the hero of each of Samia and Epitrepontes, two courtesans are the sought-after women of Dis Exapaton. Two friends, Sostratos and Moschion, each accompanied by a helping figure and a father, fall in love with them. While other Menander comedies end with a wedding, Dis Exapaton ends with two. (The brides are the two courtesans, Bacchis of Samia and Bacchis of Athens, both sisters.) Finally, the slave of the suitor of the Samian Bacchis twice lies in the service of his master, Sostratos, and is twice defended and twice forgiven. It is this slave, Syros, whose actions have given the play its name.

The play survives only in about a hundred lines from the end of Act 2 to the beginning of Act 3; fortunately, enough of the plot can be reconstructed based on Plautus’ Roman adaptation. I personally think this not entirely without problems, but it does seem to be the best we can do.

The dearth of good Greek text prevents us from fully understanding the play, but it does seem to have revolved around the question of the relationship between truth and perception. At one point, the two friends quarrel as Sostratos believes Moschion has fallen in love with his Bacchis (in fact, Moschion has fallen in love with her sister, the other Bacchis). Similarly, the slave Syros twice lies in the service of Sostratos who does not know that he has lied, leading in one case to a brief but amusing scene in which both father and son experience some confusion and mutual frustration. In the end, it seems, the play had a happy ending, with the two young men getting their Bacchises in a double wedding.


A particularly famous proverb is attributed by Stobaeus to Dis Exapaton: “He whom the gods love dies while he is young”. The notes in my volume indicate the context in Plautus: Syros is mocking Sostratos’ father when he is trying to swindle his money a second time (money he wants to use to by the Samoan Bacchis her freedom so she can marry his master). Several other attributed quotations are not able to be placed.


Perhaps the most salient feature of the film for me is the light it shows on sexual norms in ancient Greece. The previous play I read, Sikyonios, had an emphatic statement about the intact virginity of the woman who was desired by two men. Here, though, we have a play that is a testament to the power and charms of courtesans, and the social acceptability of marrying them. It seems that in ancient Greece, at any rate, there was far from unanimous agreement as to the latter half of the old adage that says every young man wants to date a whore and marry a virgin.

(I can’t help noting in this context the current constitutional challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws. Menander would find our laws positively puritanical were he to come here. For my part, I do believe that continued prohibition endangers sex trade workers, as well as dehumanizes them. Even if one were to grant that prostitution does not belong in a modern nation, it is obvious that it is preferable to criminalize the pimps and the clients only. There is no excuse for Canadian inertia in this matter. In any case, it is clear that Canada could not produce a playwright of Menander’s caliber and popularity, or the audience to appreciate him.)


This post was made possible only by Plautus’ adaptation. The next play I will read survives in a similar number of lines, but with no similar preservation noted by the editor of the volume I’m using. Accordingly, I will likely finish the remainder of the book before writing another post on Menander.


For the Literature Index, click here.