The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Mirko Canevaro
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I’m not sure classical sources make me ‘feel better’ these days. I actually find most of them, particularly the textual ones, rather stress-inducing. I’m so used to unpacking them, thinking with them and through them about whatever problem is bugging me that I find it quite difficult just to sit down and enjoy them. My most recent attempt at a remedy has been changing the medium: if I listen to audiobooks of the Odyssey, of Herodotus or even of Aristotle’s Poetics, that helps me just go with the flow. But I’m going on a tangent…
Right, if I had to pick one text that consistently puts a smile on my face every time I go back to it, that would probably be Aristophanes’ Wasps. However analytically I go about reading it, I just always find it very funny, and somehow satisfying, though perhaps not for the ‘right’ reasons…
When did you first come across this play?
It was at high school (Liceo Classico, in Italy), I must have been fifteen or sixteen. We had to read it all as an assignment, and then some time later we were brought to see a performance of it. I loved it… Those rough, ‘vulgar’, lowly, grumpy old men – I had plenty of those sorts in my family and I liked them. It was a mixture of familiarity and estrangement, because in the play those guys passed judgment in the lawcourts, made decisions for the city in the Assembly, kind of ran the place (whatever Bdelycleon says – he didn’t fool me, the pompous bore). A city where those guys were in charge… that’s a place I wanted to know more about!
Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?
Aristophanes’ Wasps was produced in 422 BCE, during a brief stop in the Peloponnesian War following a truce between Athens and Sparta. It’s a comedy and, as is typical of Aristophanes’ plays of those years, it makes fun of demagogues (thieving opportunists and so on) and those who follow them (the lower classes that apparently are enjoying democracy a bit too much). But, unlike other comedies of the same years, this play concentrates on a particular institution – the lawcourts – and on the kind of people that typically manned them: the poor, grumpy old men I mentioned earlier. It goes on and on about how manipulated these people were by canny politicians without scruples, but also shows how at ease they were within the formal institutions of the state, how much ‘ownership’ they felt they had over them. And it provides a picture of class dynamics as they played out in Athenian politics and society which is very complex and rather subtle, I think, while remaining very very funny.
What is it about this work that appeals to you most?
First of all, I love how it begins. Pure slapstick! A house enveloped in a net, the door barricaded, the master and his two slaves on guard. And the old Philocleon trying in any possible way to get out of the house and join his fellow wasps on their way to the lawcourts – through the drains, the windows, up the chimney disguised as smoke. His son, Bdelycleon, and the two slaves only just manage to keep him inside. Scholars are sometimes dismissive of this part – of this kind of childish slapstick comedy. It just so happens that this is precisely what my own sense of humour demands… And the scene has now acquired a new poignancy, hasn’t it? A worried son trying hard to keep a disgruntled old father within the house, for his own good – it’s lockdown comedy!
The play then goes on to represent these poor old men’s attachment to political power in the lawcourts as an addiction and gives us a wonderful parody of an Athenian trial in which two dogs play the parts of two famous politicians and the item of contention is the theft of Sicilian cheese.
Finally, it shows us what happens when the old man is convinced to abandon his old ways: his son ‘frees’ him of his addiction to political participation and tries to educate him to the norms of upper-class society, taking him along to a symposion. There, Philocleon is uncomfortable, out of place, annoyed (more or less how I’ve felt at every formal dinner I’ve ever been to…) and so wreaks havoc on the conventions of polite society, gets raucously drunk, insults the pretentious friends of his son, steals a flute girl and when confronted by his son about it on the way home claims she is a torch (!). I’m not sure this is what Aristophanes wanted me to get out of this (probably not), but, to me, it is quite satisfying to see how Philocleon ultimately resists his son’s attempts to civilise him, particularly because being civilised apparently means dropping all political participation in favour of the company of a bunch of pretentious bores. When the people that Philocleon has insulted threaten to bring him to court, well, to me that’s his victory: despite Bdelycleon’s best efforts, there we go again!
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
In a different world I’d be spending time on my beloved mountains, skiing, climbing, hiking. These days, I keep (or perhaps lose) my sanity through regression to teenage Mirko’s habits and tastes: comic books and videogames have been my cure for lockdown angst. They work too!
Mirko Canevaro is Professor of Greek History at the University of Edinburgh. He works on a wide range of topics in the institutional, social, legal and cultural history of ancient Athens and of the Greek polis more generally, always in dialogue with modern social and political theory. He has published extensively on authors and topics such as Demosthenes, Aristotle, Greek law and institutions, the Hellenistic reception of Athenian democracy and the possible synergies between Greek history and the social sciences. He is currently completing a commentary (in Italian) on Aristotle’s Politics books VII and VIII, and co-directing a large European project on Honour in Classical Greece. He also regularly writes (about ancient and, even more frequently, modern politics and society) for Italian national newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano and cultural magazine MicroMega.