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 Matt Simonton
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I would say Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae (Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria).
When did you first come across this play?
It wasn’t on the reading list in grad school, but I read it in translation and later the University bookstore happened to be selling C. Austin and S. D. Olson’s excellent commentary, which I snatched right up. I’ve been periodically returning to that edition for the last ten years.
Can you tell me a bit about this comedy and its context?
The Thesmophoriazusae is one of two comedies of Aristophanes we have from the year 411 BCE, when, in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, an oligarchic government briefly took over Athens (the Lysistrata is the other play). That was after the production of the play, but some political tension is noticeable throughout. The plot of the Thesmophoriazusae concerns Euripides, the famous tragedian. He gets wind of the fact that the citizen women of Athens are going to declare him a public enemy at the women-only annual festival of the Thesmophoria in honor of Demeter and Persephone. (The women are mad at him for creating so many scandalous female characters, like Medea and Stheneboea.) Euripides gets a relative of his to dress up as a woman and infiltrate the festival in order to intervene on his behalf. As the saying goes, hijinx ensue.
What is it about this play that appeals to you most?
To me, the Thesmophoriazusae is hands down the funniest of Aristophanes’ extant comedies. Others, like the Birds, may have more brilliant central ideas, but in terms of successful jokes the Thesm. can’t be beat. Beyond the sheer enjoyability of reading the text, though, it’s a crucial document for a lot of Athenian cultural and political history. For example, it affords some (but, frustratingly, nowhere near enough) information about the actual three-day festival of the Thesmophoria and the cult to Demeter and Kore/Persephone at Athens. Politically, it features a parody of a typical meeting of the ekklêsia or assembly at Athens, which the women recreate when denouncing Euripides. The words Aristophanes puts in the mouths of his female characters (all of whom were played by men, of course) contribute to our picture of the misogynistic, male-driven discourse around citizen women: basically, they must be closely monitored lest they get drunk and take on lovers, resulting in supposititious and illegitimate children. But this being comedy, the sheer amount of gender play and destabilization raises as many questions as it purportedly answers. (Froma Zeitlin’s essay “Travesties of Gender and Genre in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae” remains a classic on this front.) You’ve got politics, gender, the politics of gender, paratragedy (through many quotations and parodies of Euripidean speeches, many of them otherwise lost), and, of course, the poor relative of Euripides’ being depilated with hot ash.
On the material culture side of things, the Thesmophoriazusae is one of the only ancient comedies that can be securely identified in a scene from a so-called Phlyax vase (fourth-century BCE vessels from Southern Italy depicting Old Comic scenes). The episode is this: Euripides’ relative has been found out at the festival, and in the resulting confusion he snatches the “baby” from a nearby woman and seeks asylum at an altar. There he threatens to kill the “baby” if the women don’t release him. (The plot is lifted from the myth of Telephus, who similarly abducted the infant Orestes and used him as a bargaining chip.) It turns out, however, that this “innocent child” is none other than a wineskin that the woman had snuck into the festival, complete with little booties for realistic effect. On the vase, a masked actor playing the grieving “mother” approaches the altar holding a sphageion, a vessel used to collect the blood from sacrificial victims. The joke is that the “mother” laments the death of her “child” while still insisting she collect every last drop of the wine for personal enjoyment.
Overall, the Thesmophoriazusae represents, to me, the single best introduction to fifth-century Athenian society, with all its fascinating, familiar, alien, and problematic aspects.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
It may sound weird, but I’ve been taking immense comfort in horror movies during the pandemic. Some people will never have the stomach for horror, but to me it represents a genre, like ancient epic or jazz, where the possibility of combining formulaic elements to produce something new and exciting means endless fun. If readers haven’t checked out Snatchers or After Midnight yet I definitely recommend them––but also absolute classics like Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989) are streaming for free on some platforms!
Matt Simonton is Associate Professor of Ancient History at Arizona State University. His research focuses on political and cultural institutions in ancient Greece. His first book, Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History, was published in 2017 by Princeton University Press. He is currently working on a history of ancient Greek democracies from the Classical to Imperial periods and on a history of ancient demagoguery. Further information can be found at: https://isearch.asu.edu/profile/2148348.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.