Essay by desipryde September 2006

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All the extant comedies of the fifth century B.C. belonged to one man, Aristophanes. On his shoulders alone rests the reputation of an entire age of comedy. Fortunately, by most accounts Aristophanes was the greatest comic writer of his days. Aristophanes was born in 448 BC.

By the time Aristophanes began to write his comedies, democracy had already begun to sour for the Athenians. The people were increasingly demoralized by the ongoing conflicts of the Peloponnesian War and the loss of their greatest hero, Pericles, had been taken from them and replaced by unscrupulous politicians such as Cleon and Hyperbolus. So it is such little wonder why Aristophanes' comedy grew such rapidly even from the beginning, with tones of apprehension and grief.

Aristophanes' first two comedies, The Banqueters and The Babylonians had been lost by either the warfare or plundered. His first surviving play, The Acharnians, was written in the sixth year of the War and, coincidentally, happens to be the world's first anti-war comedy.

After the play Lysistrata, Aristophanes had given up on politics. It would have taken another nineteen years before he could again devote an entire play to a political issue, and by that time it had become extremely dangerous to ridicule the state policies. So Athens had long since been crushed by the Spartans and its liberties had decreased significantly, from the fear of the Spartans. It was during this violent period that Socrates was put to death. Luckily however, Aristophanes did not have to hold his tongue for long. Three years after the production of Plutus, Aristophanes had passed away, leaving behind approximately forty plays, eleven of which have survived to this day.