One of the canonical Three of Old Comedy along with Eupolis and Aristophanes, Cratinus was the great poet of the generation before Aristophanes, and it may well have been he that developed Old Comedy into a vigorous and imaginative dramatic form, employing both political themes and personal jokes against contemporary figures (to onomasti kōmōidein). The beginning of his career is usually set in the mid-450s (see T 4 and T 7), where his name comes on the list of victors at the Dionysia two places after Euphronius, for whom we can place a victory in 458. The reference to the 85th Olympiad in T 3 is either a mistake or, more likely, reflects his first victory at the Lenaea (see T 8). The joke in Aristophanes’ Peace (421–T 3, T 11e) about his death during the first Spartan invasion of 431 is chronologically impossible, but may still indicate that he died soon after his victory in 423 at the Dionysia with Wine-Flask (see T 2 to that comedy).
The Suda (T 1) assigns him twenty-one plays. We have as many as twenty-nine titles, although the actual existence of some is doubtful, e.g., Dionysuses (confused with Dionysalexander?), Blazers, Men of Laconia, Dramatic Rehearsals, Men of Ida (for some an alternative title of Dionysalexander). We have fragments assigned for twenty-two plays, plus two titles known only from the records of the
festivals preserved in the hypotheses to plays by Aristophanes (T 9a, 9b). We can work with a total of twenty-four comedies in a career that lasted from c. 454–423.
Aristophanes treats Cratinus with an apparent mixture of respect and disdain, although we must always be careful of compliments in comedy, as they are often made in irony to set up the later joke. Thus in Knights (T 11d) the underlying point is that Cratinus used to be a great comic poet, expressed in terms of a common image in Greek poetry, the writer as a flowing river, but now—as he is competing with Aristophanes at L-424—he is past his prime and should be sitting as a spectator, not producing inferior comedies. Cratinus would make a devastating reply with Wine-Flask the next year, in 423, turning Aristophanes’ dismissal on its head, making himself his own chief character in a comedy about Comedy, and thus winning the first prize. Some later sources see his comedy as effective and vigorous, but roughly shaped and not maintaining a coherent plot or consistent comic level (see T 25, 31, 35). What we know of Dionysalexander and Wine-Flask suggests otherwise.
Cratinus is particularly associated with personal humour. As Platonius puts it (T 25), he is “an emulator of Archilochus,” and notice the term “enemies” in T 11d. This is more than just a conclusion drawn from the first title alphabetically