Hermippus, Comic Testimonia and Fragments

LCL 514: 276-277

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The Poets of Old Comedy


A comic poet of the generation previous to Aristophanes, Hermippus’ career may be dated from the mid-430s to the early 410s. Secure dates are a victory in 435 (T 3) and his Bakery-Women in 420 or 419. If F 47 is from Fates, then that comedy belongs to 430 or 429, and if F 63 is assigned correctly to Basket-Bearers, we can infer a date of 428–425 for that play. The Suda (T 1a) gives him forty titles, but we know of only ten, and rather than assume that the ancients lost all record of three-quarters of his work, the figure of “forty” should be lowered considerably.

Hermippus seems to have been active in other poetic genres. He wrote iambic poems, cited explicitly, and also parōidia, a much more shadowy genre, for which there may have been public performances, even competitions, in fifth-century Athens. Both genres clearly overlap with comedy: iambic for its vigorous and coarse language, also its essential nature of attacking targets, parōidia in that it turned the form and language of serious epic into something humorous. One must always consider whether a fragment attributed only “to Hermippus” might in fact come from an iamb or a parōidia, and keep the counter-consideration in mind that a man who wrote iambics and parōidia might have written comedies in the same style.




He wrote mythological burlesques, his Birth of Athena anticipating the vogue in “birth plays” by about thirty years, as well as an Agamemnon and a Europa. But a strong political strain can also be detected in his comedy. While not totally centred upon the demagogue Hyperbolus, Bakery-Women to some extent continued the development of the demagogue comedy, pioneered by Aristophanes in Knights, enough to arouse Aristophanes’ complaint (T 6), while F 47 is a biting song against Pericles’ conduct of the War. Critics are divided whether the story of the accusation against Aspasia (T 3) is an actual historical fact or something that Hermippus said in a comedy.

The plural titles suggest a strong choral presence in the style of Aristophanes and Cratinus. There are a number of places where Dionysus is known or conjectured plausibly to have been a character—F 36, 77 for certain, perhaps also in Soldiers or Basket-Bearers. Silenus might be the speaker of F 44–45.

Recent bibliography: D. Braund, G&R 41 (1994) 41–48; D. Gilula, in Rivals 75–90; B. Zimmermann, in Rivals 273–76; Harvey, in Rivals 280–84; Pellegrino (Utopie) 195–225.

DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.hermippus-comic_testimonia_fragments.2011