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The Poets of old Comedy

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The loss of Pherecrates’ comedies is a considerable one, as a more representative triad for Old Comedy could well be Cratinus, Pherecrates, and Aristophanes. A victory in 437 (T 2) is recorded; he thus belongs to that group of successful comic poets who immediately precede Aristophanes and Eupolis. Dates are difficult to determine for his lost comedies, since there are so few topical allusions. He seems remarkably absent from the records of the 420s, but his Wild-Men is firmly dated by Athenaeus (T 1 to that comedy) to the Lenaea of 420. I suspect that once comedy returned to five productions after the Peace of 421, Pherecrates, like other poets, got more of a look-in. Certain other comedies (Kitchen, Chiron) have been plausibly dated to the 410s or even later. A career of c. 440–410 would seem reasonable.

Pherecrates is credited with seventeen (T 1) or eighteen (T 4) comedies.We have nineteen titles, and if Metics is actually by Platon and the two Heracles plays (Heracles the Mortal, False Heracles) are the same comedy, that nineteen is nicely reduced to seventeen. The authenticity of three comedies in particular has been disputed, especially by Athenaeus, (Miners, Persians, Chiron), unfortunately so, since they are three of the plays best represented among the remains of Pherecrates. Athenaeus knows of a tradition

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Pherecrates

Pherecrates

that attributed Miners and Chiron to “Nicomachus the rhythmist,” and also assigns Good Men to “Pherecrates or Strattis.” Disputed authorship is nothing unusual for Old Comedy, but it does seem as if Pherecrates’ plays were especially susceptible to suspicions about who wrote them. We might consider a number of possibilities: production by someone other than Pherecrates (but the ancients seem to have been able to ferret out the real author), or perhaps revision by a later poet, either of an unfinished play or one actually produced before. Pollux (2.33) does use the verb “revised” of the plays of Pherecrates.

The ancient critics found in the comedy of Crates and Pherecrates something different from the abusive and topical comedy of Aristophanes and Eupolis that came to be seen as stereotypical of Old Comedy. The anonymous writer on comedy (T 2) makes him an actor and follower of Crates in avoiding personal humour and in writing comedy with strong plotlines. The first claim is certainly borne out by the fragments that we have. Of the nearly three hundred fragments, perhaps ten contain any personal jokes, and none is of the politically charged sort that permeates Aristophanes’ comedy. We do not have enough of the comedies to justify the second judgement. Chiron, the one comedy for which we have any hints about scenes and characters, is confusing in the extreme.

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DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.pherecrates-testimonia_fragments.2011