Menander of Athens was the foremost representative of Greek New Comedy; he was born in Athens around 342 b.c. and died, allegedly by drowning in the harbour of the Piraeus, around 292 b.c. During his lifetime he wrote around 96 plays, competing with his two main rivals Diphilus and Philemon.
Menander, for a long time, was only known from excerpts quoted in the texts of later writers (like the Theophoroumene fragment below), and from Latin adaptations of the plays made by Plautus and Terence. The ‘Latin Menander’ consists of the following plays: Terence Eunuchus, Andria, Heautontimorumenos and Adelphoe; and Plautus Bacchides, Cistellaria, Stichus and (more doubtfully) Aulularia. Recent developments have allowed us to improve our knowledge of Greek comedy, thus also increasing our understanding of Roman comedy’s autonomy.
At the end of the nineteenth century, scholars began to discover early copies of texts written on vellum and papyrus; among the very earliest finds was a page of a play by Menander, the Phasma. A little later, a large codex was discovered in Cairo with extensive remains of five plays: Hero, Epitrepontes, Perikeiromene, Samia and Fabula Incerta. Samia and Epitrepontes have been extensively supplemented since, the former by a second spectacular find: the Bodmer codex, with one complete play, the Dyskolos, and large portions of Samia (much previously unknown) and Aspis. Numerous other portions of various plays have since been unearthed: Menander is the third commonest writer preserved on papyrus (after Homer and Euripides).
Given this popularity among ancient readers, it is hard to understand quite why Menander’s texts were lost for so long. One theory is that his language was held to be substandard by a group of ancient scholars called the Atticists. They insisted on a rigorous standard of linguistic purity, which they held to be a feature of early comedy (e.g. Aristophanes) but not Menander. An alternative explanation is that Menander became so familiar in pieces of proverbial wisdom that his plays were gradually no longer read (as if no-one read Hamlet anymore even though everyone knows the phrase ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’).
However this may be, we can be grateful that Menander has come to light again: his plays are fresh, ingenious, lively dramas; his characters are drawn subtly and precisely; and his linguistic expression is inventive and realistic. The gaps in his text caused by damage to papyri sometimes make for difficult reading – or provide a classicist’s adventure playground for supplement and speculation!
Lecturer in Classics, St John’s College, Oxford
Theophoroumene fr. 1 | Would you choose a human life or an animal’s?
Contributed by Ben Cartlidge