Cratinus was a highly successful writer of Attic Old Comedy, but the very fragmentary nature of his surviving plays means that he is not as well remembered as Aristophanes (eleven of whose plays come down to us intact). Despite this, it is possible to uncover significant information regarding this sometimes forgotten comic poet by looking at his own comic fragments, what Aristophanes says about Cratinus in his plays, and by using later sources and records.
Little is known of Cratinus' life, but we do know that he lived to be around 100 years old; his death occurred sometime between 423 BCE, when his last play the Pytine (the 'wine flask'/ 'bottle') was performed, and 421 BCE, the year in which Aristophanes’ Peace was produced. His long life span is known through references in the works of later writers. Further, it is known that Cratinus was very fond of wine. This habit of excessive drinking was exploited as outright alcoholism by other comic poets and even used by Cratinus himself as the theme for his play Pytine.
Aristophanes makes reference to both Cratinus’ death and his fondness for wine in his play Peace, 700-704:
And what about wise Cratinus? Is he still about?
He died about the time of the Spartan invasion [which was in 425 BCE].
What did he suffer?
He swooned away. For he could not hold up once he saw his pithos [a large jar for storing wine], which was filled with wine, smashed to pieces.
Cratinus was credited with nine victories: six first places at the City Dionysia and three first places at the Lenaia. These were Athenian religious festivals at which dramatic competitions occurred. Cratinus lost twice to Aristophanes (Lenaia of 425 and 424 BCE), and this perhaps led to Aristophanes confidently mocking Cratinus’ diminished skills at Knights, 526-536, most likely the play which Cratinus lost out to in 424 BCE. Below is a selection of what the Chorus says about Cratinus; there are more insults in the full passage:
Cratinus, who once flowed with much praise… now you see him talking nonsense, you do not pity him, he has a faded crown and is dying of thirst (Aristophanes Knights 526 ff.).
But despite such mocking words, Aristophanes was soundly defeated the next year (423 BCE) when Cratinus’ Pytine came first and Aristophanes’ Clouds came third (last). It is amusing to see that, in its most light-hearted form, there was clearly some kind of ongoing bantering between the two comic rivals, and that in their more direct addresses, there is a clear intertextual dialogue between Cratinus' and Aristophanes' plays.
Cratinus was still very popular in spite of Aristophanes’ mocking. As Aristophanes produced his first play in 427 BCE (Banqueters), their careers only overlapped by about five years and so their rivalry for victories at festivals would have been an ongoing component of both their careers.
Cratinus’ language was compared to Aeschylus’ by the anonymous author of the De Comoedia (Prolegomenon to Comedy 3), but we do not know on what grounds. Many of Cratinus’ plays had mythological titles and acted as allegories against Pericles, who was often identified with Zeus (both being respective heads of state).
Twenty-nine titles of Cratinus’ plays are extant, though some might be double titles; the Suda for example (a Byzantine encyclopedia) says that he wrote twenty-one plays. His career probably started in the 450s BCE, but the earliest victory that we know of dates to 440-39 or 437-46 BCE, when he won the Lenaia.
The plays which we know the most about are the Pytine and Dionysiosalexandros, but fragments of some of his other plays exist, too. In total there survive over 500 fragments from the works of Cratinus.
This play was produced in 423 BCE. Twenty-four fragments of the Pytine have survived, but despite this, one of our best sources for the plot of this play was written by an ancient scholar as a note to line 400 of Aristophanes’ Knights; it is a testimonia of the play. The Scholiast wrote that Cratinus’ Pytine was:
about himself and his drunkenness, making use of a plot of the following sort. He represented Comedy as his wife, who wanted to give up living with him and had got the right to bring a suit against him for abuse. But Cratinus’ friends, when they encountered her, asked her not to do anything rash and enquired about the cause of her hostility; she complained that he was no longer writing comedies but spending his time getting drunk.
Opinion is divided as to if the character who represented Cratinus actually went by that name, or even how the play finished. Another fragment preserves a measure to stop Cratinus’ drinking:
I will smash his pitchers and crush and blast his decanters and all the other drinking vessels that he has, and he won’t have even a vinegar saucer left for his wine.
We can learn more about the details of the play from another note made on Aristophanes Knights 531, which says of the Pytine:
In it he [Cratinus] attacks Aristophanes for using Eupolis’ material.
Here we can see interconnections between three big Athenian comedians. It also shows that, while the Pytine is seen as a self-parodying response to Aristophanes’ criticism, Cratinus was more than willing to make his own overt criticisms of Aristophanes as well. Seemingly such a comedic cocktail made the play a hit performance. The play contains the now famous line:
You’ll never fashion anything clever by drinking water!
A nearly intact hypothesis (synopsis) for this play survives on a fragment of papyrus from the famous Egyptian site of Oxyrhynchus. It is likely that this is one of the plays which had a double title. The papyrus had the title of the play at the top and breaks off just after the Greek word for ‘or’: if just a few inches more of the papyrus fragment had survived, it would probably have informed us what this alternative title was.
. . . judgement, Hermes goes away, and they make some remarks to the spectators about the poets; and after Dionysus appears, they make fun of him and jeer him. After Hera offers him unshakable royal power, Athena offers him courage in war, and Aphrodite offers that he be the best-looking and most sexually attractive man there is, he judges her the winner. After this, he sails to Sparta and takes Helen away, and returns to Ida; shortly thereafter he hears that the Achaeans are laying the country waste and looking for Alexandros. He hides Helen as quickly as he can in a basket, changes his own appearance to make himself look like a ram, and waits for what will happen next. After Alexandros appears and catches them, he orders (his men) to take them both to the ships to turn them over to the Achaeans. But when Helen is reluctant, he pities her and detains her to be his wife; but he sends Dionysus off to be surrendered. The satyrs follow along, encouraging (him) and saying that they will not abandon him. Pericles is made fun of quite persuasively in the play via innuendo for having brought the war on the Athenians.
Cratinus' Other Plays & Fragments
Below follow the titles of Cratinus’ other plays and some of the fragments ascribed to them. The fragments show just how difficult it is to draw conclusions about a play with only a few out-of-context lines.
The title probably refers to Archilochus and his followers or poets in the style of Archilochus, rather than a multitude of duplicate Archilochuses. Archilochus was an early Greek lyric poet. Two of the survivng fragments are below:
What a swarm of sophists you lot have swirled up!
…where what they call the seat and the gaming-board of great Zeus are.
This title perhaps refers to its chorus, who might have been cow-herds. One of the surviving fragments of this play preserves a Greek proverb:
A danger in Caria! It seems it falls to me to make the first attempt…
(a ‘Carian danger’ was proverbial for letting someone disposable take a risk.)
Apollodorus 2.116 ff. preserves the myth of Busiris, an Egyptian King who sacrificed strangers at an altar of Zeus. We know that Euripides wrote a satyr play called Busiris too: the myth was a popular one to write about. Otherwise, we know nothing of the plot.
Thucydides 3.104 narrates the Athenian purification of Delos in 426 BCE and how they reinstated the rituals, games, and competitions that had previously taken place there. Such festival activities took place on the island every five years. The title of this play probably refers to a chorus of maidens who performed in this context. If the title does refer to the events of 426 BCE, then the play came very late in Cratinus’ career.
DRAMATIC REHEARSALS/ LIST OF DRAMATIC FESTIVALS/ DRAMATIC PRODUCTIONS
There is only one quotation from this comedy, and the title of it could have various meanings.
DIONYSUSES (possibly an alternative title for DIONYSOSALEXANDROS)
let the person who wins be him who says what is most desirable for the city.
The title in Greek clearly means female run-aways, but one of the fragments refers to a plural group of effeminate men, which might suggest that gender types form part of the comedy of the play. However, toilet humour, ever popular in Old Comedy, was still used:
When I found Cercyon taking a poo in the vegetable plot, I gave him a throttling!
MEN ON FIRE possibly the same play as MEN OF IDA
Very little can be said about either of these plays, particularly if they are alternative names for the same play or not.
EUMENIDES possibly the same play as SONS OF EUNEUS
‘Sons of Euneus’ could possibly either refer to Euneus (the great-grandson of Dionysos) or the genos (clan) of musicians in Athens who went by that name. There is a link between the Euneidae (sons of Euneus) and the theatre, and Dionysos more generally:
[The seat of] The priest of Dionysus Melpomenus, from the Euneidae.
(Written on a seat in the theatre of Dionysus: IG II2 5056.)
One of the most interesting fragments of this play is preserved at Plutarch Pericles13.9:
This onion-headed Zeus comes, Pericles, he has the Odeion on his head, since the ostracism is gone.
Nevertheless we cannot say too much for certain about this fragment. Pericles is referred to as Zeus, and the jokes make fun of Pericles’ famously large forehead, it would seem. To which ostrascism the fragment refers has been hotly debated, but never agreed upon.
THE MEN OF LACONIA
Very little is known about this play.
The Greek word for this play is 'malthakos', which can be translated as ‘soft.' The word has connotations of being cowardly, unmanly, or effeminate: in Athenaeus 685c the chorus of ‘softies’ is quoted describing the multitude of flowers that they wear:
I crown my head with all sorts of flowers: lilies, roses, white lilies, larkspur, violets, and bergamot, mint, the spring buds of anemones, tufted thyme, crocuses, hyacinths, and sprays of helichryse, vine flowers, the lovely daylily, and a tuft of narcissus, and with the ever-watchful honey clover I wreathe my brow. On its own from Medon comes a medick blossom.
We can figure out more about the plot of Nemesis than some of the previous fragmentary plays. This play seems to be a lampoon of the myth of Zeus and Nemesis, where Nemesis tried to avoid Zeus’ advances by metamorphosing into various animals, finally a swan (she then births Helen of Troy). Plutarch Pericles 3.5, quotes the passage “come, Zeus, god of guests and of the head" as referring to Pericles and his prominent forehead. Therefore, this play might have allusions to Pericles, in a similar way to how Cratinos alluded to Pericles in Dionysosalexandros.
It is likely that the title of this play refers to its chorus, probably of personified laws represented as old men. Photius preserves the lines:
...old men, very ancient, have made their way along gingerly with their sticks....
...each one of you is a bribe-taking fox.
The latter might reasonably be a parody of a fragment of Solon:
each of you walks like a fox.
Platonius I On the Different Sorts of Comedy, says that Cratinus’ Odysseuses is like Middle Comedy because it does not have choral songs or parabases, and because “it contains no personal humour, but only a spoof of Homer’s Odyssey.
Athenaeus 446b preserves a line from the play, with Odysseus saying (to presumably the Cyclops):
Now take and drink this, then ask me my name.
This probably relates to Odyssesus getting the Cyclops drunk, and the ‘Nobody’ incident. And Athenaeus 385c probably quotes from the part of the story when the Cyclops eats Odysseus’ comrades:
In return for which I shall seize all you “loyal comrades,” roast you, boil you, barbecue and bake you, dip you into brine and vinegar and warm garlic sauce, and whichever of you soldiers all appears to be the best cooked, that’s the one I shall munch down.
Argus, the hundred headed guardian of Io, might be to whom the title of the play refers to. It is assumed then that the chorus might have been a group of Agruses representing contemporary philosophers. ‘Two-headed’ was a term used by Parmenides for the followers of Heraclitus and a scholiast to Aristophanes Clouds 95 states that:
Cratinus says this earlier in his play All-Seeing Ones, making fun of Hippon the philosopher [referring to the sky as a dish covering the earth mentioned by Strepsiades at Clouds 94-5].
The chorus of this play was made up of Titans named Ploutoi ('wealth-gods'), who have broken free. They presumably come to Athens, looking for an old and frail relative. The Ploutoi are also sorting out those Athenians who possess unjust wealth. Part of this play is preserved with a series of others at Athenaeus Deipnosophistai 6.267e to 270a. The passage are chosen were chosen for the Deipnosophistai becase they apparently show that in the far past there was no slavery, however, there is no ostentatious lack of slavery in these passages as a whole.
While the title of this play is particularly unilluminating, some of the fragments of this play offer some interesting insights as to the behaviour of an old comic chorus.
The title ‘pylaea’ literally means ‘at the gates’, and is known to be a cult title of Demeter at Thermopylae (which itself literally means 'hot-gates'). The word ‘pylaea’ is used much later by Plutarch in the 2nd c AD to mean a ‘bizzarre collection,’ in which case the title might refer to a chorus of ill fitting indiviudals, or maybe a gathering of odd individuals: more generally though it might imply some kind of ‘hodgepodge’.
The Scholiast to Plato Symposium 174b quotes from the Pylaea:
And here we are, just like that ancient saying that good men make their way naturally to the feast of clever spectators.
Which suggests that Cratinus’ chorus were involved in metatheatrical addresses, as can be seen in Aristophanes’ plays. And the Scholiast to Aristophanes Peace 733 says of the play that:
Cratinus makes it clear in Pylaea that the chorus has six ranks.
Ths means that we should imagine that, at least in this play, the comic chorus (of 24 members) was divided into six rows of four people, and having a rectangular shape. Very much unlike the circular choruses involved in dithyramb.
All we know of this play comes from a hypothesis to Aristophanes Knights, where it is commented that Satyrs came second to Knights in 424 BCE. We can then perhaps assume that Cratinus himself was in the audience, or at the very least was present to hear, Aristophanes’ lampooning insults at Knights, line 526-36.
MEN OF SERIPHOS
Seriphus was an island linked with the hero Perseus, and references to certain aspects of the Perseus myth are preserved in some of the fragments. The play is presumably an adaption of this myth in some form. A survey of the politicians and comedians that are mentioned in the play helps to roughly date its production to 429-425 BCE.
The title of this play refers to the oracle located at Trophonius, which was in Lebadeia, Boeotia, near the Copaic lake. This oracle was on the main road to Delphi, and was often frequented by those on their way to Delphi (so that they could have another opinion on the question they wanted answering). Other than the name of the play, not much can be said for certain. These two fragments might offer insights as to the cult activities of the oracle:
Hail, deities who guard Lebadeia, Boeotia’s fertile plain.
Do the sword dance, do the foot dance, do the twist.
Like Cratinus’ Satyrs, all that is known about this play indirectly learnt from information on Aristophanes, in this case, his Acharnians. Tempest-tossed Men came second at the 425 BCE Leneia, behind Aristophanes and ahead of Eupolis’ New-moons. The title ‘tempest-tossed’, is also metaphorical for ‘to be in trouble.’
Chiron, a centaur, was the mythological tutor of a multitude of Greek heroes, and in this play the chorus is formed of a group of chirons. As was popular in old comedy, it seems that this play dealt with the ‘old and the ‘new.’ the play dates most likely from 436-432 BCE.
even to wise mortals Music carries unceasing feelings...
Life in the past was happy for mortals as compared to now. Men led a life, gentle in mind with sweet-speaking wisdom, most beautiful of mortals.
This play probably dates to around 428-426 BCE. while it is hard to say anything about the plot, the play might have touched upon musical or dramatic issues of the day, as winessed by some of the surviving fragments.
Cratinus’ comedic interests would probably not be too out of place in modern comedic circles, but it was perhaps Cratinus’ harsh and direct political satire, directly relevant to the classical Athenian public, which meant that his plays did not survive through later generations. Just imagine trying to watch an episode of The Daily Show, or any other modern political satire, without understanding the allusions. If one were to view such shows with no understanding of their context, much of the humour would be lost.
We can only wonder and hypothesize as to the plots of many of Cratinus’ plays, but it seems clear throughout that he was willing to make cutting political satire. He was also able to pioneer comedic techniques, with word-play and innuendo, as well as dramatic elusion being staples of his plays. However his self-satire in the Pytine, a dramatic victory at the end of his life, was perhaps what most Athenians remembered him for.
Even though Cratinus’ plays did not survive him to reach us intact, over 500 fragments of his plays survive and, even as late as the 10th century CE, the entry of ‘Cartinus’ in the Suda recalls his once great renown, and is perhaps as good a summary the great Athenian comic playwright as any:
Son of Kallimedes; an Athenian; a writer of comedy. His style was brilliant, but he was addicted to drinking and a slave to the love of boys.
He belonged to the Old Comedy.
He wrote 21 plays, and won with 9.