The Classical Quarterly (New Series)


Curbing the Comedians: Cleon Versus Aristophanes and Syracosius' Decree

J. E. Atkinsona1

a1 University of Cape Town

There is a tendency to prune the record of restrictions on the freedom of thought and expression in fifth-century Athens. K. J. Dover has demonstrated that many of the stories of attacks on intellectuals rest on little more than flimsy speculation. Similarly there has been a reluctance to accept the historicity of the several restrictions on comedy recorded by scholiasts. Thus, for example, H. B. Mattingly has expressed doubts about Morychides' decree, and S. Halliwell has rejected Antimachus' decree as a fiction and has adopted an agnostic attitude towards Syracosius' decree. But one cannot sweep all the references aside as fallacious inferences. This short paper looks first at the evidence that Cleon initiated a legal action against Aristophanes (or possibly Callistratus) after the production of the The Babylonians, in the light of what the Old Oligarch wrote about curbs on comedians. Secondly, the historicity of Syracosius' decree will be tested by an attempt to define its nature and purpose in its political context. This exercise will show that circumstantial evidence adduced against the historicity of the decree has no compelling force.