1902 Encyclopedia > Menander

Ancient Greek dramatist
(ca. 342–291 BC)

MENANDER, the most famous Greek poet of the New Comedy, which prevailed from about the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.) to 250. He was born at Athens in 342, and died, it was said, by drowning in the harbour of that city (Piraeus) in 291. His social tastes induced him to write plays rather for the upper classes, and to raise comedy to a gentility which it had hardly possessed in the hands of the preceding comic poets. He was the associate, if not the pupil, of Theophrastus, who himself had been a disciple of Plato and Aristotle, and he was the intimate friend and admirer of Epicurus; but he also enjoyed the more distinguished patronage of Demetrius Phalereus (who was likewise a pupil of Theophrastus), and of Ptolemy the son of Lagus.[2-1] His principal rival in the art was Philemon, who appears to have been more popular with the multitude, and for that reason probably more successful. It is said that out of a hundred comedies Menander gained the prize with but eight. All the extant plays of Terence, with the exception of the Phormio, are avowedly taken from Menander; but some of them appear to have been adaptations and combinations of more than one plot, although Terence himself says in the prologue to the Adelphi (11) that he copied the Greek model closely, " verbum de verbo expressum extulit." Julius Caesar called Terence dimidiatus Menander, as if two halves of different plays had been fitted into one.[2-2]

The Attic New Comedy, says Dr Wagner,[2-3] "may be designated as essentially domestic," i.e., as opposed to that free discussion of the politics of the day which gave to the Old Comedy the place which is held by the " leading articles " of a modern newspaper. " The stock characters were such as the stern or weak father, the son whose follies are seconded by a slave or a hungry parasite, the pettifogger, active in stirring up law suits, and the gasconading soldier of fortune."[2-4] These and cognate subjects, which formed the stock-in-trade of Menander's plays, are summed up in two well-known lines of Ovid—

"Dum fallax aervus, durus pater, improba lena
Vivet, dum meretrix blanda, Menandros erit."

It is a good remark of Dr Wagner's[2-5] that the last-mentioned of these, the meretrix blanda (which probably refers especially to the Thais), "holds the most important and conspicuous part in the New Attic Comedy, while married ladies are continually represented as the plague and bore of their husbands' lives." Intrigues with these, generally through the medium of a clever confidential slave, are for the most part the very point or pivot on which the plot turns.

The more literary Romans greatly admired Menander as a poet. Pliny (N H., xxx. 1, § 7) speaks of him as "Menander litterarum subtilitati sine eemulo genitus." Propertius, contemplating a visit to Athens,[2-6] anticipates the pleasure of reading Menander in his native city—

"Persequar aut studium linguae, Demosthenis arma,
Libaboque tuos, scite Menandre, sales."

He elsewhere speaks of him as "mundus Menander," neat, terse, and urbane; and his skill in depicting the character of a fascinating Thais is alluded to here and in ii. 6, 3 :—

"Turba Menandreae fuerat nec Thaidos olim
Tanta, in qua populus lusit Erichthonius."

Of this comedy, the Thais, Professor Mahaffy[2-7] remarks that perhaps it was the most brilliant of Menander's plays, "the manners and characters of the personage being painted with thorough experience as well as genius." Nevertheless, only five verses of this play have been preserved to us, one of which is that quoted by St Paul (1 Cor. xv. 33), "Evil communications corrupt good manners." The same critic, in praising Menander's style as the purest model of the New Attic, observes that a remarkable feature of the New Comedy was "its utter avoidance of rhetoric" (p. 489). The influence which this art had on Euripides is well known. Sophocles was not wholly exempt from a kind of rhetorical pedantry, and the speeches in Thucydides are so many exercises of the author in that art. But, as rhetoric pertained essentially to public life, it was likely to have a much less scope in scenes borrowed almost solely from social and domestic experiences.

Menander, however, did not neglect the other branch of a liberal Attic education, — philosophy. A follower and a friend of Epicurus, whose summum bonum was the greatest amount of enjoyment to be got out of life, he carried out in practice what he advocated by precept; for he was essentially the well-to-do gentleman,[2-8] and moved in the upper circles of Athenian society. "The philosophers of the day " (i.e., the schools and universities in our modern systems of teaching) "were still," says Professor Mahaffy, viz., even during the period of the New Comedy, "the constant butt of the dramatists." He adds that, "what is still stranger, political attacks on living personages, not excepting Alexander the Great, were freely and boldly made."

On the whole, our estimate of the spirit and object of Menander must be formed rather from his imitator and copyist Terence than from the fragments which remain, about 2400 verses in all, as collected by Meineke in his Fragmenta Comicorum Graecorum. For, as Professor Mahaffy well observes,[2-10] the extracts made by Athenaeus, our principal authority, have reference chiefly to "the archaeology of cooks and cookery," while Stobaeus was a collector of gnomai [Gk.] or wise maxims, — "a most unfortunate and worthless kind of citation." It follows that no sound conclusions as to dramatic genius, or of the knowledge of human nature, can be drawn from detached verses preserved without the least reference to these particular points. The extraordinary popularity of Menander must have been due to literary merit, if not to great originality. Mr Mahaffy observes on this[2-11] that "there is so much of a calm gentlemanly morality about his fragments, he is so excellent a teacher of the ordinary world-wisdom — resignation, good temper, moderation, friendliness — that we can well understand this popularity. Copies of his plays continued long in existence, and were certainly known to Suidas and Eustathius as late as the 11th and 12th centuries, if they did not survive to a yet later period.[2-12]

In respect of language, Menander occupies the same position in poetry which his contemporary Demosthenes does in prose. In both the New Attic is elaborated with great finish, and with much greater grammatical precision than we find in writers of the Old Attic, such as Sophocles and Thucydides. A considerable addition to the vocabulary of everyday life had now been made, as was indeed inevitable from the versatile character of the language and the genius of the people who used it. Many new verb-forms, especially the perfect active,[2-13] now occur, and indeed form a characteristic innovation of the style of Plato. The earlier prose was in its general vocabulary to a considerable extent poetical, and such a concurrence of short syllables as in the Platonic apodedokimakotes (apodokimazein) [Gk.]
is ill-suited even to choral metre. The Old Comedy was worked by men of real genius, who "were indeed giants, while the men of Menander's day only showed how strong and thorough was the culture which in art and literature outlived the decadence of the nation."[3-1]

In all, we have, as collected by Meineke, 1045 fragments of Menander, of which 515 can be "referred to known plays, the titles of those quoted from amounting to ninety, and including the Terentian Andria, Adelphi, Eunuchus, Heautontimorumenos. These fragments contain about 1650 verses or parts of verses, not including a considerable number of words quoted expressly as from Menander by the old lexicographers. Besides all these there are not fewer than 758 monostich verses separately preserved in MSS., though some of these are met with in the other and longer fragments. Many of the fragments are obscure, some corrupt; and they have been a fertile field for critical acumen from the time of Bentley. Not unfrequently we come upon the shrewd or original remark of an observer. Thus (frag. 7) "A poor man has no relations, for no one acknowledges him, lest he should beg." Frag. 145, "Everything that takes place is brought about by law, necessity, or fashion." 237, " The gods do not save men through any human means (prayer or sacrifices); if they did, the human would have more power than the divine." 275, "Poverty is the most easily cured of all evils ; any friend can do it by merely putting his hand in his pocket." 397, '' A poor man who lives in a large town makes himself more wretched than he need ; for he cannot help comparing with his own the luxurious lives of the rich." 435, "No man realizes the extent of a sin when he commits it; it is afterwards that he sees it." 460, "A man is convinced not so much by what is said as by the manner of saying it." 474, "There is one thing only that hides vulgarity, villainy, and every other fault,—wealth. Everything but that is carped at and criticized." 517, "People who have no merit of their own generally boast of their birth and their ancestors. But every living man has ancestors, or he would not be a living man." 578, " Wealth acts on a man as wind does on a ship, — it often forces him out of his proper course." 663, "Many a young lady says a great deal in her own favour by saying nothing at all." 688, "A man who abuses his own father is practising blasphemy against the gods." In fact, Menander is characteristically a sententious writer, like Euripides, with whom in the general style of his writings, though not, of course, in his somewhat loose and irregular versification, he is sometimes compared. (F. A. P.)


2-1 In allusion to this Pliny writes (N. H., vli. 30, § 111), " Magnum et Menandro in comico socco testimonium regum Aegypti et Macedoniae contigit classe et per legates petito ; majus ex ipso, regiae fortunae praelata litterarum conscientia." This seems to say that Menander had been invited to the courts of Alexander and Ptolemy, as Euripides had been to that of Archelaus, king of Macedonia, but had preferred to write comedies for the Attic stage.

2-2- ' Thus the Andria, Heautontimorumenos, and Hecyra are described severally in the tituli prefixed as Graeca or tota Graeca Menandru. The Eunuch and Timorumenos are each based on two plays of Menander, and the Adelphi was compiled partly from Menander and partly from Diphilus.

2-3 Introduction to Terence, p. 6 (Bell, 1869).

2-4 Professor Jebb, Primer of Greek Literature, p. 101.

2-5 Ut sup., p. 7.

2-6 El., iv. 21 27.

2-7 Hist. Class. Gr. Lit., i. p. 488.

2-8 Pliny calls Menander " diligentissimus luxuriae interpres," N. H., xxxvi. 5.

2-9 Hist. Class. Gr. Lit., i. p. 490.

2-10 Ibid., p. 480.

2-11 Ibid., p. 487.

2-12 Ibid., p. 490.

2-13 A curious example is apektagkasi [Gk.], the transitive perfect of apokteinein [Gk.]. similarly we have the unusual forms kekhreka [Gk.] (frag. 559), epsopheka [Gk.] (727), sugkekhuka [Gk.] (810).

3-1 Mahaffy, Ibid., p. 490.

The above article was written by: F. A. Paley, LL.D.

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