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The Frogs › Ancient History

Definition and Origins

by Donald L. Wasson
published on 28 February 2018
Xanthias from 'The Frogs (The British Museum)

The Frogs is a comedy play by Aristophanes (c. 445 - c. 385 BCE), the most famous of the comic playwrights of ancient Greece. Named after the creatures who composed the play's chorus, it won first prize at the dramatic festival at Lenaea in 405 BCE and, proving to be successful, it would later be performed at the Dionysia festival in Athens.
The play represented the last of the playwright's works written during the turbulent era of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Although he endured prosecution for his continued attacks on the politician Cleon, The Frogs brought Aristophanes public honors for its promotion of Athenian unity. The play tells the story of Dionysos, the patron deity of theater, who complains about the sad state of Athenian drama. In an attempt to save tragedy from a generation of poor writers, Dionysos, disguised as the god Hercules, and his slave Xanthias, descend into Hades to bring Euripides back from the dead - the tragedian had died the previous year. However, before Dionysos can leave Hades and return to Athens, he is persuaded to serve as a judge at Hades' court over a contest between Euripides and Aeschylus as to who was the greatest Athenian tragic poet.


Aristophanes was one of the best examples of the “grace, charm, and scope” of Old Attic Comedy. Unfortunately, his works from this period are the only ones known to exist - only eleven of his plays have survived. Little is known of his early life with even his birthdate unclear. The son of Philippus, he was a native of Athens but owned property on the Greek island of Aegina. He had two sons - one of whom, Aroses, composed a few minor comedies. Classicist Edith Hamilton in her book The Greek Way said that Aristophanes wore the halo of Greece: “Aristophanes' Athens is for the most part inhabited by a most disreputable lot of people, as unplatonic as possible” (101). All of Athenian life could be seen in his plays: its politics, politicians, complaining taxpayers, fiscal reforms and the city ’s general disgust at the on-going war between Athens and Sparta. “All was food for his mockery” ( ibid ). Athens was a city of unrest. Residents were confined to the city as Spartan armies loomed nearby. People were outraged at their ineffective leadership in both city government and on the battlefield. All of this served as ammunition for Aristophanes' plays.


By the time Aristophanes began to write, Greek drama was in serious decline. Euripides was dead and Sophocles would die before the play was completed. However, as in tragedy, much of the presentation of a play remained the same: there were three or four actors (sometimes more) who wore grotesque masks and costumes as well as a chorus of 24 - even the chorus wore masks. Unlike tragedy, a comedy's purpose was to present beautifully written poetry while securing a laugh. Although Aristophanes is sometimes condemned for bringing tragedy down from the high level of Aeschylus, his plays, with their simplicity and vulgarity, were recognized and appreciated for their rich fantasy as well as bawdiness, gaiety, and satire. His comedy was a masterful blend of risqué wit and invention. According to Norman Cantor in his book Antiquity, his plays reflected the conservative opinions of the Athenian people who valued not only society's old simplicity but its morality, too.
Greek Comedy Mask

Greek Comedy Mask

Aristophanes was an observer of Athenian society. David Barrett in his translation of Aristophanes said that the tension between the old and the new in Athens appears prominently in The Frogs and, like his predecessor Euripides, this change - the anti-war tension and political unrest - could be seen throughout his plays. Since his comedies often contained a theme of peace, many were led to believe he was a pacifist. Aristophanes' observations of his fellow Athenians and the city's poor leadership made him a staunch opponent of war. As a whole, his plays were used to ridicule politicians as well as philosophers: the statesman Cleon was a favorite recipient of his satire while Socrates was depicted as a traitor. Mythologyand theology did not escape his scorn either - gods were often portrayed as both foolish and spineless.


The Frogs has a rather large cast of characters:
  • Dionysos
  • Xanthias
  • Hercules
  • Euripides
  • Aeschylus
  • Hades
  • Charon (ferryman of the dead)
  • Aeacus (doorkeeper of Hades)
  • two landladies
  • a maid
  • a slave
  • and two choruses - one of initiates and one of frogs.


Meeting Hercules
The play opens with Dionysos and his servant Xanthias arriving at Hercules' home. In a futile attempt to disguise himself as Hercules, Dionysos is dressed in a yellow robe covered by a lion-skin. Hercules opens the door and begins to laugh at Dionysus' attire.
Sorry, friend, I couldn't help it. A lion-skin over a yellow negligee! What's going on? Why the high-heel boots?Why the club? What's your regiment? (Barrett, 135)
They ask Hercules how he had made his way into Hades and explain they hoped to bring back Euripides from the dead.Dionysos explains, “I need a poet who can really write. Nowadays it seems like many are gone, and those that live are bad.” (136). Hercules responds by naming a number of capable, young poets (Iophon and Agathon) but Dionysos contends that none of them is genuine. “…insignificant squeakers, twittering like a choir of swallows. A disgrace to their calling.” (137). He adds, “I defy you to find a genuine poet among the whole lot of them, one who can coin a memorable line” (137). In order to restore Athenian tragedy, he must go to Hades and bring back Euripides. So, what's the best way to get to there? Trying to scare the deity, Hercules tells him of the possible terrors: snakes, wild beasts, the Great Mire of Filth and the Eternal Stream of Dung. His warnings, though, have little effect.
Statuette of Hades

Statuette of Hades

Traveling to Hades
Dionysos leaves and arrives at a large lake where Charon, the ferryman, escorts him across to Hades. Xanthias arrives by another, longer route. While on the boat, Dionysos, who had to help row, continually complains about his “sore bottom” and his blisters. He gets into a heated argument with a chorus of frogs - singing frogs that refuse to be silenced: "Now listen, you lyrical twerps, I don't give a damn for your burps” (144).
As they move away from the lake, they are approached by a singing and dancing chorus of initiates, chanting hymns to Demeter, Persephone, and Iacchus. The two travelers decide to join the dance but finally interrupt to ask for and receive, directions to Hades' home. At the palace door of Hades, they (Dionysos still being disguised as Hercules) are greeted by Aeacus, the doorkeeper. Fearful, Dionysos exchanges clothes with Xanthias. After an altercation with a landlady over who exactly is who, the doorkeeper decides to let Hades and Persephone determine who is the god and who the servant.
Euripides v. Aeschylus
Later, Xanthias and a slave begin to talk. They overhear shouting coming from inside Hades' home. The slave tells him that there is trouble in Hades:
Well, there's a custom down here that applies to all the fine arts and skilled professions: whoever's the best in each discipline has the right to his dinner in the Great Hall with his own chair of honor? (164).
Xanthias learns that Aeschylus had the chair but now Euripides has challenged him for it. It seems he appealed to all the cut-throats and murderers for support. So, Hades decided to have a contest between Euripides and Aeschylus - Sophocles had renounced any claim. Scales are soon brought in: “…. It's all got to be measured properly, with rulers, yardsticks, compasses, and wedges, and god knows what else” (165). When Xanthias inquired about the judge of the contest, the slave said it would be difficult to find someone clever enough in Hades, and Aeschylus didn't see eye to eye with any Athenians.


The contest begins with Euripides' verbal assaults on Aeschylus:
I saw through him years ago, All that rugged grandeur --- it's all so uncultivated and unrestrained. No subtlety whatsoever. Just a torrent of verbiage… (166)
Aeschylus responds that his plays have lived on while Euripides' died with him. Throughout the contest, the two poets make references to their plays. Euripides says, “I wrote about everyday things, things the audience know about and could take up on if necessary. I didn't try to bludgeon them into submission with long words” (171). He believed he added logic to his drama.Aeschylus says that it pained him to have to answer verbal attacks but in frustration, he finally asks Euripedes what qualities does one look for in a good poet. The reply: to teach people to be better citizens. Aeschylus responded:
My heroes weren't like these marketplace loafers, delinquents and rogues they write about nowadays. They were real heroes, breathing spears and lances… (172)
Aeschylus the Winner
Finally, Aeschylus grows tired of the contest and asks for the test of the scales. Dionysos looks at both men:
I came down here for a poet. What for? To save a city, of course! Otherwise there won't be any more drama festivals - and then where would I be?...I'll judge between you on this score alone. I shall select the man my soul desires. (188)
In the end, Dionysos chooses Aeschylus. Of course, feeling betrayed, Euripides calls him a traitor: “You leave me here to stay deceased” (189). As they leave the palace Hades bids Aeschylus goodbye and advises him to “educate the fools” (189).Aeschylus walks away, telling Hades to keep that lying foul-mouthed rogue out of his chair.


Aristophanes was the last of the great playwrights of Old Attic Comedy. His acerbic wit can even be seen in Plato ’s Symposium where he discusses the origin of the species of man. One unique aspect of The Frogs concerns the tragedian Sophocles who died during the writing of the play. Aristophanes was forced to make several quick changes. Like his contemporaries, Aristophanes used his plays to critique Athenian society: its political unrest and involvement in the war against Sparta. In his book The Classical Greeks, Michael Grant says that Aristophanes wrote The Frogs during a time when military and political power in the city was on the verge of collapse. In an attempt to escape the world he sends Dionysos to Hades. He adds that his plays contain assaults on Athenian political figures but also a plea for peace. Although often criticized for their bawdiness and risqué tone, Aristophanes plays were popular among the Athenian audiences. His plays remained appreciated and admired for years after his death, influenced Hellenistic and Roman comedy, and are still regularly performed today.

Athenian Democracy › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 03 April 2018
Athens Acropolis ()

Athens in the 5th to 4th century BCE had an extraordinary system of government: democracy. Under this system, all male citizens had equal political rights, freedom of speech, and the opportunity to participate directly in the political arena. Further, not only did citizens participate in a direct democracy whereby they themselves made the decisions by which they lived, but they also actively served in the institutions that governed them, and so they directly controlled all parts of the political process.


Other city -states had, at one time or another, systems of democracy, notably Argos, Syracuse, Rhodes, and Erythrai. In addition, sometimes even oligarchic systems could involve a high degree of political equality, but the Athenian version, starting from c. 460 BCE and ending c. 320 BCE and involving all male citizens, was certainly the most developed.


The contemporary sources which describe the workings of democracy typically relate to Athens and include such texts as the Constitution of the Athenians from the School of Aristotle ; the works of the Greek historians Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon ; texts of over 150 speeches by such figures as Demosthenes ; inscriptions in stone of decrees, laws, contracts, public honours and more; and Greek Comedy plays such as those by Aristophanes. Unfortunately, sources on the other democratic governments in ancient Greece are few and far between. This being the case, the following remarks on democracy are focussed on the Athenians.


The word democracy ( dēmokratia ) derives from dēmos, which refers to the entire citizen body, and kratos, meaning rule.Any male citizen could, then, participate in the main democratic body of Athens, the assembly ( ekklēsia ). In the 4th and 5th centuries BCE the male citizen population of Athens ranged from 30,000 to 60,000 depending on the period. The assembly met at least once a month, more likely two or three times, on the Pnyx hill in a dedicated space which could accommodate around 6000 citizens. Any citizen could speak to the assembly and vote on decisions by simply holding up their hands. The majority won the day and the decision was final. Nine presidents ( proedroi ), elected by lot and holding the office one time only, organised the proceedings and assessed the voting.
Ostrakon for Pericles

Ostrakon for Pericles

Specific issues discussed in the assembly included deciding military and financial magistracies, organising and maintaining food supplies, initiating legislation and political trials, deciding to send envoys, deciding whether or not to sign treaties, voting to raise or spend funds, and debating military matters. The assembly could also vote to ostracise from Athens any citizen who had become too powerful and dangerous for the polis. In this case there was a secret ballot where voters wrote a name on a piece of broken pottery ( ostrakon ). An important element in the debates was freedom of speech ( parrhēsia ) which became, perhaps, the citizen's most valued privilege. After suitable discussion, temporary or specific decrees ( psēphismata ) were adopted and laws ( nomoi ) defined. The assembly also ensured decisions were enforced and officials were carrying out their duties correctly.
There was in Athens (and also Elis, Tegea, and Thasos) a smaller body, the boulē, which decided or prioritised the topics which were discussed in the assembly. In addition, in times of crisis and war, this body could also take decisions without the assembly meeting. The boulē or council was composed of 500 citizens who were chosen by lot and who served for one year with the limitation that they could serve no more than two non-consecutive years. The boulē represented the 139 districts of Attica and acted as a kind of executive committee of the assembly. It was this body which supervised any administrative committees and officials on behalf of the assembly.


Then there was also an executive committee of the boulē which consisted of one tribe of the ten which participated in the boulē (ie, 50 citizens, known as prytaneis ) elected on a rotation basis, so each tribe composed the executive once each year.This executive of the executive had a chairman ( epistates ) who was chosen by lot each day. The 50-man prytany met in the building known as the Bouleuterion in the Athenian agora and safe-guarded the sacred treasuries.
In tandem with all these political institutions were the law courts ( dikasteria ) which were composed of 6,000 jurors and a body of chief magistrates ( archai ) chosen annually by lot. Indeed, there was a specially designed machine of coloured tokens ( kleroterion ) to ensure those selected were chosen randomly, a process magistrates had to go through twice. It was here in the courts that laws made by the assembly could be challenged and decisions were made regarding ostracism, naturalization, and remission of debt.


This complex system was, no doubt, to ensure a suitable degree of checks and balances to any potential abuse of power, and to ensure each traditional region was equally represented and given equal powers. With people chosen at random to hold important positions and with terms of office strictly limited, it was difficult for any individual or small group to dominate or unduly influence the decision-making process either directly themselves or, because one never knew exactly who would be selected, indirectly by bribing those in power at any one time.


As we have seen, only male citizens who were 18 years or over could speak (at least in theory) and vote in the assembly, whilst the positions such as magistrates and jurors were limited to those over 30 years of age. Therefore, women, slaves, and resident foreigners ( metoikoi ) were excluded from the political process.
The mass involvement of all male citizens and the expectation that they should participate actively in the running of the polis is clear in this quote from Thucydides:
We alone consider a citizen who does not partake in politics not only one who minds his own business but useless.
Illustrating the esteem in which democratic government was held, there was even a divine personification of the ideal of democracy, the goddess Demokratia. Direct involvement in the politics of the polis also meant that the Athenians developed a unique collective identity and probably too, a certain pride in their system, as shown in Pericles ' famous Funeral Oration for the Athenian dead in 431 BCE, the first year of the Peloponnesian War :
Athens' constitution is called a democracy because it respects the interests not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. (Thuc. 2.37)
Although active participation was encouraged, attendance in the assembly was paid for in certain periods, which was a measure to encourage citizens who lived far away and could not afford the time off to attend. This money was only to cover expenses though, as any attempt to profit from public positions was severely punished. Citizens probably accounted for 10-20% of the polis population, and of these it has been estimated that only 3,000 or so people actively participated in politics. Of this group, perhaps as few as 100 citizens - the wealthiest, most influential, and the best speakers - dominated the political arena both in front of the assembly and behind the scenes in private conspiratorial political meetings ( xynomosiai ) and groups ( hetaireiai ). These groups had to meet secretly because although there was freedom of speech, persistent criticism of individuals and institutions could lead to accusations of conspiring tyranny and so lead to ostracism.
Greek Bronze Ballot Disks

Greek Bronze Ballot Disks

Critics of democracy, such as Thucydides and Aristophanes, pointed out that not only were proceedings dominated by an elite, but that the dēmos could be too often swayed by a good orator or popular leaders (the demagogues), get carried away with their emotions, or lack the necessary knowledge to make informed decisions. Perhaps the most notoriously bad decisions taken by the Athenian dēmos were the execution of six generals after they had actually won the battle of Arginousai in 406 BCE and the death sentence given to the philosopher Socrates in 399 BCE.


Democracy, which had prevailed during Athens' Golden Age, was replaced by a system of oligarchy after the disastrous Athenian defeat in Sicily in 409 BCE. The constitutional change, according to Thucydides, seemed the only way to win much-needed support from Persia against the old enemy Sparta and, further, it was thought that the change would not be a permanent one. Nevertheless, democracy in a slightly altered form did eventually return to Athens and, in any case, the Athenians had already done enough in creating their political system to eventually influence subsequent civilizations two millennia later.
In the words of historian KA Raaflaub, democracy in ancient Athens was
a unique and truly revolutionary system that realized its basic principle to an unprecedented and quite extreme extent: no polis had ever dared to give all its citizens equal political rights, regardless of their descent, wealth, social standing, education, personal qualities, and any other factors that usually determined status in a community.
Ideals such as these would form the cornerstones of all democracies in the modern world. The ancient Greeks have provided us with fine art, breath-taking temples, timeless theatre, and some of the greatest philosophers, but it is democracy which is, perhaps, their greatest and most enduring legacy.
Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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