Friday, November 25, 2022

The Girl from Samos by Menander - I don’t think any one individual is better at birth than any other

It’s our last plays, the last surviving Greek play, The Girl from Samos (315 BCE) by Menander.  How tastes, or circumstances, had changed in the seventy years since Wealth, our last Aristophanes play.  The political and social satire is gone, the sexual and scatological jokes are gone, and the specificity of the Athenian moment is replaced by type characters and domestic conflicts.  Comedy has mixed with melodrama – the influence of the “romantic” strain of Euripides is as strong as that of Aristophanes – and the result would not be out of place on American television.

I mean, the conflict in The Girl from Samos is over a baby.  Imagine the great Greek dramatists worrying about some ordinary man’s baby.  Here we have, depicted in a mosaic, the baby itself, carried by the Girl from Samos.  We are in Act III where they are expelled from their home because of the usual misunderstanding which will be cleared up by Act V.  I know we are in Act III of The Girl from Samos because that is literally written in the mosaic.

This example belongs to a set of seven scenes from Menander that can be found in the House of Menander in Mytilene on Lesbos, not to be confused with the House of Menander at Pompeii.  In fact there are many extant mosaics depicting scenes from Menander’s plays.  He was enormously popular for centuries.  The Mytilene mosaics are like from the fourth century CE, six hundred years after Menander, like someone today decorating a home with scenes from Shakespeare.

I noted that the direct political satire of Aristophanes is long gone, suppressed perhaps by censorship (Athenian democracy is also long gone) as much as changing tastes.  But domestic comedy is also inherently satirical, critiquing familial and social arrangements.  Here Moschion, the father of that (currently illegitimate) baby, critiques the notion of illegitimacy:

MOSCHION:        I don’t think any

One individual is better at

Birth than any other. If you look at it

Rightly, it’s the moral man who is

Legitimate, the immoral who is

Illegitimate, and a slave.  This is

What Diogenes says, bidding us revalue.  (17)

I believe that is my hero Diogenes the Cynic.  It sounds like him.

I read Eric Turner’s 1972 translation of The Girl from Samos, written for radio performance, so meant to function; I don’t know what adaptations he made.  It works.  The (almost) complete text of the play was only discovered a few years earlier.

I have been writing the phrase “Our next play is” every week, but now there is no next play.  Next week I will write up kind of summary, and soon after I hope to write some notes on On the Sublime by Longinus.  And maybe another post after that: “what next”?



  1. I can't wait to see what comes next. I am having to read Longinus slowly as many of the authors are unknown to me as yet. However, a quick Google helps in understanding and I am getting a lot out of the reading. Thanks.

  2. Although i haven’t commented previously I would like to say how much I have enjoyed this year long adventure. It has been educational and a whole lot of fun. Like you I am interested in pursuing more classical Greek literature including a re-read of Homer as I think I would appreciate them now more than ever. Also considering some Roman theater as my library has the complete works of Plautus. Thanks again for opening a whole new slant on classical literature for me.

  3. Longinus has a curious mix of the most famous writers from hundreds of years earlier - Homer, the tragedy writers - and later obscurities. There is so much lost writing.

    I am so happy to read these comments. The year has been rewarding for me, too.