Fun facts about a classical writer
1. For over 2,000 years, Menander’s works were lost. Then, in the twentieth century, they were rediscovered. Menander (c. 342/41 – c. 290 BC) was praised by his contemporaries as a great comic playwright – some even said the greatest, beating even Aristophanes into second place. Yet his work was lost during the Middle Ages and remained so until papyrus scrolls containing several of his plays surfaced, and even then only as incomplete manuscripts. Only one of his 108 plays, Dyskolos (‘Old Cantankerous’), can be read today in (more or less) its entirety. Among the plays which remain lost are Rhapizomene (‘The Woman Who Had Her Face Slapped’), Synaristosai (which roughly translates as ‘Ladies Who Lunch’), and Empimpramene (‘Woman on Fire’).
2. When Menander’s work was rediscovered in the twentieth century, it was something of a disappointment. The discovery of the Cairo codex in 1907, containing fragments of a number of Menander plays, and the finding of the Bodmer papyrus in 1959, brought Menander’s work back, seemingly, from oblivion – but this wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Translators and Greek scholars were lukewarm in their praise for the newly discovered Menander material; the verse dramatist Christopher Fry, best remembered for The Lady’s Not for Burning, called Menander’s plots ‘slight and predictable’.
3. Menander was a champion of the New Comedy, which broke with some of the more fanciful aspects of Aristophanes’ earlier work. New Comedy offered something more grounded and realist for its Athenian audience, by depicting the concerns of ordinary Athenians – domestic goings-on and family life. This style of comedy would go on to have an influence on later Roman playwrights: without Menander, there probably wouldn’t have been any Terence, not least because Terence appears to have borrowed the plots for a number of his plays from Menander (including Eunuchus and Adelphi).
4. Menander’s uncle, Alexis, was also a prolific writer of comedies – perhaps as many as 245. Alexis’ work has not survived, but he apparently enjoyed a long and successful career writing for the Athenian stage: Plutarch claims that he died aged 106 (while on stage being crowned for his latest success, supposedly). Among his plays were such titles as Odysseus Washes Himself, Mandrake-Drugged Woman, and Lip-Smacking Woman. All that we have of Alexis’ many writings are a few quotations included in books of proverbial wisdom: ‘There is only one cure for the illness known as love: prostitutes’, for instance, or ‘How come cookbooks outsell Homer?’ (Nothing much changes.) Menander didn’t enjoy quite such a high level of success in his own lifetime, though.
5. Menander is credited with originating the well-known maxim ‘Whom the gods love die young.’ Menander may have learnt the art of the pithy aphorism from his uncle; a number of Menander’s best lines were published as Menander’s One-Verse Maxims. Another of Menander’s well-known maxims translates into English as ‘the die is cast’ – or, more accurately, is mistranslated into English, since the original should more properly be rendered as ‘let the die be cast’. It was this line of Menander’s that Julius Caesar supposedly uttered as he crossed the Rubicon.
We’re indebted to Stuart Kelly’s absorbing Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read for much of this Menander information, and recommend Kelly’s book to anyone who enjoys reading about the curious aspects of classical or modern literature. It’s full of fascinating and amusing facts.
Image: Bust of Menander from Ephesus (artist unknown), from Ephesus Archaeological Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.