Ploutos, The God of the Oligarchs

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Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz


According to a scholiast to the extant Ploutos, dated to 388 B.C., an earlier version of the play was pro­duced in 408 B.C. Judging by the scholia and the lexicog­raphers, differences between the two versions were small, yet the second version also manifests some deviations from the pattern of comedies written by Aristophanes in the last quarter of the fifth century B.C. Despite the structural and thematic variations, however, I argue that the extant Ploutos may have been no less suited to the economic and even political situation of 408 than to that of 388 B.C, since it seems to reflect late fifth-century concerns and tensions. In order to explore this line of inquiry, I discuss two interconnecting themes in the play, whose relevance to the political and social circumstances of late fifth-century Athens has been overlooked in modern scholarship.

The first theme is the positive/negative effects of wealth upon society—a theme popular with many poets, dramatists and philosophers. The other theme is the contrast between a peaceful and idle life, far from political activity and devoid of reciprocal relations, and a life full of toil, politics, and wealth attained through work. In Greek tradition, the idea of peaceful and idle life—made possible by spontaneously produced wealth—was depicted in the myth of the Golden Age, or ‘the life under Kronos’ that also developed as one of the theories of human degeneration and, eventually, was connected with the term physis, which became more and more prominent in philosophical writings. Alongside and contrary to these myths and theories there developed the myth of the culture hero, who taught men crafts, language and laws. This myth led to the devel­opment of a theory, according to which human society evolved through the growth of technology and social organisation.

By the late fifth century Β.C., discussions of these themes already formed a long tradition and were also popular in comedy. Moreover, in 408 B.C., the memory of the first oligarchic revolution was still fresh and the political debates still raged. The combination in Ploutos of these themes and their association with contemporary philo­sophical and political debates seem much more suited to a comedy of the late fifth cen­tury than to the political, social, and even economic conditions of 388 Β.C. It is therefore suggested that the first Ploutos was a satirical attack on oligar­chic schemes and sophistic theories, and that the plot of the extant version was to a large extent identical to the first version, except for structural changes and some allusions to contemporary events and persons.

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