'The cultural moment I most regret having missed is the heyday of Aristophanes,' begins Joshua Kosman, music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, in an article from 16 February 2003 entitled 'Ancient Greek Fun'. He explains that Aristophanes' comedies may well be the most 'context-dependent' works of literature of the past three thousand years, because the playwright drew his humour from the multi-layered political and cultural life of fifth- and fourth-century BC Athens. Kosman regrets: '[O]ur level of understanding is pitiable. Even for Greek scholars, huge numbers of in-jokes, topical allusions, ad hominem digs and serious satirical points whiz by in silent mystery. The rest of us are nowhere.' Kosman warns that even advanced scholarship may fail to crack many of Aristophanes' barbed stings and jokes. My message, too, will be one of caution, especially where the most problematic aspect of the study of Aristophanes - his relationship to politics - is concerned.
The problem originates in the fact that very little is known about the comic playwright's life and personality. This dearth of biographical data did not stop the later tradition from creating an aura of notoriety around Aristophanes that was based solely on the bold content of his corpus of eleven preserved comedies, or a mere quarter of his total output, which was, in all likelihood, very diverse. Diversity and turbulence, too, characterized his life: he saw democracy at work - or at fault - in Athens and its surrounding territories. He observed the city's imperialist expansion and the political and moral demise of a naval empire that could have lasted much longer. He noticed how many Athenians became fascinated with the political model that Sparta harboured and that appeared to supply the basis of its military strength, of which Attica suffered the damaging consequences during the Peloponnesian Wars.