EPICHARMUS

This document was written by William Ridgeway and originally published in The Dramas and Dramatic Dances of Non-European Races. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915. pp. 406-407.

In his Lives of the Philosophers Diogenes Laertius has left us a short biography of Epicharmus, but as he treats him purely as one of the 'philosophic family' and disdained to mention his dramatic writings, we would known nothing about the great contributions made to dramatic literature by him were it not for Suidas. From his short bu invaluable notice we learn that Epicharmus was the son of Elotheles, a physician of Cos, in which island his famous son was born in about 540 B.C., and whence when but three months old he passed with his father to Sicilian Megara. But his father belonged to the Asclepiad clan, and as the Asclepiads were certainly not Dorians, neither can that race in general nor the Hyblaean Magarians in particular claim him as their own. When the boy grew to man's estate, he embraced the tenets of Pythagoras and made Syracuse the scene of his life's work. He wrote on Natural Science, Philosophy, and Medicine; he composed gnomes and left also a series of memoirs when he died at the age of ninety. As a dramatist he was no less active, since he wrote fifty-two comedies or according to others thirty-five. In these plays Comedy for the first time took formal shape, since he and his contemporary Phormis were the first to use plots (muthoi) and regular dialogues. His compositions, however, were simply burlesques on the heroic themes which formed the usual subjects of the tragic performances of the time.

The most famous of his plays was the Marriage of Hebe to Hercules, in which that hero was degraded for the first time by being represented as a glutton. Dr. Mahaffy is probably right in holding that the degradation in Greek literature of Odysseus, Agamemnon and Menelaus may also have been due to Epicharmus. In a certain sense, therefore, he may be regarded as the Cervantes of Greece, for as the latter laughed mediaeval chivalry to death, so Epicharmus was the first to make the great ones of the Heroic Age the butts of popular ridicule. But as Epicharmus is said to have created the character of the conventional parasite in his Elpis, he was also the founder of the comedy of manners as well as of the burlesque. The date of his dramatic activity is well ascertained, for as he was in high favor with Gelon (485-478 B.C.) and with his brother and successor Hieron (478-467 B.C.), there seems no doubt that his dramatic activity should be placed between 485 and 467 B.C. But, as we shall soon find that his fellow dramatist Phormis was at work in the reign of Gelon, we may place the date of the birth of true Comedy in the reign of that monarch (485-478 B.C.). As Epicharmus was born about 540 B.C., and lived to be ninety, his death may be placed about 450 B.C., a date which tallies well with a statement respecting an attack made on him by Magnes the Attic comedian, then a young man.

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