Cratinus, son of Callimedes, was the eldest of that brilliant triad of the Old Comedy,
Eupolis atque Cratinus Aristophanesque poetae,
but of the details of his life little is known with certainty, except that he lived to be ninety-seven, that he died after he produced in 423 B.C. his Pytine, 'Flagon', a reply to the gibes of Aristophanes in his Knights exhibited in the previous year (424 B.C.), that he gained the first prize, Ameipsias being second with his Connus and Aristophanes third with the Clouds. We are further told by Lucian that he did not long survive his final triumph, whilst we learn from the Peace of Aristophanes, acted in 419 B.C., that Cratinus had died of grief at the breaking of a jar of wine by the Lacedaemonians in some incursion which must have been prior to the Peace of Nicias in 421 B.C. As his death falls probably in 422 B.C. and his age was then ninety-seven, his birth may be placed about 520-519 B.C., or some five years later than that of Aeschylus, who stands to Tragedy much as Cratinus does to the Old Comedy. He wrote thirty-one plays and gained nine victories. Eusebius states that he began to exhibit in Olympiad 81, 454-453 B.C., whilst the anonymous writer on Comedy states that he gained his first victory in Olympiad 85, i.e. after 437 B.C., when he was more than eighty. The critics have treated this last statement with incredulity because in one of his fragments he attacks Pericles for his delay in completing the Long Walls, which were finished about 451 B.C., and because there are some other fragments apparently belonging to an earlier period than 437 B.C. It is further alleged that the plays of Cratinus were acted by Crates before the latter began to exhibit for himself, which he did in 449-448 B.C. But the critics, as usual, have overleaped themselves, for there is no discrepancy between the statement of the anonymous writer and the other evidence, since he does not say that Cratinus did not exhibit before 437 B.C., but that he did not gain a victory until after that date, whilst Eusebius does not state that he won in 454-453 B.C., but that he began to exhibit in that year. The critics have thus assumed that to exhibit is to win. But we shall find that there are good grounds for believing that both Eusebius and the anonymous writer are right. Aristotle, though he knew well about Cratinus and his victory with the Flagon, makes no mention of him in his brief statement of the real rise of Attic Comedy, but gives the place of honour to Crates, who had acted for Cratinus before exhibiting his own plays. Why is this? He names Crates because he was 'the first of the Athenians who dropped the invective style and framed dialogues and plots of a general (i.e. non-personal) character'. Cratinus therefore fails to make this great step in which he was anticipated by his own actor, and adhered to and even aggravated the old style of violent personal invective. Moreover, he was an ardent member of the Conservative party, a warm panegyrist of Cimon, and a merciless detractor of Pericles, who, after the murder of Ephialtes in 462 B.C., had become the chief leader of the Demos. It would have indeed been strange had the verdict of a theatre packed with democrats assigned the first prize to such attacks on their idol as those in which Cratinus lashed Pericles for his tardiness in completing the Long Walls, but to this point we shall revert.
As regards his personal character, there is no doubt that he was much addicted to the wine-cup, as he himself admitted in his famous rejoinder to Aristophanes, in which he represented himself as having fallen completely under the influence of his mistress Pytine, i.e. wine-cup, who was personified on the stage as an attractive courtesan. But it may be questioned whether the charge of being 'a greater coward than Epeius' (the maker of the Wooden Horse), cited by Suidas, made against him by Taxiarch of the tribe Oeneis, was equally well founded, for he mus have had amongst his victims many ready to retaliate with any convenient calumny.
His chief contribution to the Old Comedy, in the words of an anonymous writer, was that 'he added the useful to the pleasing in Comedy by accusing evil-doers and punishing them with Comedy as with a public scourge'; and as was said by another ancient , 'he hurled his reproaches in the most direct and plainest of terms at the bare heads of the offenders.'