Menander (342Ð291 BC), Greek dramatist, the chief representative of the New Comedy, was born in Athens. He was the son of well-to-do parents; his father Diopeithes is identified by some with the Athenian general and governor of the Thracian Chersonese known from the speech of Demosthenes De Chersoneso. He doubtless derived his taste for the comic drama from his uncle Alexis.
He was the friend, associate, and perhaps pupil of Theophrastus, and was on intimate terms with Demetrius of Phalerum. He also enjoyed the patronage of Ptolemy Soter, the son of Lagus, who invited him to his court. But Menander, preferring the independence of his villa in the Peiraeus and the company of his mistress Glycera, refused.
According to the note of a scholiast on the Ibis of Ovid, he was drowned while bathing, and his countrymen built him a tomb on the road leading to Athens, where it was seen by Pausanias. A well-known statue in the Vatican, formerly thought to represent Marius, is now generally supposed to be Menander, although some archaeologists dispute this, and it has also been identified with his statue in the theatre at Athens, also mentioned by Pausanias.
Menander was the author of more than a hundred comedies, but only won the prize at Lenaia eight times. His rival in dramatic art (and in the affections of Glycera) was Philemon, who appears to have been more popular. Menander, however, believed himself to be the better dramatist, and, according to Aulus Gellius, used to ask Philemon: "Don't you feel ashamed whenever you gain a victory over me?" According to Caecilius of Calacte (Porphyry in Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica) Menander was guilty of plagiarism, his The Superstitious Man being taken from The Augur of Antiphanes.
But, although he attained only moderate success during his lifetime, he subsequently became the favorite writer of antiquity. Copies of his plays were known to Suidas and Eustathius (10th and 11th centuries), and twenty-three of them, with commentary by Psellus, were said to have been in existence at Constantinople in the 16th century. He is praised by Plutarch (Comparison of Menander and Aristophanes) and Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria), who accepted the tradition that he was the author of the speeches published under the name of the Attic orator Charisius.
A great admirer and imitator of Euripides, Menander resembles him in his keen observation of practical life, his analysis of the emotions, and his fondness for moral maxims, many of which became proverbial: "The property of friends is common," "Whom the gods love die young," "Evil communications corrupt good manners" (from the Thaiumls, quoted in 1 Corinthians 15:33). These maxims (chiefly monostichs) were afterwards collected, and, with additions from other sources, were edited as Menander's One-Verse Maxims, a kind of moral textbook for the use of schools.
Menander found many Roman imitators. The Eunuchus, Andria, Heautontimoroumenos (The Self-Tormentor) and Adelphi of Terence (called by Caesar "dimidiatus Menander") were avowedly taken from Menander, but some of them appear to be adaptations and combinations of more than one play; thus, in the Andria were combined Menander's The Woman from Andros) and The Woman from Perinthos), in the Eunuchus, The Eunuch and The Flatterer, while the Adelphi was compiled partly from Menander and partly from Diphilus. The original of Terence's Hecyra (as of the Phormio) is generally supposed to be, not by Menander, but Apollodorus of Carystus.
The Bacchides and Stichus of Plautus were probably based upon Menander's The Double Deceiver and Philadelphoi, The Brotherly-Loving Men, but the Poenulus, does not seem to be from The Carthaginian, nor the Mostellaria from The Apparition, in spite of the similarity of titles. Caecilius Statius, Luscius Lavinius, Turpilius and Atilius also imitated Menander. He was further credited with the authorship of some epigrams of doubtful authenticity; the letters addressed to Ptolemy Soter and the discourses in prose on various subjects mentioned by Suidas are probably spurious.
Until the end of the 19th century, all that was known of Menander were the fragments collected by A. Meineke (1855) and T. Kock, Comicorum Atticorum Fragmenta (1888). They consist of some 1650 verses or parts of verses, in addition to a considerable number of words quoted expressly as from Menander by the old lexicographers.
From 1897 to 1907, papyri were discovered in different parts of Egypt containing fragments of considerable length amounting to some 1400 lines.
In 1897, about eighty lines of The Farmer; in 1899, fifty lines of The Shorn Woman (Perikeiromene), and, in 1903, two hundred lines from the middle of the same play; five hundred lines from The Arbitrants, generally well preserved; sixty-three lines (the prologue, list of characters, and the first scene), from The Hero; three hundred and forty lines from The Woman from Samos; and twenty lines from an unknown comedy.
The complete manuscript of Dyskolos (The Grouch) was published from a recovered papyrus manuscript in 1959. This play was first presented at the Lenaian festival in 317 BC, where it won Menander first prize.
It is doubtful whether these fragments, which are of sufficient length to afford a basis for the consideration of the merits of Menander as a writer of comedies, justify the great reputation enjoyed by him in ancient times. They contain little that is witty or humorous; there is little variety in the characters, the situations are conventional, and the plots are not of a highly edifying character and lack originality. Menander's chief strengths seem to be the facility of language, accurate portrayal of manners, and naturalness of the sentiments which he puts into the mouth of his dramatis personae. It is remarkable that the maxims, which form the chief part of the earlier collections of fragments, are few in the later.
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