Epicharmus in Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities

(Ἐπίχαρμος). The first Greek comic writer of whom we have any definite account. He was a Syracusan, either by birth or emigration (Theocr. Epig. 17). Some writers make him a native of the island of Cos, but all agree that he passed his life at Syracuse. It was about B.C. 500, thirty-five years after Thespis began to exhibit, eleven years after the commencement of Phrynichus, and just before the appearance of Aeschylus as a tragedian, that Epicharmus produced the first comedy properly so called. Before him, this department of the drama was little more than a series of licentious songs and sarcastic episodes, without plot, connection, or consistency. (See Comoedia; Drama.) He gave to each exhibition continuity, and converted the loose interlocutions into regular dialogue (Aristot. Poet. v. 5). The subjects of his Doric comedies, as we may infer from the extant titles of thirty-five of them, were partly parodies of mythological subjects, and, as such, not very different from the dialogue of the satyric drama, and partly political, and in this respect may have furnished a model for the dialogue of the Athenian comedy. (See Rhinthonica Fabula.) Tragedy had, some years before the era of Epicharmus, begun to assume its dignified character. The woes of heroes and the majesty of the gods had, under Phrynicus, become its favourite themes. The Sicilian poet seems to have been struck with the idea of exciting the mirth of his audience by the exhibition of some ludicrous matter dressed up in all the grave solemnity of the newly invented art. Discarding, therefore, the low drolleries and scurrilous invectives of the ancient κωμῳδία, he opened a novel and less objectionable source of amusement by composing a set of burlesque dramas upon the usual tragic subjects. They succeeded, and the turn thus given to comedy long continued; so that when it once more returned to personality and satire, as it afterwards did, tragedy and tragic poets were the constant objects of its parody and ridicule. The great changes thus effected by Epicharmus justly entitled him to be called the Inventor of Comedy (Theocr. Epig. 17), though it is probable that Phormis or Phormus preceded him by a few Olympiads (Aristot. Poet. iii. 5). But his merits do not rest here: he was distinguished for elegance of composition as well as originality of conception. Demetrius Phalereus says that Epicharmus excelled in the choice and collocation of epithets, on which account the name of Ἐπιχάρμιος was given to his kind of style, making it proverbial for elegance and beauty. So many were his dramatic excellences that Plato terms him the king of comic writers, and in a later age and foreign country Plautus chose him as his model (Epist. ii. 1.58) and is thought to have borrowed from him the plot of the Menaechmi. The parasite who figures so greatly in the plays of the New Comedy and in those of Plautus was first brought upon the stage by Epicharmus. The plays of Epicharmus, to judge from the fragments still left us, abounded in apophthegms, little consistent with the ideas we might otherwise have entertained of their nature from our knowledge of the buffooneries whence his comedy sprang and of the writings of Aristophanes, his partially extant successor. Epicharmus, however, was a philosopher and a Pythagorean (Diog. Laert. viii. 78). We find Epicharmus still composing comedies B.C. 485 (Suidas, s. v. Ἐπίχ.), and again during the reign of Hiero, B.C. 477. He died at the age of ninety or ninety-seven years. Epicharmus is said by some authorities to have added the letters ξ, η, ψ, ω to the Greek alphabet, but inscriptions show that these characters were in use at Miletus half a century before his reputed birth. See Clermont-Gannean, Origine des Caractères Complémentaires de l'Alphabet Grec in the Mélanges Graux (Paris, 1884). See also Lorenz, Leben und Schriften des Epicharmus (1864); Klein, Griechisches u. römisches Drama (1865); and Donaldson's Theatre of the Greeks, pp. 187-88 (8th ed. 1875).

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