10 Ancient Comedies That Are Still Funny Today

10 Ancient Comedies That Are Still Funny Today

Stephanie Schoppert - March 11, 2017

The Ancient Greeks and Romans were known for writing a range of comedies highlighting their affinity for satire and farce. Many of the things the Greeks and Romans found funny are still humorous today, including plenty of sex jokes and tales of mistaken identity. The ancient satires are still relevant today as they address many of the same concerns with politics and politicians that people have today. These comedies tackle corruption, taxes, and wealth inequality, making them satires that many people would still understand and find funny even in modern times.

10 Ancient Comedies That Are Still Funny Today
Publication of Lysistrata. Screenplay.biz


Lysistrata is one of the most famous ancient Greek comedies by the person who is credited as the best Greek comedy writer in history, Aristophanes. This comedy has actually been remade in modern times and was recently recreated in the movie, Chi-Raq. Lysistrata was first performed in 411 BCE.

The comedy takes place during the Peloponnesian War and it focuses on Lysistrata, a woman who is tired of the fighting. She decides to take matters into her own hands and gathers together the women from all of the Greek city-states. She proposes to all the women that they withhold sex from the men until they bring an end to the Peloponnesian War.

The woman agree to end all sexual activities by signing a very detailed oath that lists a wide range of sex acts and positions, including the Lioness on the Cheese Grater. The women then take control of the Acropolis, where the treasury is held. This means that the war cannot be funded and the magistrate comes to collect the money needed for the fleet. Lysistrata meets with him and explains that the women are frustrated that men make stupid decisions during the war that affect everyone.

As the play progresses, the men begin sporting very large bulges, including the magistrate. They are suffering without the pleasures of women. The women suffer as well, but Lysistrata keeps them rallied to their cause so that no amount of begging will convince any of the women to give in to the increasingly desperate men. Finally, they agree to begin peace talks. When the men begin to quarrel over terms, the women send out a beautiful woman to parade in front of the men until they are so desperate for sex that they agree to terms.

10 Ancient Comedies That Are Still Funny Today
Title page wood engraving by John Austen. Book-graphics.blogspot.com

The Frogs

The Frogs is a play by Aristophanes that was performed at Lenaia in 405 BC and won first place. The play tells the story of the god Dionysus who despairs at the loss of the great tragic playwright Euripides, who had died in 406 BC. Dionysus visits his half-brother Heracles for advice on how to get to Hades in order to bring Euripides back from the dead. When he asks his brother for the fastest way to the underworld, Heracles suggests he hang himself or jump off a tower. Dionysus ops to travel across Lake Acheron dressed in the same clothes as his brother.

While on the lake, there is a choral interlude in which the frogs croak as Dionysus travels across the lake. Dionysus is annoyed by the frogs and engages in a mocking debate with the frogs which becomes one of the highlights of the play, and the scene that brings the biggest laughs. When Dionysus reaches the underworld, he is mistaken for Heracles by Aeacus, who is still angry that Heracles stole Cerberus. Dionysus then trades clothes with his slave in order to avoid Aeacus’ wrath.

A maid then appears and mistakes Dionysus’ slave for Heracles and offers him a feast with virgins, to which the slave happily agrees. Dionysus then asks to trade clothes again but only encounters more people angry with his brother, and therefore gives the clothes back to the slave. When Dionysus and his slave finally find Euripides, he is engaging in a debate with Aeschylus about who is the best tragic writer. The debate causes Dionysus to wonder which playwright he should really bring back, and he judges a competition between the two.

The play features numerous laughs in which Dionysus is the butt of nearly every joke, and the histories of the two playwrights’ competition offer plenty of opportunities for parodies of some of the great tragedies in Greek history. The Frogs is a popular choice for studying in schools because the humor typically resonates with students.

10 Ancient Comedies That Are Still Funny Today
Engraving of a scene from The Clouds in which two people talk while Socrates hangs from a basket in the air. Ancient-origins.net

The Clouds

The Clouds is yet another play by Aristophanes which was originally performed at the City Dionysia in 423 BC. It came in last place at the festival that year, which led to Aristophanes revising the play and then circulating it as a manuscript. No copy of the original performance survives today.

The play tells the story of Strepsiades, who is struggling in debt due to his son’s gambling. At the time in Ancient Greece, trials were conducted with the accused arguing on their behalf. This meant that a good speaker could talk a jury into thinking a guilty person was innocent, but it also meant that a bad speaker could cause a jury to find them guilty, even though they were innocent. Strepsiades decided that he would go to Socrates to learn how to be better at arguing so that he could get out of paying his son’s debts.

While attending a school run by Socrates, the famous philosopher spends a great deal of time trying to teach Strepsiades. Socrates tries to teach Strepsiades a number of different philosophical forms of thought to great exaggeration, but Strepsiades fails to catch on to anything. Unable to learn anything from Socrates, Strepsiades forces his son to attend Socrates’ teachings.

Strepsiades son ends up being much more teachable, and Socrates deems his teaching a success. Strepsiades then refuses to pay all his son’s debtors, believing that his son will be able to talk him out of any punishment. However, Strepsiades’ son instead argues that he should have every right to beat his father and mother. Strepsiades blames the school for what it turned his son into and decides to burn it down. Then fearing his son and with no one to argue for him, he resigns to paying off the debts.

10 Ancient Comedies That Are Still Funny Today
Masks are used in a modern-day production of the Menaechmi. Thelambda.ca


Menaechmi is a play written by Plautus and it is considered to be his best work. The play tells the story of the twin sons of Moschus, Menaechmus, and Sosicles. Moschus leaves on a business trip and takes Menaechmus with him. While on the trip Menaechmus is abducted and never seen again. Sosoicles is then renamed Menaechmus of Syracuse. When Menaechmus of Syracuse becomes a grown man he goes off in search of his brother. He arrives in Epidamnus unaware that the brother lives in the city.

The original Menaechmus has married a woman that he calls a shrew and a harpy. He decides to take her best mantle and give it to his mistress. He tells his friend Peniculus of his plan to give the mantle to his mistress Erotium. Menaechmus goes with Peniculus to Erotium and he presents her with the mantle. He tells Erotium to prepare a feast for him and Peniculus that night, in the meantime the men leave for drinks.

Menaechmus of Syracuse is walking by when Erotium comes out of her door and beckons him inside for dinner. Menaechmus is confused but decides to accept the offer of dinner with a beautiful woman and sends his servant on to the hotel. When Menaechmus of Syracus leaves dinner, he is met by Peniculus who berates him for eating dinner without him. Peniculus takes revenge by telling the wife of Menaechmus of the stolen mantle.

Menaechmus returns to Erotium to find his meal eaten and Erotium is angry at his request for more food. Then his angry wife demands the return of her mantle and Menaechmus promises to return it. Then he is approached by a furious Peniculus, all the while being completely confused. Finally, the two brothers run into each other and realize what has happened. Menaechmus decides to sell all his belongings, including his wife, in order to go live with his brother.

10 Ancient Comedies That Are Still Funny Today
Etching by Henry Gillard Glindoni depicting the play being performed. Wikimedia

The Birds

The Birds was written by Aristophanes and performed at the City Dionysia in 414 BC and took second prize. The play was seen as a perfect fantasy with stunning mimicry of birds and uplifting songs. This is one of the oldest surviving plays of Aristophanes, and one of the most widely studied. The satire focuses on the circular nature of those who try to escape oppression by becoming the oppressors themselves.

The play begins with two men off in search of Tereus. They have become frustrated with life in Athens and with people doing nothing but arguing over laws. So they hope that by finding Tereus, a king who metamorphosed into the Hoopoe, they could find a better life somewhere else. They manage to find Tereus, who is not very convincing as a bird and blames his lack of feathers on molting. The men talk with Hoopoe and suggest that the birds stop flying about and build a city in the sky so that they can blockade the Olympian Gods.

Hoopoe likes the idea and tells the men that they should implement it, if the men can manage to convince the other birds. Hoopoe summons the other birds who immediately attack the men, for humans are the enemies of birds. The men defend themselves with kitchen utensils while Hoopoe convinces the birds to at least listen to the men. The men convince the birds to build the city and construction begins immediately.

One of the men, Pisthetaerus begins to take charge and organize a religious service to honor the birds as the new Gods of men. Men begin flocking to the new city in the sky hoping to join and other unwelcome visitors come to the city, pestering Pisthetaerus with their songs. Pisthetaerus turns them all away but Prometheus arrives with news that the Olympians are starving because they no longer get the offerings of men. The starving Olympians eventually agree to declare Pisthetaerus king and Zeus surrenders his scepter and his girlfriend, Sovereignty.

10 Ancient Comedies That Are Still Funny Today
Depiction of a master and slave in a phlyax play circa 350 BCE. Wikiwand.com

The Knights

The Knights is the fourth play written by Aristophanes and it won first place at that the Lenaia festival in 424 BC. The play is yet another political satire that was relevant to the people at the time and could be seen as very relevant to people today. It focuses on Paphlagonian, who represented real politician Cleon, and an elderly man named Demos who represented the people of Athens.

Paphlagonian and other rival politicians are made to be literal servants to Demos just as real politicians of the day claimed to be servants of the people. Despite being a servant to Demos, Paphlagonian uses the arts of deception and self-aggrandizement to rob the household and have a very monopolistic amount of control over Demos. The other servants, who were known to also con and deceive Demos, find themselves unable to best Paphlagonian.

The other servants decide that they need to find someone that can lie and deceive as well as Paphlagonian in order to get control of Demos again. They find a sausage seller who they watch lie in order to cheat several of his customers and decide that he is the person they need. They take him home and the Sausage Seller and Paphlagonian engage in a battle royal to convince Demos they are the right man to run the household. This part of the play features absurd wordplay that is as funny as any comedy today.

The Sausage Seller winds up the winner and Demos fires Paphlagonian who ends up a small-time merchant peddling wares in a bad part of town. Once made head of the house the Sausage Seller reveals that he is not really a liar or selfish but he realized that was the only way to win. Now that he has won, he reveals plans that solve the major problems of Athens at the time. Strangely enough, he even boils Demos in a cauldron and transforms the old man into a happy and healthy man rather than the sick and confused man he was at the start of the play.

10 Ancient Comedies That Are Still Funny Today
Marble bust of Pericles one of the great Greek leaders brought back from the underworld in Demoi. Greece-is.com


Demoi is a comedy by Eupolis that only survives in fragments. Another political satire, it speaks against corruption, partisanship and putting the needs of the people as subordinate to personal gain. The Athenians romanticized the political leaders of the past just as many people tend to do in modern society today. That corruption of the present day and the belief the politicians of the past were infinitely better form the basis of the play.

Pyronides, the main character in the play, wants to restore Athens to its former cultural and political glory and decides there is only one way to do this. He goes to the underworld and brings back four former great leaders from Athens’ past, Pericles, Miltiades, Aristeides, and Solon the Lawgiver. The four politicians are eagerly welcomed in Athens. A series of jokes from the people arises as they imagine these four great men dealing with the inadequate politicians and military leaders of the present day.

The chorus, which represents the 139 communities in the Athenian democracy, come to the men with their complaints about the current leaders and the state of Athens. These comments are often very specific and very sarcastic. The four men resolve to deal with their corrupt and laughable counterparts. Miltiades deals with the current general though scholars debate on which general this may have been.

Aristeides drives away a member of the “accuser” class, a group of politicians who would bring false charges against their political enemies which would result in substantial legal fees and in some cases the enemy would lose property. Solon takes on either a judge or a Sophist known for distorting the laws to argue for their own benefit. There is very little left of the person that Pericles takes on and the end of the play is lost. While the work of the four great men is cheered by the Athenians there is information on if they stay in Athens or return to the underworld.

10 Ancient Comedies That Are Still Funny Today
Vase depicting a scene from Thesmophoriazusae. 370 BCE. Classics.illinois.edu


Thesmophoriazusae is another play by Aristophanes, and this one focuses on taking shots at the tragic poet Euripides. In this play, a group of women decide that they have been unfairly represented by Euripides as being seducers, schemers, betrayers, or just helpless victims. The women decide to rise up and take various actions in order to punish Euripides for his representations of women.

Euripides asks Mnesilochus to go undercover as a woman and put in a good word for him. Through a series of funny and painful methods, including fire, they remove the hair from Mnesilochus’ body and dress him as a woman. Mnesilochus, properly disguised, attends a festival held by the women who are against Euripides. The women open with a prayer that ask punishment for anyone that angers them. Euripides is mentioned as deserving of particular harm.

After the prayer, Mnesilochus tries to put in a good word for Euripides but does so quite poorly and to comedic effect. He mentions that Euripides has not mentioned all of the ways that women are known to deceive men. Another man, Cleisthenes, arrives in drag and tells the women of Euripides the plan to infiltrate the festival. Both men struggle to maintain their charade, but eventually, Mnesilochus gets a large erection after being in the company of so many pretty women. They go to attack him, but he grabs a wine flask and threatens to cut it open and spill the wine. The women back away, unwilling to see the wine go to waste, but they keep him prisoner.

Euripides tries to save Mnesilochus through a series of short sketches that parody scenes from his tragic plays. Eventually, Euripides gives up and decides to talk to the women. He tells them that he will no longer give away the methods with which they deceive men if they promise to release Mnesilochus. The women agree and the play ends.

10 Ancient Comedies That Are Still Funny Today
Vase depicting a Goddes, possibly Kotys. Wikipedia


Baptae is a comedy by Eupolis which focuses on a cult that formed around the Thracian goddess Cotyto or Kotys. Eupolis wanted to make a statement about how the goddess had sprung up as a bit of a fad, with prominent people in Athens and her cult performing a number of strange rituals. The term Baptae referred to the followers of Kotys either because there was a bathing ritual involved, or because the devotees would baptize their garments in expensive dyes. Perhaps the part of the cult that appealed the most to Eupolis as a play was the fact that the followers of Kotys were all men and they showed their devotion by dressing as the goddess.

The play only exists in fragments, but what is obvious is that it pokes fun of this cult and the men who were willing to go along with the bizarre rituals. The play features the followers of Baptae hiring a female to be their Kotys surrogate during their ritual. One of the rituals followed by members of the cult involved men drinking from penis-shaped goblets and then dancing suggestively while staring up at the Kotys surrogate.

The crux of the play centers around the hired surrogate being the real Kotys. She has come to punish the Baptae for distorting her rites of worship and creating these bizarre ceremonies. The men fail to realize that their surrogate is the real goddess. Their rituals, dancing, and behavior only anger the goddess further as the play progresses but the men remain oblivious.

One of the most famous scenes of the play comes when Kotys finally reveals herself. She takes one of the men (the one portraying a celebrity of the period) and dunks him in a tub a dye. The play actually became a bit of a cultural phenomenon in that any unusual sect from then on would be referred to as Baptae. The play lightheartedly poked fun at transvestites and homosexuality, none of which was meant to instill hostility, but just meant as fodder for comedy.

10 Ancient Comedies That Are Still Funny Today
Bust of Aristophanes 444 BCE. Lyricstranslate.com


Triphales is a play by Aristophanes that barely survived, which is unusual because it was written by what was considered to be the greatest comic playwright of the period. There are references to the play but no substantial fragments from which to truly read the play. However, what is known about the play suggests that the humor within it would still resonate today.

Triphales is known as a mythological burlesque play in that it was risqué and featured a plot that was not grounded in reality. The point of a mythological burlesque was to parody a specific figure from mythology or lampoon the over-the-top stories that were often found in mythology. In that way, the play of Triphales, which tells the story of a man with three penises, fits perfectly into that category.

The story is written as a large, dramatic, and sweeping epic tale, but the actual plot of the story is not big or epic at all. It is similar to a big-budget blockbuster being made about the silly story of a man with three penises. The story lends itself for a low budget comedy and not a Titanic sized epic with huge scenes and substantial special effects, but it was written as the latter.

It is not clear why this play did not survive, though it likely did not resonate with audiences on a deeper level in the way that many of the other comedies of Aristophanes did. While this play would have been entertaining and likely got big laughs, there was little satire or social commentary that would make the play stand out.


Sources For Further Reading:

Greek Reporter – The Best Ancient Greece Comedies Still Funny Today

Aristophanes – The Revolt of The Women, A Free Tr. By B.B. Rogers

BBC UK – The History of Sex Strikes

The Washington Post – Sex Strikes Have Always Been About Patriarchal Power, Not Women’s Rights

The Hairpin – Sex Tips from Lysistrata

Aristophanes – The Frogs of Aristophanes

Aristophanes – The Clouds

Greek Mythology – The Clouds by Aristophanes

Titus Maccius Plautus – Menaechmei

Titus Maccius Plautus, Wilhelm Wagner – Menaechmei

Aristophanes – The Birds

Greek Mythology – The Birds by Aristophanes

The Atre Database – The Knights

Aristophanes – Aristophanous Thesmophoriazousai

Conde Fashion – The Best Ancient Greece Comedies Still Funny Today