A contest or agon is at the heart of every Old Comic plot: the Cambridge ritualists saw this contest as the remnant of Comedy’s origin in the fertility rites celebrating the defeat of the Old Year by the spirit of the New Year, and other scholars have made a detailed study of the epirrhematic agOn as a formal structure in Comedy.12 It is difficult to be sure about the dynamics of the agOn or the criteria for victory in the oldest comic poets, but what we can say is that Aristophanes utilizes the agOn specifically as a contest in peithOo with a particular internal audience in mind: for example, the Sausage-seller and the Paphlagonian in Knights engage in a series of verbal duels to convince the old man Demus which of them will benefit him the most. In Frogs, Euripides and Aeschylus attempt to persuade Dionysus which of them is the better tragedian and thus more worthy of being rescued from the Underworld. In Clouds, the Greater and Lesser Discourse attempt to persuade the young Pheidippi-des which of them will offer the better education.
Moreover, in each of these cases, the speaker’s argumentative strategies and stylistic manner are adapted to the tastes of the tragic audience: in pandering to their master Demus, the Sausage-seller and the Paphlagonian both adopt personae that are obligingly servile and at the same time effectively demagogic, inasmuch as they claim to be men of humble origin who can sympathize with the plight of a poor master like Demus. Their language is appropriately full of obscenity and the vulgar, brawling humor of the marketplace, with its ethos of outbidding all rivals and threatening violence against any it cannot outbid.13 In contrast, Euripides and Aeschylus operate on a much higher register of stylistic analysis, critiquing each other’s works in ways that even modern critics find appropriate and well-formulated; not surprisingly, their target audience is the preeminent connoisseur of drama, the god Dionysus himself, who, despite his clownish changes of identity earlier in the play, is certainly no fool.14 The intended audience of the Clouds debate is the rather non-intellectual, irresponsible young man Pheidippides. What is interesting about this debate is that the winner, the Lesser Discourse, gauges his audience correctly by appealing to a careless young man’s appetite for unlimited sensual self-indulgence, even with others’ wives, and offering him a model of elenchic disputation deconstructing any pretension to authority on the part of his elders, like the Greater Discourse. The Greater Discourse is doomed to fail in this contest, despite having the ‘greater’ or better argument, precisely because he does not tailor his message to the audience, but gives a stiff, formal speech praising the well-disciplined boys of olden times and faulting the lax habits of modern youths like Pheidippides. Even if the Greater Discourse had not preemptively defaulted by crumbling under the elenchus of the Lesser Discourse, Pheidippides would have surely preferred the hedonistic anomie opened up by the Lesser Discourse to the ascetic discipline and submission to authority demanded by his opponent.
Even in cases where only one character delivers a speech, we can see that the speech is an effort to persuade a specific audience in terms that audience will find characteristically appealing. In the Acharnians, Dicaeopolis’ defense of his private peace treaty with Sparta (497-556) succeeds in converting at least some of the destitute old men of Acharnae over to his side by himself donning the persona of a poor beggar, Telephus, and blaming the war on half-foreign elements within Athens (paraxena, 518) who stood to profit from the Megarian embargo, as well as on the wild upper-class youths who stole a Megarian prostitute (524-525).15 Since Dicaeopolis has gone out of his way to emphasize that no foreigners are present either in his dramatic audience or in the broader theatrical audience of the Lenaean festival (502-507, 513), ‘half-foreign’ mercantile interests become an easy target to attack. Moreover, since the Acharnians are old (209-210, 219-222) and poor charcoal gatherers (212213, 665-669), appealing to their envy of those more fortunate both in youth and wealth is an effective strategy: hence Dicaeopolis uses the otherwise ridiculous (and no doubt fictive) story that the war began from the kidnapping of prostitutes by idle young men of the leisure class. The speaker deflects the Acharnians’ resentment away from the Spartans and himself by pandering to class envy against profiteers and playboys, as well as Pericles (530-534) and Aspasia (526-527).
In the Birds, a similar targeted appeal to class envy, without any regard for truth, is the basis of Peisthetaerus’ (= ‘the persuader of his companion’) persuasion (cf. anapeison, 460) of the Birds to follow his lead in revolting against Zeus and the gods (462-626): he flatters the Birds by giving them ‘proofs’ ( tekmOria, 482) that the Olympians are an illegitimate ruling class and that the Birds themselves had been the original monarchs of the world, older than all other beings. That he has merely invented this argument to manipulate the Birds into helping him overthrow the Olympians and obtain Basileia (Sovereignty) for himself becomes clear by the end of the play, when he starts eating birds (1583-1590) and is explicitly called a tyrant (1708). Speakers’ oratory fails precisely when they have misjudged the character of their audience and not tailored their presentation to its values, like the Greater Discourse in Clouds or Mnesilochus, who delivers to the women a speech (Thesmo-phoriazusae 466-519) reflecting male stereotypes of women instead of playing to women’s feelings of self-righteousness or resentment against men.