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Afflicted with a constant desire to judge and to convict the people brought before the courts of Athens,
Philocleon was locked up in his own house by his son, Bdelycleon, who had previously tried all rational
means of persuading his father to give up his mania and become a gentleman. Bdelycleon even resorted to a
net cast around the house in order to keep his father from leaving. Two slaves, Sosias and Xanthias, were set
to guard the house, and Bdelycleon, as an added precaution, watched from the roof.
The three men were kept busy thwarting Philocleon’s attempts to escape. He tried to crawl out through the
chimney, threatened to chew his way through the net, and, at last, was almost successful when he crawled
beneath the belly of his ass, in the manner of Odysseus, and then insisted that the beast be taken out and sold.
The ass moaned and groaned so intently, however, that Xanthias noticed the concealed burden. Philocleon
was caught and thrust back into the house just before the other jurymen, the Wasps, arrived to escort him to
When the Wasps arrived, Philocleon appeared at an upper window, told them of his plight, and begged them
to help him find some means of escape. Between them they decided that his only hope was to gnaw through
the net and then lower himself to the ground. In this manner Philocleon had all but regained his freedom when
Bdelycleon, who, worn out with watching, had fallen asleep, awoke and again detained him. Although the
Wasps quickly came to the aid of their friend, they were no match for the stones and clubs used against them
by Bdelycleon and the two slaves; and they were soon driven back.
In the argument that followed Bdelycleon explained that he simply wanted his father to lead the joyous, easy
life of an old man, rather than concern himself constantly with the tyranny and conspiracy of the courts. He
argued convincingly enough to force Philocleon into a debate on the merits of his occupation. Philocleon
agreed that if Bdelycleon could convince the Wasps, who were to act as judges, that a public career was
disreputable, then he would give it up. The old man, speaking first, defended the jury system on the basis of
the pleasures and benefits that he personally derived from it. Bdelycleon, on the other hand, proved that the
jurists were no more than the slaves of the rulers, who themselves received the bulk of the revenue that should
have gone to feed the hungry people.
Philocleon, along with the Chorus, was converted by Bdelycleon’s persuasive argument. Philocleon thought
that he could not live without judging, however, so Bdelycleon consented to allow him to hold court at their
home. Philocleon was to be allowed to judge the slaves and all other things about the house. This solution had
the added advantage, as Bdelycleon carefully pointed out, of allowing Philocleon to eat and drink and enjoy
all the comforts of home at the same time that he was following his profession.
Philocleon agreed to this solution and all the paraphernalia of a court were quickly assembled and the first
case was called. Labes, one of the household dogs, was accused of stealing and devouring a Sicilian cheese all
by himself, having refused to share it with any other animal. Bdelycleon himself undertook the defense of
Labes and pleaded for mercy, but Philocleon felt it his duty as a judge to convict everyone and everything that
The Wasps 1 was brought into his court. His son, however, tricked his father into acquitting the dog, an act that was foreign
to Philocleon’s nature.
Philocleon then concluded that he had betrayed the one thing sacred to him—reaching a guilty verdict—and that
he was, therefore, no longer capable of judging. Bdelycleon’s problems were apparently solved at this point,
for his father agreed to live a happy and carefree life. Such a plan, however, entailed changing Philocleon’s
whole mode of being. His manner of dress, his speech—everything about him had to change; in short, he
needed to acquire at least some of the elementary social skills. He was to learn how to walk, how to recline at
dinner, what to talk about in order to appear a gentleman of leisure.
After a short period of training Bdelycleon took his father to a dinner party, where Philocleon quickly proved
that he was as much a hard-headed old man as ever. He drank and ate too much, he insulted both his host and
the other guests, he beat the slaves who waited on him, and, finally, he ran off with a nude flute girl. On his
way home with the girl he struck everyone that he encountered.
By the time Philocleon arrived home, he had a large following, all anxious to accuse him and bring him before
those courts he had so recently abandoned. He tried to appease the people by telling them stories that he had
just learned and by using his other social skills, but to no avail; everyone clamored for justice. Philocleon,
paying no attention to their cries, continued to talk and act as if he were far above such plebeian concerns.
Bdelycleon, who had hurried after his father, finally caught up with him and again used force to get him into
the house. This time Bdelycleon was unable to keep the old man there. Philocleon immediately returned to the
streets, now determined to prove his dancing skill, and led off the Chorus in a licentious, drunken dance.
The Wasps is a brilliant combination of political and social satire. Produced in 422 b.c.e., this play, like
Aristophanes’ earlier work, is an attack on Aristophanes’ personal enemy Cleon, who in Aristophanes’
plays is a demagogue and a manipulator of the Athenian people. In this play Aristophanes does not criticize
Cleon for advocating continuation of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.), which was in a temporary lull
at the time the play was presented. Instead, Cleon’s supposed control of the democratic juries is the focus of
the playwright’s scorn. The poet’s criticism reaches beyond the person of Cleon to the whole institution of
popular juries, making The Wasps an important historical document regarding contemporary attitudes toward
this Athenian institution. The Wasps is, however, more than a political critique. Its plot revolves around a
single elderly juror whose son wishes to cure the old man’s addiction to jury service. The Wasps is a brilliant
social satire, partly as a result of its clever depiction of tensions between young and old and between rich and
poor in Athenian society.
The system of trial by popular jury was a hallmark of Athenian democracy and one of Athens’ unique
contributions to the world. Most lawsuits were heard by large juries, sometimes composed of mo