Cratinus was victorious 27 known times, eight times at the City Dionysia, first probably in the mid-to-late 450s BCE (IG II2 2325. 50), and three times at the Lenaia, first probably in the early 430s (IG II2 2325. 121; just before Pherecrates and Hermippus). He was still competing in 423, when his Pytine took the prize at the City Dionysia; he died shortly thereafter, at a very advanced age, about 97 years (test. 3).
Little is known of his personal history. His father's name was Callimedes, and he himself was a taxiarch. The Suda has brought several accusations against Cratinus. First, it accuses Cratinus of excessive cowardice. Secondly, a charge against the moral character. Thirdly, a charge of habitual intemperance. Having examined all these charges, it may be safe to say that all of these charges are unlikely enough to be true, and that there is no evidence that Cratinus really committed such things. Moreover, other writers, including Aristophanes, were silent on these charges, except the third charge, which is sustained by many passages of Aristophanes and other writers. They also refer the "Confession of Cratinus", which Cratinus himself seems to have treated the subject in a very amusing way, especially in his Pytine.
That he was related to the 4th-century comic poet Cratinus Junior is a reasonable hypothesis but cannot be proven.
Cratinus was regarded as one of the three great masters of Athenian Old Comedy (the others being Aristophanes and Eupolis). Although his poetry is several times described as relatively graceless, harsh, and crudely abusive (test. 17; 19), his plays continued to be read and studied in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. He wrote 21 comedies. 514 fragments (including ten dubia) of his comedies survive, along with 29 titles. His most famous play is the Pytine.
The Pytine (The Wineflask) was Cratinus' most famous play. A grammarian describes the background of the play as follows: In 424 BC, Aristophanes produced The Knights, in which he described Cratinus "as a drivelling old man, wandering about with his crown withered, and so utterly neglected by his former admirers that he could not even procure to quench the thirst of which he was perishing" Soon after that play, Cratinus responded by producing a play called Pytine (The Wineflask) in 423 BC, which defeated the Connus of Ameipsias and The Clouds of Aristophanes, which was produced in the same year.
In Grenfell and Hunt's Oxyrhynchus Papyri, iv. (1904), containing a further instalment of their edition of the Behnesa papyri discovered by them in 1896-1897, one of the greatest curiosities is a scrap of paper bearing the argument of a play by Cratinus, the Dionysalexandros (i.e. Dionysus in the part of Paris), aimed against Pericles; and the epitome reveals something of its wit and point. Other plays of Cratinus include
462 fragments of Cratinus survive.
The style of Cratinus has been likened to that of Aeschylus. He appears to have been fond of lofty diction and bold figures, and was most successful in the lyrical parts of his dramas, his choruses being the popular festal songs of his day. According to the statement of a doubtful authority, not borne out by Aristotle, Cratinus increased the number of actors in comedy to three.
The standard edition of the fragments and testimonia is in Kassel-Austin, Poetae Comici Graeci IV; Kock numbers are now outdated and should not be used.