The following entry presents criticism of Aristophanes's Archarnians (425 b.c.) For more information on Aristophanes's life and career, see CMLC, Volume 4.
The Acharnians was the third play written by Aristophanes, but is the first of his early works to have survived. The satire is remembered for its inventive storyline, which includes a private peace treaty between an ordinary Athenian farmer and Sparta; for its comic use of Euripidean tragic elements; for its metatheatrical element—calling attention to itself as a play; and for championing an ordinary man as hero. The Acharnians was also Aristophanes's first prize-winning play.
Aristophanes was born around 450 b.c. in Athens. His first play, Banqueters, was produced in 427, but is no longer extant. Also lost is his second, Babylonians, of 426. In the Babylonians, Aristophanes criticized Athenian government administrators, including an official named Kleon. In retaliation Kleon brought charges against Aristophanes, telling the council that the playwright had maliciously ridiculed them and, further, questioned Aristophanes's ties with the island of Aigina, thereby casting doubt on his Athenian citizenship. Aristophanes was cleared and further attacked Kleon in the Acharnians, in which he called Kleon a liar and a slanderer. This did not inhibit Kleon's rise to power; he would soon receive high honors and become a general. Aristophanes's career flourished as well, and he wrote some forty plays, which won for him six first-place prizes and four second-places, in dramatic competitions at Lenaea. Aristophanes died probably between 386 and 380.
Plot and Major Characters
The Acharnians opens with the common farmer Dikaiopolis talking to himself, waiting for the assembly to convene, and frustrated that there has been little or no movement towards a peace with Sparta. The first speaker, Amphitheos, declares that the gods have enjoined him to discuss peace with the enemy, but that he needs funding from the assembly for his journey. Instead of helping Amphitheos, the assembly ignores him and listens to one pompous and unrealistic ambassador after another. The assembly then dissolves and Dikaiopolis makes an offer to Amphitheos: Dikaiopolis will pay for his trip to Sparta if he will bring back a peace treaty between the Spartans and Dikaiopolis personally. Amphitheos accepts and quickly returns, his mission accomplished. Having negotiated privately with their hated enemy, Amphitheos has enraged some men from the village of Acharnai, who are in hot pursuit. Amphitheos then exits the play. The Acharnians mistake Dikaiopolis for Amphitheos, and are set to stone him. Dikaiopolis manages to put off his execution and visit Euripides, busy at work on a new tragedy. He borrows the beggar's costume of Euripides's pathetic hero Telephos to wear when arguing his case for peace to the Acharnians. In an eloquent speech, Dikaiopolis lays blame for the war not on Athens but on her leaders, some of whom are corrupt liars. A general named Lamachus declares that nothing will persuade him against never-ending warfare with Sparta. Dikaiopolis mocks him, and declares an area as his private market place. In a series of fantastic, humorous episodes, he makes numerous bargains with assorted traders and allies of the Spartans. General Lamachus is ordered off to fight and Dikaiopolis prepares for a feast. After an interlude the general returns, suffering painful injuries from an unsuccessful attempt to jump over a ditch, closely followed by a well-fed Dikaiopolis, who has won a national drinking contest and walks with a courtesan on each arm.
Critics have interpreted Acharnians as an eloquent plea for peace on the part of Aristophanes. Presenting war as a senseless endeavor that wreaks havoc with the lives of ordinary citizens, Aristophanes savagely satirizes the selfish and ineffectual politicians who carry on with their schemes but are deaf to the pleas of their constituents. In an absurd twist, therefore, an ordinary Greek farmer succeeds where all the politicians could not: he personally travels to Sparta and signs a private peace treaty with the enemy. Critics have also pointed out Aristophanes's highly effective emphasis on the everyday effects of war on Greek citizens, their impassioned determination to bring about peace, and, finally, on the benefits of living in peaceful times.
Unlike many other Greek playwrights, a large amount of Aristophanes's work has survived, including eleven complete comedies and more than a thousand fragments. In ancient times he was recognized as the greatest of the writers of Old Attic Comedy and he maintains this position in contemporary critical study as well, partly because no complete examples of Old Attic Comedy by any other writers are extant. In addition to being a comedy with many elements of Greek tragic theater, the Acharnians also has much to reveal to students of theater. Some of these technical elements of the Acharnians as a production are discussed by K. J. Dover, Carlo Ferdinando Russo, and Alan H. Sommerstein, while Aristophanes's expertise in characterization is analyzed by Tom Rothfield. In her discussion of the use of characters, Lois Spatz in particular emphasizes a major breakthrough: the use of a common member of the populace as hero instead of a semi-divine figure. Critics are also intrigued by Aristophanes calling attention to the fact that the audience is watching a play. His varied use of this and other metatheatrical elements is studied by Lauren K. Taaffe in her essay. Another technique which fascinates critics is Aristophanes's use of Euripides and Euripidean tragic elements. Both Douglas M. MacDowell and Helene Foley examine how these elements are parodied in Acharnians. Critics praise Aristophanes's wit, inventiveness, and elegant language while historians relish what he reveals of life in Athens, in both domestic and political spheres.
Banqueters (play) 427 b.c.
Babylonians (play) 426 b.c.
Acharnians (play) 425 b.c.
Knights (play) 424 b.c.
Clouds I (play) 423 b.c.
Wasps (play) 422 b.c.
Peace I (play) 421 b.c.
Clouds II (play) circa 418 b.c.
Birds (play) 414 b.c.
Peace II (play) 412 b.c.
Lysistrata (play) 411 b.c.
Thesmophoriazousai [Women at the Thesmophoria] I (play) 411 b.c.
Thesmophoriazousai Women at the Thesmophoria II (play) circa 410 b.c.
Frogs (play) 405 b.c.
Ekklesiazousai [Assemblywomen] (play) circa 392 b.c.
Plutus [Wealth] II (play) 388 b.c.
The Complete Greek Comedy (translated by William Arrowsmith, D. Parker and others) 1961-
The Complete Plays of Aristophanes (translated by Moses Hadas and others) 1962
The Comedies of Aristophanes (translated by Alan H. Sommerstein) 1980-
Aristophanes: Acharnians (translated by Jeffrey Henderson) 1992
Aristophanes I: Clouds, Wasps, Birds (translated by Peter Meineck) 1998
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SOURCE: Strauss, Leo. “The Other Plays: The Acharnians.” In Socrates and Aristophanes, pp. 57-79. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966.
[In the following essay, Strauss offers a detailed analysis of the Acharnians.]
The Acharnians begins, like the Clouds, with a soliloquy by an oldish rustic who gives vent to his discomfort; but in the Acharnians the soliloquy takes place not indoors but in public, and it concerns matters that are not merely private but also public. Regarding the Clouds, one may doubt whether the oldish rustic Strepsiades or Socrates is the chief character; regarding the Acharnians, there can be no doubt that the oldish rustic Dikaiopolis is the chief character. Dikaiopolis has come to the Pnyx, as is his wont, very early. He is the very first to arrive, long before the Assembly begins, while the other citizens and even the magistrates, in their indifference to the concerns of the city, linger elsewhere and arrive only at the last moment. He is the only Athenian for whom the Assembly can not begin soon enough. Compelled by the war to live in town, he longs for his village where he produced everything he needed; he loathes the town where he has to buy everything. While waiting for the beginning of the Assembly he passes his time by doing a great variety of things, among them yawning and writing. At the beginning of the play we find...
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SOURCE: Dover, K. J. “Acharnians.” In Aristophanic Comedy, pp. 78-88. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
[In the following essay, Dover discusses pertinent aspects for consideration in productions of the Acharnians, including a discussion about the theme of war as it is addressed in the play.]
The Peloponnesian War has lasted for nearly six years, and during that time the population of Attica has been concentrated within the perimeter of Athens, Peiraieus and the walls connecting the two. Their farms have been burned and their vines and olive-trees cut down by invading Peloponnesian armies each summer; but control of the seas and the coasts by Athenian naval power has not been impaired or even effectively challenged. In this situation an Athenian farmer, Dikaiopolis, has decided that he would rather be at peace than at war, and he has come to the assembly to make as much fuss as he can. He gets no comfort from the proceedings of the assembly. A certain Amphitheos, who declares himself immortal and of divine ancestry, announces that the gods have given him the job of making peace between Athens and Sparta; he is at once removed from the assembly by the police, and the assembly shows itself interested only in how to increase the scale of the war. An Athenian embassy sent to Persia twelve years earlier, with a stipend of two drachmai a day for...
(The entire section is 5089 words.)
SOURCE: Solomos, Alexis. “The Acharnians—Comedy and Ideology.” In The Living Aristophanes, pp. 67-85. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1974.
[In the following essay, Solomos presents an overview of the Acharnians and explains why the political parody appealed to the war-weary populace of its time.]
In his plays he tried to show that the Athenian state was free and by no tyrant oppressed.
Ancient Life of Aristophanes
The Babylonians was produced five years after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War and almost three after Pericles' death. Following the production of this play, Cleon brought an action against Aristophanes for insulting the State “in the presence of foreigners.”1 In his next play, the Acharnians, the poet will recall:
… what I myself endured at Cleon's hands for last year's comedy. How to the Counsil House he dragged me off, and slayed and lied and slandered and betongued me, roaring Cycloborus-wise; till I well nigh was done to death …(2)
Justice triumphed, however, and Aristophanes was exculpated. Yet this trial was only the first round of a long fight. The powerful demagogue re-attacked the young author some time later on the ground of his supposedly...
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SOURCE: Spatz, Lois. “War and Peace: Acharnians (Akharnēs) and Peace (Eirēnē).” In Aristophanes, pp. 30-45. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.
[In the following essay, Spatz traces the development of Dikaiopolis's character in the Acharnians, from a poor refugee to a triumphant, powerful individual.]
I SUMMARY OF ACHARNIANS
The Acharnians, which won first prize at the Lenaea of 425, reflects conditions in Athens during the sixth year of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles' war strategy was to defeat the enemy quickly by maintaining control of the seas without risking a land battle with the superior Spartan army. In effect, the area outside Athens was abandoned to the enemy. For the past six summers, all the farmers of Attica had retreated within the city walls to watch as the Spartan invaders ravaged their fields. They suffered as much from the expense and discomfort of city life as from the loss of their crops. But by 425 Pericles was dead, and unfortunately for the refugees, the war dragged on with no end in sight.
Dicaeopolis, the hero of the Acharnians, is just such a refugee. In the prologue the old farmer laments his changed life while he waits for the assembly to meet. His hopes for a serious discussion of peace are quickly smashed when Amphitheus is ejected from the meeting for raising the subject. Instead the citizens hear...
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SOURCE: MacDowell, Douglas M. “Akharnians.” In Aristophanes and Athens: An Introduction to the Plays, 46-79. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, MacDowell examines Dikaiopolis's use of the Euripidean hero and his trappings in order to promote his speech urging peace with Sparta.]
THE EFFECTS OF WAR
Akharnians was performed at the Lenaia in 425 bc, and won the first prize. It is a play about war and peace. The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta was already in its sixth year and there was no prospect of an early end to it. The chief character of the play, Dikaiopolis, hates the war, but he fails to persuade the other Athenians to consider how peace can be made. He therefore, by fantastic means, makes a separate peace treaty for himself and his family, to the horror of the warlike old men of Akharnai who form the chorus.
The main reason why Dikaiopolis hates the war is that he has been compelled to leave his home in the country and live in the town. This was a consequence of Athenian strategy in the war's early years. The Spartans' method of conducting the war was to invade Attica with their army. Perikles realized that the Athenians, whose power was primarily naval, could not defeat the Spartans and their allies by land, and so he persuaded the Athenians not to attempt a land battle, but to take refuge...
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SOURCE: Rothfield, Tom. “Plot as Thematic Framework: Acharnians in Analysis.” In Classical Comedy: Armoury of Laughter, Democracy's Bastion of Defence: Introducing a Law of Opposites, pp. 69-86. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1999.
[In the following essay, Rothfield analyzes Aristophanes's skill in creating dynamic conflict and his practice of keeping his characters consistent in their own personal behaviors.]
Expressed in this simple way, on the face of it, one is bound to ask: why was this plot structure of such great importance to Aristophanes? In which exact aspect lies its value as idea-structure—i.e. an intellectual basis—for each of his comedies? Is it because the military ethos seems to underlie these power struggles whatever their nature? It is illuminating to select a single comedy—and why not Acharnians, Aristophanes' first play to come down to us, and the earliest extant comedy in existence?—to follow the process, in a step by step analysis. Earlier we expressed the antagonist Dikaiopolis' idea in this fashion:
Getting a peace treaty for oneself (with the help of an immortal god) benefits a man more than fighting a war on behalf of a corrupt and dilatory State.
Predicated on this basis, the thrust of the comedy takes the action into war and peace, bringing these opposite forces into a...
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Ehrenberg, Victor. The People of Aristophanes: A Sociology of Old Attic Comedy. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1943, 319p.
Presents a historical and sociological account of life in ancient Athens as gleaned from Old Attic Comedy.
Elliott, Richard Thomas. Introduction to The Acharnians of Aristophanes, by Aristophanes, edited by Richard Thomas Elliott, pp. vii-xxxix. London: Oxford University Press, 1914.
Compares variant texts from many different manuscripts and fragments.
Foley, Helene. “Tragedy and Politics in Aristophanes' Acharnians.” In Theater and Society in the Classical World, edited by Ruth Scodel, pp. 119-38. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993.
Investigates how Aristophanes manipulated Euripidean tragedy in order to convince his audience to accept his political satire.
Moulton, Carroll. “The Lyric of Insult and Abuse.” In Aristophanic Poetry, pp. 18-47. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1981.
Examines variations of invective in Aristophanes's plays.
Murray, Gilbert. “Ancient Greek Comedy: Aristophanes' Background (Daitales, Babylonians, Acharnians).” In Aristophanes: A Study, pp. 1-38. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1964.
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