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Acharnians Aristophanes

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...

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Acharnians Aristophanes

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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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

Leo Strauss (essay date 1966)

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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 him engaged in attempting to count the very few pleasures—exactly four—that he had in town, whereas he had there innumerable pains. He succeeds in enumerating a political pleasure, a Music pain, a Music pleasure, and another Music pain. We learn from his enumeration that he loves Aeschylus. After having mentioned his second pain he turns not to his third pleasure but to his third pain, his present pain—a pain so great and so intense that it prevents him from even completing his enumeration of his four pleasures. His present pain is connected with the war, the source of his innumerable pains. Compared with these pains, even the pains that he derived from bad poetry or music might well appear to him to have been pleasures; to say nothing of the fact that bad poetry or music, by virtue of being laughable, affords some pleasure. The political pleasure that he felt was caused by Kleon's having been heavily fined, thanks to the knights; it is possible that this event occurred in a comedy, rather than in life. Surely Dikaiopolis is as little an average rustic as Strepsiades; he is an unusually Music rustic. It is because he loves the Muses that he loathes war more than the average rustic. Loathing the war wholeheartedly, he has come to today's Assembly resolved to do everything he can in favor of peace. His private woes—in contradistinction to Strepsiades'—can not be removed except by political action, or his private pleasures can not be obtained except by benefiting the city.

Dikaiopolis finds wholly unexpected and even miraculous support. The first speaker in the Assembly, Amphitheos, and only he, has been charged by the gods to treat with the Spartans about peace; although he is an Athenian citizen he is not a human being (cf. 46 and 57), but himself an immortal. He needs the assistance of the Assembly because the magistrates have declined to supply him with funds for travel to Sparta. The gods obviously wish the Athenians to show their earnest desire for peace (without such earnestness they do not deserve peace, or there will be no genuine peace); and the clearest proof that men wish something earnestly is that they are prepared to spend money for it. Surely, the peace must be negotiated between the Athenians and the Spartans; if an immortal is to negotiate for the Athenians, he must himself be an Athenian, and he must travel to Sparta like an Athenian, i.e., he needs money for travel; but being an immortal, Amphitheos, as he says, has no travel money. The Athenians do not pay the slightest attention to the will of the gods. Against Dikaiopolis' protest, Amphitheos is silenced by the police. Dikaiopolis' pain is increased when the Assembly, far from discussing peace with Sparta, turns to alliances with barbarians against Sparta. The Athenians who had been sent to the king of Persia as ambassadors years ago have finally come back. One of them gives an account of the unheard-of things they have experienced abroad and of the efforts they have made on behalf of the city. To Dikaiopolis' disgust, the ambassador is unaware of the shocking contrast between their experiences and the simultaneous experiences of the bulk of the Athenians, between the wartime austerity in Athens and their own leisurely progress to the Persian court in the utmost comfort, being wined and dined—to say nothing of the even grander progress of the Persian king to his privy. The Athenian ambassadors introduce the Persian ambassador, the king's Eye. He has an immense eye in the midst of his forehead. It is not an Aristophanean character who understood “the king's Eye” to mean a man who is almost nothing but an eye; the poet himself presents the king's Eye as a Big Eye. The poet himself does what Strepsiades does: He understands things too literally; generally speaking, he achieves some of his comical effects by Strepsiadizing, by making himself more stupid than he is. Or, to state this from the point of view of Socrates—of a man whose fundamental defect induces him, among other things, to regard the imitation as prior to the imitated—Strepsiades is a comedian (Clouds 296). Dikaiopolis' strong loathing of Persian bombast and Athenian boasting, as well as of everything tending to perpetuate the war—perhaps co-operating with his ignorance of the Persian tongue and Persian gestures, and the Persian's ignorance of the Greek tongue and Greek gestures—make him certain that the whole embassy from the Persian king is a gross fraud perpetrated by the Athenian ambassadors. But so great is the Athenians' addiction to the war that Dikaiopolis' apparent unmasking of the Persian ambassadors is not even noticed by the Assembly. His patience has now reached its limit. He decides on an enormous and grand deed. He pays Amphitheos the money required for the journey to Sparta and back out of his own pocket, so that the immortal citizen can bring a truce for him alone, i.e., for him, his wife, and his children. He knows that he acts according to the will of the gods and that peace is best for the city as a whole, i.e., that his action is just; the city that prefers war to peace is unjust. He must act for the good of the city against the will of the city. Yet, since he can not force the city to make peace, the most he can do, in order to be just, is to make peace for himself alone. Amphitheos, who alone has been charged by the gods to make peace with Sparta, is to make that peace for Dikaiopolis alone (52, 131). The superhuman and the private conspire against the city.

After Amphitheos leaves, the Assembly is addressed by the Athenian ambassadors to King Sitalkes, who introduce the troops sent in support of Athens by that ally. While Dikaiopolis never believes that the Persian king would send gold to the Athenians, he is but too certain that the Thracian king has sent mercenaries for gold, at atrociously high pay, for these murderous and thievish fellows are a menace to every Athenian. Fortunately he observes, or rather invents, an omen which, by putting an end to the meeting of the Assembly, prevents a decision in favor of the Thracians' pay. As the contrast between his failure regarding the Persian embassy and his success regarding the Thracian embassy shows, fraud can not be fought by the truth, but only by fraud. The Assembly is barely dissolved when Amphitheos returns from Sparta; he has performed his mission with the speed of an immortal. Dispatch and secrecy are indispensable for the success of treason, as Machiavelli would say. Since he made the journey within such a short time, he must have netted considerable savings from his travel funds; he does not return the surplus to Dikaiopolis, who indeed does not even ask for it. It is not necessary to assume that Amphitheos is greedy for money, since he is in a great hurry because he is being pursued by some old Acharnians. Dikaiopolis does not pay attention to the dangers threatening Amphitheos. He is only interested in the treaties that Amphitheos brought back. With characteristic literalness—spondai means both truce and libations—and sensuality he chooses the truce that smells best and tastes best, i.e., that runs for the greatest number of years. Freed from the war, he will celebrate the rural Dionysia. Amphitheos however must run away from the Acharnians who pursue him. He is never seen or heard of again. Amphitheos' action is kept completely separate from the main action of the play; Amphitheos is a Euripidean deus ex machina, or rather the comic equivalent thereof. His speed is equal to his fear. He will not benefit from Dikaiopolis' truce. The only benefit that he himself derives from his philanthropic action is the possession of the travel funds.

The Acharnians do not find Amphitheos. They mistake Dikaiopolis for Amphitheos. The mistake is inevitable: Dikaiopolis and no one else celebrates the Dionysia in the country. The mistake is in fact no mistake at all, for the crime that arouses their patriotic indignation was in the first place committed by Dikaiopolis, and its fruits are enjoyed only by him. Dikaiopolis has then to face the Acharnians. Amphitheos' action proves to be only the necessary condition for Dikaiopolis' private peace, and not its sufficient condition. He must remove his private woes by private and, in addition, purely human action. The alleged crime against gods and men for which the Acharnians pursue him is treason; he has made peace for himself alone, with utter disregard of the city, by negotiating privately with the city's hated enemy; his pursuers act on behalf of the city; they embody the spirit of the city: They are old men, Marathon fighters, the most passionate haters in Athens of the Spartans, from whom they have suffered more than did any other part of the city; accordingly they hate Dikaiopolis even more than they hate Kleon. (Dikaiopolis too hates Kleon; Dikaiopolis and the Acharnians belong to the same political party; their opposition is not located on the political plane.) The Acharnians remind us of the Just Speech. Accordingly, Dikaiopolis—in spite of his name—reminds us of the Unjust Speech. Surely Dikaiopolis has in common with Strepsiades that he puts his family above the city. Yet while Strepsiades turns against the city's laws, or at least some of them, Dikaiopolis turns against the city's war; and while Strepsiades acts against the will of the gods, Dikaiopolis acts in agreement with it. Accordingly, while the Clouds is a playful presentation of the issue of father-beating, the Acharnians is a playful presentation of the much more political, grave, and explosive issue of treason; and whereas the father-beating is only partly successful, the treason is entirely successful.

Dikaiopolis is not conscious of any guilt. He has simply forgotten the city. Besides, he had the gods on his side in making peace with Sparta for himself and his family. The family is more powerfully present in the Acharnians than in the Clouds; there are no quarrels within Dikaiopolis' family. Dikaiopolis is less unerotic than Strepsiades. The Acharnians find him engaged in sacrificing and praying to Dionysos; without knowing it, he thus may gain the help of that god against the Acharnians. Dionysos is a god of sex, but not of the family; in his phallic song Dikaiopolis lovingly and jubilantly calls the god's companion adulterer and pederast, and he praises the pleasure of lying with a young slave girl in the woods. The Acharnians refuse to listen to anything Dikaiopolis might say in justification of his truce; his treason being manifest, there is nothing for them to do but to punish him with death. Realizing that the Acharnians will not permit him to say anything in favor of the Spartans, he first tries to defend his truce with the Spartans without any regard to its being a truce with the Spartans. He implies that not every private truce is defensible or decent, wholly regardless of who and of what character the enemy is; perhaps he means that in order to be decent a private truce must not be made from cowardice (from preferring slavery to fighting), or must be authorized by the gods. Dikaiopolis shows by deed that he is not a coward, yet he never justifies his action by referring to Amphitheos' commission; he never even mentions Amphitheos to the Acharnians or to anybody else: Even the Acharnians might not have believed the story. More simply, if peace is good and war is bad, it does not seem to make a difference who and of what character the enemy is. Yet can peace be better than war against an absolutely unjust enemy? Dikaiopolis is therefore driven to assert that the Spartans are not absolutely unjust, that not all injustices have been committed by the Spartans or that some injustice has been done to the Spartans. The Acharnians are still more incensed by Dikaiopolis' boldness, not to say impudence, in defending the enemy. Yet he goes still further. He almost demands that he be given the opportunity to prove the justice of his case in a court of law; he surely demands that he should be permitted to state his case with his head on the executioner's block. The Acharnians now can no longer restrain themselves. In this most desperate situation Dikaiopolis stops them by convincing them that he has as hostages for his life their very best friends, i.e., that he completely controls their sources of livelihood. Thereupon the Acharnians permit him not only to live but to say anything he pleases in favor of his Spartan friends: They who were such passionate enemies of the Spartans because of the damage the Spartans had done to their property cease to be passionate enemies of the Spartans when their passion appears to them to lead to complete destruction of their property; in other words, they who regarded the betrayal of the fatherland as a heinous crime, which they must capitally punish on the spot, would rather tolerate betrayal of the fatherland than betrayal of the sources of their livelihood (340, 290). Dikaiopolis has succeeded in convincing the fire-eating Marathon fighters that there is a higher good than the fatherland. He has stopped them and disarmed them. He could have sent them away. But he is a just man; he uses his stranglehold on them not to escape punishment for a capital crime but only to get a hearing for his side of the case. In spite or because of his victory, he is going to state the case for the Spartans with his head on the executioner's block, with the understanding that he will be executed if he does not convince the Acharnians of the justice of the Spartans. His justice—the justice of his apparent act of treason—stands or falls by the injustice of the Athenians' war against Sparta, or by the justice of the Spartans' war against Athens. It is not sufficient that the Athenians become inclined to peace because they are tired of the war; they must first come to acknowledge their war guilt; they must free themselves from their conceited patriotism. Only then can Dikaiopolis' peace be secure. But the fact that his action is just does not prove that it is legal; he settles illegally the question of whether the injustice of a city's war entitles a citizen to withdraw from that war. Still, Dikaiopolis' action against the will of the city in favor of his family succeeds because it develops into a public demonstration and thus shows a way to the city; whereas Strepsiades' action against the will of the city in favor of his family fails because it does not show a way to the city.

After they have seen that Dikaiopolis is an honest man, the Acharnians, as one might have expected, recover their open hostility to him; they are now anxious that he undergo his quasi-trial. But he is not yet ready for it. He is not yet able to speak to the Acharnians. He reveals his situation to the audience, or to us, in a soliloquy. He will not go back on his promise to speak bravely and frankly in favor of the Spartans, the enemy, but he is not eager to die. He has many fears; he knows that he is one against many, not to say against all;1 against him the Acharnians (old rustics, Marathon fighters) and Kleon are united; he is much more exposed than Socrates. And, in contradistinction to Socrates, he is unable or unwilling to win his case by hook or by crook. He must reveal his thought on a most dangerous subject to his fellow citizens without any cleverness or disguise; he must reveal himself; he must strip. Hitherto we knew him only as an oldish rustic, if a particularly Music rustic, an Attic Hesiod, as it were. Now he reveals himself as the comic poet Aristophanes himself. In other words, Aristophanes first comes to sight as something lower than he is, in the disguise of an oldish rustic. Among the many things that Dikaiopolis admits fearing, we may then count without hesitation the danger that the Acharnians will not receive the first prize. Dikaiopolis' danger is so great, not only because of his justice and the unpopular character of his cause, but also because he can not use his only power—that of the comic poet—against men filled to overflowing with righteous indignation. What he needs is something that the comic poet is unable to provide: He must arouse his mortal enemies' compassion. Only by appearing as a man who is not provocative, fearless, or fear-inspiring, but most pitiable, fearful, or submissive can he who fears to die act fearlessly. Despite his immense courage, he needs, as the Acharnians see, a most clever and complete disguise, but they do not see that the disguise must not reveal his cleverness; under no circumstances must he appear to the Acharnians to be clever. Even the disguise of a rustic is no longer sufficient; he needs a still lower disguise; he must go beyond Strepsiadizing. In order to be able to endure his ordeal, he needs such a disguise as only that tragic poet who is a past master in arousing compassion can provide. However much he loves Aeschylus, he now needs the help of Euripides. Without knowing or revealing it, he, the lover of peace, who puts the household above the city, was all the time in sympathy with Euripides or the Unjust Speech (or Pheidippides), rather than with the Just Speech (or Strepsiades) or the Marathon fighter Aeschylus, who praises Ares and Lamachos, Dikaiopolis' chief antagonist.2 Strepsiades' cause becomes publicly defensible through Socrates' art and thus destroys itself; Dikaiopolis' cause becomes publicly defensible through Euripides' art and thus preserves itself. Considerable parts of the Acharnians are parodies of Euripidean tragedy; but just like the other characteristics of the Aristophanean comedy, his parodies of tragedies too have their noncomic meaning. This is shown by the mere fact that each parody performs a necessary function within the particular comedy in which it occurs. Surely in the present case the parody of Euripides indicates that Aristophanes is in need of Euripides or “depends” on him in a manner that is comically reflected in Dikaiopolis' need for Euripides.

Dikaiopolis' going to Euripides resembles Strepsiades' going to Socrates. Just as Strepsiades first meets a pupil of Socrates through whom he receives the first inkling of Socrates' wisdom, Dikaiopolis first meets a servant of Euripides through whom he receives an inkling of Euripides' wisdom; according to Euripides' servant, a man himself is his body rather than the mind (cf. Clouds 1275-76). But Dikaiopolis does not commit the solecism committed by Strepsiades in the corresponding scene: Although he is in much greater danger than Strepsiades, he does not pray to the gods. This difference is not sufficiently explained by the fact that Euripides is much easier of access than Socrates. Euripides' easiness of access contrasts with its alleged “impossibility” (402, 408); Dikaiopolis can easily convince Euripides that what Euripides asserts to be impossible is in fact possible, for Euripides himself is a master of rendering possible the impossible by the deus ex machina: Euripides himself is the deus ex machina. Yet, while Socrates descends to Strepsiades, Euripides does not descend: Tragedy must not mingle with comedy; tragedy can not incorporate verses from comedies, whereas comedy may—nay, must—incorporate verses from tragedy. Comedy is essentially preceded by tragedy. In contradistinction to Strepsiades, Dikaiopolis does not introduce himself by adding his father's name to his own.

Dikaiopolis asks Euripides for the rags and six other accoutrements of his most pitiable and beggarly hero, who was at the same time a clever speaker, on the ground that he needs them to save his life. Euripides grants his request without making any serious difficulty. Speaking as one clever dramatist to another, Dikaiopolis can afford to disregard entirely the dramatic illusion: The beggar's outfit is not meant to deceive the audience, but only the chorus, which, while pretending to consist of old Acharnians, must only pretend to see in him a most pitiable man in mortal danger at its hands. The comic poet can not go further in urging his audience not to take him seriously but to laugh with him about him. Yet this extreme self-depreciation is not indeed the most compassion-arousing, but the most laughable or most lowly disguise. Comedy itself is the most effective disguise of wisdom. The parody of a tragic hero in filthy rags is a still better disguise than that tragic hero himself. In other words, in pretending to take the majority of the citizens (the audience consisting chiefly of genuine “Acharnians”) into his confidence against a tiny minority (the chorus consisting of the alleged Acharnians), he in fact conspires with a wise minority in the audience against the large majority.

After he has left Euripides' halls, Dikaiopolis returns to his role. Inasmuch as he is now a beggar, yet through what he says in his speech pretends to be more than a beggar, he resembles the Unjust Speech as the latter was in the good old times (Clouds 921-22). He trembles again at his great task: His trembling heart must speak in favor of the Spartans, with him in danger of losing his head, but at his command it ceases to tremble. The Acharnians, however, regard his hard-won intrepidity as sheer impudence. He addresses his speech not to the chorus but to the audience, and he speaks in the capacity not of a comic poet disguised as a beggar but of both a beggar and a comic poet. That is to say, his speech is not entirely jocular. He addresses the city regarding the city. He had tried to do this in the Assembly, where he appeared as a simple rustic, but there he utterly failed; he succeeds in doing it as comic poet. He apologizes for addressing the city regarding the city in a comedy: A single man can not oppose the whole city except most humbly, for there is an enormous contrast between the puniness of the individual (367) and the grandeur of the city and of that for which the city stands, the just things. Yet it may happen that the city despises the just things and that the latter thus become in their way as lowly as the comedy, or that only the comedy can safely say the just things. He warns his audience that what he is going to say will be harsh but just. It is just, not only by what it says, but also by the manner in which it says it: Dikaiopolis-Aristophanes can not be accused by Kleon of speaking ill of the city in the presence of strangers, for the Acharnians is performed on the Lenaian festival where only Athenians—citizens or metics—are present. His hatred of the Spartans is, of course, second to no man's, for his property too has been damaged by them (he thus denies implicitly that he is a beggar); but the Spartans are not the cause of all our evils. Above all, the Spartans are not responsible for the war. God forbid that Dikaiopolis should say that the Athenians, the city of Athens, started the war. Just as Plato's Socrates distinguishes between the unblamable laws and the blameworthy human administration of the laws, Dikaiopolis distinguishes between the unblamable city and the blameworthy human administration of the city. To mention only the main example, some silly Athenian youths had kidnaped a Megarian strumpet, whereupon the Megarians, in their anger, kidnaped two strumpets belonging to Aspasia, whereupon Perikles saw fit to vindicate the honor of that foreign female by causing his Megarian decree to be passed. The Megarians, reduced to extremities, asked the Spartans to induce the Athenians to repeal that decree but “we”—i.e., the city—refused to repeal it. This meant war, for Sparta had to help her unjustly attacked ally, Megara, just as Athens would have helped any of her unjustly attacked allies. After having slyly appealed to an anti-Periklean prejudice, Dikaiopolis then unmistakably asserts that not Perikles but Athens, only Athens, is responsible for the war, and that the Spartans are wholly guiltless: Only because the city's war is altogether unjust is his private peace altogether just. In the Assembly he had not even hinted at the Athenians' war guilt, although one could say that Amphitheos' or the gods' action implies that the Athenians must take the initiative toward peace because the Athenians started the war. However this may be, Dikaiopolis' peace is now an accomplished fact, and he must defend it in the best publicly defensible manner. This means that his public defense does not necessarily reveal his view of the origin of the war or the true motive of his private peace.

Dikaiopolis' well-prepared speech has a resounding success: He convinces one-half of the Acharnians. It matters little that the other half is angrier than ever (his having said just things against the city makes matters not better but worse for him); for treason ceases to be treason when the city is split into two: Dikaiopolis now has powerful defenders; the Acharnians still opposed to him must now kill the other Acharnians before they can kill him. By successfully withstanding the first assault of what is in fact an alliance, he enables himself to split the alliance. The Acharnians, whom he failed to persuade but who are now seriously threatened, call Lamachos, the war spirit incarnate, to their help. Dikaiopolis would be lost if Lamachos and the hostile half of the Acharnians were to join forces. He can not possibly win Lamachos over to his side; he must therefore try to arouse enmity between the Acharnians and Lamachos. He must deny a common ground to the Acharnians and Lamachos; he must find a common ground between the Acharnians and himself. There is no common ground between him and the still-hostile Acharnians regarding the responsibility for the war. He therefore buries his accusation of the city in silence and worse than silence. Instead he takes issue with Lamachos' accusing him of being a beggar. He who had not hesitated when it suited him to describe himself as a beggar (497) can not now be a beggar (and still less a comic poet), for Acharnians have nothing in common with beggars. He now describes himself as a respectable citizen—just a plain citizen like all other plain citizens, a citizen soldier, and no brass like Lamachos. The only defense left to Lamachos3 is that he and his like were duly elected to their high position by the demos, which amounts to saying that by blaming Lamachos and the like one blames the demos. Dikaiopolis can not meet this defense, but he turns the tables by emphasizing the fact that having been elected by the demos does not mean living like the demos and therewith truly belonging to the demos. While his appeal to anti-Periklean resentment had been only partly successful, his appeal to anti-brass resentment is entirely successful, for the large majority does not belong to the brass. When he suggests that he made his private peace not because of Athens' war guilt but because of his indignation over the privileges enjoyed by these war profiteers—prior to the war they were good-for-nothings and beggars; during the war they are given lucrative assignments behind the fighting lines—and the suffering of the common people—in peace hardworking honest citizens, during the war grayhaired, underpaid, and underfed fighters bossed around by fellows who could be their sons—all Acharnians come over to his side. Even Lamachos' indication that Dikaiopolis' argument is an attack on democracy is of no avail to him, for democracy means—does it not?—that everything should be for the demos. The justice of the war remains controversial; the unjust distribution of the burdens of the war is an unbeatable argument: Even those Acharnians who, from hatred of the Spartans or simple patriotism, could not bear to hear of Athens' war guilt, are won over by the appeal to their envy. No one trained by Socrates could have done better than, or even as well as, Dikaiopolis. Armed with Euripides' devices and political shrewdness one can overcome the superior force of the city much better than with the support of the Clouds and of Socrates' forensic rhetoric.

Lamachos leaves, declaring that he will go on waging war with the Spartans and all their allies at all times, in all places, with all branches of the armed services, and with all might. Dikaiopolis, however, invites all foreign enemies of the city to come to trade with him, i.e., to sell him their merchandise, but not with Lamachos. This is quite surprising, not because beggars do not have the wherewithal to buy (for we know already that Dikaiopolis is not a beggar), but since, as he made clear in his initial soliloquy, a major reason why he loathed life in town and therefore longed for peace was precisely that in town he had to buy everything, whereas in the country or in peace he did not buy anything. A yet greater surprise is about to come. The chorus tells us that Dikaiopolis is victorious in the debate and that he persuades the demos regarding his truce. This action of the demos, and it alone, makes his peace secure. We expect the next step to be the formal transformation of his private truce into a public truce. This precisely had been his initial desire: to have peace, public peace, so that he can stop buying things. Now he has overcome all obstacles to the fulfillment of his heart's desire. But now he has ceased to desire at all “public peace and no buying.” Dikaiopolis turns away not only from the badly managed city but from the city simply. This striking change can not be explained by the fact that he alone has borne the cost of the private truce, for the converted demos will gladly reimburse him. We are compelled to explain the self-contradiction by the fact that he plays a variety of roles (Music rustic, comic poet, comic poet disguised as a beggar, beggar, plain citizen soldier); the two incompatible positions regarding buying belong to different roles. This compels us indeed to wonder who is the true Dikaiopolis, or who is Dikaiopolis himself. There can be no doubt as to Dikaiopolis' playing a variety of roles; at least one of these roles was assumed by him openly, if in the privacy of Euripides' house, before our eyes. With a comparatively slight exaggeration one may say that in the Acharnians, in contrast to the Clouds, everything takes place in the open; for Dikaiopolis' action, in contrast to Strepsiades' (or Socrates'), requires the support of the public: To defraud one's creditors (as distinguished from the canceling of debts through legal or revolutionary action) is not publicly defensible, whereas peacemaking is. Accordingly, there is no action during the parabasis of the Acharnians, whereas in the Clouds both Strepsiades' and Pheidippides' indoor instruction takes place during the parabaseis. For in the Acharnians, in contrast to the Clouds, the action is completed prior to the parabasis: Dikaiopolis has achieved all that he wants; he is no longer in any danger and is therefore no longer in need of any disguise or concealment; after the parabasis, and only then, can he show himself, i.e., his true motive in making his private peace. Accordingly, the action of the Clouds is almost completely separated from the action of the audience; the only action that is expected from the audience of the Clouds will follow the conclusion of the play, namely, the awarding or not awarding of the prize to the play as play. In the Acharnians, however, the action of the play depends decisively on the action of the audience, for Dikaiopolis needs the support of the audience for the security of his private peace: The destruction of the dramatic illusion (as in the open assumption by Dikaiopolis of a dramatic role) is part of the dramatic illusion. This is connected with the fact that in the Acharnians the chief actor is the comic poet himself.

As we have already stated, the parabasis of the Acharnians has a very different function from the parabasis of the Clouds. In the Clouds no one except the chorus of Clouds speaks for Aristophanes. In the Acharnians, however, Dikaiopolis speaks for Aristophanes (377-79, 502-3), and the chorus of Acharnians are Dikaiopolis' deadly enemies. They must first be converted by Dikaiopolis to his cause before they can speak, as they must in the parabasis, on behalf of the poet. That conversion was consummated immediately before the parabasis. After having stripped, i.e., ceased to pretend that they are old Acharnians, the chorus chants the praises of Aristophanes' excellence. This praise has become necessary because he has been calumniated by Kleon as a man who treats the city comically and insults the demos. His reply shows that Kleon's action had some foundation. He makes the chorus assert on his behalf that he has done great service to the Athenians by combating their vanity or boastfulness and thus preventing their being fooled by the flatteries of foreigners. Boastfulness is a vice that comedy hits and hurts more directly than any other vice.4 Comedy would be powerless against righteous indignation if righteous indignation were not always on the verge of turning into boastfulness. Aristophanes also taught the Athenians to treat their subject cities justly. Therefore these foreigners now come to Athens full of eagerness to see that most excellent poet who had dared to say the just things among the Athenians. The poet shows by deed that one way of debunking boasters is to outboast them. His boasting reaches its peak when he makes the chorus assert that the fame of the poet's daring reached the very king of Persia—the center of the greatest pomp and pompousness—who thereupon predicted the Athenians' victory in the war on the ground that they possess not only the superior navy but also this poet who, by rebuking them as severely as he does, proves to be the best adviser. The poet thus tacitly suggests that the Persian king will not ally himself with Sparta, that Athens' prospects in the war are excellent, and hence that it would be foolish for the city to make peace now. Aristophanes' excellence is also the reason why the Spartans are anxious for a peace through which they would get hold of the poet. The Spartans show silently what the king of Persia showed by speech: The man most important for Athens' well-being is Aristophanes. The poet tacitly warns his fellow citizens against making peace with Sparta under the condition mentioned, i.e., the only one under which peace can be obtained now, for they need him badly because he treats the just things comically. The poet has given two most powerful reasons why he does not attempt to transform his private peace into a public peace. Comical treatment of the just things is necessary to the extent to which the city does not tolerate the blame of its injustice; the only safe treatment of this dangerous subject is a comical one. In other words, the noncomical teaching of the just things is in danger of becoming boastful. In addition, the poet will lead the Athenians to bliss by teaching the best things: He teaches the best things by his comical treatment of the just things (like his comical treatment of the rights and wrongs of the origin of the Peloponnesian War in the Acharnians). The best things are then not simply the just things. Nevertheless, both the good and the just are Aristophanes' allies, while his enemy is Kleon above everything and everyone else—Kleon who is both bad and unjust (664), whom the Acharnians had hated from the beginning, and whom they now hate even more.

In the parabasis proper of the Clouds, Aristophanes rebukes the Athenians, i.e., the city (525-26), in his own name. In the corresponding part of the Acharnians he limits himself to replying to those who rebuked him; if he rebukes anyone there, it is Kleon. This is in accordance with all that went before (515-16), especially with the fact that in his role as Dikaipolis he has won the city over to his side. He leaves the rebuke of the city in the parabasis of the Acharnians to the Acharnians speaking of their own concern as distinguished from the poet's concern. He thus brings out the profound difference between himself and the Acharnians5 and therefore also between his understanding of his peace and the Acharnians' understanding of it. As he has made abundantly clear, the city is much more in need of him than he is of the city. The Acharnians too have great merit about the city, but through services in the past: They are old citizens and nothing else; they are the very men who fought at Marathon two generations ago. Hence they are useless to the city now and are treated accordingly by the city. Whereas Dikaiopolis can take care of himself, the Acharnians depend on the city. Whereas Dikaiopolis only played the beggar, the Acharnians are truly beggars. The true character of the Acharnians thus revealed to them and by them explains their action against Dikaiopolis. It also explains why they, and not Dikaiopolis, blame the city: The city neglects its best citizens, i.e., its oldest citizens. Their very Muse is Acharnian and nothing but Acharnian; it is not Aristophanes' Muse. Her effect reminds them of what goes on in the kitchen when a most savory meat is prepared. They purpose a law to prevent old, slow, decrepit men like themselves from being at the mercy of young, clever, and glib speakers in the law courts: Old men ought to plead only against old men and young men against young; that is to say, those by nature weaker should be protected by the law against those who are by nature stronger; the law should establish equality, not by disregarding natural inequality, but by considering it. The Acharnians obviously do not care whether what they say about their decrepitude detracts from the glory of Dikaiopolis' victory: Their fight against Dikaiopolis was their last fight; their indignation was weakened throughout by their old age; they could be persuaded because they were not angry young men.

The second half of the play (719-end) shows how Dikaiopolis uses his victory or his peace; it reveals the end for which he has sought that peace. His first act is to open a market in front of his house in the country in order to trade with the enemies of the city. In accordance with the ambiguity of his truce, the market is both his private market and the market place, the agora. He surely acts as a sovereign. The first man who attends the market is a Megarian who is anxious to sell his two little girls; both father and daughters are starving as a consequence of the war, of Pericles' Megarian decree. Since no one will buy the poor girls, their father tries to sell them as little pigs for use in the mysteries; in order to be sold and thus to survive, the children are told by their father to behave like young pigs, and they obey him. Yet Dikaiopolis is incredulous; what he senses of the merchandise contained in a sack does not feel like pigs. But since the girls utter the sounds of young pigs, and since the Greek word for young pig has an obscene ambiguity, Dikaiopolis buys the girls as young pigs from their father in exchange for some salt and garlic; i.e., for things that in peacetime were exported by the Megarians. The war brings it about that the little daughters, to say nothing of his wife and mother, are less valuable to the Megarian than some salt and garlic; yet, while the young girls are sold as young pigs to Dikaiopolis, they will be fed and otherwise treated like poor girls by him, whereas they would surely starve to death if they stayed with their parents in Megara. The bargain is then not as beastly as it appears at first sight. Dikaiopolis is in his way, as his name so clearly indicates, a just man. But his justice is not free from ambiguity. The Megarian speaks of his children, his wife, and his city; Dikaiopolis does not speak of his children, his wife, and his city: He buys the Megarian's young pigs for himself alone; he uses his private market for his most private end. The bargain is consummated, thanks to the abstraction from what is revealed by sight and touch, as distinguished from hearing and words. This goes much beyond Dikaiopolis' tasting and smelling the spondai. Nor ought we to overlook the connection between the ambiguity of Dikaiopolis' truce, which is private and yet also in a sense public, and the ambiguity of the word publicly or decently designating a young pig and obscenely the female organ. The bargain is barely concluded when an informer arrives who tries to confiscate the merchandise imported by an enemy alien; for, lest we forget, Athens is still at war with Megara. But Dikaiopolis has him driven away by his market inspectors without any difficulty; he does not even take the trouble to explain to him that he and his farm are no longer at war.

The exhausted old Acharnians are now reduced to the status of mere spectators. They call Dikaiopolis blessed, with a view to the fact that he gathers the fruits of his peace while sitting in the market. Freed from the evils of war, he spends his time in the market, in the agora, like the products of the new education blamed by the Just Speech and praised by the Unjust Speech. But the market in which he sits, being his private market, is far superior to the market place proper; the unpleasant and hateworthy fellows who disgrace the agora are not admitted to Dikaiopolis' market. The central6 type of man that is excluded from Dikaiopolis' market consists of bad poets and musicians.

The second visitor to Dikaiopolis' market is a Theban accompanied by a servant and bad flute players whose music reminds Dikaiopolis of the noise made by wasps. The Thebans are not starved. The Theban has come to sell birds, fish, and many other kinds of beasts. He never calls Dikaiopolis by name, as the Megarian had done (823; cf. 959). Dikaiopolis is particularly thrilled by a certain kind of fish that, he says, is particularly welcome to comical choruses; but he does not promise that delicacy to the present chorus. In this scene both Dikaiopolis and the foreigner are silent about their families and cities; the increased “privacy” is a function of the transition from little girls to food. All equivalents that Dikaiopolis can offer in exchange for the Theban's merchandise are to be found abundantly in Thebes, except informers. Accordingly, an informer who tries to seize the enemy-alien merchandise is seized by Dikaiopolis, properly wrapped, and handed over to the Theban. Since what the Theban brought is so much more valuable to Dikaiopolis than what the Megarian brought, the Theban receives a much greater reward, not just salt and garlic, but a live informer, an outstanding informer or, which is the same thing, an informer adorned with a resounding name composed of Victory and Command. Or should we say that Dikaiopolis procures a luxurious dinner for himself by deception, just as Socrates procures a poor dinner for himself and his companions by petty theft? The chorus accompanies Dikaiopolis' action against the informer with hearty approval, which leads to a dialogue between the chorus and Dikaiopolis. The dialogue deals exclusively with the wrapping, transportation, and use (especially domestic use, for clearly he can no longer be of public use) of the informer; the dialogue is silent about the delicacies that Dikaiopolis received from the Theban: They are for the use of Dikaiopolis, not of the chorus. The progress in the revelation of Dikaiopolis' end is underlined by the fact that the chorus addresses the Theban, while it had not addressed the Megarian. The Theban and the Megarian are the only foreigners who come to Dikaiopolis' market (the Spartans do not come); they may be said to surround Dikaiopolis just as the Persians and Thracians surround the Athenian Assembly: The play moves from the world of boasting and savage barbarians (and their Athenian equivalents) to the world of peaceful Greek merchants of delicacies (and their Athenian customers).

We now come to the peak of Dikaiopolis' triumph. His chief antagonist, the war-loving Lamachos, sends his servant to Dikaiopolis to buy from him some of the enemy-alien delicacies. Dikaiopolis absolutely refuses to comply with that request: Lamachos must not have any share in the peace; Dikaiopolis has bought the delicacies for himself. This action of Dikaiopolis induces the Acharnians to draw the attention of the whole city to Dikaiopolis' supreme wisdom: Thanks to his peace he has good things of all kinds in abundance to sell; all good things come to him by themselves. This is only what one would expect: Peace brings all good things and war all evils. The Acharnians forswear all communion with War without any consideration for its justice or expediency. They wish that some eros would unite them with the beautiful woman Reconciliation, the playmate of Aphrodite and the Graces. While still conscious of their old age, they feel rejuvenated. The last flicker of their martial ardor had led them to persecute Dikaiopolis; thanks to their reconciliation with Dikaiopolis they now experience the last flicker of their amorous ardor; the eros for which they long, however, resembles a painted eros.

Next appears a herald, calling upon the people to celebrate the festival of the Pitchers according to ancestral custom by engaging in a drinking contest. This is no longer a merely private affair of Dikaiopolis', although he is the only Athenian who can celebrate the festival in peace. He in his turn calls upon his people to speed up the cooking and roasting of the things that he has bought from the Theban and to hand him the tools so that he can prepare his favorite dish. There follows again a dialogue between the chorus and Dikaiopolis. The Acharnians now express their admiration or envy not only of Dikaiopolis' wisdom, and in particular of his mastery of the arts of cooking and gourmandise, but above all of his present feasting, in which they do not participate: He uses his delicate skills only to take care of himself. They have learned to prefer to the city not only the necessities of life (326 ff.) but also the pleasant things as such. In return Dikaiopolis does not promise them more than that they will be spectators of the products of his art.

The fifth visitor is a farmer who is in a miserable state because the Boiotians (from one of whom Dikaiopolis had bought his delicacies) have taken away his oxen, his chief support. Dikaiopolis is the only man who can supply him with a cure for his ills, by giving him a small drop of his private peace. The apparent farmer Dikaiopolis does not have an ounce of compassion for this genuine farmer, as little as he has for the Acharnians; he treats him almost as badly as he had treated Lamachos: He “just is not in public service”; by making his private peace he has become in every respect a private man, a man living by himself for himself; he cures only himself; he does not give any part, however small, of his peace and its pleasures to anyone. Even the Acharnians now become aware of the unqualified selfishness of Dikaiopolis, who does not pay any attention to what they say about him and is concerned with nothing but the preparation of his delicious dinner for his own enjoyment alone. They tell him to his face that he will starve them to death; he does not even take the trouble to reply. Next comes a man sent by a bridegroom to get some small part of Dikaiopolis' peace in exchange for meat from the wedding meal, for he wishes to enjoy the pleasures of love instead of having to go to war. Dikaiopolis again refuses to help: He would not barter away or sell any part of his peace for any equivalent. Hitherto we could think that he would not give away any part of his peace to anyone without equivalent, or that he would not sell any part of it to such lovers of war as Lamachos; now we see that he is merciless in preserving his monopoly of peace (it is somewhat more literally a monopoly than the “monopoly of violence”). Yet he is not quite so bad. A bridesmaid who has come with the groom's man asks him for help in the name of the bride. He sends the bride a bit of his peace so that she will not be deprived of sexual pleasures in spite of the war, for being a woman she ought not to suffer for the war. Dikaiopolis' selfishness is then qualified only by compassion for lovesick women. This is cold comfort to the Acharnians, who remain speechless now as on no other comparable occasion.

The last scene opens with the successive arrivals of two messages, one sent by the generals to Lamachos to the effect that he should proceed forthwith to the frontier in order to prevent Boiotian marauders from entering Attica, the other sent by the priest of Dionysos to Dikaiopolis to the effect that he should proceed forthwith to the public banquet in celebration of the holiday: Everything, including dancing girls and other girls, is waiting for him; the only thing missing among the enumerated attractions is wine. While the war-loving Lamachos is most unhappy that he can not celebrate the festival, Dikaiopolis is most happy: Everything has gone exceedingly well for him. Each of the two antagonists prepares himself for his contest, the one for the contest with the enemy of Athens, the other for a drinking contest. Each gives the appropriate commands to his slave; Dikaiopolis' commands are parodies of Lamachos' commands; Lamachos thrice protests against Dikaiopolis' insolent mockery; he even threatens Dikaiopolis with criminal prosecution for cowardice or desertion. The leader of the chorus reveals the state of mind of the Marathon fighters, who are so much older than Dikaiopolis, by addressing only Lamachos with the observation that Lamachos goes away to freeze and be on guard, while the old (1129-30) husband and father Dikaiopolis is going away to drink and to sleep with a most attractive girl; he thus also underlines the shift that is taking place toward the end of the play from the pleasures of food to those of drink and sex,7 from pleasures that have no necessary relation to the pleasures of other human beings to pleasures that in different ways do have such a relation. From what we noted regarding Dikaiopolis' unpromising conduct, we are prepared for the fact that the chorus as a whole now calls on Zeus to destroy a poet who on an earlier occasion had failed to give the chorus a dinner. From the specifications of the chorus' curse we learn that that wicked poet Antimachos (whose name would fit Dikaiopolis as well) was a horseman. Yet nothing untoward can happen to Dikaiopolis in spite of the chorus' curse, which is based on some sound divination; the man in fact afflicted is Lamachos, as a tragic messenger now fittingly announces. For while the chorus chanted, Lamachos has fought with the enemy and Dikaiopolis has won the prize in the drinking contest. Lamachos now returns wounded, or at any rate disabled, and in pain, sure that he is about to die; whereas Dikaiopolis returns with a young girl on each side who by caressing him according to his specifications increases his desire to the highest point: The hero of war and the hero of peace reveal themselves almost literally as opposed to each other like death and life. The chorus celebrates Dikaiopolis' victory and carries him to the judges of the comedies, while he constantly reminds everyone that he has won the drinking contest and thus suggests that he should also be given the prize in the contest regarding the comedies; he reveals himself again as none other than the comic poet himself. But the chorus hears nothing from him about the dinner that he, being a just man, had never promised them.

The meaning of the Acharnians is indicated by Dikaiopolis' name: He is the just citizen, even the just city. Yet the most patriotic citizens, the Marathon fighters, persecute him as a most unjust citizen, as worse even than Kleon. No one can seriously maintain that Dikaiopolis proves his justice, his superiority to all others in justice, by refuting his persecutors, by pronouncing the just things; for the arguments by which he converts the Acharnians are not even comical equivalents of the just things, they are parodies of demagogic oratory. His injustice is shown by the use he makes of his rhetorical victory: By that victory he secures his private peace in order to enjoy it strictly for himself; he betrays not only the city but even his family in order to enjoy by himself the pleasures of the senses. When praising him in the second half of the play the Acharnians speak only of his strictly private bliss, as distinguished from any services he has rendered to others, to say nothing of the city. He acts along the lines of the Unjust Speech. He “makes use of nature” in complete disregard of the law. His “return to nature” must be properly understood. Whereas the alleged motive for his longing for peace was the necessity to buy things when living in town while in peacetime his land alone brought him everything he needed, his true motive is the impossibility of buying in wartime the delicacies produced by the enemy cities (36, 976); and he makes full use of every art that enhances his pleasures (1015-17). His use of art and imports makes him only a more perfect follower of the Unjust Speech. In order to see how this most unjust man can be, by virtue of his injustice, the justest of men, one must consider what he does to his opponents, the Acharnians. While he made them help him in securing his private peace, he does not give them any share in it or in its fruits. They do not derive any advantage from his action, just as they did not derive any advantage from persecuting him for his treason; except that by persecuting him they satisfied their impotent desire for revenge on the Spartans, or rather they believed that they acted as good citizens. But they also believe that they acted as good citizens by taking his side or by becoming his bodyguard. Still, while prior to their conversion they were full of hate and fear-inspiring, afterward they are objects of compassion: Through Dikaiopolis' action they cease to be boasters; they honestly admit their poverty and decrepitude. Whereas through that action Dikaiopolis becomes better off, the Acharnians become not indeed better off through it but better (650), gentler, juster. This must not for one moment obscure the fact that he tames them for his own interest alone, or that he treats them as, according to them, the young orators who make them ridiculous treat them (679-80); although in his case the old men do not realize their becoming ridiculous (442-44). If justice in the highest sense consists in making one's fellow citizens better men, and if boasting is the root of all evil, Dikaiopolis deserves his name. In other words, he is just because he does what the just city does—the just city too takes care only of itself, or does not meddle with other cities—as distinguished from what the city tells its members to do; he is entire and not merely a part; he is no longer a citizen. More precisely, in contrast to the Acharnians, who depend on the city but are no longer useful to the city, Dikaiopolis, who can take care of himself and takes care only of himself, is by the manner in which he takes care only of himself—i.e., by merely enjoying himself to the highest degree, by doing what his nature compels him to do—the greatest benefactor of the city; for who can doubt that the comic poet enjoyed himself to the highest degree in conceiving and elaborating his comedies? Yet this enjoyment necessarily communicates itself. Comedy, whose mother is laughter, gives birth to laughter. The comic poet's enjoyment is essentially social, although it is not simply political; it is akin in different ways to the enjoyment deriving from wine and from sex, rather than to the enjoyment deriving from food, however delicious. The enjoyments to which Dikaiopolis eventually turns are, apart from what they are in themselves, the comical equivalent of the enjoyment from comedies. By exciting the desire for these enjoyments of the senses, he makes his fellow citizens gay, desirous of living, hence desirous of peace (a common good), just. (Whether peace is expedient now is an entirely different question.) If this proves that he himself is just, it proves that his justice does not require the sacrifice of his life (cf. 357). To state it crudely, “tragedy dissolves life, but comedy makes it firm.”8

The ways of life of both Dikaiopolis and Socrates differ from the ways of life recommended by both the Just Speech and the Unjust Speech. Superficially the two former seem to be located between the two latter; in truth the two former belong to a different plane, to a higher plane, than the two latter. The Socratic way of life is simply unpolitical, whereas Dikaiopolis', transcending the city, benefits the city. Socrates fails to help rustics against the city; he can not take on the guise of a rustic; he can not bridge the gulf between himself and the rustics; his arrogance prevents him from taking on humble disguises. Socrates is continence incarnate; Dikaiopolis is the opposite. Yet Dikaiopolis' incontinence remains within the limits of normality;9 nor does he foster father-beating or incest.

No one can overhear the simple message that the Acharnians conveyed to every contemporary Athenian: Make peace as soon as it is expedient; put an end to that senseless slaughter and destruction as soon as it is feasible; this is not the Persian War. But one must add at once that this simple message is only a small part of the message of the play. The least that one would have to demand, if the Aristophanean comedy is to be understood in the light of its simple messages, is that these messages be understood in the poet's own terms. He asserts that he both teaches what is best for the city and especially the just things, and he makes his audience laugh. The question arises whether the serious and the ridiculous merely exist side by side or whether they are woven together, and, in the latter case, which of the two ingredients is predominant. The peculiar greatness of the Aristophanean comedy consists in its being the total comedy; the ridiculous is all-pervasive; the serious appears only in the guise of the ridiculous; the serious is integrated into the ridiculous. He frequently destroys the dramatic illusion, for the destruction of the dramatic illusion is ridiculous and may heighten the comical effect; yet he never destroys or even impairs the comical illusion. In the Acharnians he castigates the injustice or folly of the war by presenting especially Lamachos as ridiculous and as ridiculously defeated. Yet how can one present the defeat of the unjust by ridiculous means without making ridiculous the victory of the just man and the victorious just man himself? How can one present the just man without destroying the totally comical character of the comedy? Aristophanes solves the difficulty by presenting the victory of the just, or the movement from the ridiculous of injustice toward justice as a movement toward a ridiculous of a different kind. The victorious just man enjoys all sensual pleasures; he enjoys them frankly; he gives his enjoyment a frank, a wholly uninhibited expression; he says (and does) in public things that can not be said (and done) in public with propriety; he behaves ridiculously. He castigates injustice (Kleon, Perikles, and so on) by the use of gossip or slander; he praises justice with the help of obscenity; and he defeats the greatest powers that counteract these kinds of aischrologia by two other kinds, by the parody of tragedy and by blasphemy. Aischrologia of these four kinds is used by him in accordance with the requirements of the plot, which is in itself ridiculous because of its striking impossibility. For instance, the plot of the Clouds calls much more for blasphemy than for parody of tragedy and obscenity, whereas the opposite is obviously true of the Acharnians. Of the simple serious message one can say that it exists side by side with the ridiculous, but the full and sophisticated message is heard only if one takes the ridiculous as if it were serious, i.e., if one imitates the comic poet.


  1. 493; cf. Plato Laches 185a1-2.

  2. Frogs 959, 976-77, 1021-27, 1040, 1063-64.

  3. Thucydides is silent about Lamachos in his account of the war up to and including the time when the Acharnians was first performed.

  4. Cf. 87, 109, 135, 373, 605.

  5. In the Acharnians there is no parallel to the second parabasis of the Clouds, in which the chorus reveals the large agreement between the chorus' concern and the poet's concern.

  6. Consider the three mentions of agora and the three proper names in 836-59.

  7. Consider the contrast between 1000-2 and 1003-17 in the light of the sequel. Consider Frogs 739-40 in the light of the opposition, crucial for that play, between Dionysos and Herakles.

  8. Cf. G. Kaibel, Comicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, p. 141b 1.48-50; see ibid., p. 66 1.13: in tragoedia fugienda vita, in comoedia capessenda exprimitur.

  9. Cf. the silence on the comic poets in Clouds 1089-94. Goethe makes on the proper occasion the following remark: “[der Poet und der Prophet] sind von Einem Gott ergriffen und befeuert, der Poet aber vergeudet die ihm verliehene Gabe im Genuss, um Genuss hervorzubringen, Ehre, durch das Hervorgebrachte zu erlangen, allenfalls ein bequemes Leben.” Noten und Abhandlungen zum Divan, “Mahomet.”

K. J. Dover (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5089

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 each member, brings back an envoy (‘the King's Eye’) from the King of Persia and a promise (to which the envoy's pidgin-Greek gives the lie) of gold; Dikaiopolis, outraged, pretends to expose the envoy and his attendant eunuchs as Athenian impostors.1 Another Athenian, Theoros, returns from a Thracian king with an army of mercenaries—who demonstrate, by stealing Dikaiopolis's lunch, that their only interest is in plunder. But in the meantime Dikaiopolis has commissioned Amphitheos to go off to Sparta and get him a peace-treaty on a purely private basis. Getting no satisfaction from the assembly, Dikaiopolis declares that he has felt a drop of rain; this is a ‘sign from heaven’ that continuation of the meeting is inauspicious, and it is accordingly adjourned. Now Amphitheos returns with sample treaties (spondái; cf. pp. 45f.); Dikaiopolis chooses the thirty-year treaty and goes off to his farm with the intention of celebrating the Rural Dionysia. Amphitheos runs off to escape pursuit by the old men of Akharnai, who have got wind of him on his way here; Akharnai, a thickly populated area north of Athens, had suffered particularly heavy damage in the first Peloponnesian invasion, and the Acharnians were for that reason determined to fight a war of revenge to a successful conclusion.

Dikaiopolis goes into a door in the skene (202), which thereupon represents his farm; up to that point, we had to imagine the scene as the Pnyx, where the assembly met in Athens, and the skene did not represent anything. The chorus of old Acharnians now arrives, singing an angry song, exhorting one another to the pursuit, lamenting the years which have made them slow, threatening the man who has dared to make peace. They hear Dikaiopolis calling, inside his house, for silence, and they back to one side. Out comes Dikaiopolis, organizing his household in a celebration of the Rural Dionysia; his daughter carries the basket of offerings, a slave carries the big model phallos, his wife watches from the roof, and he himself utters a prayer to Dionysos and a happy song to Phales. Suddenly the chorus attacks, stoning him.2 The procession is broken up and the family flees indoors. Dikaiopolis does his best to keep the Acharnians at bay with argument, but this only angers them more; suddenly he turns the tables on them by producing a charcoal-basket which he threatens to ‘kill’ if they harm him. Charcoal-burning is one of the characteristic activities of Akharnai, so that the basket is the ‘fellow-demesman’ (334) of the Chorus; the threat to kill it is a parody of Euripides' Telephos, in which Telephos secured a hearing by seizing the infant son of Agamemnon as a hostage (cf. p. 164, on Thesm.).

Now the chorus has to agree to hear Dikaiopolis's case, but first he wants to dress up as a beggar, to exploit their compassion. This too is parody of Telephos, and Dikaiopolis visits Euripides to borrow the beggar's rags in which Telephos had appeared in the play. Euripides is rolled out of the house on the trolley which was used in tragedy to reveal interior scenes, and Dikaiopolis, adopting the tone of a wheedling, importunate beggar, secures from Euripides' store of ‘properties’ the complete rig-out of the disguised Telephos. So dressed, he delivers to the chorus a long speech in which he suggests that the war was begun for no good reason and that he has done the sensible thing in opting out of it; the speech combines parody of Euripides with parody of Herodotos and with a good deal of comic rhetoric. Half the chorus is convinced, the other half incensed; the two halves are on the point of coming to blows, when a new character appears—Lamakhos, invoked by the belligerent half-chorus. Lamakhos was a man who had made a name for himself as an elected general,3 and therefore a man who stood to gain by continuation and enlargement of the war. Dikaiopolis makes a fool of him, pretending to be frightened to death, then switching to coarse mockery, then fiercely indignant, and indignant on the chorus's behalf; people like Lamakhos get good jobs and high pay all over the place, but when have these decent, hard-working old Acharnians ever been sent on embassies? Considering how many Athenian generals were killed in action (as Lamakhos was, eleven years later), and considering that it is prudent to appoint to embassies those who will do the job best rather than those who could do with the money, the argument is senseless, but (like many senseless arguments) it works. Lamakhos is defeated and the whole Chorus is convinced.

The parabasis follows, the issue between hero and chorus being now resolved, and after the parabasis come two scenes illustrating the consequences of Dikaiopolis's creation of a private market in which he will trade with enemy nations. In the first scene a Megarian comes to sell his daughters, whom he disguises as piglets. Megara, Attica's small western neighbour, had been very hard hit by the war, but there is no suggestion in the play that it was not humane to hit so hard; cheerful and self-satisfied humour is extracted from the desperate hunger (751-763, 797-810) to which father and children have been reduced,4 and when an informer comes to make trouble about the presence of enemy goods on Attic soil Dikaiopolis drives him away for interference with his well-being, not with the Megarian's. In the second scene a Theban comes laden with all the good things to eat that Boeotia produces. He is in quite a different position from the Megarian, and cannot off hand think of anything he wants from Attica. Dikaiopolis has the bright idea of selling him an informer, a characteristic Attic product, and one such (named as Nikarkhos) arrives opportunely; he is packed up in shavings, like a vase, and exported to Boeotia.

Time has flown by; earlier in the play we saw Dikaiopolis celebrating the Rural Dionysia, and now it is time for another festival, the Anthesteria. Lamakhos sends Dikaiopolis some money for delicacies, but his messenger is sent away empty-handed. A farmer whose oxen have been taken by a Boeotian raiding party comes to beg for ‘a drop of peace’, but gets none; Dikaiopolis does not propose to share with his benighted fellow-citizens the advantages he has gained by his private initiative. A messenger from a newly-married bridegroom is similarly rejected, but a messenger from the bride, who comes with him, fares better; the bride ‘doesn't deserve to suffer from the war’ (1062),5 and Dikaiopolis gives her peace in the form of an ointment which (as if it had magical properties) she can put on her husband's penis to keep him safe from call-up.

Now a messenger comes for Lamakhos, bringing an order from the board of generals; he is to watch the passes over Parnes in the snow and guard against Boeotian raiders. A second messenger summons Dikaiopolis to a feast with the priest of Dionysos. The luckless and the lucky make their preparations simultaneously; Lamakhos's slave brings out the accoutrements of war, Dikaiopolis's brings out delicacies for a great hamper. Both go off their very different ways. After a choral interlude, we see them return: Lamakhos wounded and limping, supported by his slaves, Dikaiopolis drunk, randy and hilarious, supported by two girls. Lamakhos is taken off in one direction to the surgery, and the chorus follows Dikaiopolis off in the other direction, echoing his cries of triumphant victory.


The first scene of the play is potentially spectacular, which is not to say that it was actually produced in a spectacular manner. It represents a meeting of the assembly, and probably a group of mute performers entered as the prytánēs, the body of fifty which presided over the assembly, sitting, perhaps, on the step(s) forward of the skene, but it is not impossible that both in describing the behaviour of the prytanes (40-42) and in addressing them (56-58. 167f.) Dikaiopolis is actually looking and gesturing towards the audience, which is thus forced into playing a role as unexacting as it is appropriate.

The number of speaking characters in this scene and the timing of their exits and entrances pose an interesting problem. Prima facie the text points to the following:

(1) Dikaiopolis: on stage throughout, 1-203.

(2) The herald of the assembly: entrance 40-42, exit 173.

(3) Amphitheos: entrance 45, enforced exit 55; reappearance 129-132; entrance 175, exit 203.

(4) The Athenian envoy who has returned from Persia: entrance 64, exit 125.

(5) The ‘King's Eye’: entrance 94, exit 125.

(6) A certain Theoros, back from Thrace: entrance 134, exit 173.

No other scene in comedy needs six speaking actors, or even five; can we reduce the number needed for this scene to four? If we give the parts of Amphitheos, the envoy from Persia and Theoros all to one actor we can effect the reduction on paper, but it means a change from Amphitheos to envoy during 56-63, back to Amphitheos during 126-128, then to Theoros during line 133, and back to Amphitheos during 174. Changes of this speed are not credible, and it seems that we are necessarily committed to five actors. This can be managed if we treat the King's Eye as an extra who has only two lines to speak, one of pseudo-Persian and one of pidgin-Greek, and give the roles of the envoy and Theoros to one actor. The time available to him for the change of role can perhaps be extended from the interval 126-133 allocated above on prima facie grounds; at 110 Dikaiopolis exclaims

Get away! I'll put some questions to him (i.e. to the King's Eye) by myself (mónos, lit. ‘alone’).

If at this point he threatens the envoy with his stick and drives him out of the theatre with shouts and blows,6 the time available for a change of costume into the part of Theoros is extended to twenty-four lines.

In the last two hundred lines of the play we appear to be looking at two doors, one representing the house of Dikaiopolis and the other the house of Lamakhos. Each of the two men orders his own slave to ‘bring out’ (1097f., 1109, etc.) the items which he needs. If only one door is available, it does not consistently represent anybody's house, but only the point of transition from the property-store to the area in view of the audience (cf. p. 21); but in that case it is surprising that both before and after that scene clear (and, one would have thought, unnecessary) reference is made to Lamakhos's house. In 1071, when the messenger arrives to give Lamakhos the order to guard the Parnes passes, Lamakhos's first words, in tragic style, are:

Who makes resound the palace faced with bronze?

And when Lamakhos returns wounded, he is preceded by a servant who declaims, also in tragic style (1174f.):

O servitors of Lamakhos's house,
heat water, water!—in a casserole.

Again, almost the last words of Lamakhos after his return are (1222f.):

Carry me out from home
to Pittakos's surgery
with hands of healing.

Thus if one door is in use during the frantic scene of preparation, we are given every encouragement, on either side of that scene, to identify it as Lamakhos's door. Yet before that—before Lamakhos's reference to his ‘palace faced with bronze’—it seems to be identified as Dikaiopolis's door, behind which great culinary activity is going on; the chorus says nothing to suggest that it sees the food being cooked, but twice refers (1015, 1042) to hearing Dikaiopolis's orders as he dispenses to his slaves the delicacies bought from the Theban. All this points to the use of two doors, one of them consistently Dikaiopolis's house from 202 to the end of the play, the other Euripides' from 395 to 479 and Lamakhos's from 573 to the end; and … there is an even stronger case for two doors in Clouds, Peace and Women in Assembly. But the evidence bearing upon the staging of comedy is rarely free of complications and uncertainties, and the present case is no exception. When Dikaiopolis acquires a splendid Boeotian eel from the Theban, he says (887-894):

Servitors, bring the oven and the fan out here to me. Look, boys, upon the noblest of eels—at last she's come, after five years, and how we've missed her! Salute her, children; and I'll give you charcoal in honour of this guest. Well, take her in. Never may I be parted, even death, from you (sc. the eel) in your garnishing of beetroot!7

Why does he ask for the oven to be brought out, as if to cook the eel on the spot, and then send the eel indoors? It could plausibly be argued that this is a preparation for all the cooking that is to come later; that the cooking will all be done outside, in and around the oven brought out at 888; and that the door in the skene will not thereafter represent Dikaiopolis's house, but alternately Lamakhos's and the indeterminate ‘source of properties’. But if that is the poet's purpose, why does he make Dikaiopolis tell a slave to ‘take in’ the eel? I do not think that a wholly satisfactory inscenation of Acharnians has yet been propounded; to come off the fence in favour of one door or two—so far as this play is concerned—is possible only if we shut our eyes to at least one of the relevant data and thus conceal from ourselves the nature of the problems with which the study of Aristophanic comedy habitually confronts us.8


Neither in Acharnians nor anywhere else in Aristophanes does the question of ‘pacifism’ arise, if by that term we mean the willingness to endure, or to see inflicted upon others, any suffering whatsoever in preference to committing the sin of homicide. The issue which does arise is the utility of continuing war for uncertain and marginal gain when it is possible to make peace at a trivial cost. Aristophanes and his audience were perfectly aware that on the whole peace is more enjoyable than war, but there is no sign that anyone, except some right-wing extremists who would have accepted alien rule if it maintained their own class in power within Athens, would have been willing to sacrifice for the sake of peace the wealth and dominant position which Athens derived from her rule over the Aegean islands and the coastal cities of Asia Minor. In the closing scene of Knights Demos (the personification of the Athenian people) gladly accepts a thirty-year peace-treaty, but the chorus at the beginning of the scene has hailed him as ‘monarch of Greece and of this land’ (1330) and as ‘king of the Greeks’ (1333).

A speaker in the introductory portion of Plato's Laws is made to say (626a):

What most men call peace is only a word; in fact there exists by nature a state of unproclaimed war between every city and every other city.

Although by no means all Greeks would have put the matter so incompromisingly, they were more inclined than we are to regard war as part of the fabric of nature, on a par with bad weather. Thucydides (iv. 64.3) represents a Syracusan in 424 as trying to persuade all the Greek states of Sicily to ward off the threat of Athenian intervention:

We shall have our wars, no doubt, from time to time, and we'll make peace again by discussions among ourselves; but if we are wise we shall combine to repel alien attack.

Between small and equally-matched cities, especially in the less sophisticated parts of the Greek world, war was something of a seasonal occupation. It could be more serious; from time to time a city would destroy one of its smaller neighbours, killing the adult male population, selling the rest into slavery, and razing the city to the ground. This was one of the facts of life which Aristophanes and his audience recognised, but in the early years of the Peloponnesian War it would not have occurred to many of them that there could be any real danger of such a fate to a city as large and powerful as Athens. In any case, the turning of the other cheek did not occupy a conspicuous place in the moral scheme of Greek society; it was manly to return evil for evil, and pusillanimous to choose safety in preference to glory. Three generations later it is remarkable to observe the great emphasis laid by Demosthenes, in justifying the foreign policy which he had advocated, on that kind of national honour which is maintained by a readiness to fight. One cannot accuse the Athenians of romanticizing war from a safe distance; they knew from their own experience what hacking and piercing with sharp metal was like.

During 432 and the winter of 432/1, when Sparta's allies prodded her into beginning hostilities against Athens, one of the issues was the ‘Megarian Decree’, a measure by which the Athenians, in retaliation for what they considered unfriendly behaviour on the part of Megara, debarred Megarians from access to Athens and the states of the Athenian empire.9 At one point during that winter the Spartans went so far as to say that ‘if the Athenians repealed the Megarian Decree there would be no war’ (Thucydides i.139.1). This demand created in some quarters at Athens a feeling that repeal was a reasonable price to pay for the maintenance of peace. Perikles insisted that if Athens yielded to Sparta on this issue she would suffer a lasting moral defeat and more serious demands would follow. His advice prevailed, but the minority which thought the decree not worth a war did not necessarily change its mind; in the second summer of the war, when Athens had been stricken by the unforeseen disaster of the plague, there was a temporary majority in favour of negotiations for peace, and in popular tradition Perikles and the Megarian Decree became firmly established as ‘the cause’ of the war. This is to be seen not only in Acharnians 509-556 and Peace 603-614 but also in our evidence for the lost Dionysalexandros of Kratinos, which satirized Perikles as ‘having brought the war upon Athens’ (cf. p. 217) and in a fourth-century view (Andokides iii. 8) that the war broke out in 431 ‘because of the Megarians’.10 If, therefore, it were possible to translate Dikaiopolis's speech to the chorus into the terminology of a judiciously expressed political tract, it would amount to this: courage in the interests of one's own city is admirable, and it is to be hoped that Sparta will suffer an earthquake which will pay her back for the damage she has done to Attica, but Athens was too hasty in embarking on the present war over an unimportant issue, and it would be both agreeable and safe to try to stop fighting now. Reasonableness, sympathy, understanding and magnanimity were all recognized by the Greeks as virtues, and it would not have been difficult in 425 to argue that these standards of behaviour indicated peace negotiations rather than war à outrance. To make such a case it might have been necessary to retain at least one of the evasions of the speech itself (535-539):

Then the Megarians … asked the Spartans that the decree should be repealed; and we were not willing, although they asked repeatedly. (Who asked whom repeatedly? The Megarians the Spartans, or the Spartans us?)

But what is most striking is how much would have to be changed in translating from humorous to serious level. In order to justify his private treaty to the chorus Dikaiopolis borrows rags from Euripides, dresses himself up like Euripides' tragic hero Telephos, and then delivers a speech which begins and ends as a close parody of Telephos's famous speech, thus directing our attention away from the content of the argument to the incongruous humour of parody. Moreover, inside the parody of tragedy lies another parody; Herodotos's history of the conflict between Greeks and Persians, which was put into circulation three or four years before Acharnians, opens with myths (Io, Medea, Helen) of the seizure of European women by Asiatics and Asiatic women by Europeans, and it is difficult not to see an allusion to Herodotos in Ach. 524-529:

Some young men who'd had too much to drink went off to Megara and kidnapped the prostitute Simaitha. This hurt the Megarians and really roused them, so in retaliation they kidnapped two of Aspasia's prostitutes. So that was how the war burst on the whole Greek world, all from three whores.11

In Peace 603-614, which shares with Dikaiopolis's speech the treatment of the Megarian Decree as the final blow to peace, the nature of the events leading up to it is entirely different, so that we can hardly treat the story of the kidnappings as the standard popular version of the causes of the war. Aristophanes could conceivably expect us to perceive and assess a serious argument for peace wrapped in a double layer of amusing parody, but whether he did expect this depends on our interpretation of the framework into which the parody is fitted.

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that Dikaiopolis does not concern himself even with the interests of his own city, let alone those of the Greek world; in this respect he is strikingly different from Trygaios in Peace. He wants his own comfort and pleasure, and escapes by magical means from his obligations as a citizen subject to the rule of the sovereign assembly and its elected officers. It is not easy to read into his behaviour the implication that Athens would be a better and safer place if everyone else followed his example, for not only does he reject the idea of sharing the benefits of peace with anyone else, he operates on a supernatural level, exempt from the operation of real causes and effects, to which others cannot follow him simply by a wish or a decision to do so. Having got his peace, he does not think of going out to preach to the Acharnians, or to anyone else; it is they who pursue him, intent on punishing him, and everything that he says to them is designed in one way or another to save him from that punishment. One way is plausible argument; another is trickery, hence the beggar-costume and the Euripidean style (440-444); and a third is confident, noisy bluster. Only half the chorus is persuaded by his speech; what wins over the other half is his outrageous mockery of Lamakhos and his successful arousal of old men's prejudices against distinguished younger men.

In sum: Acharnians is not a pill of political advice thickly sugared with humour, but a fantasy of total selfishness, exploiting, among much else, political views and arguments which existed at all levels, from the most casual grumbling to the most thoughtful analysis, as ingredients of the contemporary situation.


  1. It is not necessary to believe that a particular embassy to Persia is satirized in this scene, still less that one had actually been sent in 437 and had only just returned. The possibility of getting money from the King of Persia was seriously considered by both sides, but it is in keeping with Dikaiopolis's attitude that he should regard any exploration of this possibility as a misdirected waste of public money, profiting only those who were sent as ambassadors. The passage also exploits humorously the vast scale of the Persian Empire and the stories about it propagated in Herodotos.

  2. According to tradition, some individuals whose impiety or treachery was felt too monstrous for ordinary execution had been stoned to death; cf. Demosthenes xviii 204 on a certain Kyrsilos, who had advocated surrender to the Persians in 480.

  3. We should not imagine Lamakhos as the red-faced white-moustached ‘colonel’ of modern mythology; Dikaiopolis calls him a young man (601), and we should think of him as the kind of man who becomes a divisional commander before he is forty.

  4. The only reference in comedy to the Athenian massacre and enslavement of the inhabitants of Melos in 416 is Birds 186, where Peisetairos promises the hoopoe that the birds will ‘destroy the gods with a Melian hunger’, i.e. starve them out.

  5. The text says tô polémō t' ouk aksíā, ‘and not deserving of the war’; it is not uncommonly emended to … aitíā, ‘and not responsible for the war’.

  6. It must be admitted that a similar line in Thesm. 626 is no more than a command to stand aside, for the character so addressed is required nine lines later.

  7. The oddities of the English translation reflect paratragic words and phrases in the original.

  8. At the beginning of the scene of preparation, according to the manuscript text, Dikaiopolis says to his slave sýnkl[UNK]ie, which would normally mean ‘shut up the house’; but a different interpretation of the word is possible, and so is an emendation sýnklāe, which would be addressed to Lamakhos and would have a completely different meaning, consonant with the preceding line.

  9. The extent and nature and purpose of the debarment are all controversial, but the details of the controversy are not relevant to the present discussion.

  10. Thucydides, who lived through the Peloponnesian War and wrote a history of it, regarded it as all one war from 431 to 404, but this was not the prevailing view at the time or for quite a long time afterwards. The fourth-century orators thought of the ten years' war from 431 to 421 as distinct from the subsequent fighting.

  11. See also note 1 above on Herodotos.

Select Bibliography

This bibliography includes the principal editions and commentaries, some modern translations, standard works, and a few recent articles and monographs. References already given in footnotes are not repeated here.

Abbreviations: comm(entary), ed(ition), f(oot)n(otes), intr(oduction), tr(anslation).

A. General

Cantarella, R., intr., ed., Italian tr., fn. (Milan, 1949-1964).

Coulon, V., intr., ed., fn., Van Daele, H., French tr. (Paris, 1923-1930).

Hall, F. W. and Geldart, W. M., ed. (Oxford, vol. i [ed. 2] 1906, vol. ii 1907).

Rogers, B. B., intr., ed., English tr., comm. (London, 1902-1915).

———, intr., ed., English tr. (London, 1924).

Van Leeuwen, J., Latin intr., ed., Latin comm. (Leyden, 1896-1909).

Barrett, D., English tr. of Wasps, Women at the Thesmophoria (‘The Poet and the Women’) and Frogs (Harmondsworth, 1964).

Dickinson, P., English tr. (Oxford, 1970).

Fitts, D., English tr. of Lysistrata, Frogs, Birds and Women at the Thesmophoria (‘Ladies' Day’) (New York, 1962).

Seeger, L., revised by H.-J. Newiger and P. Rau, German tr. (Munich, 1968).

Willems, A., French tr., fn. (Paris and Brussels, 1919).

Arnott, P. D., Greek Scenic Conventions in the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford, 1962).

Bieber, M. History of the Greek and Roman Theater (Princeton, ed. 2 1961).

Boudreaux, P., Le Texte d'Aristophane et ses commentateurs (Paris, 1919).

Couat, A., Aristophane et l'ancienne comédie attique (Paris, 1892).

Croiset, M., Aristophanes and the Political Parties at Athens, translated by J. Loeb (London, 1909).

Dale, A. M., Collected Papers (Cambridge, 1969), especially Chapters 3, 8-9, 11, 14-15, 19-25.

Dover, K. J., ‘Greek Comedy’, Fifty Years (and Twelve) of Classical Scholarship (Oxford, 1968), 123-158.

Ehrenberg, V., The People of Aristophanes (Oxford, ed. 2 1951).

Fraenkel, E., Beobachtungen zu Aristophanes (Rome, 1962).

Gelzer, T., Der epirrhematische Agon bei Aristophanes (Munich, 1960).

Gomme, A. W., More Essays in Greek History and Literature (Oxford, 1962), Chapter v, ‘Aristophanes and Politics’.

Grene, D., ‘The Comic Technique of Aristophanes’, Hermathena l (1937), 87-125.

Handel, P., Formen und Darstellungsweisen in der aristophanischen Komödie (Heidelberg, 1963).

Jernigan, C. C., Incongruity in Aristophanes (Menasha, Wis., 1939).

Kassies, W., Aristophanes' Traditionalisme (Amsterdam, 1963).

Koch, K. D., Kritische Idee und komisches Thema: Untersuchungen zur Dramaturgie und zum Ethos der aristophanischen Komödie (Bremen, 1965).

Lesky, A., History of Greek Literature, translated by J. Willis and C. J. de Heer (London, 1966).

Lever, K., The Art of Greek Comedy (London, 1956).

Lord, L. E., Aristophanes: his Plays and his Influence (London, 1925).

Mazon, P., Essai sur la composition des comédies d' Aristophane (Paris, 1904).

Murray, G., Aristophanes (Oxford, 1933).

Newiger, H.-J., Metapher und Allegorie: Studien zu Aristophanes (Munich, 1957).

Norwood, G., Greek Comedy (London, 1931).

Pickard-Cambridge, A., Dithyramb, Tragedy and Comedy, ed. 2, revised by T. B. L. Webster (Oxford, 1962).

———, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, ed. 2, revised by John Gould and D. M. Lewis (Oxford, 1968).

———, The Theatre of Dionysus at Athens (Oxford, 1946).

Rau, P., Paratragodia: Untersuchung einer komischen Form des Aristophanes (Munich, 1967).

Russo, C. F., Aristofane: autore di teatro (Florence, 1962).

Schmid, W., Geschichte der griechischen Literatur, Part 1, Vol. iv (Munich, 1946).

Seel, O., Aristophanes oder Versuch über die Komödie (Stuttgart, 1960).

Sifakis, G. M., Parabasis and Animal Choruses (London, 1971).

Steiger, H., ‘Die Groteske und Burleske bei Aristophanes’ Philologus lxxxix (1934), 161-184, 275-285, 416-432.

Süss, W., Aristophanes und die Nachwelt (Leipzig, 1911).

———, ‘Scheinbare und wirkliche Inkongruenzen in den Dramen des Aristophanes’, Rheinisches Museum xcvii (1954), 115-159, 229-254, 289-316.

Taillardat, J., Les Images d' Aristophane: études de langue et de style (Paris, revised ed. 1965).

Van Leeuwen J., Prolegomena ad Aristophanem (Leyden, 1908).

Webster, T. B. L., Greek Theatre Production (London, 1956).

———, Studies in Later Greek Comedy (Manchester, 1953).

Webster, T. B. L., Studies in Menander (Manchester, ed. 2 1960).

———, The Greek Chorus (London, 1970).

Whitman, C. H., Aristophanes and the Comic Hero (Cambridge, Mass., 1964).

B. Individual Plays


Forrest, W. G. G. ‘Aristophanes’ Acharnians', Phoenix (Toronto) xvii (1963), 1-12.

Merry, W. W., intr., ed., comm. (Oxford, ed. 5 1901).

Parker, D., English tr. (Ann Arbor, 1961).

Rennie, W. intr., ed., comm. (London, 1909).

Starkie, W. J. M., intr., ed., English tr., comm. (London, 1909).

Alexis Solomos (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5811

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 alien descent and his illegal claim to Athenian citizenship. “Twice and thrice accused,” his biographer says, “he was at last acquitted of all charges.”3

The Acharnians, besides being our most authentic document on Aristophanes' feud with the political leader of his day, is also the oldest surviving Greek comedy. As such, it represents the earliest known technique of comic playwriting. We find in it 1235 lines of verse.4 The parabasis is situated in the very middle, dividing the play into two equal parts. Here is a structural analysis of the comedy's form:

  • A. The first part is composed of:
    • a) The prologue—a long comic sequence, with five speaking characters and many extras
    • b) The parodos—the entrance of the chorus and the first choral song
    • c) The agon—the clash between protagonist and chorus
    • d) Two comic episodes
  • B. The parabasis, which comes next, is a choric interlude, containing the poet's message to the audience. It suspends the action half way through the performance.
  • C. In the second part there are:
    • a) Four comic episodes, separated by
    • b) Three stasima or choral songs
    • c) The komos—general revelry of the chorus, glorifying the triumphant hero
    • d) The exodos of hero and chorus, singing and dancing

The sequence described above was not a canon, an obligatory pattern for the writers. The Aristophanic agon, for instance, is a movable part; some of his plays have a second parodos (metastasis); others, no parabasis at all; and very often four or five short episodes succeed one another between two stasima.

In this play, written in the summer of 426 b.c., the poet continued his antiwar campaign begun in the Babylonians. Up to this year many unsuccessful attempts had been made by Athens and Sparta to bring hostilities to an end; but, whichever of the two states happened to be the more favored on the battlefield at a given time would obstinately refuse to accept the peace terms proposed by the other. It seems that in the spring of that year it had been the turn of the Peloponnesians to show friendly dispositions. Aristophanes, therefore, becomes once more the advocate of Peace and, navigating against the current of Cleon's politics, urges his countrymen to vote for an armistice.

Callistratus, the faithful accomplice, willingly adopted Aristophanes' spiritual offspring and applied for the City Dionysia. Then, quite unexpectedly, a negative answer fell like a thunderbolt on both father and fosterparent. The archon eponymus, succumbing, no doubt, to pressure from Cleon, refused to grant the requested chorus, thus excluding the comic poet from the great international festival. The cause of this expulsion was none other than the previous year's rebellious comedy involving the State's defamation “in the presence of foreigners,” something that the irascible demagogue was unable to forget. And, since the playwright had been legally discharged, Cleon conceived this new counteroffensive.

One can well imagine Aristophanes' dismay upon hearing the news. For an up-and-coming dramatist, who had only recently won his first victory at the Great Dionysia, to content himself with the lesser Lenaea must have been distressing beyond measure. The only thing that may have cheered him up a little was the fact that his Lenaean rivals would be Cratinus, the grand sire of Attic Comedy, and Eupolis, a promising craftsman of the younger generation. These three comedy champions—whom Horace will squeeze one day into a famous verse (Satires, I, iv, i)—were facing each other for the first time. The eminence, therefore, of the contestants gave extra glamor to the local festival.

Cratinus' Chimazomenoi (Winter Men), Eupolis' Numeniai (New Moons) and Aristophanes' Acharnians were presented in early February 425 b.c. before, no doubt, a sparse audience, the war keeping many Athenians away from the theatre.

Aristophanes' hero—Dicaeopolis or Just Citizen—is the poet himself under a theatrical mask. More than once the hero refers to the author's political tribulations as if they were his own; and the famous legal battle with Cleon is narrated in the first person. In this respect, the Acharnians forecast the Knights, where the autobiographical element will be even more conspicuous.5

The prologue of the play is a miniature parody of the People's Assembly. The Just Citizen is the only Athenian to be on the Pnyx in time. The others arrive belated and spiritless. Their indifference to the fate of their city is more than exasperating. The session opens. Every time that Dicaeopolis or Amphitheus—another citizen who is a pacifist only because he is half-witted—attempt to condemn the war, the archers violently hush them up in the middle of a sentence. The Assembly has more important matters to attend to: the ambassadors have returned from abroad and will report on their missions. With mellifluous words they tell how laboriously they have been serving Athens in foreign countries—eating, drinking, and pocketing their fat fees for an indefinite length of time. “During the fourth year of my mission in Persia,” one of them says, “I arrived at last at King Xerxes' capital; but the monarch had gone, at the head of an enormous army, to excrete on the Golden Mountains, where he remained defecating for eight months” (80-82). The only tangible consequences of the ambassadors' deft diplomacy as far as military and financial aid to Athens is concerned, are some ludicrous Odomantian soldiers and a grotesque Persian prince, called the Royal Eye. The former, “the most war-like Thracian tribe” (153), prove at once the excellence of their war tactics by stealing Dicaeopolis' garlic. The latter is even more frank, as he admits in his broken Greek: “No penny for Athenian bastards!” (104) This monstrous, possibly one-eyed, foreigner belongs to the humorous gallery of Aristophanes' non-Attic characters, who use either an imaginary Graeco-barbarian language (such as the Triballus of the Birds or the Scythian of the Women at the Thesmophoria) or an exaggerated provincial dialect (such as the Megarian and the Boeotian in the present play).

While the Assembly exhausts its energy in various unnecessary deliberations, Dicaeopolis finally realizes that there will be no discussion about Peace. He decides, therefore, to send Amphitheus to Sparta, to conclude a private treaty with the Lacedaemonians. Amphitheus goes and presently returns, with a speed that is the very parody of theatrical time, bringing the Just Citizen of Athens a private thirty-year-peace with Sparta; Peace appears in the form of a wine jug. In utter delight, our hero hurries home to gather his family, to celebrate with them the Rural Dionysia—their beloved fête champêtre of the serene, bygone days.

When the hero leaves the orchestra, the chorus makes its entrance (204), a flute-player opening the march. This chorus is composed of twenty-four elderly coal-traders of Acharnae. They probably wear blackened chitons and lean on rough sticks. They march in single or double columns and arrange themselves geometrically inside the orchestra circle.6

In both comedy and tragedy, the basic arrangement of the chorus in the orchestra had a rectangular shape; three columns of five dancers in tragedy, four columns of six dancers in comedy; it was accordingly called “square chorus,” in contrast to the “circular” of the dithyramb. Yet the mention of a circular dance is very common in drama too, especially in those cases where religious feeling gives the stasima a dithyrambic flavor.7

Why did Aristophanes use the inhabitants of Acharnae as chorus? The reason is obvious. Those peasants of Attica were among the most fanatic enemies of the Spartans, who had destroyed their homes. Besides, they took a great pride in being the worthy descendants of the Marathon warriors. So, by opposing them to his peace-loving hero, the playwright enhanced the tension of the dramatic conflict in order to make the Just Citizen's final victory more effective.

In a fiery succession of trochees and dactyls, the chorus voice their hatred for the rascal, who “made peace with the loathsome enemy.” Their song is sadly reminiscent of tragic historical events, because Aristophanes had pitied the Acharnians in the time of their woes. Comedy, however, cannot stand to see its audience in tears. Consequently these chorus dancers are humorously pugnacious old men, who, for no other reason than their own stupidity, support the cause of war. Their mask and costume, their dance and mimicry emphasize the ridiculous. What the spectators see is a bunch of old gargoyles, with stuffed bellies, grimacing faces and, possibly too, leather-penises swinging like time-worn pendulums. No matter how desperately they moan, the public cannot help laughing at them. What they have already suffered from the war was a fatal calamity; but to ask for more such misfortunes is, the playwright believes, sheer idiocy.

When the parodos-song is over, Dicaeopolis and his family are seen coming out of their house, presumably through one of the two lateral doors of the proskenion, to celebrate Dionysus in the countryside.8

We have already made a point of the importance of this Aristophanic parody on the Rural Dionysia, in which the reveling company dances and sings the joys of Peace around the phallus-pole. The old Acharnians of the chorus watch all these activities in bewilderment. Soon, however, they recover from their stupor and begin to throw stones at the “traitor.” As it happens in all war-dances of primitive tribes, their movement is rhythmically synchronized with the stimulating repetition of the trochaic “beat him, beat him, beat him, beat him!” This physical clash is followed, as is more or less the rule in Greek Comedy, by a clash of ideas, known as the agon. Here the author's credo, expressed by the hero, is set against public prejudice, embodied in the chorus. The Acharnians accuse Dicaeopolis of having concluded peace with people who are vile and false, to which the Just Citizen replies: “The Spartans are no more responsible for our misfortunes than we are” (309-10).

We praised young Aristophanes' boldness for attacking Cleon in the Babylonians. That boldness fades, however, when compared to this new, almost suicidal one: to urge the war-stricken Athenians to “love their neighbors,” those neighbors who during five whole years had been killing their sons, burning their harvests, and wishing them every possible ill. In fact, the whole agon, as well as the hero's long speech (497-556), have no other reason but to prove to the Athenian people that they are more guilty of this destructive war than the Spartans. We are almost inclined to wonder why the spectators did not rise to liquidate not only the actor incarnating Aristophanes' idea of the just citizen but also the anonymous author who was hiding back stage. They refrained from doing it, because, in the first place, they respected a theatrical performance as a tribune of free speech. Furthermore, there must have been among them some adherents of peace, who probably hushed the protesting war-lovers. Last—and this is, I believe, the most important reason—by theatrical convention the chorus represented public opinion; consequently, the twenty-four Acharnians, who reacted to Dicaeopolis' arguments with insults and stones, fulfilled the unexpressed desire of every warlike spectator.

The Just Citizen, like many future Aristophanic heroes, is a militant ideologist with plenty of guts. He does not run away from the public turmoil with his private peace treaty in his sack. He stubbornly remains there to make the roaring chorus see reason. He is so sure of the just cause of his agon that he even agrees to have his own throat cut, in case he fails to convince them. “Although,” he adds, “I love my poor life!” (357).

As a shrewd entertainer, Aristophanes loosens for a while the tension of his political debate with two interludes of a somewhat lighter mood. Both of them are inspired by the Euripidean tragedy Telephus, produced thirteen years earlier. It must have been a very popular play, since the comic poet expected his audience still to appreciate comic allusions related to it. The first inserted episode (325-37) is a typical tragic parody. In the play of Euripides, Telephus had kidnapped the infant Orestes, threatening to kill him. Here, Dicaeopolis steals an Acharnian coal-sack and prepares to stab it, unless the noisy old men will let him speak his mind. The reaction of the chorus to this feat consists of a mock-heroic version of the traditional tragic lamentation (kommōs).

The second interlude (393-479) has larger dimensions, provokes a change of scenery, and introduces an important new character. In order to win the sympathy of the chorus, the Just Citizen decides to borrow a pitiful disguise from Euripides' reputed or, rather, disreputable theatrical wardrobe of shabby costumes. It was, it seems, one of the major innovations introduced by that poet to the Greek theatre: dramatic characters should not look like the imposing statues of the Aeschylean tradition, but rather like human wrecks.

Dicaeopolis knocks at Euripides' door, the central, most probably, of the proskenion. A servant appears, declaring in Euripidean language that his master is composing a play and that no one is allowed to interrupt him. Thereupon, our hero shouts at the invisible tragic master that, since he cannot leave his room, he may as well appear in it. Euripides is at once convinced and appears in his room. In other words, thanks to a mechanical device, known as the ekkyklema, the central part of the proskenion makes a 180-degrees revolution and reveals the interior of the poet's house. Aristophanes' aim is none other than to satirize the excessive “mechanomania” of his tragic colleague. How else could Euripides appear on the stage, if not equipped with one of his pet machines? Needless to say this scene offers theatre historians an almost irrefutable argument that the ekkyklema was functioning at least since 425 b.c.9

In that year, the youngest of the three tragic masters was in his middle fifties and had already produced more than fifty plays, including such imposing dramas as Medea (431 b.c.) and Hippolytus (428 b.c.). For Aristophanes, however, he is a preposterous personage. … this first appearance of Euripides in the theatre will by no means be his last. Its success will establish the tragic poet as a permanent stock-character in Aristophanic comedy.

The ekkyklema has revealed the dramatist in his study, his feet on the table, surrounded by papyri, tablets, masks, costumes, wigs, and a thousand little household utensils, indispensable to the realistic atmosphere of his plays. Dicaeopolis begs him to lend him some rags. “What rags?” Euripides shouts. “Those of Oeneus, Phoenix, Bellerophon, Philoctetes, Thyestes, Ino? …” Obviously, his ragged heroes are so many that it is not easy to choose. At last the rags of Telephus are discovered and the Just Citizen wraps them around him, while the machine sweeps the “patchwork poet” back into his adytum.

Now the comic interludes are over and Dicaeopolis is standing alone in mid-orchestra, facing the chorus. Well disguised in his disarming rags, he whispers to himself: “Do you realize what an adventure you are up to? … To defend the Spartans! … Courage, my soul! …” (481-83). Let us try to imagine this crucial moment in the ancient performance, when all of a sudden laughs are muffled and in a deathlike silence all eyes are fixed on the hero, anticipating his apology.

Dicaeopolis' “long speech” is a masterpiece of rhetoric. After an introductory warning that he will say “things disagreeable but just,” he mischievously adds: “Cleon will not accuse me again of offending the State in the presence of foreigners, for we are at the Lenaea, strictly among ourselves” (501-6). He then attacks the main theme of his discourse by identifying himself with his audience. “I hate the Lacedaemonians as much as you do, for they destroyed my vineyards too!” He proceeds with vehemence to further arguments, striving to prove that he—and, consequently, Aristophanes—is neither pro-Spartan nor a traitor. Having thus secured the attention and, to a certain extent, the trust of his listeners, he delivers his own version of the war-chronicle:

(Some) men of ours—I do not say the State;
remember this, I do not say the State—


He does not slander the State; there is no fear, therefore, of a new action of Cleon against him. So he continues:

… Some young tipsy cottabus-players, went
and stole from Megara-town the fair Simaetha.
Then the Megarians, garlicked with the smart,
Stole, in return, two of Aspasia's hussies.
From these three wantons, o'er the Hellenic race
burst forth the first beginnings of the War! …


The narrative is concluded in a more serious mood, by the repetition of the leitmotiv of the oration—the proclamation of the enemy's right:

… Had some Laconian, sailing out,
denounced and sold a small Seriphian dog,
would you have sat unmoved? Far, far from that!
Ye would have launched three hundred ships of war! …


Dicaeopolis' bravura speech has an immediate effect—or better say, half-effect—on the chorus: half of the Acharnians are convinced of the rightness of his cause, while the other half continue to react. Aristophanes thus presents a microscopic view of the customary political disputes, which separated most of the Greek cities into two enemy camps. He also provides a natural explanation for the traditional separation of the chorus into the so-called half-choruses, opposing each other.

A war dance between the two parties follows, in which we should imagine more action taking place than the text actually describes. The manuscripts that we possess are mostly the works of Christian copyists who had never set foot in a theatre; this accounts for the numberless omissions and misinterpretations suffered by Greek drama. Dancers “imitated through rhythm, the characters, sufferings and actions” of men, Aristotle will state half a century later (Poetics, I, 5). In the Aristophanic comedies, more specifically, we often perceive that the author demands that his chorus add movement between the lines to illustrate the events by mimicry. They ought to create that “elasticité joyeuse” that Jacques Copeau dreamed of for his own theatre.10

In the violent battle between the two Acharnian semi-choruses we have a ne plus ultra ironic outcome: the pacifists fight better than the bellicose and finally win! Thereupon, the vanquished ones call Lamachus, the Athenian general, to come to their rescue. Punctually, through the third door of the stage-building, the high-crested warrior emerges as terrifying as lightning and thunder (572).

This historical personage owes his immortality more to Aristophanes' caricature than to his portrayal by Thucydides. As a stage character, he descends directly from the vociferous Heracles of the Doric Drama, having also some contingency with the arrogant general of the famous Archilochian epigram. Through the Acharnians, he becomes the legitimate progenitor of all the braggart soldiers, who will storm the theatre in later ages—from the alazon and the episeistos of New Attic Comedy and the Roman miles gloriosus to the capitano and the scaramuccia of later European farces—whose living scion is, prosaically enough, the tough sergeant of modern films.11

The peace-loving little man beholds the tempestuous general and whispers:

That's what I loathe: that's why I made my treaty—
when grayhaired veterans in the ranks I saw,
and boys like you, paltry, malingering boys,
off to some Thrace, their daily pay three drachmas! …


And, gradually, the old underdogs of the chorus, the poor Acharnian sans culottes, who not too long ago glowed with Marathonian ambitions, have to admit that Dicaeopolis is right in every word he said. The two so-far hostile semichoruses unite in one common ideal: Peace. Then, walking toward the spectators, they deliver the parabasis (526 f.).

“The man has the best of the wordy debate, and the hearts of the people he is winning to his plea for the truce,” they say. By “man” they are referring, of course, to Dicaeopolis, who has convinced them. But they are also referring to their playwright, who has convinced, or at least so he hopes, the crowd of the Dionysus Theatre. In the parabasis the chorus was by tradition the author's claque: enunciated his message and sang his own praises.

This most original and, one might say, irrational dramatic particle of Greek Comedy—the parabasis—had a triple character: it was a eulogy, a libel, and a sermon all in one. Scholars see in it seven parts:12

1. The kommation (a short introduction, appeal or invocation)

2. The parabasis proper or the anapaests (where the poet advises his fellow citizens, attacks his enemies, and exalts himself)

3. The pnigos or makron (a long epigrammatic sentence, which can be either a vow, an oath or a curse)

4. The ode or strophe (lyrical passage, usually nostalgic, sung by the semichorus)

5. The epirrhema (resolution or admonition, sometimes serious, sometimes sarcastic, spoken by one chorus leader)

6. The antode or antistrophe, and

7. The antepirrhema

In the convention of the parabasis, Schlegel saw13 “something incongruous with the essence of dramatic representation; for in the drama the poet should always be behind his dramatic personages, who again ought … to take no perceptible notice of the spectators.” Theatre-goers of the middle twentieth century are in a much better position to understand the parabasis than those of the last one. Our dramaturgy has rediscovered, either purposely or accidentally, much of the spirit of the Aristophanic address to the public and has produced numerous variations on it. We, today, acquainted with the expressionistic and epic drama, as well as with many individual experiments by nonrealistic playwrights, feel more akin to the Attic parabasis than to many a fashionable theatrical genre of the imitation-of-life repertory.

The ancient method of performing a parabasis is, of course, terra incognita for us. We can no more than guess which parts were delivered by the whole chorus and which by one or two leading soloists, where the flute was used and where it was not, where the chorus sang or chanted, danced or walked. The modern director, therefore, can give the parabasis any theatrical form he likes, provided that he formally suspend the dramatic action and that he let the company address the audience. The concentration of the Athenian spectator on this lecture (of one hundred or more lines) was doubtless guaranteed by a visual and auditory variety of impressions. That is the purpose of the metrical versatility and multiple form of expression characteristic of the parabasis.14 The Acharnians provides us with at least one argument that the anapaests were danced by the whole chorus. The leader orders the group to take off their outer garments and make their bodies more fit for dancing (627). The same order occurs in other Aristophanic plays. (Cf. Lysistrata, 662, 686.)

The present parabasis is also a fine example of Aristophanes' sense of balance between the sublime and the ridiculous. Serious arguments are succeeded by jocular ones in equal proportion. His aims are both objective (to propagandize for Peace) and subjective (to comment on his own career, as that of a comic poet worthy of his mission). Every time, however, that he reaches a climax of earnestness, he purposely brings on an anticlimax. For example, when he prophesizes that foreigners will be visiting Athens hereafter “only to meet the poet, who was courageous enough to tell the citizens what is right,” he adds the gasconade that the king of Persia is sure the Athenians will win the war, since they have Aristophanes as their adviser! (643-51)

The parabasis over, the chorus withdraws to let the play resume its action. There is no information as to where the dancers stood, or sat, during the episodes. As far as comedy is concerned, I am inclined to imagine that during their moments of inaction they arrayed themselves in a semicircular line, parallel to the circumference of the orchestra, thus becoming the innermost row of spectators. At least that is how they are placed in the Epidaurus productions, and the device seems quite satisfactory. For the audience, they are part of the show; for the actors, part of the audience.15

The two episodes that follow—the Megarian's and the Boeotian's—present two contrasting examples of the effects of the war on men, as symbolized by an impoverished Greek and an enriched one. The timid Megarian (729 f.) is so hungry that he is enticed to exchange his two daughters for some salt or garlic from Dicaeopolis' free market. Yet, who would ever buy two skinny girls, as those whom the poor man is dragging behind him? As he happens to come from the hometown of Dorian farce, a farcical trick—a “Megarian machination”—will help him out: he will sell his daughters as if they were pigs. He immediately disguises the girls in pig's attire and orders them to pronounce no other word but “koi koi”—thus creating the first item in Aristophanes' rich dictionary of animal sounds.16 It is also the first of many animal disguises that we shall meet in his comedies and which should be seen as survivals of the old komos tradition. Dicaeopolis agrees to buy the pig-girls and the Megarian goes away blissfully exclaiming: “I wish I could sell my mother and my wife too!”

The Boeotian, who comes next (860), is in every way the opposite of the previous visitor—fat, prosperous, ebulient, gay, and loaded with baskets of goods. He lacks, however, the other man's ingenuity, which, after all, was a direct symptom of his misery. The Boeotian does not come to buy; he has everything that a bon vivant can ask for. On the contrary, he comes to sell some of his products. As Dicaeopolis delights over a fat eel of Lake Copais—a symbol of terrestrial happiness—the Theban proposes to exchange it for something that his city lacks and which abounds in Cleon's Athens—an informer. Going from word to action, Dicaeopolis captures a notorious stool-pigeon, Nicarchus, wraps him in straw and gives him to the visitor in exchange for the eel.

In the meantime Lamachus, the lofty-crested general, who is also a hungry man, enviously eyes Dicaeopolis' market. He sends his aide to buy some food, but the Just Citizen will not sell a single thing to a warmonger. On the contrary, he is delighted to offer some peace-ointment to a newly-wed bride, who wishes to keep “the bridegroom's penis away from the battlefront.” He helps her, because she is a woman and, therefore, not responsible for the war. This passage gives us the first hint of Aristophanes' attitude toward women. On many occasions he will mock them, but he will never become their enemy. He laughs at them, but admires them too. As mothers or mistresses, they hate war and belong to his own camp. This bride is a sister of tomorrow's Lysistrata and, consequently, she deserves peace.

The Anthesteria (1000 f.) is the second Dionysiac festival reproduced in the Acharnians. As most of these traditional festivities must have been annulled during the war, Aristophanes makes a generous display of their charms. He intensifies his antiwar message with arguments of nostalgia. The play will close, as a matter of fact, with Dicaeopolis' victory in the drinking bout of the Anthesteria and his acclamation by the chorus.

Before we come to the comedy's conclusion, we ought to mention two important episodes in which the blessings of peace confront the misery of war. The pacific Dicaeopolis and the bellicose Lamachus are juxtaposed in a wildly vivid stichomythia:

Boy, bring me out my soldier's knapsack here!
Boy, bring me out my supper basket here! …
Now bring me here my helmet's double plume!
Now bring me here my thrushes and ring doves! …
Man, don't keep jeering at my armor so!
Man, don't keep peering at my thrushes so! …
Surely the moths my crest have eaten up …
Sure this hare soup I'll eat before I sup! …

(1097-1112 passim)

The second episode completes the first. Lamachus' aide enters out of breath and, in a parody of tragedy's indispensable messengers, announces that his master has been mortally wounded. “Jumping over a ditch, he broke his ankle on a stake and his skull on a stone! …” (1178-80). This so very Chaplinesque description was, unfortunately, a prophetic one. Eleven years after the production of the Acharnians, the real Lamachus was killed in the Sicilian expedition, while jumping, Thucydides tells us, over a ditch (VI, 101).

The moaning general is now brought into the orchestra on a stretcher, while Dicaeopolis enters dancing, in the company of two pretty girls. War and Peace have each rewarded their faithful accordingly. The reveling pacifist and the moribund warmonger are once more contrasted in an antiphony that reaches simultaneously the paroxysm of joy and the convulsion of physical pain!

My brain is dizzy with the blow of hostile stone!


Mine's dizzy too: to bed I'll go, and not alone!



Between the two parallel scenes, an allegorical figure, bearing the name of Reconciliation, makes her appearance. The old men of the chorus, with tears of happiness in their eyes, honor her by singing an ode of Anacreontian flavor: “O dear Reconciliation, we had forgotten how beautiful you were! …” (990). Though the figure is mute, her presence is eloquent. Years later, in the Lysistrata, the same personification will appear before the spectators, but she will be something quite different: a cock-teasing little tart, whom the heroine will use as a decoy for the fighting males. The present Reconciliation has only spiritual charms; the poet is still young.

With the apotheosis of Reconciliation, the catastrophe of Lamachus and the joyful kordax of the inebriated Just Citizen, the play comes to its end. Private peace has triumphed and Dicaeopolis is lauded by the Acharnians. The pacific manifesto is over and Aristophanes hopes to win the approbation of all the Athenians—including, of course, the dramatic judges. The comic hero demands a prize for his drinking victory and the comic poet demands a crown of ivy for his dramatic victory. The chorus leaves the orchestra singing the Olympic Hymn of Archilochus (tenella kallinike!) as an ovation to both the play's hero and its poet, as if the two were—and they certainly were—one person.17

The plays of Cratinus and Eupolis, competing on that day, were defeated by the Acharnians—and that is practically all we know about them. By crowning Callistratus, alias Aristophanes, the Athenians showed that they deeply sympathized with his political tribulations and approved of his advocation for peace. After five years of war, most families were lamenting over their dead, heroic slogans had lost their meaning, and the very cause of the war had certainly disappeared in a cloud of uncertainty. After all, those “two whores of Aspasia's” might have been the real cause, as Aristophanes had flippantly suggested. Why not? Stupid causes make wars idiotic.18

The Athenians were certain, however, that the young playwright had told them “things disagreeable, but just” (501). And from then on they adopted him as their worthy spokesman. While the Assembly was still searching in the chaos for a leader, the theatre had already found one.


  1. “In the presence of foreigners” (cf. Acharnians, 502; Life, etc.).

  2. Acharnians, 377-82. All quotations of the Acharnians are from B. B. Rogers' translation.

  3. Cf. Chapter I, note 22 in Solomos, Alexis. The Living Aristophanes. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1974.

  4. The Acharnians, 1235 lines; the Knights, 1408; the Clouds, 1510. Among contemporary tragedies, the Sons of Heracles, 1050; the Hecuba, 1271; the Hippolytus, 1459; the Oedipus Tyrant, 1464.

  5. We cannot be certain whether or not it was Cratinus who inaugurated the “autobiographical” type of comedy. At any rate, in his last play, the Wine Jug (423 b.c.), he made himself the comic hero.

  6. Pollux, IV, 108-9 (cf. Pickard-Cambridge, Festivals, pp. 245-50).

  7. The order of the leader for a circular dance is “Get into a circle!” (the Women at the Thesmophoria, 954, 968). About the flute-player, cf. Scholiast on Wasps, 582.

  8. The proskenion (or stage-facade) in Aristophanes needs to have either three doors (or openings) in the Acharnians and the Assembly of Women, or two doors, as in the Clouds, or a single central one, as in the Knights, the Wasps, the Lysistrata.

  9. Acharnians, 408-9. Since Aristophanes is parodying the device, it is beyond question that Euripides had already been using the ekkyclema in his tragedies before 425 b.c.

  10. J. Copeau (Lectures, 1921).

  11. For stock-types in Aristophanes and their traditions, see also F. M. Cornford, The Origin of Attic Comedy, passim.

  12. F. M. Cornford, op. cit., passim; Pickard-Cambridge, Dithyramb, Tragedy, Comedy, pp. 213-29.

  13. A. W. Schlegel, op. cit., Lecture XI, p. 151.

  14. I cannot say that I share the opinion that in Attic Comedy's early years the parabasis had its place at the beginning of a play. Its message could hardly be delivered in the still unsettled atmosphere of the opening of a performance. Besides, the sermon should assault the public when the action was already ripe and the concentration absolute. (Perhaps, those who suggested the idea had never seen an Attic Comedy performed.)

  15. Schiller saw the ancient tragic chorus as a living wall surrounding tragedy, in order to keep it untouched by reality and to protect its poetic liberty (Introduction to The Bride of Messina). Something analogous might be attributed to the comic chorus, as well. In the Epidaurus performances of the Greek National Theatre, we introduced the device of twenty-four wooden cubes aligned on the semicircumference of the orchestra, on the amphitheatre's side. There the chorus sat during its passive moments and watched the actors, reacted and commented on the happenings, like a genuine audience.

  16. Acharnians, 780; Wasps, 903; Birds, 227 f.; Frogs, 209 f. Even in this respect, Cratinus had been a pioneer: in his Dionysalexandros (Fr. 43) there was a sheep's cry—bee bee (bn̄)—which subsequently became the cornerstone of a vast linguistic controversy over the ancient Greek pronunciation.

  17. Archilochus' song of victory, on Heracles (cf. Pindar, Olympian Odes, IX; Birds, 1764).

  18. Rabelais, Swift, Voltaire, Jarry, and many others have presented fantastic wars fought for idiotic reasons. The only difference between them and Aristophanes is that his war was real and burning with actuality.

Lois Spatz (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6533

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.]


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 reports from freeloading ambassadors who waste time and public money in foreign courts. Disappointed and disgusted, Dicaeopolis allows Amphitheus to arrange a private thirty-year truce with Sparta. He receives his treaty in the form of a full wineskin. As the farmer prepares to celebrate, however, he is attacked by old men from the Athenian district of Acharnae. These once valiant warriors who have been dispossessed by the Spartans fiercely hate anyone who would negotiate with the enemy. Dicaeopolis forces them to stop stoning him by seizing a hostage. Once he has borrowed a costume and confidence from Euripides, he speaks with his head in a chopping block to persuade the Acharnians that his truce is sensible and patriotic. His arguments convince half the chorus, but the rest call out Lamachus, the general, to answer him. Although Lamachus is defeated, he refuses to concede and goes into his house vowing eternal war with Sparta. In revenge, Dicaeopolis announces that he will ban Lamachus from the market he is planning to open.

After the actors exit, the chorus performs the parabasis in which they defend the reputation of their poet, sing a hymn to the Muse of Acharnae, and describe the plight of old men harassed by lawsuits. Dicaeopolis then comes out to open his market. The episodes which follow illustrate his success. First he is able to buy the daughters of a starving Megarian for a bit of garlic and salt. Next he trades a despised Athenian informer for that most beloved of all delicacies—Boeotian eels. As Dicaeopolis cooks himself a lavish meal, the chorus looks on enviously. But the farmer refuses to share with them or with the poor cowherd and wedding guest who come to plead for a drop from his wineskin of peace. He relents and gives up a little to an excited bride just before two heralds arrive, one summoning Lamachus to war, the other inviting Dicaeopolis to a party. The two men trade insults as they prepare for their opposite destinations. After they leave, the chorus lampoons a sponsor who has refused them dinner. Then Lamachus is carried in wounded and groaning, while Dicaeopolis dances in supported by two courtesans. Cries of pleasure and pain alternate as one goes to the doctor and the other leads the chorus off singing a victory song because he has won a drinking prize.


As he waits alone for the assembly to begin, Dicaeopolis, whose name means “Just City,” weighs the pleasures and pains of life as a refugee. The sorrows predominate—bad tragedy, bad music, bad government, and, worst of all, the Athenian marketplace crammed with sellers noisily hawking their wares. He looks toward his own generous fields, longing for peace, but complains that most citizens don't care enough about it to attend the assembly. In his soliloquy, Dicaeopolis introduces several themes and objects of satire. The contrast between war and peace, which Aristophanes identifies with pain and pleasure, is the major antithesis around which the play is structured. The satire attacks the corruption of politicians, the inefficiency of government, the degeneration of poetry, and the materialism of urban life.

The assault on the government begins as soon as the assembly convenes. The citizens refuse even to hear the word “peace.” Amphitheus is kicked out when he claims that the gods have sent him to negotiate with Sparta, and Dicaeopolis himself is shouted down as he tries to support him. Instead, the assembly is eager for reports from diplomats sent to exotic lands to get funds and supplies for war. The government is revealed as slow, stupid, and corrupt. Ambassadors have spent eleven years feasting in Persia while poor soldiers and sailors endure all the hardships of war. Even so, the ambassadors have not accomplished their task. The King's Great Eye attends the assembly wearing a mask with one large eye and bearing a name, Shambyses (Douglass Parker's translation), to imply duplicity. Through double-talk he avoids promising that the Great King will lend Athens gold, and his eunuchs turn out to be more Athenians on the take. The scene lampoons the Persians for the ostentatious size and wealth of their empire, for their inability to speak Greek, and for their vicious policy of dangling money before Athens and Sparta without committing themselves to help either side. But it is clear that most Athenians are gullible and that certain men are clever enough to profit from it.

When these swindlers go off to dine at public expense, they are replaced by another group. Their excuses for lingering in Thrace satirize Athens' barbarian allies who inhabit a frozen wasteland and who worship and emulate everything Athenian. The shortsighted ambassadors have brought back a troop of Odomantians, the most bloodthirsty of Thracians, whose fierceness is manifest in their enormous, redtipped phalluses. Although they have been hired to attack Boeotia, they attack Dicaeopolis instead as the terrified citizens stand by helplessly. The reality behind the comic exaggeration is clear. The Athenians were so fearful that their ally Sitacles would keep for himself what he captured for Athens that they eventually stopped sending aid to his troops. Moreover, mercenaries could easily turn on Athens, as occurred later in the war in Boeotia.

The scene also dramatizes how powerless the individual is against the government. But this is comedy where the hero will not allow himself to be silenced and oppressed. Dicaeopolis has already sent the ejected Amphitheus to Sparta to arrange a private peace. He returns with three truces in wineskins for Dicaeopolis to choose from. This identification of wine and peace connects Dionysus, the god of the festival, directly with the action and runs throughout the entire play. It arises from the fact that the Greek word for treaty, sponde, is the same as the word for the libation performed with wine. Once Dicaeopolis has selected the thirty-year vintage, all the delights associated with the vineyard—freedom, fertility, power, and pleasure—become the delights of peace. The chorus personifies peace as a nubile maiden, the companion of Aphrodite and Eros, who inhabits flourishing fields. When Dicaeopolis invokes Phales, the spirit of the phallus, as his drinking companion at the rural Dionysia, he describes the playful violence of sex. War, on the other hand, is personified as a destructive drunkard who brutally beats men and burns vines. But his representative, General Lamachus, is defeated by a vine stake, the instrument of peace, and Dicaeopolis earns the victory song for conquerors by winning a drinking bout at the feast for blessing the new wine.

Dicaeopolis barely has time to enjoy his thirty-year vintage when the chorus of poor old farmers and charcoal sellers from Acharnae rushes into the orchestra singing the parodus. As members of a valiant generation who defeated Persia, and as citizens whose vines have been devastated by Sparta, they are rabid opponents of peace. Thus in fury they have roused their feeble bodies to search for the traitor. When they catch Dicaeopolis peacefully celebrating a country feast of Dionysus, they angrily pelt him with stones. But Dicaeopolis seizes a hostage, a basket of coals, to force them to hear his defense. The old men yield immediately, for that basket, containing their only means of livelihood, is like a beloved fellow demesman to them. In fact, the coals are the Acharnians, fierce, sputtering, and always threatening violence. Once the men have been convinced by Dicaeopolis, however, the coals are converted to peaceful, life-sustaining purposes: they are used by Dicaeopolis for cooking epicurean delights.

When Dicaeopolis seizes the basket of coals, he initiates a parody of Euripides' tragedy Telephus.1 That hero used a threat to the infant Orestes to force the leaders of the Trojan War to hear his arguments against fighting for the sake of a woman. Now, with tragic bravado, Dicaeopolis stakes his life on his ability to persuade the Acharnians that their war is equally senseless. Once the chorus stops stoning him, he goes to the house of Euripides to borrow the ragged costume of Telephus to arouse the pity and interest of his judges. Euripides' slave announces that the tragedian is at home and not at home; his mind is off gathering verses while his body is making a tragedy. Euripides finally agrees to be rolled out on the ekkyklema and impatiently offers help. Dicaeopolis wants more than the tattered robe of Telephus, however; first he begs a hat, then a staff, a broken cup, a pot, and finally some herbs. Euripides' lame protests are defeated by Dicaeopolis' persistence. The tragedian is rolled back indoors complaining that Dicaeopolis has destroyed his plays by removing all the special effects.

The parody performs several functions. First of all, it ridicules the intellectual pretensions of both the dramatists and the patrons of drama. When the old country bumpkin manages to filch most of the prop room, he deflates the arrogance of the tragedian and his slave. But the pretensions of tragedy are targets as well. The grand paradoxes of human limitation and potential are reduced to such ridiculous antinomies as “at home and not at home.” The audience's catharsis comes not from character or action but from the pitiful costumes and props or the ekkyklema's grim spectacle. Yet Dicaeopolis intends to use these very devices to appeal to his audience. In addition, as Dicaeopolis puts on the clothes, he assumes the mannerisms of the tragic hero. He punctuates his speeches with tragic exclamations like: “Oh Zeus! Oh my Soul! Oh wretched me!” More important, he has drunk down Euripides (l. 486). That is, he has absorbed the rhetorical skills needed to win his case and has assumed a grandeur which elevates both him and his subject. A veritable Telephus, he heroically approaches his captors.

In the agon, Dicaeopolis pleads his case from a chopping block, the low comic or kitchen equivalent of a noose, for he will die a traitor if he cannot win. Addressing the spectators as well as the chorus, he states his impeccable credentials as a Sparta-hater whose vines have also been cut. But, instead of blaming the Spartans for all the trouble, he acknowledges that they have legitimate complaints against the Athenians. His analysis of the causes of the war belongs to the world of comedy. It parodies the mythology of the Trojan War (the subject of Telephus' plea) as well as Herodotus' introduction to his Histories. When the Megarians kidnapped two whores from the house of Pericles' mistress, Pericles excluded Megara from the markets of Athens and her empire. On behalf of the starving Megarians, the Spartans began the fighting. Dicaeopolis accuses both sides of overreacting and then senselessly delighting in the preparations for war. By identifying Megara, the victim of a real economic boycott, as the chief source of comic contention, Aristophanes develops the themes of the crassness of the Athenian marketplace and the deprivation that war necessitates.

Half the chorus is persuaded by this mixture of nonsense and serious criticism. Its leader congratulates Dicaeopolis, but the unconvinced call on Lamachus to come out and defend the war, just as Achilles was summoned to debate Telephus. The real Lamachus was elected general several times, participated in the peace negotiations of 421, and was killed in battle in 414 while sharing the command of the Sicilian expedition. Aristophanes probably chose him to represent the supporters of the war because his name contains the word for battle (machē). Here he portrays the braggart soldier, armed head to toe, wearing a fearful crested helmet, and bearing a Gorgon's shield. Although Lamachus threatens and insults, the old farmer again deflates his superior's pretensions by reducing the symbols of his greatness. Terrified by his costume, Dicaeopolis first literally disarms the general of his shield, and then borrows a feather from his helmet (“from the braggart bird?” Dicaeopolis asks) to help him vomit up his fright. Later, when Lamachus is wounded, the loss of his gorgon and great plume symbolizes his defeat. In the grandiloquent language of tragedy, the warrior relates their loss to his own death. The rustic also outwits the general with his brash accusation that the young and rich take the soft jobs for good pay while the poor old citizens fight the war. This argument convinces the chorus, but not Lamachus, who retreats into his house swearing eternal war with Sparta while Dicaeopolis exits after barring the warrior from the market he is about to open.

Now that the actors have withdrawn through the doors in the scene building, the chorus is alone in the orchestra and comes forward to perform the parabasis, their direct address to the audience. In the anapests, or parabasis proper, the leader defends the poet against charges that he has slandered the city and its people. Thus, although there are no direct references to the drama, the poet has placed himself in the same position as his hero, for both must prove their honesty, courage, and patriotism to a hostile audience. Dicaeopolis has already identified himself with Aristophanes by referring to Cleon's attack for slander. (ll. 377-82) and by setting the chopping-block scene at the Lenaea (ll. 502-4). By extension, the audience is drawn into the drama to share the role of his Acharnian judges. The chorus initiates this by asking them for help in finding the traitors. Dicaeopolis then pleads with the Acharnians as if they were the entire Athenian citizenry gathered together at the festival of Dionysus (ll. 505-7). Later, while awaiting Lamachus, the part of the chorus that remains unconvinced appeals for help from any general or soldier in the audience. In the parabasis, the leader develops the relation. He proves how much the poet's frankness has enlarged the reputation of Athens and increased the chances for peace by impressing the allies, the Persians, and even the enemy with the value of free speech and the strength of democracy. Once the entire chorus has been persuaded by Dicaeopolis, the spectators can transfer their goodwill from him to the poet. Aristophanes has been clever enough to flatter the citizens for their liberality while proving his honesty at their expense.

For the rest of the parabasis the chorus returns to the role of Archarnians to describe their plight as old men confounded by lawsuits that leave them humiliated, speechless, and bankrupt. This section, in effect, identifies them, and, by extension, the spectators, with the powerless Dicaeopolis of the prologue. Now that they see themselves in his position, they can take vicarious pleasure in his success although (or perhaps because) he refuses to share it.


As the chorus completes the parabasis, Dicaeopolis emerges to open his market and announces the rules. In place of the Athenian market overseer, he introduces a three-pronged whip, a substitution representing the arbitrary rules which oppress the poor. Like Pericles, Dicaeopolis has decreed that his own enemy, Lamachus, be excluded from the market. But he also bans informers, loudmouths, and troublemakers, so that, according to a later ode, one can trade there undisturbed even by bad poets (ll. 836-59). The chorus is so enthusiastic that Douglass Parker thinks it was singing directly to the audience, and attempting to attract them as customers to the market.2

Two episodes illustrate the increasing commercial success of Dicaeopolis. In the first, a starving Megarian tries to sell his two daughters as sacrificial piglets. The very outrageousness of the ruse transforms the Megarian's desperation into comedy. The humor also depends on the double meaning of the word choiros—pig and vagina—which associates peace with good food and sex. The bargaining is full of puns and obscenities as the men examine the girls' bodies and discuss their impending sacrifice to Aphrodite. After the choral ode, a rich merchant arrives from Boeotia with a stock of gastronomic treats. Now Dicaepolis can fill up on his beloved Boeotian eels of which the war had deprived him. Again the humor arises from an outlandish act. When the Boeotian wants to be paid with something uniquely Athenian, Dicaeopolis satisfies him with an informer whom he wraps up like a vase produced and packaged for export. Dicaeopolis has proved his skill as a salesman, for he has exchanged a detestable product for a prized delicacy. In addition, he has outsmarted the Boeotians whose gluttony and dull wits were proverbial.

His prosperity convinces the chorus that they have all had enough of war. They now know peace can bestow everything good, even the erotic pleasures of youth. The episode which follows indicates that Dicaeopolis has convinced others as well. The poor blind farmer and the wedding guest who beg for a drop of his peace wine represent a society ready to renounce war. The fact that Dicaeopolis shares his peace with the bridegroom who has been drafted symbolizes the triumph of the life-force celebrated in comedy. When he prescribes how the bride should apply the balm, he connects peace with Phales, and, thus, with Dionysus himself.

But another facet of Dicaeopolis' victory is illustrated in the same episode. While the chorus looks on enviously, he prepares a sumptuous meal for his family and taunts his hungry observers. Nor will he share his peace with the ruined farmer, or the gift-bearing wedding guest. He bestows his gift on the bride only because he sympathizes with her sexual needs, not because of any altruistic principle. The chorus reacts to his selfishness in a lampoon at the end of the episode (ll. 1150-72) when they pray that the sponsor who cheated them out of dinner be forced to watch a feast cooked and not be allowed to share it.

In the same episode, Dicaeopolis is personally invited to the Feast of the New Wine by a priest of Dionysus, while Lamachus is summoned to guard the borders against invasion. Here and in the final episode the defeat of the general and the forces of war is reflected in the imagery. The two neighbors make their preparations and live out their different destinies side by side, but in tones which underline the contrast between war and peace. The foods they prepare represent the deprivations of war (that is, onions and salt meat) as opposed to the prosperity of peace (that is, thrushes and pigeons). As Lamachus gathers together the weapons of death (spear, round-buckler), his neighbor calls for objects which look similar but are life-sustaining (skewer, round cheesecake). The general grandly puts on full armor, but Dicaeopolis boasts that his drinking cup is all he needs. And he is right. In the final episode, a vine stake wounds the general, and victory in a drinking contest turns the reveler into a hero.

The contrast between war and peace in the final episodes is further emphasized by the contrast between the comic and the tragic style. The herald who summons Lamachus to duty introduces the parody of tragic diction and rhythms.3 Lamachus himself laments his assignment in the grand style, arms himself with heroic bravado, and then bewails his defeat with the eloquence and emotion of a tragic hero. The description of his fall is delivered by a messenger in the typically tragic manner. But his passion is rendered ludicrous by the comic actions which Dicaeopolis performs at the same time.


It is difficult to prove that Acharnians is dramatizing the position of a peace party. Although peace and the poor farmer triumph in the play, war was a fact of life in the ancient world, and there was no serious peace movement in Athens at this early date because neither side had gained or suffered enough. The justice of the Peloponnesian War as a whole is not seriously questioned. Its origins are reduced to nonsense in Dicaeopolis' plea. Only the Megarian Decree is taken seriously as a major cause (although Thucydides barely mentions it). Its importance here is thematic rather than political. War takes away the basic joys of life. The starving Megarian demonstrates how far one will go for garlic and salt. Nor does the character of the warmonger bear much resemblance to the historical general, Lamachus. Instead, he is a stock comic figure, the braggart soldier, whose affectations are revealed by the coward. Moreover, when Dicaeopolis concludes his private peace, he keeps it to himself and his family. Thus, the play does not offer any serious political indictment or provide a patriotic model.

The hardship of war is only one of the problems of real life that the comedy selects for exaggeration and distortion. Dicaeopolis and the Acharnians are old and poor whereas Lamachus and the men who monopolize the safe jobs and control all the money are young and strong. The decrepitude, powerlessness, and sense of loss which old age inevitably brings are all dramatized here. So too is the bitterness of poverty—from Dicaeopolis' opening complaints about the noisy market to the visits of the Megarian and the blind cowherd. The government, which victimizes in the name of protection, oppresses the citizenry at all levels, from the most crucial aspects of public affairs (the scene at the assembly) to the common occurrences of daily life (references to lawsuits and informers).

But comedy takes real life and distorts it to deprive it, for the moment at least, of the seriousness that human beings attach to it. The comic situation may derive from facts, but Aristophanes' theatrical translation of them is sheer fantasy. Poor, old, and powerless Dicaeopolis manages to get control over all the forces that restrain him, including old age itself, as is proved by his ability to satisfy the girls while drunk. The Persian and Thracian foreigners, the Megarian piglets, and the informer packed up like a vessel with its mouth stopped are transformed by means of sight gags, dialect jokes, puns, and parodies into metaphors that create a new reality and dispel the threats of the old.4 The audience is unable to take the comedy itself seriously because actors and chorus move in and out of the drama, often speaking directly to the spectators. The poet even interrupts the action just for the sake of developing a joke such as the piglet / vagina pun or the resemblance of the Great Eye of Persia to the eye painted on Greek ships. Dover suggests that the disruption of the dramatic illusion, which he calls “discontinuity of characterization,” provides great freedom for the characters to say whatever they please. Thoughts which would puzzle or anger if expressed in real life or realistic drama, erupt in the comic dialogue without evoking the expected response.5

Freedom is really the key word in Old Comedy. The hero of the Acharnians finds himself in a dismal situation—poor, old, repressed, and cheated. But Dicaeopolis rises above individual opponents, society, and even forces of nature. The dramatic structure is unified not by the laws of probability and necessity but by the theme of the hero's self-assertion.6 One by one, Dicaeopolis defeats all the forces which would destroy his physical and psychological well-being. He turns aside the violence of the government and the Acharnians. He defeats the intellectual pretensions of the poets and bravado of the generals. He sets up his own market where he himself becomes the salesman he once despised. The episodes which illustrate his growing success demonstrate a further element of self-assertion. Dicaeopolis has succeeded for himself alone, with no thought of public weal or private pity. By the end, he has become the individual par excellence, the reverse of the poor powerless farmer of the prologue and, indeed, hardly different from the powers that once held him down. He uses force to drive the undesirables out of his market, profits from the starving Megarian, and flaunts his goods before the envious chorus and unhappy general.

The growth of his power is accompanied by an increase in sexual allusion. Obscenity is, of course, ubiquitous in Acharnians as in other Old Comedies.7 In part, Dover points out, sex jokes and vulgar language “cap … or bring a passage to a climax, after which the prolonged laughter of the audience enables the subject to be broken off and a fresh line of dialogue to be started.”8 The emphasis on sex also punctures the serious man's assumption that his mind is the most important element in his life. Obscenity proclaims man's acceptance of his union with physical nature, symbolized by Dionysus. Moreover, it is a powerful means of self-assertion, since neither the real words nor instinctive actions are accepted in polite society. Dicaeopolis' sexuality develops from allusions, wishes, and insults through the purchase of the piglets and sympathy for the aroused bride up to its literal climax in the exodus when, drunk and potent, he leads two dancing girls away. Now his self-assertion is complete. He has triumphed not only over war and generals, but over sterile Old Age itself.

And what catharsis do the triumph and the comic reversal evoke? Does the audience emerge with a desire to change governments or policies because peace has been proved more fun than war? More likely, the drama seems to enable the citizens to take their institutions and ideas less seriously. By making Dicaeopolis become exactly what he has detested as an underdog, the comedy seems to demonstrate that certain conditions are in the nature of things. Thus, comic distortion leads the audience back to the acceptance of real life and the worship of all that Dionysus represents.


By 421, when Peace was performed, conditions in Athens had changed. The opposing generals had both been killed the summer before at the battle of Amphipolis. Now that they could no longer sabotage efforts to end the war, prospects for peace increased. The peace party was growing in strength while Aristophanes was composing the play, and the treaty itself, the Peace of Nicias, was formally concluded only ten days after its performance. Von Daele suggests that it may have even affected the outcome of the negotiations.9 Indeed, Peace euphorically celebrates the end of the war with a subtle alteration in the spirit of Old Comedy. The play contains no agon. The formulaic fantasy emphasizes the heroic qualities of men, and the satire of states and individuals is gentle and good-natured. Above all, the invincible hero defeats war, not for himself alone, but for everyone, citizen and subject, friend and enemy. Unlike Dicaeopolis, he offers freedom, food, and sex to the whole Greek world in the grand finale which ends, like a Dionysiac comos, in a sacred marriage to the personification of peace.

Because the plot, characters, and even the parabasis resemble earlier plays, some scholars suspect that Peace was hastily composed to suit the fast-breaking events of that winter and spring.10 The hero, Trygaeus, whose name comes from the word “crop,” is a small farmer like the hero of Acharnians, Dicaeopolis. Thwarted in his attempts to promote peace through the system, Trygaeus also resolves to take matters into his own hands. Not by concluding a private truce, however. His fantasy is much grander. He is determined to get to Olympus to plead with Zeus himself. In a parody of a recent drama by Euripides, he soars up on a dung beetle, the comic equivalent of Pegasus, the winged horse whom the hero Bellerophon rode to heaven.11 The beast's appetite for finely kneaded cakes of feces provides ample opportunity for scatalogical humor. His master's fear of the crane, tragedy's machine for ascents to Olympus, and his lyric declamations heighten the ludicrous disparity between the myth and its comic transformation. The two questers even get to heaven too late; Zeus and his Olympians have fled the noise of the war below, leaving Hermes behind, with War and Tumult in charge and Peace buried deep in the ground.

Undaunted by the dire warnings of Hermes, he hastens to dig her up, summoning the aid of the chorus of farmers and laborers who are ecstatic at the prospect of peace. They succeed in digging up not only the goddess herself, but her two beautiful companions Opora, “Harvest,” and Theoria, “Sacred Embassy,” the private and public gifts of Peace. Trygaeus is to marry the former, whereas the latter will be presented to the Athenian council. While he goes off to prepare the wedding feast, the chorus performs the parabasis. Then a series of episodic scenes demonstrates the hero's success. War profiteers who refuse to convert to peacetime industries are driven away. Grateful farmers enter to thank Trygaeus for restoring their livelihoods and their pleasures. The contrast between the simple delights of peace and the pain and propaganda of wartime also resembles Acharnians; again Lamachus appears as the symbol for the war party, despite the fact that he was one of the negotiators of the Peace of Nicias. The play ends with a joyously sensual wedding song, inviting all Greeks to share the promised benefits as well as the cakes. By the exodus, both the hero and the beast have surpassed their tragic models. The dung beetle has been harnessed to the chariot of Zeus, and Trygaeus has been truly apotheosized—made young again, wedded to a goddess with the promise of eternal fertility, and worshipped by all.

As the action progresses, the poet ridicules the pretense that war is a glorious endeavor. The scene on Olympus demolishes the epic vision that the gods value the heroics of men. The highest deities have become so disgusted by the human squabbles that they have fled heaven. War is personified as a gross blusterer whose vulgarity is symbolized by the noise and violence of his mortar and pestle. The supporters of the war are exposed as foolish politicians, greedy arms manufacturers, quack fortune-tellers, and ambitious soldiers. With typical comic distortion, Hermes explains that fear, honor, and self-interest, not political principles, have caused the war. Pericles began the whole thing by issuing the Megarian Decree to distract the people from blaming him for his friend Phidias' peculations. Once started, it could not be stopped, because of the same greed and ambition of rich and poor all over the Greek world.

The chorus of Peace is extremely friendly to Trygaeus and the city. It is made up of laborers and farmers from all over Greece who, instead of opposing the hero, slow him down at first by reacting too enthusiastically to his plan. Even those groups who are accused of shirking finally pull hard with the rest to haul Peace up. Moreover, neither they nor the actors engage in a real agon which might arouse rival parties by a debate, even humorous, of the pros and cons of peace. And the parabasis concentrates on poetry rather than politics. In the anapests, the chorus leader boasts of the poet's originality and public service. The emphasis on the courageous acts performed selflessly “for you and the isles” (ll. 759-60) subtly connects the poet with the hero of his play. The ode and antode, where lampoon is traditional, attack the new poets. The imagery picks up patterns from the rest of the play—monsters, gluttony, turds, stench, and tumult—but the targets are familiar and apolitical. Other choral odes, where one might expect particularized satire, instead contrast the pleasures of peace with the discomforts of war or attack hypocritical warmongers in general.

As Trygaeus defeats his enemies, Aristophanes emphatically establishes the meaning of his victory. Calling for help, the hero shouts, “Now the time has come for the song of Dates, sung while he masturbated at noon, ‘Oh how I enjoy myself, how I delight, how good I feel.’” (ll. 289-291). In contrast to the pain of war, well-remembered by the chorus of workers, peace offers pleasure, joy in the simple acts of life—sex, eating, creative work, and music. So the goddess gives “Harvest” as a wife to “Crop.” Thus pleasure and productivity are blended in all the references to marriage and farming. The language is full of double entendre, continually alluding to genitalia, the sex act, and its results. Public life too is directed toward joyous celebration. So “Sacred Embassy” replaces battle as the business of government when Theoria is presented to the entire council. She is undressed to be enjoyed in an exuberant extended metaphor of holiday games, complete with wrestling, riding, and racing. The obscenities contribute to the joie de vivre.

But the equation “peace is love” means more than public and private sex and fertility. It is extended to embrace the political concept of Panhellenism. Both the chorus and the hero alternately represent Athens and the entire Greek world. Hermes' analysis of the war focuses mainly on the plans and problems of the Athenian empire. Trygaeus sometimes seems limited to his own city. But from the beginning, he views himself as champion of all Greece (l. 93), and his call for help is addressed to the Hellenes at large (l. 292). Dover speculates that in the hauling scene the chorus has its back to the audience so that Trygaeus' summons seems to extend beyond the specifically Athenian “metics, [non-citizens who resided in Athens] foreigners, and islanders” (ll. 297-98) to the entire audience, nation, and even the world.12 In fact, the spectators, representative of city and cosmos, have all participated in his quest, for they have held back their bowels until he could get the dung beetle off the ground. Once they have also helped with the digging, they are invited to share the benefits. Theoria is actually led to the members of the council, who were watching the performance from the front rows of the theater. When the characters make their offering to Peace, they scatter lustral water and barley on the audience. Trygaeus then prays that “Zeus mix us Hellenes again in the juice of friendship and harmony (ll. 996 ff.).” In the end, the final prayer for wealth and fertility is offered in the name of Hellenes (ll. 1320 ff.), and food and drink is shared with all as the wedding party marches off.

As Trygaeus liberates the goddess, Aristophanes changes the connotations of the imagery to underline the effects of peace. At the beginning, earthly existence is a disgusting cluster of sights, sounds, tastes, and smells symbolized, of course, by the dung beetle's meal of feces. So long as Trygaeus is on earth with his beetle and Peace is buried deep within it, the characters and audience are befouled. Trygaeus' waste supplies food for his beetle, whereas we too are potential feeders whose very farts might stimulate its appetite. The earth itself is full of cesspools and privies. But the beetle's demand for finely minced cakes promises his ascent to higher things. Once Peace is hauled out of her pit, the beetle will eat ambrosia among the gods while the people savor fragrant fruits, wines, and epicurean delights. The entire earth becomes redolent with the sweet odors of fecundity. The bad-food smells now belong specifically to the soldiers' life; freedom from the draft is like perfume, but the soldiers' kit stinks of belched onions (ll. 526-29). The reversal of the scatological images reaches its zenith when Trygaeus relegates the grandiose weaponry of war to the broom closets and outhouses of the city. The noise and activity demanded for the kneading of cakes is also picked up and developed. The violent pounding in the mortar of war becomes the gentle mixing in the drink of friendship when the individual ingredients are joined together as Hellenes. The tumult and squabble of war, so noisy it disturbed the gods, is converted to the uncontrollable dance of joy by the diggers and then finally to the happy wedding song. These images emphasize that peace can transform human character, replacing selfish competition with cooperation and generosity. Hopefully, the audience will also be transformed through their participation in the euphoric action.


Peace was within Athens' reach, in fact as well as fantasy, in 421. By 411, however, the war had been resumed, Athens' fleet had been destroyed, the empire was in revolt, and the Spartan army was occupying part of Attica itself. Now that an honorable peace seemed impossible. Aristophanes approached the theme with a more fantastic plot and more generalized satire than in the two earlier plays. Lysistrata contains very few topical allusions or attacks on individuals. Instead, its plot arises from the eternal battle between men and women, its diction employs the universal language of sex, and its humor depends more on situations and sight gags than on lampoons. The enemy is male chauvinism in general, and the warriors of both sides are exposed as weak husbands overpowered by women's wiles. Thus Aristophanes dramatizes the last hope that Athenians and Spartans are really brothers under their armor and that peace is as natural as marriage.


  1. For a detailed study of parody in Aristophanes, see Peter Rau, Paratragodia: Untersuchung einer komischen Form des Aristophanes, Zetemata, No. 45 (Munich: Beck, 1967). He discusses Telephus on pp. 19-41.

  2. Douglass Parker, trans., The Acharnians, The Mentor Greek Comedy (New York: New American Library, 1961), p. 118.

  3. Lois Spatz, “Strophic Construction in Aristophanic Lyric” (Ph.D. Diss., Indiana University, 1968), pp. 20-55.

  4. Weber discusses this function of comedy. See especially chapter 2, “The Tragic and Comic and the Problems of Civilization: An Interpretation of the Peace and the Birds.

  5. Pp. 59-65.

  6. See Whitman's chapter [in Aristophanes and the Comic Hero] on the Acharnians and especially pp. 76-80 for a discussion of the way the structure demonstrates Dicaeopolis' growing heroism.

  7. See Weber, chapter 3, “The Obscene Comic: A Look at Acharnians and Peace.” I was unable to obtain Jeffrey Henderson's The Maculate Muse: Obscene Language in Attic Comedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976) but judge from the review by Oliver Taplin, Times Literary Supplement 30 Jan. 1976, p. 107, that the book treats the use of sex in a similar way.

  8. P. 38.

  9. Victor Coulon, ed., and Hilaire Van Daele, trans., Aristophane: Tome II, Les Guepes, La Paix, 5th ed. (Paris: Budé, 1964), pp. 88-89.

  10. Whitman, pp. 104, 310, n. 1.

  11. Rau, pp. 89-97.

  12. P. 138.

Douglas M. MacDowell (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13832

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.]


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 within the town walls and rely on their navy to obtain subsistence from overseas.

On hearing this the Athenians did as he said, and brought in from the country their children and women, and also the property which they had at home, even taking down the woodwork of their houses too. Farm-animals they sent across to Euboia and the neighbouring islands. The removal was irksome to them, because most of them had always been accustomed to living in the country.

(Thucydides 2.14)

In Akharnians Dikaiopolis is one of these Athenians who have had to move into the town, and at the beginning of the play he tells the audience how he dislikes the town and longs for peace to be made so that he may return to his rural home. What does he miss about the country? A modern reader might expect him to praise the beauty of the landscape, or the more leisurely pace of rural life, but in fact he does not. The reason he gives is economic:1 in the country he can get for nothing (by producing or gathering them) various items which have to be paid for in the town.

I look towards the country, longing for peace,
Hating the town and yearning for my deme,
Which never said ‘Buy coal! Buy vinegar!
Buy olive oil!’ It didn't know the word.
It gave us everything; no buy-man there!

(Akharnians 32-6)

The Spartans and their allies invaded Attica in the years 431, 430, 428, and 427. On each occasion they ravaged part of the countryside. The most serious destruction was of the vines and olive trees, which would take years to grow again; the cutting down, trampling, and burning of vines is mentioned repeatedly in Akharnians. But in no year did the Spartans remain for more than forty days, and in 429 and 426 they did not enter Attica at all. One might have expected countryfolk like Dikaiopolis to return to their homes between invasions, but the clear implication of Akharnians 32-6 and 266-7 is that they did not.2 When they had dismantled their houses and shipped their animals to the islands, presumably they thought it not worthwhile to restore them as long as the threat of invasions remained; for they never knew that the Spartans were not about to invade again. Yet almost the opposite seems to be implied by a scene later in the play, where Derketes of Phyle laments that Boiotian raiders have snatched his two oxen (1018-36). Clearly his cattle either had not been shipped to an island or had already been brought back. Perhaps the explanation is that the evacuation of the countryfolk was not as complete as Thucydides makes it sound, and it was really only the farmers of the plains in western and central Attica who moved into the town, those being the areas most vulnerable to incursions from the Peloponnese. The Boiotians coming from the north, though allied to the Peloponnesians, may have made only brief raids without undertaking systematic destruction.

When the first invasion occurred in 431, the enemy army advanced as far as Akharnai; and it was the Akharnians, shut up in the town and knowing that their own land was being ravaged, who were particularly clamorous that the Athenians should march out and fight, though Perikles still adhered to his policy of not doing so.3 That may be the main reason why Aristophanes chose Akharnians to be the bellicose chorus of his play, though there is also a little evidence that the Akharnians had a reputation as brave warriors even before 431.4 Akharnai was a small town about eight miles from Athens; from the Akropolis it must have been possible for the Akharnians actually to see the Peloponnesian army on their land. It was an important centre for producing charcoal from the woods of Mount Parnes, and that fact gives rise to several jokes and humorous metaphors about coal, wood, and fire in the course of the play. But the old men who form the chorus also have their patches of ground for agriculture, and their purpose in wanting the war to go on is to punish the Spartans for their invasions, ‘to teach them not to trample on my vines’ (232-3).

Dikaiopolis too hates the Spartans because his vines have been cut down (509-12). There is no difference between his and the Akharnians' suffering; the difference lies in what they want to do about it. The Akharnians want to fight back, and, although we must make some allowance for comic exaggeration, essentially that may have been the attitude of the majority of Athenians in 425. Dikaiopolis, on the other hand, regards peace as more important than revenge. This conflict of opinion, on the most serious question facing Athens at that time, is the theme of the play.


In democratic Athens all major decisions were taken by the Assembly (ekklesia); to the Assembly, therefore, Dikaiopolis must go if he wants to persuade the Athenians to make peace. The Assembly was, in theory, a meeting of all Athenian citizens (adult males of Athenian parentage), held normally on the Pnyx, a hillside west of the Akropolis. But at the beginning of the play Dikaiopolis has arrived on the Pnyx for a meeting, due as usual to begin at dawn, and no one else is there, not even the Prytaneis who have the duty of presiding.

                                        The main Assembly's due today
At dawn, and yet the Pnyx here is deserted!
They're chattering in the Agora; up and down
They run, avoiding the red-painted rope.
Even the Prytaneis haven't yet arrived;
They'll get here late, then jostle one another
Like anything, to get to the front bench,
All streaming down together. They don't care
A scrap for making peace. Oh city, city!

(Akharnians 19-27)

Classical Athens is often praised for its democracy, but these lines show that there was some difficulty in making the system work. Attendance at the Assembly was sometimes so bad that a rope covered with red paint was stretched out and carried across the Agora towards the Pnyx, to round up citizens who were loitering for shopping or gossip; anyone found to be smeared with red paint was fined.5 It sounds a desperate method of obtaining a quorum. Here the emphasis is on lateness rather than absenteeism, but another passage in which Lamakhos is said to have been elected by ‘three cuckoos’ (598) certainly implies a low attendance. Of course Aristophanes is satirically exaggerating the dilatoriness and apathy. Nevertheless the audience would have thought these passages pointless, rather than funny, if there had not been at least a small degree of truth in them, and so they are important historical evidence for the unwillingness of some Athenians to participate actively in their democracy.

Eventually the Prytaneis and other citizens do arrive, and the meeting begins. Most of it is taken up by the reports of envoys. The usual translation ‘ambassadors’ may mislead a modern reader. Greek envoys did not reside abroad on a long-term basis. They were sent to a foreign state to conduct particular negotiations, and as soon as those negotiations were finished they returned home and their appointment as envoys ended. In many cases this would take only a few days. Often three men would be sent together on a mission, sometimes a larger number. They were appointed by vote in the Assembly; and they received pay, which was intended not as salary but simply to cover the cost of their transport and subsistence on the journey.

In Akharnians the Athenian envoys who are reporting on their return from foreign parts consist of one group (probably three men, though the number is not specified in the text) who have been to the King of Persia, and one man, Theoros, who has been to the King of Thrace. Both have been enjoying a thoroughly luxurious time, although they try to make out that it was full of hardship.

You sent us to His Majesty the King
Drawing two drachmas' stipend every day,
When Euthymenes was Arkhon.
Oh, those drachmas!
And we were quite worn out with travelling
Across Kaystrian plains, as under awnings
We lay on cushions in the carriages;
It was killing.
I meanwhile was safe and sound:
I lay in rubbish by the battlements!(6)
And then our hosts kept forcing us to drink
From crystal glasses and from golden cups
Sweet undiluted wine.
Oh rugged Athens,
Look how these envoys are deriding you!

(Akharnians 65-76)

Euthymenes was Arkhon in 437/6, so that (if anyone in the audience bothers to calculate) these envoys have been away from Athens for eleven years. That is a ridiculous notion, but it is clear that Aristophanes thinks that some recent envoys are vulnerable to the gibe that they have been spinning out an enjoyable jaunt at public expense.7 He is exaggerating, but no doubt it was true that some envoys were well entertained by the potentates to whom they were sent, and enjoyed the opportunity to see foreign parts without having to pay the cost of travel themselves.

Theoros, who is shown reporting back from Thrace, was a real person, and is the object of jokes in later plays. So perhaps it is true that in 426 bc Theoros did go as an envoy to Thrace, and some other men to Persia, even though there is no other evidence of Athenian envoys going to Thrace or Persia in that year. But the reports which they make to the Assembly in the play cannot be more than comic distortions of their real reports: in historical fact the envoys to Persia certainly did not take eleven years, but merely a longer time than Aristophanes thought necessary; they did not bring with them the Persian official called the King's Eye,8 but probably mentioned him in their report; and likewise Theoros may have spoken about, but not actually brought, some Odomantian soldiers.

Both missions are represented in the play as being (and may well have been in historical fact) attempts to obtain support for Athens in the war, in the form of gold from Persia and troops from Thrace. But both attempts are futile: the gold is not forthcoming, and the troops will do more eating than fighting. So the Assembly's time is wasted, and it never gets around to considering how peace can be made, which is what Dikaiopolis wants it to do. Throughout this scene Dikaiopolis represents the sensible point of view, pointing out what is wrong with the envoys and their reports. He is patriotic: his concern is not only for himself, but for the city of Athens, which he apostrophizes twice (27, 75), and for the sailors who preserve it (162-3). What he wants is a peace treaty for Athens, and the Prytaneis, when they arrest ‘a man who wished to make a treaty for us and hang up our shields’, are wronging the Assembly, not just Dikaiopolis (56-8).

This man, Dikaiopolis' only ally, is a character named Amphitheos. His status is not adequately explained; it may involve some joke which was clear to the Athenian audience but is obscure to us. He claims to be not human but immortal, descended from another Amphitheos who was a son of Demeter. The gods have entrusted to him the task of making a treaty with Sparta, but he cannot do so because the Prytaneis have given him no money for travel expenses. Obviously part of the joke is that a god is hampered by the same kinds of problem as a human envoy. But we never hear elsewhere of a god called Amphitheos; one would expect the gods' messenger to be Hermes or Iris (both of whom appear in other plays of Aristophanes). There was, however, at least one Athenian man named Amphitheos, which probably means ‘descended on both sides from gods’; it has even been argued that he and Aristophanes belonged to the same circle of friends, although the evidence for that does not amount to much.9 It seems that Aristophanes has invented a god, and as a joke has named him after a contemporary Athenian who happened to have a divine-sounding name. There may have been some further point to the joke, but it has not been convincingly identified.10

Dikaiopolis, despairing of getting the Assembly to make peace, provides money for Amphitheos to become his own personal envoy. He is to travel to Sparta and make a separate treaty just for Dikaiopolis and his family. At this point the play moves from a real problem to a fantastic solution. In real life it would be impossible for one family to make peace while the rest of Athens remained at war. But in the play Amphitheos goes off and returns in about five minutes (the distance between Athens and Sparta is over a hundred miles) bringing three sample treaties for Dikaiopolis to try. The treaties (the Greek word means more literally ‘libations’) are in the form of wine. Dikaiopolis tastes the five-year one and the ten-year one, but likes the thirty-year one best. He takes it, drinks it, and is immediately at peace; and off he goes to hold his own private celebration of the rural Dionysia.


But his celebration is rudely interrupted by the chorus of Akharnians, who threaten to stone him to death for the crime of making peace with the Spartans. Amphitheos has already fled, and Dikaiopolis is now totally isolated. He has to defend himself, but his methods of doing so are surprising. First he threatens to kill a hostage belonging to the Akharnians; the hostage turns out to be some charcoal (produce of Akharnai). Next he undertakes to speak in his defence with his head on a chopping-block, so that he may be executed immediately if the defence is unconvincing; and he brings out a block for this purpose. Finally he dresses as a beggar to evoke pity; but the ragged clothes he dons are those worn by the tragic hero Telephos, which he procures from Euripides. It will have been clear to the more intelligent spectators from the start, and to the stupidest by the end, that all three devices are tragic ones, taken from Euripides' Telephos and given a comic twist.

Quotation and parody of tragedy are common in Aristophanes' plays.11 Earlier dramatists had presented comic versions of traditional myths, probably drawing them from Homer and other narrative poetry; but Aristophanes is doing something different. He is making comic use of tragedy because tragedy is part of Athenian life. Any contemporary tragedian is considered good for a laugh; in his very first speech Dikaiopolis makes a sarcastic comment on a tragedian named Theognis, to whom he prefers Aeschylus (who had died thirty years before). But the most mockable tragedian of all is Euripides.

Euripides was now in his fifties and had been writing plays for thirty years. Most of his plays which now survive were written in the later part of his life, but evidently by the time of Akharnians he was already regarded as the leading innovator in the tragic genre. Aristophanes brings him into the play as one of the characters, but it is his style of tragedy, not his personality, which is the comic target. Although, for some reason which we do not know, it was considered funny to refer to his mother as a greengrocer,12 there is no other indication that Aristophanes had any knowledge of him as a person. He simply gives to his character ‘Euripides’ the personality and life-style which he considers comically appropriate for the author of tragedies like Oineus, Phoinix, and Telephos.

Telephos had been performed in 438 bc. No complete text survives, but it is possible to reconstruct some of its action from various sources of information: there are some fragments of papyrus copies of the play, and later writers sometimes refer to the story or quote individual lines.13 To these sources we can add Aristophanes' parodies, not only in Akharnians but also in Women at the Thesmophoria, and at several points a scholiast, who no doubt had a copy of Telephos before him, tells us that a particular line of Akharnians is a quotation from Telephos, or that it is a parody of a line of Telephos (and he gives us the original line). There is some risk of circularity, if one reconstructs the tragedy from the comic parody and then remarks that the comic parody keeps very close to the tragedy, and some modern scholars have treated more of Akharnians as parody than the evidence justifies. But with due caution it is possible to summarize the play.14

Telephos was a son of Herakles by a woman named Auge. He was born on Mount Parthenion in Arkadia; but, after being exposed to die and subsequently rescued, he somehow reached Mysia in Asia Minor, where he was reunited with his mother, was brought up, and eventually became king. Some time afterwards a Greek army invaded Mysia, and Telephos, leading the resistance, was wounded by Achilles before the Greeks withdrew. The wound failed to heal, and when Telephos consulted an oracle he was told ‘The wounder will heal it’. So he travelled to Greece, disguised as a beggar, to seek a cure. This was the point at which Euripides' play began: one of the longest of the papyrus fragments contains the opening lines, in which Telephos, just arrived at Argos, hails the Peloponnese, in which he was born, at the start of what must have been a typical Euripidean prologue, reeling off information about earlier events for the benefit of the audience.

O fatherland, which Pelops marked as his,
Hail! and thou, Pan, who tread'st Arkadia's
Storm-battered crag, from whence I claim descent.
For Auge, child of Aleos, bore me
In secret to Tirynthian Herakles;
I know Parthenion mount, where Eileithyia
Ended my mother's pangs and I was born.
I suffered much, but I'll cut short my tale.
I reached the Mysian plain, and there I found
My mother, and I settled. Power was given
To me by Mysian Teuthras. I was named
Telephos by the Mysian citizens,
Because my life was stablished far away.(15)
Though Greek, I ruled barbarians, labouring
With many soldiers, till Akhaian troops
Came ranging over all the Mysian plains …

(Telephos fr. 102)

There the papyrus breaks off, but Telephos must have gone on to tell the audience about his wound and the oracle, explaining that he had now come in disguise to enemy territory to seek a cure, and including somewhere the two lines which Aristophanes borrows for Akharnians 440-1. The contrast between appearance and fact makes them characteristic of Euripides.

I have to seem a beggar …,
Be who I am, but not appear to be.

(Telephos fr. 104)

In due course Agamemnon and other Greeks arrived and a discussion began, perhaps on a proposal to invade Mysia again and avenge the defeat inflicted on the Greeks by Telephos. Telephos, in his disguise, intervened, and we have a quotation of three lines in which he insists on speaking.

Agamemnon, even if someone held an axe
And were about to wield it on my neck,
I'll not be silent, but reply what's right.

(Telephos fr. 113)

Probably at this point he uttered a deliberately ambiguous wish, intending to convince the Greeks that he was no friend of Telephos, while not actually wishing himself any harm.16

Success to me; to Telephos—what I wish!

(Telephos fr. 114)

Permitted to speak, he delivered a lengthy justification of Telephos (that is, of himself), who after all had only been fighting in defence of his own people of Mysia. It began with these words:

Do not resent it, topmost men of Greece,
If I, a beggar, speak to noblemen.

(Telephos fr. 109)

Also from Telephos, the scholiast tells us, and probably from the same speech, came words which we find in Akharnians 540 and 543, and finally those in 555-6.

                                                                                And do we think
That Telephos would not?

(Telephos fr. 118)

After that speech the Greeks somehow discovered that the beggar was Telephos himself in disguise. In danger of being killed on the spot as an enemy, Telephos seized Agamemnon's infant son Orestes and rushed to the altar holding him as a hostage; he threatened to kill the baby if the sanctuary was infringed. The upshot was negotiation and agreement. The Greeks agreed to allow Telephos' wound to be healed, in accordance with the oracle, and ‘the wounder’ having power to do this was found to be not Achilles himself but his spear: it inflicted the wound, and filings from it, applied to the wound, healed it. In return Telephos agreed to guide the Greek forces to Troy, with which he was familiar, in their expedition to recover Helen. The longest papyrus fragment of the play, which must belong near the end, contains part of a choral song about Telephos' forthcoming guidance of the Greek fleet, and some dialogue between Achilles and Odysseus about preparations for the expedition. Although formally a tragedy, the play seems to have had a happy ending.

It is obvious that the principal point of similarity between the situation in Telephos and the situation in Akharnians is that in both plays the hero has to make a speech arguing against the continuation of a war, and maintaining that not all the wrong is on the enemy's side. Dikaiopolis urging the Akharnians, and the Athenians in general, that the war against Sparta is not justified can be compared to Telephos urging the Greeks that the war against Telephos and the Mysians is not justified. No doubt this is what first gave Aristophanes the idea of introducing Telephos into his play; and the speech in which Dikaiopolis makes his plea (497-556) is logically fundamental to the parody, since without it there would be no reason for making him imitate Telephos rather than any other character. That speech will be discussed later; but before it is reached Aristophanes prepares for it by the earlier allusions to Telephos. As early as line 8 there is a short quotation from Telephos, ‘a fitting deed for Greece’.17 Then there is the passage where Dikaiopolis protects himself against the Akharnians' attack by threatening to kill a hostage who turns out to be charcoal, a grotesque parody of Telephos' seizure of the baby Orestes. That is followed by his offer to speak with his head on a block. Presumably this is a reminiscence of Telephos' insistence on saying what is right even if threatened with execution; but whereas Telephos' remark appears to have been just an effective piece of rhetoric, in Dikaiopolis' case the Akharnians take up his offer and tell him to bring out a block, and so he does (358-67). Here Aristophanes is making fun of tragic speech by carrying out literally what in the tragedy is only rhetorical or metaphorical.

Dikaiopolis' next step in imitation of Telephos is to dress himself in ragged clothes.18 Evidently the miserable dress of some of Euripides' characters, especially Telephos, was notorious. We can infer that in earlier tragedy it had been customary for the actors to be formally or even grandly dressed, and when Euripides took a step towards realism by putting wretched clothes on a character who was in a wretched situation, that was a startling innovation. Therefore dressing in rags makes Dikaiopolis look like a Euripidean hero, and a Mysian cup and other accessories make him look like Telephos specifically. But this is only a superficial resemblance between the two characters, since Dikaiopolis does not have the same motive as Telephos for wearing rags. Telephos needed to disguise himself in order to avoid recognition by the Greek commanders; a beggar's dress was a good disguise because it was normal for a beggar to wander from place to place and a stranger so dressed would be less likely to provoke questions about who he was and where he came from. But Dikaiopolis, though he does speak of taking in the chorus at one point (443), never seriously pretends to be anyone but himself. So for him the rags are not a disguise. They are a device for arousing the Akharnians' pity. They are also a means of acquiring skill at speaking, for it is comically assumed that when he is dressed like a Euripidean character he becomes able to speak like one (444-7).

To get the rags, Aristophanes has had the brilliant idea of making Dikaiopolis go to visit Euripides in person. This episode is not essential for the story (Dikaiopolis might just have put on any rags he happened to have), but it makes an excellent comic scene. Euripides is brought on wearing rags himself, and he has a vast stock of rags belonging to different characters, who are named one after another until he reaches the particular one, Telephos, whose rags Dikaiopolis desires. The notion that each character has distinctive rags, stored separately in Euripides' house, is absurd, and is an effective comic device for mocking the use of miserable dress in his tragedies.

Did Aristophanes expect the audience to recognize all his allusions to tragedy? When the hostage and the block are introduced, neither Euripides nor Telephos has yet been mentioned. It was thirteen years since Telephos was performed; indeed Dikaiopolis later calls it ‘that old play’ (415). Aristophanes himself may have had access to a written copy of it, so that he could check the details, but that was certainly not true of most of the spectators. It is improbable that many of them could have taken all the points of parody, without even being told initially which play was being parodied, if they had not in some way had their memories of Telephos refreshed in the years between 438 and 425. Possibly it had been performed at local festivals at Peiraieus or Eleusis or elsewhere; possibly the most distinctive parts of it had been held up to ridicule in other comedies and so had already become familiar material for jokes. But another possibility is that most of the audience just laughed at the comic presentation of tragic style in a broad sense, and only a minority was familiar enough with Telephos to appreciate all the details.19


Now Dikaiopolis is ready to make his speech in defence of the Spartans and of his decision to make peace with them. He has brought out the chopping-block over which he offered to speak. He has procured and donned the tragic rags which will arouse pity and inspire him with tragic language. At line 496 the chorus calls on him to speak—and immediately most of the preparations are forgotten. His speech is addressed not to the chorus, but to the audience; he makes no attempt to conceal his identity; though still wearing the rags, he does not ask for pity;20 there are a few quotations from Telephos, but most of the speech is not in tragic language; and the block is never mentioned again. It is characteristic of Aristophanes to abandon a joke without ceremony as soon as it has served its turn.21 Now the tone is suddenly changed.

Do not resent it, men of the audience,
If I, a beggar, speak to Athenians
Concerning Athens in a comedy.(22)
For even comedy knows what is right,
And what I'll say, though startling, will be right.
For this time Kleon won't accuse me of
Abusing Athens when foreigners are here.
We're by ourselves; it's the Lenaion contest;
No foreigners are here yet, for the tribute
And allies from the cities have not come.

(Akharnians 497-506)

Here Dikaiopolis states very clearly that this speech is going to be different from most comic speeches.23 He is going to criticize Athens, and his criticisms, though they may arouse resentment, will be justified. He alludes for the second time to the fuss made by Kleon about Babylonians last year, and asserts that this time criticism of Athens should be accepted because there are no foreigners in the audience at the Lenaia.24 Aristophanes has made it as plain as he can that the rest of this speech will have some serious content. However frivolous comedy may be, there are some occasions when it says something serious and true, and this speech is going to be one of them. And it goes on to give an account of how the war began: trivial disputes concerning the small city of Megara were allowed to escalate, and the Athenians took up an unduly stubborn attitude to a reasonable Spartan request.

Although it has such a careful and explicit introduction, some modern critics have refused to accept that the speech has any serious content, and insist that it is no more than a joke. It has been maintained that ‘the speech is parody from start to finish. We cannot with confidence take it seriously.’25 This dichotomy is unsound, because it is of course possible for serious points to be made by means of a parody. But in the present instance it is not true that the speech is parody from start to finish. It is true, of course, that the spectators are expected to recollect Euripides' scene in which Telephos, disguised as a beggar, argued that the Mysians were not responsible for the war against the Greeks. To emphasize the similarity Aristophanes has made Dikaiopolis put on rags like Telephos and then begin his speech with almost the same words.

Do not resent it, topmost men of Greece,
If I, a beggar, speak to noblemen …

(Telephos fr. 109)

Do not resent it, men of the audience,
If I, a beggar, speak to Athenians …

(Akharnians 497-8)

But how much more of Dikaiopolis' speech is taken from Euripides? I believe that the extent of the borrowing has been overestimated. The evidence is of three kinds.

1. The scholia on Akharnians tell us that certain lines are taken from Euripides, either exactly or with only slight alteration. These are (besides 497-8): the first half of 540 (‘You'll say “It should not have.”’), the second half of 543 (‘Far from that!’), and part of 555-6 (‘And do we think that Telephos would not?’). The scholia do not say that any other part of the speech is a quotation. The scholiast, whoever he was (probably a Hellenistic commentator), obviously had a copy of Euripides' play in front of him, and if he checked through the speeches of Telephos and Dikaiopolis carefully enough to notice that such an ordinary phrase as ‘Far from that!’ was common to both of them, it is unlikely that he missed any other quotations. However, one must acknowledge the possibility that not all his notes have got copied out into the surviving medieval manuscripts.

2. A few words used in the early part of the speech are used also in the early part of Women at the Thesmophoria 466-519, the speech in defence of Euripides made by his Relative disguised as a woman. These are: the first half of 504 (‘We're by ourselves’), the verb of 509 (‘I hate’), and part of 514 (‘Why do we blame … for this?’). Perhaps the reason is that in both places Aristophanes is quoting from Telephos.26 But it is not certainly so; the words are all common, and the similarity of the situations and arguments in the two speeches (urging the abandonment of hostility towards an old enemy) could have led Aristophanes to use similar wording in both places without even realizing that he was doing so.

3. The word used for a ship in 541 is poetic, and since the phrase (‘voyaging in his bark’) seems out of place in the logic of Dikaiopolis' argument, it has been inferred that it is quoted from Telephos.27

These quotations do not amount to a great deal. It is misleading to say that the whole of Dikaiopolis' speech is a parody of Euripides. What Aristophanes has done is to put the speech into the setting of Telephos' speech by dressing Dikaiopolis in Telephos' costume, and by putting a few words from Telephos' speech at the beginning, at the end, and in one sentence or so in between. That is enough to suggest the general similarity between the two, in that each is arguing against war before a hostile audience. But the specific arguments used in the central part of the speech are not the same. Although we do not know what Telephos' arguments were, obviously he cannot have talked about sycophants denouncing Megarian shawls, and a prostitute named Simaitha, and Perikles' decree, and so on. It is not plausible to say that those things have been put in for the sake of imitating Euripides.

But some people say that they have been put in for the sake of imitating Herodotos. At the beginning of Book 1, Herodotos says that according to the Persians it was the Phoenicians who were responsible for the origin of the conflict between the Greeks and the barbarians, because they kidnapped Io, daughter of the King of Argos; then some Greeks kidnapped Europa, daughter of the King of Tyre, and others kidnapped Medea, daughter of the King of Kolkhis; and in a later generation Paris carried off Helen, which led to the Trojan War. It has frequently been said that this part of Herodotos is parodied by Aristophanes in lines 524-9.28 But I cannot find any good reason for believing that. I do not know whether Herodotos' book was published before or after the performance of Akharnians; opinions differ about its date. But even if it was before, it is most unlikely that many Athenians were familiar enough with it to be able to recognize a parody of one particular part of it unless Aristophanes had given very obvious signals indeed to warn them that a parody of Herodotos was coming. But in fact there are no such signals. Dikaiopolis does not mention the name of Herodotos; nor does he mention the Persians or the Phoenicians or the Trojans or any of the other people who occur in Herodotos' opening pages. He mentions three prostitutes, but that would hardly have made the Athenians think of all those daughters of kings. Above all, Dikaiopolis does not use any Herodotean vocabulary or turns of phrase.29 Whereas the beginning and end of the speech do quote a few words from Euripides, the middle does not quote any words from Herodotos. There is really nothing in the speech which bears any resemblance to Herodotos at all.

So it is not plausible to maintain that the material in this speech has been put there by Aristophanes just for the sake of making amusing parodies. Although he uses a light touch for most of the speech, deliberately mentioning homely or vulgar items such as cucumbers and prostitutes, nevertheless he does expect his audience to accept that the Peloponnesian War resulted from the series of events which he recounts. It has been claimed that ‘his account of the war's origins, so elaborately prepared for, turns out to be utterly preposterous’.30 But this is not so. We should compare it with Thucydides' account of the events which led to the war. Here are two extracts from Thucydides.

Among others who came forward and made various complaints of their own were the Megarians; they pointed out a considerable number of disagreements, and in particular that they were excluded from harbours in the Athenian Empire and from the Athenian Agora, in contravention of the treaty.

(Thucydides 1.67.4)

On a later visit to the Athenians, [the Spartans] told them to withdraw from Poteidaia and to let Aigina be independent; and most emphatically and plainly they declared that there would not be war if the Athenians annulled the decree about the Megarians, in which they were forbidden to use the harbours in the Athenian Empire and the Athenian Agora. But the Athenians neither accepted the other demands nor annulled the decree, accusing the Megarians of cultivating sacred and unowned land and of receiving runaway slaves.

(Thucydides 1.139.1-2)

Dikaiopolis' account is more detailed.

Some men of ours—and I don't say the city;
Remember this, that I don't say the city,
But just some johnny-rascals, mis-struck coins,
Disfranchised, and mis-minted, and mis-foreign,
Were sycophants: ‘From Megara, those shawls!’
Wherever they saw a cucumber or hare
Or piglet or garlic or some lumps of salt,
Those were ‘Megarian’ and were sold that day.
Now that was just a little local matter;
But a prostitute, Simaitha, was stolen away
From Megara by some young men, kottabos-drunk.(31)
So the Megarians, garlic-puffed(32) with pain,
Stole two of Aspasia's prostitutes instead.
From that beginning, then, the war broke out
All over Greece, because of those three strumpets.
Then in anger Perikles the Olympian
Lightened and thundered and confounded Greece
And made laws in the style of drinking-songs:
‘Megarians banned on land, in the Agora,
And on the sea and on the continent.’
Then the Megarians, starving step by step,
Entreated the Spartans to get the decree reversed,
The one resulting from the strumpet-girls;
But we refused, though they asked us many times;
And after that arose the clatter of shields.

(Akharnians 515-39)

The sequence of events which Dikaiopolis presents may be transposed into more pedestrian language as follows. First, some disreputable Athenians hampered the sale of Megarian goods in Attica by constant accusations that some law or regulation was being infringed (515-22). It is unlikely that there was an otherwise unknown decree, passed earlier than the well-known one, that excluded Megarian goods specifically. More probably customs duties were payable by law on all goods imported to Attica from any source, and Megarian farmers and weavers, who lived so near that they could easily slip into Attica by land, had been in the habit of bringing their products across the frontier and selling them without paying the duties. Suddenly some people started trying to enforce the law; but Dikaiopolis regards the accusers as unreasonable and disreputable, and therefore calls them sycophants and not proper citizens.33

Next, according to Dikaiopolis, some young Athenians, when drunk, carried off from Megara a girl called Simaitha. The Megarians were annoyed, and in retaliation some of them carried off from Attica two girls in whom Aspasia (mistress of Perikles) was interested. Presumably all three girls were slaves. Dikaiopolis makes the incidents sound like kidnapping. But in affairs of love ‘steal’ does not have to imply the use of physical force, and if the two girls belonging to Aspasia were merely inveigled away, it may be possible to identify this incident with ‘receiving runaway slaves’ in Thucydides 1.139.2. In any case it may be included among the ‘considerable number of disagreements’ mentioned in Thucydides 1.67.4; that is a perfectly good phrase for what Dikaiopolis describes in 515-27.

Then Perikles, indignant on Aspasia's behalf, proposed the decree excluding Megarians from the Agora and from harbours in the Athenian Empire; the Megarians and the Spartans several times asked the Athenians to rescind the decree, but the Athenians refused, and so the war began (530-9). ‘Perikles the Olympian lightened and thundered’ means that he behaved as if he were Zeus, controlling the whole universe,34 and ‘in the style of drinking-songs’ is a reference to songs that list numerous items; the implication is that the decree was very sweeping and comprehensive. The ‘many times’ that the Megarians and the Spartans asked the Athenians to rescind the decree cannot all be identified exactly, but there need not have been more than three occasions: perhaps one direct approach by the Megarians to the Athenians, the Spartan request recorded in Thucydides 1.139.1, and the final one mentioned in Thucydides 1.139.3. So nothing in this part of Dikaiopolis' speech conflicts significantly with Thucydides' summary of the events concerning the Megarian decree.

Dikaiopolis clearly means to say that the Athenians' refusal to annul the decree was the thing which caused the Spartans to declare war. Thucydides too makes clear that this was what the Spartans said: ‘they declared that there would not be war if the Athenians annulled the decree about the Megarians’ (1.139.1). Now, it is well known that Thucydides considered that ‘the truest cause’ of the war was not the Megarian decree, but Spartan fear of the growth of Athenian power; in his view the decree was merely the catalyst which precipitated the real cause. But Dikaiopolis too says something which is not very different from that. In 540 he points out that the incidents which he has been describing may be thought an inadequate reason for fighting; but he goes on to say that if the Athenians had had similar provocation, if some Spartan had taken not some slaves, nor all the produce imported from some ally, but merely one little dog from Seriphos (one of the least important places in the Athenian Empire), the Athenians would have reacted with even more military and naval fuss. That is as much as to say that the reason for the Spartans' declaration of war was really that they were sensitive to Athenian encroachment on their own sphere of influence.

So Dikaiopolis' account of the outbreak of war, though expressed in a manner suitable to comedy, is not inconsistent with the account given by Thucydides;35 it is not illogical or incredible; and I see no reason why it should not be essentially true. Of course it does not tell us everything. In particular, Aspasia's loss of her two girls may not have been the only reason why Perikles proposed the Megarian decree; he may have had a strategic or political reason too. Nevertheless it must be admitted that modern scholars have had great difficulty in discovering a strategic or political reason, and have not succeeded in reaching general agreement about what it was.36 Aristophanes' suggestion, that Perikles was induced by a personal motive to take an action for which the strategic and political justification was weak, therefore deserves serious consideration.

That all this is meant to be taken seriously, as a convincing argument, is confirmed by what happens afterwards. Neither the chorus of Akharnians nor any other character contradicts what Dikaiopolis has said. In other plays we find a debate, in which two speakers present opposite sides of a case, one refuting the other; but in this play Aristophanes does not present any opposite view for consideration. What happens is that the chorus splits into two halves, one half accepting what Dikaiopolis has said, the other half annoyed at it.

Do you, a beggar, dare speak so of us
And blame us for some wretched sycophant?
Yes, by Poseidon! Every single thing
He says is right, and none of it's untrue.
And if it's right, was he the man to say it?

(Akharnians 558-62)

Line 562 is clearly an admission that what Dikaiopolis said was in fact right. Subsequently, after the scene with Lamakhos, the whole chorus gives a verdict at the beginning of the parabasis: ‘This man is victorious with what he has said, and he's now winning over the people concerning his treaty’ (626-7). That is an assertion that Dikaiopolis convinces not just other characters in the play, but the people—that is, the people of Athens who are the audience in the theatre. It is the kind of pronouncement which is intended to assist its own fulfilment. Aristophanes in effect says ‘You all believe now that the war is a mistake and it is right to make peace’, and he hopes that will help to make the spectators think they do believe it.


Those members of the chorus who still favour war call for Lamakhos, who immediately appears fully armed, having a helmet with a big crest of feathers and a shield bearing a terrifying portrayal of a Gorgon. Lamakhos, like Theoros earlier in the play, was a real man, not fictional, and held military office in the tribe to which Akharnai belonged. His career cannot be fully reconstructed, but we have some information about it. We first hear of him on a naval expedition led by Perikles to the Black Sea around 436 bc, when he was put in command of thirteen ships.37 He may then have been only in his twenties, for in Akharnians, about ten years later, it is still possible for Dikaiopolis to call him young (601) and make a sexual joke which implies that he is young and good-looking (592). In 424 he again commanded a naval force in the Black Sea.38 Later he was one of the commanders of the great expedition to Sicily, where he was killed fighting in 414, and after his death he was remembered as a brave soldier.39

What position he held at the time of Akharnians is not quite clear. In 593 he calls himself a general (strategos). But in 1073 he receives orders from the generals, which implies that he is not a general himself but holds a subordinate rank, probably as a taxiarch. Attempts to explain away the inconsistency are not altogether successful. 593 may not be dismissed as a quotation from tragedy which need not be taken literally.40 Nor is it satisfactory to say that in 1073 Lamakhos is a general receiving a request from his fellow-generals;41 for in 1079-83 he makes no protest that his colleagues have taken a decision in his absence to give him an unpleasant task without consulting him, but accepts without question that he must obey the orders of his superiors. So it seems better to adopt the suggestion that he was a taxiarch when Akharnians was written, but was elected a general shortly before the performance, either at a by-election or at the regular election of generals for the next year; Aristophanes then, for the sake of topicality, made a last-minute alteration in the script to introduce the word ‘general’ in 593, but found it impracticable to rewrite 1073-83 at that late stage.42

In any case, whether Lamakhos was a general or a taxiarch, it does not seem that he can have made a financial profit from his military office. There is in fact no clear evidence that generals or taxiarchs were paid at all in this period.43 Yet Dikaiopolis proceeds to accuse Lamakhos of making money from office, contrasting him with himself and the old Akharnians of the chorus.

Do you, a beggar, speak so of the general?
Am I a beggar?
Well, what are you, then?
True citizen, not a keen-on-office-ite,
But, since the war began, a soldier-ite.
You're, since the war began, a salary-ite.
I was elected—
By three cuckoos, yes!
That's why I got so sick and made a treaty,
Seeing grey-haired men serving in the ranks,
While young men such as you had scuttled off:
Some towards Thrace, drawing three drachmas' pay …


They were elected.
What's the reason, then,
That you somehow all keep on drawing pay,
While none of these men do? Marilades,
Have you served as an envoy, though you're grey?
He nodded ‘no’; yet he's a sober worker.
Drakyllos? Prinides? Euphorides?
Have you seen Ekbatana or Khaonia?
They answer ‘no’. But Koisyra's son has,
And Lamakhos.(44)

(Akharnians 593-602, 607-14)

This passage is not about Lamakhos' election to the generalship or to any military office. The point is that, whereas Dikaiopolis and other grey-haired men performed military service, younger men such as Lamakhos got away to places where no fighting was going on, by being elected as envoys to Thrace or Ekbatana (in Persia) or Khaonia (in Epirus).

We should therefore draw a distinction between two topics which Aristophanes includes in his satirical presentation of Lamakhos. One is the accusation that Lamakhos, like Theoros and others, has made financial gains and avoided campaigns by getting himself appointments as an envoy. Although he invokes democracy (618) and justifies himself by claiming to have been elected (598), Dikaiopolis brushes the claim aside with scorn: ‘By three cuckoos’. Envoys were elected by voting in the Assembly, and here once again, as at the beginning of the play, Aristophanes is suggesting that the Assembly's decisions do not represent the true interests and wishes of the Athenian people, because many of them do not attend it. Consequently lucrative and enjoyable appointments as envoys go to unscrupulous office-seekers, and not to other men who are deserving, such as an old man in the chorus who is ‘a sober worker’ (611). The whole passage is scornful, not jocular, and no doubt Aristophanes means it to be taken seriously. Yet it is not really very convincing. Citizens who did not bother to attend the Assembly had only themselves to blame if they did not like its decisions. And it was to the advantage of the Athenian people that important posts should not be held by nonentities, on the system of Buggins's turn, but by capable men. Aristophanes has made the mistake of thinking that the job of an envoy is as easy as it looks, so that anyone could do it.

The other charge against Lamakhos, which we should keep separate, is that as a military officer he behaves in a conceited and pompous manner. We have no means of knowing how far Aristophanes has exaggerated this, and how far Lamakhos actually did boom and swagger in real life; perhaps he did boom and swagger a little, and Aristophanes has made the most of it. But this, unlike the accusation of exploiting appointment as an envoy, is not a serious political criticism, but is due rather to dramatic requirement. The play needed to have a character, and not merely the chorus, standing for war, in opposition to Dikaiopolis; and that character had to be made to look foolish. For this dramatic purpose, three things made Lamakhos particularly suitable. First, his name happened actually to mean ‘great fighter’ and could be used to make a comic jingle with the word for ‘fight’ (269-70, 1071). Secondly, he was the general or taxiarch of the particular tribe (Oineis) to which the deme of Akharnai belonged. And thirdly, there was his Gorgon shield. Aristophanes has a good deal of fun with the fact that Lamakhos' shield is decorated with a terrifying picture of a Gorgon's face, and his helmet with large plumes. These must have been well-known features of Lamakhos' armour in real life. Plumes and Gorgons were in fact common, but presumably Lamakhos' were bigger and fiercer-looking than anyone else's. Aristophanes has combined these facts and a bombastic manner to produce a personification of militarism.


Lamakhos declares his determination to carry on the war, and Dikaiopolis proclaims that all Peloponnesians, Megarians, and Boiotians may trade with him, but not with Lamakhos. After the parabasis45 Dikaiopolis marks out his own Agora for this purpose, and soon two traders arrive. Both come from enemy states, but neither is presented as unfavourably as Lamakhos or the Athenian envoys earlier in the play.

The first to arrive is a man from Megara with his two little daughters.46 In real life, we must remember, the Megarians not only were on the enemy side but were widely regarded as being responsible for starting the war. In an Athenian play we might expect a Megarian to be treated in a thoroughly hostile manner; we might expect the Athenian audience to laugh gleefully at his starvation and other sufferings. But what we find is just the opposite: the audience is encouraged to sympathize with the Megarian and regard him as a friend. When he appears, his first words are a greeting to the Agora.

Hail, Athens' Agora, that Megarians love!
By the god of friendship, I missed you like a mother!

(Akharnians 729-30)

Is this just cupboard love, and does the Megarian love the Athenian market because he can exploit Athenian customers and make a profit out of them? No, that is not the right interpretation, because Aristophanes has not put in any words to hint at that. He could very easily have done so. He does in fact do something like that in Birds 37-8, for example, where a character comments that Athens is ‘great and prosperous, open to everyone—for paying fines’. Aristophanes could have given Akharnians 730 a similar twist in its tail, but he has not. The Megarian does not say ‘I missed you, a place open to everyone—for making profits’; he says ‘By the god of friendship, I missed you’, which puts his motive in a favourable light.

The Megarian and his daughters are starving after six years of war;47 and because he has nothing else to offer in the market, he decides to sell the two little girls disguised as pigs, and they willingly agree.

Which would you rather do, be sold or starve?
Be sold, be sold!
I say so too. But who'd be such a fool
As to buy you, an obvious waste of money?
But still, I've got a Megarian device:
I'll dress you up and say I've brought some pigs.

(Akharnians 734-9)

When Dikaiopolis reappears, he at first thinks that the ‘pigs’ look quite human (774), but eventually accepts that they really are pigs and agrees to buy them (811-12).48 The humour of this scene comes partly from the comic dressing-up, and partly from elaboration of a sexual pun on the word for ‘pig’.49 But there is also a serious element in it, which comes to the fore when the plight of people in Megara is described.

What else are you doing in Megara?
What we do.
When I was starting on my journey here,
The Probouloi were trying hard to find
The quickest way to get our city—ruined!
Your troubles will soon be ended then.
That's right.
What else at Megara? What's the price of grain?
With us it's like the dear gods—very dear!
You've brought salt?
You yourselves control it, don't you?
Or garlic, then?
What garlic! You yourselves,
Whenever you invade, are like field-mice:
You dig out every clove of it with sticks.

(Akharnians 753-63)

Salt and garlic were the two best-known products of Megara, but Athenian invasions have caused so much destruction that not even those are now being produced. The Megarian therefore has nothing; but Dikaiopolis is not gloating, nor is the Athenian audience encouraged to do so. The jokes here are sardonic comments made by the Megarian, not at him: ‘the quickest way to get our city—ruined!’, ‘like the dear gods—very dear!’ He blames not only the Athenians but also the Megarian government. In the first half of the play, especially in the opening speech, we heard about the troubles Dikaiopolis and other Athenians were having because of the war, and much of the blame for them was put on officials, the Prytaneis. Now in the second half of the play, in the opening scene after the parabasis, we hear about the troubles the Megarians are having because of the war, and the blame for them is put on Megarian officials, the Probouloi. There is a clear parallelism here, suggesting that countrymen on both sides should make common cause against incompetent leaders. It is quite unconvincing to suggest (as some have) that the audience is expected to sympathize with Dikaiopolis but laugh at the plight of the Megarian. Their hardships are presented as being essentially similar, though the lines about the Athenians taking the Megarians' salt and garlic do suggest that the Megarians are even worse off than the Athenians, and that the Athenians ought not to be so hard on them. Dikaiopolis does in fact agree to buy the ‘pigs’, and defends the Megarian when a sycophant tries to accuse him.50

The second trader is a Boiotian from Thebes. He too is from an enemy state, but his situation is just the opposite of the Megarian's. Boiotia has more good agricultural land, and consequently the Boiotian brings with him a wide range of foodstuffs, with delicacies such as eels from Lake Kopais which were not available in Athens in wartime. Dikaiopolis is delighted with them; his only problem is to find anything to offer in exchange which the Boiotian does not already have. The comic solution to the problem is a sycophant: that is a thing produced in Athens and nowhere else!

It is convenient to use ‘sycophant’ to translate sykophantes, but the meaning differs from the usual sense of ‘sycophant’ in modern English. The Greek word is a disparaging term for a prosecutor.51 In Athens, for most kinds of offence against the state or the community, there was no publicly appointed prosecutor. Instead anyone who wished (or, for some offences, any Athenian citizen who wished) could prosecute in a public case. Some men no doubt brought such cases simply from public spirit, wishing to see justice done; some to improve their own reputation as orators or politicians; some as a means of injuring a personal or political opponent. And for some kinds of prosecution, perhaps because they concerned offences which were more liable than others to be ignored, an extra incentive was provided by giving a financial reward to the prosecutor if he won the case. One of these kinds of prosecution was phasis (literally ‘showing’ or ‘revealing’),52 which could be used against goods wrongfully imported, because they came from an enemy state or had been brought in without payment of customs duty. Anyone who wished could point out the offending goods to bystanders in the market and to the appropriate officials. If the accused trader was found guilty, the goods were confiscated and sold; half the proceeds was retained by the state and half was given to the successful prosecutor. That was his incentive to take action.

But perhaps the incentives given to volunteer prosecutors were too great. At any rate the system gave rise to a notorious nuisance. This was the man who made a practice of prosecuting without justification, either because he hoped to get the payment which fell due to a successful prosecutor, or because he hoped to blackmail the accused man into bribing him to drop the accusation. It was this kind of man who was called a sycophant, and sycophants are among Aristophanes' favourite targets. They appear on-stage in Akharnians, Birds, and Wealth, and are mentioned in other plays; the play performed at the Lenaia in 423, which may have been Merchant-ships, had an attack on sycophants as its main theme (according to Wasps 1037-42). Aristophanes presents sycophancy as if it were a regular, though disgraceful, profession, rather like prostitution. Probably the true situation was not so clear-cut. The term is subjective and opprobrious, not just factual. Many a defendant, even if guilty, would angrily call his accuser a sycophant, but no prosecutor would ever use the word of himself, and perhaps no prosecutor made a regular living by prosecution; how many found it a useful source of supplementary income, we cannot say.


The delicious food which Dikaiopolis buys from the Boiotian is the first real advantage that he gets from making peace (for his celebration of the rural Dionysia was cut short by the Akharnians), but from this point on everything goes his way. He starts making preparations for a scrumptious feast. Presently a herald proclaims a drinking competition,53 and a messenger invites Dikaiopolis to dine with the priest of Dionysos. While Lamakhos is called out for a military expedition, from which he later returns comically wailing about his injuries, Dikaiopolis wins the drinking contest and returns with two pretty girls. Thus he ends the play triumphant, in an orgy of food, drink, and sex.

Some critics have considered that Dikaiopolis here is totally selfish,54 but this seems to be a false interpretation. Certainly he enjoys himself, but he does not wish to prevent other people from enjoying themselves too. In the early part of the play it is made quite clear that he wants the Assembly to make peace for Athens as a whole, and it is not until that has been found impossible that he takes steps to make a private peace. When he has his treaty, it is not he who refuses to share it with the Akharnians; it is the Akharnians who furiously condemn it. He does share it with the Peloponnesians, Megarians, and Boiotians, in the sense that he is willing to trade with them; he bans Lamakhos from his market, but does not explicitly ban other Athenians (623-5, 720-2). The question is: do other Athenians want peace? Gradually it begins to seem that they do. Already at the beginning of the parabasis the chorus says that he is winning over the people (626). After seeing the market in operation, the chorus declares ‘I shall never receive War into my home’ (979) and looks forward to life with Reconciliation. Then comes the herald proclaiming the drinking competition; the proclamation is addressed to people in general, not just to Dikaiopolis (1000-2).

Yet there are some individuals who are excluded. Besides Lamakhos, whose request to buy some food is rejected (959-70), there is a man named Derketes of Phyle, who wants peace because the Boiotians have raided his farm and taken his pair of oxen. Derketes must have been a real man, not a fictional character, but we know nothing else about him. Possibly he was a man who had spoken in favour of war, until he himself suffered some loss by it, and Aristophanes therefore considered that he deserved no sympathy.55 In the play Derketes asks Dikaiopolis to anoint his eyes with peace, or to give him a drop of peace to take away (1028-34). (In the first half of the play peace is represented on-stage as wine, in the second half as ointment, probably olive-oil, reflecting the fact that the Spartan invasions destroyed vines and olive-trees.) Dikaiopolis refuses and sends Derketes away, and the chorus comments that it seems he will not share with anyone the pleasant thing which he has obtained by his treaty (1037-9). The point is that anyone wanting the advantages of peace must himself make the appropriate effort. The same point is immediately made again with another example: a bridegroom asks for a spoonful of peace, so that he may avoid military service and stay at home with his bride (1051-3). Again Dikaiopolis refuses, because the bridegroom merely displays laziness and lechery instead of taking active steps to bring the war to an end. But he relents when he gets a request from the bride; she does not deserve56 to suffer from the war, because it is not within the power of a woman to make a peace treaty.


Who is Dikaiopolis? It is easy to say that he is the chief character in the story, an old countryman who makes a private peace. But this answer is inadequate. He is indeed a character in the story, but before all else he is a comedian in the theatre.57 When the play begins, he is an actor who comes and talks to the audience. He has no name (until 406, when a third of the play is already past), and for the first minute or two he says nothing about the story or his own part in it. Instead he chats about theatrical matters, giving his comments on some recent performances; he has been in the audience to watch them.58 Even when he begins to describe the basic situation of the story, he continues talking to the audience until 42. After that the action of the play goes forward, but Dikaiopolis is in the theatre still: his longest speech of all is addressed to the audience (497-556), and even when speaking to another character he can imply that he and the audience should side together against the chorus.

I have to seem a beggar for today,
Be who I am, but not appear to be.
The audience must realize who I am,
Whereas the chorus must stand by like fools
For me to cock a snook with phrasicles.

(Akharnians 440-4)

He is not merely an actor; he is the narrator or compère. In his first speech he tells the spectators that the scene is on the Pnyx; they do not know that until he tells them. Later he says that he is going into his house in the country (202), and then that he is going to the house of Euripides (394); in each case that forthwith becomes the scene. Wherever he goes, the play goes; and if he does not say where he is, the scene is nowhere—or rather, it is back in the theatre.

The meeting of the Assembly provides an interesting illustration of the ambivalence of his role.59 In this scene it seems clear that the Prytaneis are played by non-speaking actors who appear at 40, but there can hardly be a further crowd of actors to represent the ordinary citizens attending the meeting. Instead the speakers simply address the audience in the theatre, so that the citizens attending the play find that they are virtually playing the part of themselves attending the Assembly. Dikaiopolis then, as an ordinary citizen, must take a seat in or near the audience. He watches and listens to the speakers, but he soon begins to find the proceedings unsatisfactory, and when he grumbles loudly to his neighbours or jumps up to protest, the dramatic effect is that of a protest emanating from the audience. At 110 he becomes so discontented that he stands up, dismisses the envoy, and himself takes over the questioning of Pseudartabas. The proceedings in the real Assembly could not be taken over by one of the citizens in that manner. But this is not the real Assembly; it is a comedy, and Dikaiopolis is intervening on behalf of the audience in his capacity as compère. In fact he virtually is the comedy.

For even comedy knows what is right,
And what I'll say, though startling, will be right.

(Akharnians 500-1)

What comedy knows, Dikaiopolis says. Dikaiopolis and comedy are here regarded as identical, and with one voice they say what is right. At this point we should also consider Dikaiopolis' name. The audience is not expected to discover his character from his name; by the time his name is given (406) his character is already well established. Nevertheless, there his name is, and it is repeated at intervals through the play. Aristophanes will not have invented a name which was unsuitable for the character or inconsistent with it. What does the name mean, then? It is a compound of words meaning ‘just’ and ‘city’, but the form of the compound does not make clear the relationship between the two parts. It might mean ‘just towards the city’ or ‘having a just city’ or ‘making the city just’, and other similar compounds in Greek poetry do not enable us to make a confident choice among these possibilities.60 Perhaps Aristophanes did not intend the audience to get a precise sense out of the name; it just gives a general impression that the man has something to do with right behaviour in public affairs.

Dikaiopolis, then, is closely identified with the citizens in the theatre and with doing what is right. Fundamental to the effectiveness of Akharnians is the contrast between his exceptional reality and the unreality of what he achieves. An actual Athenian takes off into fantasy. The point at which the fantasy begins is the appearance of Amphitheos. Amphitheos is a god who is ready to make a peace treaty with the Spartans, if only his travelling expenses are paid, but Dikaiopolis alone is willing to pay them. Peace is obtained as if by magic. Peace is wine; peace is olive-oil; peace enables Dikaiopolis to return home to the country, and to trade with anyone he wishes. Peace leads to pleasures of every kind—but only for the man who has made the effort to obtain it. Aristophanes is saying to each Athenian: ‘Suppose there were a heaven-sent opportunity to make peace at this moment, with just a little effort on your part. Would you be ready to forget the past and make the effort? See what the result would be if you did!’


  1. Cf. S. D. Olson JHS 111 (1991) 200-3.

  2. These passages make my view slightly different from that of M. M. Markle Ancient Society 21 (1990) 156-7.

  3. Thucydides 2.21-2.

  4. Pindar Nemean 2.16-17; cf. R. Osborne Demos: the discovery of classical Attika (Cambridge 1985) 188-9, D. Whitehead The Demes of Attica (Princeton 1986) 399-400, Bowie Aristophanes 39-42.

  5. Platon com. 82, schol. Akharnians 22, Polydeukes 8.104.

  6. Some country people taking refuge in the town during the war could find no accommodation except in the guard-towers of the town walls (Horsemen 792-3, Thucydides 2.17.3). They would also have to perform sentry-duty against possible enemy attacks (Thucydides 2.13.6).

  7. I cannot agree with Heath Political Comedy 37 n. 78 that the scene is pure fantasy. There is nothing entertaining (beyond fairy-story level) in a tale that some men rode in cushioned carriages and drank wine from golden cups. It becomes amusing satire only if it refers to real men who did something of this sort but would prefer to conceal it.

  8. In the play the envoys do produce this official (not an Athenian in disguise). Cf. Dover Greek and the Greeks 293, C. C. Chiasson CP 79 (1984) 131-6.

  9. IG 22 2343; cf. S. Dow American Journal of Archaeology 73 (1969) 234-5. The inscription is twenty or thirty years later in date than Akharnians, and does not actually mention Aristophanes.

  10. For a survey of different views see Lind Der Gerber Kleon 136-8.

  11. On this subject in general see Rau Paratragodia, M. S. Silk in Tr.Com.Pol. 477-504.

  12. For an interpretation of this joke in sexual terms see E. K. Borthwick Phoenix 48 (1994) 37-41.

  13. All the fragments are assembled by C. Austin Nova Fragmenta Euripidea (Berlin 1968), and I use the numbering of that edition.

  14. Cf. E. W. Handley and J. Rea The Telephus of Euripides (BICS Supplement 5, 1957), Rau Paratragodia 19-42, M. Heath CQ 37 (1987) 272-80.

  15. The name Telephos is supposed to be derived from τηλου̑, ‘far away’.

  16. I do not follow those editors who emend the text of schol. Akharnians 446 to convert the wish into a statement of fact.

  17. But possibly this phrase was already in general use and is not intended as parody here; cf. Dover Greek and the Greeks 229.

  18. This probably means one tattered piece of cloth used as a cloak. Cf. R. M. Harriott G&R 29 (1982) 40 n. 7.

  19. Cf. R. M. Harriott BICS 9 (1962) 1-8. In general, on the reception of a parody by a reader or listener unfamiliar with the original work, see M. A. Rose Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-Modern (Cambridge 1993) 36-45.

  20. In the next scene the rags evoke Lamakhos' contempt rather than pity, and so Dikaiopolis probably discards them at 595.

  21. Recent critics have, to my mind, overstated the connections between Dikaiopolis' comic visit to Euripides and his largely serious speech about the causes of the war. See R. M. Harriott G&R 29 (1982) 35-41, H. P. Foley JHS 108 (1988) 33-47, N. R. E. Fisher G&R 40 (1993) 35-7.

  22. The word used for comedy in lines 499-500 is not the usual [kōmodía] but the rarer [trugodía], ‘trygedy’. This may be intended to suggest a resemblance to tragedy; cf. O. Taplin CQ 33 (1983) 331-3, A. T. Edwards TAPA 121 (1991) 157-63.

  23. I have discussed this speech in G&R 30 (1983) 148-55, and I repeat here some parts of that article. Some of my arguments have been criticized by C. Carey Rh.Mus. 136 (1993) 245-62; on the whole I am unconvinced by his objections, but I have modified my view in some details.

  24. On the quarrel with Kleon see pp. 42-5; on the audience at the Lenaia see pp. 15-16.

  25. W. G. Forrest Phoenix 17 (1963) 8-9. Much of Forrest's article is effectively demolished by de Ste. Croix Origins 369-70, but not the statement that the speech is parody, which is reiterated by N. R. E. Fisher G&R 40 (1993) 38.

  26. Cf. Starkie Acharnians 106-8 (on lines 504 and 514).

  27. σκάφος: Rennie Acharnians ad loc., Sommerstein Acharnians ad loc.

  28. Herodotos 1.1-5; cf. Forrest Phoenix 17 (1963) 8, Rau Paratragodia 40, Dover Ar. Comedy 87, de Ste. Croix Origins 240, L. Edmunds YCS 26 (1980) 13, H.-J. Newiger YCS 26 (1980) 222.

  29. D. Sansone ICS 10 (1985) 5-7 demurs at this statement, and observes that μὲν δή is very common in Herodotos. His observation is correct, but the phrase occurs elsewhere too and hardly seems distinctive enough to alert an audience to a parody.

  30. Heath Political Comedy 17, followed by Carey Rh.Mus. 136 (1993) 257.

  31. Kottabos was a game played at drinking-parties: each drinker, as he finished a cupful of wine, aimed the last drops from his cup at a target in the middle of the room. Here the meaning is that the young men had got through many cupfuls. R. Scaife GRBS 33 (1992) 25-35 argues that the game was associated with both love and war.

  32. Fighting cocks were fed on garlic to make them pugnacious. The symbolic significance of garlic is discussed by E. Csapo Phoenix 47 (1993) 115-20.

  33. Cf. de Ste. Croix Origins 383-6. On sycophants see pp. 74-5.

  34. Whether the phrase refers also to Perikles' style of oratory is disputed. Cf. Dover Greek and the Greeks 297, N. O'Sullivan Alcidamas, Aristophanes and the Beginnings of Greek Stylistic Theory (Stuttgart 1992) 107-15.

  35. Fisher G&R 40 (1993) 38 illogically asserts that it is not reconcilable with Thucydides' account because it omits some things which Thucydides mentions. Carey Rh.Mus. 136 (1993) 252-3 commits a similar error, failing to see that Dikaiopolis' and Thucydides' accounts are both likely to be incomplete, and that Perikles may have had more than one motive.

  36. Cf. B. R. MacDonald Historia 32 (1983) 385-410, giving references to many other discussions.

  37. Plutarch Perikles 20. This does not necessarily mean that he was a general (and therefore over thirty years old) at that date.

  38. Thucydides 4.75.

  39. Cf. Women at the Thesmophoria 841, Frogs 1039.

  40. So Rennie Acharnians ad loc.; but the line contains the colloquial form ταυτί, and the metre infringes Porson's law.

  41. So N. V. Dunbar CR 20 (1970) 269-70.

  42. Cf. D. M. Lewis JHS 81 (1961) 120, M. V. Molitor CR 19 (1969) 141. …

  43. The Old Oligarch ([Xenophon] Ath. Pol. 1.3) draws a contrast between the generalship and offices held for profit.

  44. ‘Koisyra's son’ was Megakles, an aristocrat of the famous Alkmeonid family. (On problems in the historical genealogy see B. M. Lavelle GRBS 30 (1989) 503-13; on his reconstruction this Megakles was really the grandson of Koisyra.) Since he and Lamakhos are named after the mention of Ekbatana and Khaonia, I wonder if Megakles was one of the envoys who went to Persia in 426 … and Lamakhos went as an envoy to Khaonia in the same year.

  45. On the parabasis see pp. 31-4. It is largely a digression from the main theme of the play. A. M. Bowie CQ 32 (1982) 27-40 tries to find connections, but they are not all convincing. See also Hubbard Mask 47-56.

  46. I repeat here, with minor changes, a discussion of the Megarian which originally appeared in G&R 30 (1983) 156-8. A different view is taken by Carey Rh.Mus. 136 (1993) 248-9.

  47. This scene shows the effect of the war, including the frequent Athenian invasions of the Megarid. It has nothing to do with the pre-war Megarian decree. Cf. de Ste. Croix Origins 237-9.

  48. It is part of the joke that Dikaiopolis is taken in by the disguise. Bowie Aristophanes 33 takes it too seriously when he writes of ‘enslavement of Greeks by Greeks’.

  49. For detailed exposition of the pun see Dover Ar. Comedy 63-5, L. Edmunds YCS 26 (1980) 17-18.

  50. The statement of Dover Ar. Comedy 81 that Dikaiopolis drives the sycophant away ‘for interference with his well-being, not with the Megarian's’ is incorrect. Lines 819-20, 823-4, and 827 all show that the sycophant is accusing the Megarian, not Dikaiopolis. In 830 Dikaiopolis consoles and encourages the Megarian.

  51. For recent discussion of sycophants in Athens see MacDowell Law 62-6, R. Osborne and D. Harvey in Nomos 83-121, S. C. Todd The Shape of Athenian Law (Oxford 1993) 92-4.

  52. On phasis and the Aristophanic evidence for it, see MacDowell in Symposion 1990 (ed. M. Gagarin, Cologne 1991) 187-98.

  53. On the Anthesteria see pp. 280-1. The drinking competition had presumably been in abeyance during the war because the destruction of vines had diminished the supply of wine.

  54. Dover Ar. Comedy 87-8, H.-J. Newiger YCS 26 (1980) 223-4, A. M. Bowie CQ 32 (1982) 40, H. P. Foley JHS 108 (1988) 45-6, N. R. E. Fisher G&R 40 (1993) 39-41. A contrary view is rightly taken by L. P. E. Parker JHS 111 (1991) 204-6; C. Carey Rh.Mus. 136 (1993) 250, with some reason, considers that Aristophanes is deliberately vague on the matter.

  55. Cf. MacDowell G&R 30 (1983) 158-60.

  56. I retain the manuscripts' reading ἀξία in 1062; cf. Dover Greek and the Greeks 302 n. 41.

  57. Reckford Old-and-New 63-9 gives a similar analysis, but with more emphasis on Dikaiopolis as a clown.

  58. On the question whether the incident concerning Kleon (5-8) was part of a play, see pp. 95-7.

  59. Cf. N. W. Slater in Tr.Com.Pol. 397-401.

  60. Cf. MacDowell G&R 30 (1983) 162 n. 37.

Abbreviations and Bibliography

ABSA: Annual of the British School at Athens

AJP: American Journal of Philology

Ar.Femmes: Aristophane: Les Femmes et la Cité = Les Cahiers de Fontenay 17 (Fontenay aux Roses 1979)

Ar.Hardt: Aristophane, ed. J. M. Bremer and E. W. Handley = Entretiens Hardt 38 (Geneva 1993)

BICS: Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies

C & M: Classica et Mediaevalia

CA: Classical Antiquity

CP: Classical Philology

CQ: Classical Quarterly

CR: Classical Review

Crux: Crux, essays presented to G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, ed. P. A. Cartledge and F. D. Harvey = History of Political Thought 6 (1985) issue 1/2

F.Gr.Hist.: Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, ed. F. Jacoby

G & R: Greece and Rome

GRBS: Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies

HCT: A Historical Commentary on Thucydides by A. W. Gomme, A. Andrewes, and K. J. Dover (Oxford 1945-81)

HSCP: Harvard Studies in Classical Philology

ICS: Illinois Classical Studies

IG: Inscriptiones Graecae

JHS: Journal of Hellenic Studies

MC: Museum Criticum

ML: A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions, ed. R. Meiggs and D. M. Lewis (Oxford 1969)

Nomos: Nomos, essays in Athenian law, politics and society, ed. P. Cartledge, P. Millett, and S. Todd (Cambridge 1990)

Noth.Dion: Nothing to do with Dionysos?, ed. J. J. Winkler and F. I. Zeitlin (Princeton 1990)

P.Oxy.: Oxyrhynchus Papyri

Rh.Mus.: Rheinisches Museum für Philologie

TAPA: Transactions of the American Philological Association

Tr.Com.Pol.: Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis, ed. A. H. Sommerstein, S. Halliwell, J. Henderson, and B. Zimmerman (Bari 1993)

YCS: Yale Classical Studies

ZPE: Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik

The following list of modern books is not a complete bibliography, but gives details of some works for which I use abbreviated references. Details of other works, cited only once or twice, are given in the footnotes.

Albini, Umberto. Interpretazioni teatrali (Florence 1972-81).

Bowie, A. M. Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy (Cambridge 1993).

Carrière, J. C. Le Carnaval et la politique (Paris 1979).

Cartledge, Paul. Aristophanes and his Theatre of the Absurd (London 1990).

Cassio, Albio C. Commedia e partecipazione (Naples 1985).

———. Edition of Aristophanes Banchettanti (Pisa 1977).

Croiset, Maurice. Aristophanes and the Political Parties at Athens (trans. James Loeb, London 1909).

David, E. Aristophanes and Athenian Society of the early fourth century B. C. (Leiden 1984).

Dearden, C. W. The Stage of Aristophanes (London 1976).

Dover, K. J. Aristophanic Comedy (London 1972).

———. Greek and the Greeks (Oxford 1987).

———. Greek Popular Morality (Oxford 1974).

———. Editions of Aristophanes Clouds (Oxford 1968), Frogs (1993).

Ehrenberg, Victor. The People of Aristophanes (Oxford, 2nd edn. 1951).

Fisher, Raymond K. Aristophanes' Clouds: purpose and technique (Amsterdam 1984).

Harriott, Rosemary M. Aristophanes, poet and dramatist (London 1986).

Heath, Malcolm. Political Comedy in Aristophanes (Göttingen 1987).

Henderson, Jeffrey. The Maculate Muse (New Haven 1975; repr. with addenda, New York 1991).

———. Edition of Aristophanes Lysistrata (Oxford 1987).

Hofmann, Heinz. Mythos and Komödie (Hildesheim 1976).

Hubbard, Thomas K. The Mask of Comedy (Ithaca, NY, 1991).

Hugill, William M. Panhellenism in Aristophanes (Chicago 1936).

Kassell, R., and Austin, C. Poetae Comici Graeci (Berlin 1983-).

Kraus, Walther. Aristophanes' politische Komödien (Österreichische Akad. der Wiss., Phil.-hist. Klasse, Sitzungsberichte 453, 1985).

Lind, Hermann. Der Gerber Kleon in den ‘Rittern’ des Aristophanes (Frankfurt 1990).

MacDowell, Douglas M. The Law in Classical Athens (London 1978).

———. Edition of Aristophanes Wasps (Oxford 1971).

———. Edition of Demosthenes Against Meidias (Oxford 1990).

McLeish, Kenneth. The Theatre of Aristophanes (London 1980).

Marianetti, Marie C. Religion and Politics in Aristophanes' Clouds (Hildesheim 1992).

Mastromarco, Giuseppi. Storia di una commedia di Atene (Florence 1974).

Moulton, Carroll. Aristophanic Poetry (Göttingen 1981).

Murray, Gilbert. Aristophanes: A Study (Oxford 1933).

Newiger, Hans-Joachim. Metapher und Allegorie (Munich 1957).

O’Regan, Daphne E. Rhetoric, Comedy, and the Violence of Language in Aristophanes' Clouds (New York 1992).

Ostwald, Martin. From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law (Berkeley 1986).

Paduano, Guido. Il giudice giudicato (Bologna 1974).

Perusino, Franca. Dalla commedia antica alla commedia di mezzo (Urbino 1987).

Pickard-Cambridge, Arthur W. Dithyramb, Tragedy and Comedy (2nd edn. rev. T. B. L. Webster, Oxford 1962).

———. The Dramatic Festivals of Athens (2nd edn. rev. John Gould and D. M. Lewis, Oxford 1968, repr. with addenda 1988).

Platnauer, Maurice. Edition of Aristophanes Peace (Oxford 1964).

Rau, Peter. Paratragodia (Munich 1967).

Reckford, Kenneth J. Aristophanes' Old-and-New Comedy 1: Six Essays in Perspective (Chapel Hill 1987).

Rennie, W. Edition of Aristophanes Acharnians (London 1909).

Rogers, Benjamin B. Editions of Aristophanes Acharnians (London 1910), Knights (1910), Clouds (2nd edn. 1916), Wasps (2nd edn. 1915), Peace (2nd edn. 1913), Birds (1906), Lysistrata (1911), Thesmophoriazusae (1904), Frogs (2nd edn. 1919), Ecclesiazusae (1902), Plutus (1907).

Rothwell, Kenneth S. Politics and Persuasion in Aristophanes' Ecclesiazusae (Leiden 1990).

Russo, Carlo Ferdinando. Aristophanes, an Author for the Stage (London 1994).

Ste. Croix, G. E. M. de. The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (London 1972).

Sifakis, G. M. Parabasis and Animal Choruses (London 1971).

Sommerstein, Alan H. Editions of Aristophanes Acharnians (Warminster 1980), Knights (1981), Clouds (1982), Wasps (1983), Peace (1985), Birds (1987), Lysistrata (1990), Thesmophoriazusae (1994).

Stanford, W. B. Edition of Aristophanes Frogs (2nd edn., London 1963).

Starkie, W. J. M. Edition of Aristophanes Acharnians (London 1909).

Stone, Laura M. Costume in Aristophanic Poetry (Salem 1984).

Taaffe, Lauren K. Aristophanes and Women (London 1993).

Taillardat, Jean. Les Images d’Aristophane (2nd edn., Paris 1965).

Thiercy, Pascal. Aristophane: fiction et dramaturgie (Paris 1986).

Ussher, R. G. Edition of Aristophanes Ecclesiazusae (Oxford 1973).

Vetta, Massimo. Edition of Aristophanes Le Donne all’assemblea (Milan 1989).

Whitman, Cedric H. Aristophanes and the Comic Hero (Cambridge, Mass. 1964).

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Ulrich von. Edition of Aristophanes Lysistrate (Berlin 1927).

Zanetto, Giuseppe. Edition of Aristophanes Gli Uccelli (Milan 1987).

Zannini Quirini, Bruno. Nephelokokkygia: la prospettiva mitica degli Uccelli di Aristofane (Rome 1987).

Zimmermann, Bernhard. Untersuchungen zur Form und dramatischen Technik der Aristophanischen Komödien (Königstein and Frankfurt, 1984-7).

Tom Rothfield (essay date 1999)

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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 head-on collision (and argument), expressly touching on the economics of Athens' war with Sparta. Out of this, of course, spark innumerable brilliant flashes illuminating the war-peace landscape. Nonetheless, however, almost everything adds up to the light shed on the motives of the two opposing forces in which mockery predominates, exposing what is ludicrous and laughable.

From analysis so far, we have a clue to what to expect. Firstly, of course—with a glance back to … the speculation concerning comedy's debt to tragedy's underdog protagonist—that Dikaiopolis, our comic hero, will be at a great disadvantage vis-a-vis his adversaries. That, in fact, is an enormous understatement. As a solitary lone figure, standing in front of the Assembly wearily waiting for proceedings to begin, this is certainly the first and most immediate impact he makes upon us—and how often do each one of us in life sympathize with his predicament, knowing full well what it is to stand alone facing a heartless bureaucracy? Dikaiopolis is a returned soldier—what we call a footslogger, an ordinary soldier in the ranks, a man who has performed his warlike duty, a farmer, moreover, whose property and livestock have suffered from the ravages of the war. Now, above all else, he desires peace. The title, Acharnians, refers to the villagers of Acharni in the Attic countryside, miners who have endured the brunt of the annual ravages by Spartans (and their allies) during the past six years of warfare. Acharnians—in spite of the damage inflicted upon their properties—see their best interests served in a fierce, unyielding hostility to the Spartans, being convinced that a policy of vigorously prosecuting the war to a successful conclusion, despite how they might suffer, is the only correct strategy. With Dikaiopolis, then, as we have stressed, he is to be understood as the one, standing alone, who is against the many. (In a wider sense, beyond the confines of the play, Dikaiopolis' ideas would have had widespread—but not openly expressed—support from sheep-like citizens who simply lack his courage and audacity in speaking out.) In short, then—to sum up this very essential point, at the risk of going on too long about it!—the clash reduces itself quite simply to the case of a single citizen standing alone, determined by hook or by crook on getting peace in the teeth of those who are waging a fierce war, and intend to continue doing so. Here we quote the lines that stand at the beginning of the plot summary of Act 1 … :

Act 1. An underdog upstart (protagonist) concocts a scheme to take over a bastion of civic authority (antagonists) by disguise-imposture. To do so he needs help.

In the course of a lifetime, and the task of writing forty-odd comedies, Aristophanes must have pondered often on how to ring the changes on an opposing situation as we have outlined it. Never, it can be confidently asserted, did he surpass the beginning of Acharnians for dynamism, for a sense of the electric, for the outright thrill which it generates of anticipating what is to come by what is so brilliantly sketched out in the opening exchanges. Following Dikaiopolis' brief introductory soliloquy, we are plunged into a Deputy's cockpit—a cauldron of bubbling and boiling elements. Tension and passions run high. A lonely man confronts the mighty, indifferent powers of the State. Over the clamor of the Debating Chamber the voice of peace is not to be heard. Crier, Sergeant-at-Arms, Deputies, and Ambassadors, etc., one and all are oblivious to everything but self-interest, and pursuit of individual gain. Trivia is in the forefront. Each one being intent on exploiting the war to suit himself; the good of the State has become what is good—and gainful—to an individual; as likely as not to be a parasite leech-like on the country's back. Amphitheos, an immortal entrusted with the task of getting a peace treaty with Sparta (an ironic imaginary possibility) cannot get the money to finance it when a vote is put to the Assembly. (In other words, if an immortal can't pull it off, what chance has anyone else?) Peremptorily hustled out of the debate, Dikaiopolis protests at his treatment, but in vain. Especially infuriating—and the last straw to Dikaiopolis, pushing him to go it alone—is that an invitation is given to the Persian envoy to attend a banquet. Clearly the man is an impostor and Greeks are being deceived:

Isn't it enough to drive you to drink?
Here I am, a soldier chilled to the marrow, hanging
Around outside, whilst any bloody foreign bastard
Can get in and say what he wants. Watch it, kid—
I'm fed up to the teeth. Here goes. Amphitheos—
Over here, will you?
What is it?
Take these eight drachmaes and conclude a
Treaty with the Spartans. Just for me and my
Family. Nobody else, see? As for the rest of them—
Go and drown yourselves!
Silence! Bring in Theoros—an embassy
From the Court of Sitalces!
I'm here.
Great grief! Another crook!

Breathtakingly lucid and simple; in three or four pages, an exposition outlined: what is at stake, forces on each side, and background to the central situation compellingly dramatized. Everyone is out for themselves—and so is Dikaiopolis, a sharp-witted, guileful character, his audacious (and equally self-centered) position in the comic argument decisively clear-cut. Dikaiopolis is pursuing the selfsame tack as those (only a moment or two before) he has so roundly condemned!—Each party in the War-Peace clash is out for their own interests, Dikaiopolis no less than anyone else. An audience—no matter how much it is impressed by Dikaiopolis' pungent comments, and even perhaps more so, by the justice of his viewpoint—is, nonetheless, in no danger of becoming emotionally involved, … arising out of Henri Bergson's all-important statement regarding the intellectual standpoint of comedy and its way of outlawing emotion. The stage is set, then, for a struggle between advocates of opposing ideas vis-a-vis the War. That they are ill-matched—one against the many (basis of a protagonist-antagonist axis) is crucial to the play's fascination: how can Dikaiopolis possibly succeed, being at such a disadvantage in pursuing his preposterous plan?

In other words, a fantastic hypothesis has been launched—fantastic, of course, for no immortal such as Amphitheos exists who can fetch a treaty for eight drachmaes for any citizen!—the basis of a delightful but (yet no less serious for that) game we are to watch being worked out. With the impending approach of the Chorus of Acharnian miners, the hypothesis jumps forward into its next test—and we lean forwards in our seats in anticipation; what of the miners? How are they going to take this rebellious flag being raised? Surely this cheeky upstart, peace treaty or not, is bound to be stopped dead in his tracks, or not? Just for a moment, however, a pause in the action occurs, whilst the Chorus stands at the side of the stage, champing at the bit, fuming and foaming at the mouth. Dikaiopolis is to make a sacrifice to the god Dionysus, praising the fruits of his treaty, and an end to the fighting:

                                        Onwards, Oh Phales,
Companion dear of Bacchus, night reveller
God of love, friend of the young,
And pretty boys and joyful sacrifice
                                                            I am home again;
Six long years without celebrations
My farm a desolate patch,
I return with a treaty at last
                                                                      Free of care and woes.
Fighting I leave to Lamachos.
Oh Phales, come drink with us,
To-morrow we'll honor the Peace.

This a reminder, then, from the peace side of things, just what it signifies, at the very moment when the Chorus is about to burst forth with a passionate, hostile bombardment against enemies of the State, viz:

You, you impudent rascal, traitor to our cause
Our country and our people. How dare you
Stand there and defy us!

Patrician elders, serious citizens, and enraged veterans of Marathon, the Chorus represents the inflexible, one-tracked, narrow-vision outlook of the pro-War party—a majority ethos. At this point, we get an amusing instance of how nimble-footed comedians have got to be—and also comedy's captivating style; another intriguing instance of its pursuit of opposites, to which we gave the following brief description:

Others are appealed to join in or help. Usually they do so.

Earlier, just a moment or two before, in fact, Dikaiopolis attacked the Deputies (and others) as a veteran soldier, outraged at corrupt and inept slackers, dilatory in the War effort. Here, in the face of a violently pro-war Chorus, Dikaiopolis reverses himself, arguing for the anti-war position, swinging around to an opposite standpoint. No longer attacking, he is on the defensive, justifying his own conduct (and thus attempting to sway others to his cause). Impeded by rheumatism and old age, miners are in a fighting mood, with pockets full of stones, threatening violence and murder. Such is their passion, legitimate self-interest gets swept aside in torrential prejudice; the Chorus recognizes no other point of view but its own, unwilling to allow anyone else even to be heard. Thus, in their exaggerated posture, they become ludicrous—the comedy is safe from being tipped into drama or melodrama. Here they are, in full flow of vitriolic spleen:

Listen to you? To what? You will die!
Annihilated—We shall kill most
Infamous of traitors!
Ask us to listen to you?
Do not dare address us—
We hate you more than we do Cleon
Whom one day we shall skin alive.
What? Listen to a long harangue
After you've bargained with Sparta?
Never! No! You shall be punished!

No-one wants to hear a word uttered on behalf of peace. When Dikaiopolis suggests that the Spartans might have reasonable grounds for fighting Athens, the Chorus becomes almost apoplectic. How is Dikaiopolis to get them to listen to his arguments? Stylistically, we see Aristophanes abandoning realism (as he did earlier by having a peace treaty obtained by means of an immortal god). Dikaiopolis leaves the stage for a moment or two; then he returns brandishing a sword in one hand, and a coal scuttle in the other—symbols, nothing else, but for the audience, introducing the fantastic element is a hilarious diversion, keeping the plot firmly on a comic axis, and, so far as the idea-argument is concerned, the point is driven home:

Look here—what I've got. A coal-scuttle,
All yours. Let's see if you've any love for it.
Dear god, it's our life's blood, he's got
There! Stop, stop! Spare it—whatever you are
Going to do, don't do it! In heaven's name, don't!
Why shouldn't I? Look, it's for the
Deep end. Its life is over, see?
No, no, don't! How can you kill our beloved
Scuttle? Faithful comrade of our lifelong days?
Ahah. Now you wish to listen to me,
Do you?
Yes, yes. Speak if you must. Say what you
Will. Say you love Spartans, but spare my scuttle.
Never shall we forsake it for anything on earth.
First, then, drop those stones.
We've done what you say. And you put
Down that sword as well.

Euphoric notions of patriotism, honor, glory, and so on, vanish. At rock bottom, then, every man's motivation derives from his bread-and-butter standpoint. Clamor made on behalf of the State, and the cause it is fighting, is essentially a defense of one's own economic interests. Earlier we saw why the parasitic branch of the State pursued the War—ambassadors, deputies, envoys, and the like; now we see why others support it. To sum up, duty to the State is not disinterested.

To argue the Spartan case—the next phase in plot—is a logical follow up in this newfound position. If it can be shown that Spartans, too, are justifiably defending their own economic interests, then, by the same token, Dikaiopolis' peace treaty is logically in order; ought to be allowed to stand unchallenged and without interference. It also follows, as a corollary, that if everyone fights in defense of threatened economic interests, to cease fighting on the same grounds may be just as reasonable—another argument in favor of Dikaiopolis' peace treaty. The key element here, however, is the notion—seldom bruted about in Athens, we can be sure—of Spartans having justifiable grounds for invading Athens in the first place. Arguing the Spartan case is, in effect, then, not only aimed at cutting the ground from under the feet of the Chorus, but (of course) aimed at the audience; part of a wider context in Aristophanes' purpose of casting a serious doubt on Athens' case for pursuing the War; its high-minded claim to be acting on the purest, most moral, and patriotic of aims.

Enter disguise-imposture into Acharnians in a most entertaining fashion. Getting in his usual swipes whenever possible against his bête noire, Euripides, Aristophanes has Dikaiopolis go to the tragic playwright's home to borrow a beggar's clothes from his theatrical wardrobe, in order to argue the Spartan case—a real dig at Euripides' much criticized use of low characters in his works—and pointing at the real risks he is taking in daring to speak in defense of the enemy Sparta at the height of a war with them:

I have to treat the Chorus to a long speech.
If I don't put it across it'll be all up with me.
I need these beggarly rags—as it were
‘Be what I am but not appear to be so.’
The audience will twig, for sure, but I'll
Fool the Chorus with a clever speech.
That I dare speak out what is
Beneficial for the State, can happen in a comedy,
Believe it or not!

(‘Be what I am and not appear to be so’ is a take-off of Euripides' much mocked way of occasionally expressing himself in a double-and-pretentious sense that, for the ordinary man, sounded plain and outright silly.) As we see, Aristophanes is going to extreme lengths to emphasize to the spectator by every possible means that he is attending a comedy. Even so, the theatricality in this scene—even when compared with other instances of a similar nature—is most striking. Can one hazard a guess as to the reason? General reasons for the introduction of theatricality have already been analyzed; in essence, that the spectator shed his emotional responses and be free to follow the bare bones of an argument without getting involved either way. But the particular point at issue here—i.e. Spartans and the War—is so tricky and Aristophanes' own personal danger is so acute, that it forces him to stop at nothing, allowing us to go behind the scenes, as it were, using every device (including anything that could be filched from tragedy), to get his argument across. Much fun is made of Euripides in this scene; but actually the real target of ridicule is tragedy itself, in which it is implied, tricks of the theatrical trade play a most prominent role. And that is what is most needed in Dikaiopolis' defence!

In this next phase of plot, in our basic Act 1 summary the essence of it was expressed as follows:

Making a pretence of being other than what he is (and they are), under cover of guileful argument, the bastion is seized, or infiltrated, and the defenders overthrown.

Clad in rags belonging to Telephos, borrowed, as we have said, from Euripides' theatrical wardrobe (Telephos being one of the tragic playwright's most garrulous of characters), Dikaiopolis puts the Spartan case for the War. Packed to the rim with an audience obsessed with its fighting a despised enemy, this was surely one of the most remarkable events in all theater history; all the more so because Dikaiopolis places the blame squarely on Pericles (the Athenian war leader) for unfairly penalizing Megarians in their trading practices—this very questionable decision was a crucial event in initiating the War, because it led to Sparta coming to the aid of its Megara ally. Diakiaopolis emphasizes that the victimization that Megara traders endured as a result of Pericles' action was inspired by Athenian envy and greed, and carried out by malicious informers. How, asks Dikaiopolis, rhetorically, could Sparta avoid being drawn into War after Pericles' unfair action?

          I'll come straight to the point. Don't make
Any mistake—I loathe Spartans like you do.
But why ignore the cause of our misfortunes?
We began it with Megara, confiscating their
Market produce for no good reason. Because
          They retaliated, seized some whores in revenge,
          All Greece was set ablaze!

Dikaiopolis' peroration splits the Chorus into two factions; one admits to the truth of his arguments; the other continues fiercely to denounce him (once again Aristophanes using opposites to emphasize the ludicrous in a dispute). But Dikaiopolis has successfully made his point and outmanoeuvred his opponents. Fuming and impotent, they shout for the warrior-general Lamachos to come to their assistance. Haughty and arrogant, Lamachos arrives on the scene, denouncing—what he thinks is a mere beggar-like figure—for his unpatriotic role, etc., etc. Dikaiopolis is not a bit put out by him, giving Lamachos as good as he gets, contemptuously accusing the officer of sloth, parasitic, and all manner of unsoldierly conduct. Particularly galling to Lamachos is the cutting derision for having a sinecure job at base; not to be compared with Dikaiopolis' own record as a fighting soldier at the front. Setting out a new order of battle, so to speak, Act 1 of the play concludes with both men locked in a spirited duel of future intentions:

In freedom's name, can such a barrage of
Exaggeration be tolerated?
You can, for sure—you're well paid.
But what about me?
I propose we Athenians battle on—on land,
At sea—everywhere, and crush the enemy!
And I, in freedom's name, proclaim
To the Peloponnesians, Megarians, and Boeotians
That all who wish to trade with me at my market
Shall do so. But Lamachos? Not for any money!

In our plot summary of Act 2, the beginning phase was expressed in this way:

The protagonist assumes the mantle of leader. A new idea operates. Things inside the bastion are turned upside down.

Now for the new idea. If we think of a hypothesis as a means of projecting an idea into a supposed future made visible, or tangible, then Act 2 of an Aristophanes' comedy becomes that hypothetical future made just so. What has been so vigorously debated and resisted—the rights and wrongs of Dikaiopolis' treaty—is now an accomplished fact (albeit an imaginary one). Upstart Dikaiopolis has succeeded—top dog, with a free hand to implement his peace treaty. What will he do? How will he cope in the new circumstances? And what of dislodged pillars of society?—army, informers, miners, etc.? What will their response be? This Act 2 of an Aristophanes' comedy is usually described by scholars—using the ancient Attic term—as the episodia: a series of loosely connected scenes in various meters. It is a description, true enough in a sense, but it can be misleading. Nothing is loosely connected either here or anywhere else in Aristophanes. If a comedy is looked upon as a hypothesis, in which Act 1 is to be thought of as a debate about the present with reference to the past, the Act 2, by the same token, is to be thought of as a debate about a hypothetical future with reference to the present. Present realities are to be faced from the start of an Aristophanes comedy until its finish. Hence, Dikaiopolis has won his treaty; his dream has come true. Nonetheless, he has Athenians' contemporary conduct to deal with: events springing out of warfare, and the sufferings imposed on Athenian enemies.

Setting up his stall in the market-place, throwing his weight around, doing as he pleases, Dikaiopolis begins by repealing laws and ordinances discriminating against enemy aliens:

Here we go. This is my market-stall.
As I said, all Peloponnesians, Megarians
Boeotians, are free to do business with me,
But not with Lamachos. See these whips?
They're clerks in charge. Informers—be warned!
Keep away!


A whip is the symbol of authority. Authority is to be enforced over opponents—upstarts, in fact (ironically, until he won his battle, the very thing that Dikaiopolis was himself!). Setting up a treaty pillar, he proclaims the new order. Although a revolutionary himself, Dikaiopolis intends to stand no nonsense from others; but his newfound right to trade with citizens of Megara and Boeotia is far from being plain sailing. Gratitude does not figure largely in the conduct of starving and ruined farmers bent on getting the best deal in trading they can squeeze out of others. If Acharnians had to cope with Dikaiopolis' wiles, now he is exposed to the wiles of others. First is a Megarian farmer who arrives with two half-starved children, victims of the War's hardships. Aristophanes does not lose sight of his main theme for a single moment. Yet how, he might have pondered, to portray the cruel effects of Athenian policy, but at the same time keep in mind comedy's purpose of amusing an Athenian audience?

Who're you? A Megarian?
Coming to market, yes. It's here, hu?
How's life with you poor guys?
You've said it—poor. Hungry we all are …
Make merry then with music. Helps a lot.
What else is news?
What's new? We're for the scrap heap. Our
Leaders are arranging that we die—
As quickly as possible.
Die? Quickly is best way out of all one's

Dry and sardonic, realistic and squeezing the tiniest bit of humor out of scraps of conversation, this was as cheerful a face as Aristophanes could assume in desperate times and the plight of ruined farmers. How indispensable comedy's devices are to playwrights! Disguise-imposture—the traditional comic device employed by protagonists so effectively in an Act 1—now become the technique of antagonists. Having practically nothing to sell—the price of garlic having vanished out of sight together with that of salt, both controlled by Athenians who raided and seized everything worthwhile—the harassed Megarian farmer tries to play a trick on Dikaiopolis. His two hungry little girls are made to tie on trotters, hidden in a bag, and prompted to squeal like little pigs. Aristophanes gets his points across about the horror of War (what he believes Athens does unjustly), with the help of double-entendres, coarse jokes, and by slyly amusing the audience in other ways:

What's this?
A sow. Can't you see that it's
Sticking out a mile?
I see what's sticking out—but if it's
A pig, it's a human one.
You must be joking. In good Greek lingo
This is a sow, believe me. Want to hear it squeal?
Come on, little ones. Wee, wee!
(aside). Louder, you little fool, or by Hermes
I'll take you all home.
1ST Girl.
Wee! wee! wee!
Is that a little sow or not?
Seems like it. Let it grow up and it'll
Be a fine fat bitch.
Like her mother, eh?
Can't be sacrificed, though.
How so?
Has no tail. Just like the other one, I see.
Give her time, it'll grow. Born of the same
Father and mother, y'know. Fatten ‘em up, let ‘em grow
Bristles, and they'll be the finest sows to sacrifice—
Even to goddess Aphrodite herself.

In the plot summary of Act 2, the next phase was summarized as follows:

Counter-attack by antagonists. Fortunes fluctuate back and forth.

As Aristophanes makes abundantly clear, Dikaiopolis is an unsentimental Athenian, determined to gain his ends—exploit, get the better, or ignore others if necessary—just as was formerly his own experience at the hands of others. (This is one significant aspect of the reversal of his power position.) He never pays for anything if a scheme or a trick can be used instead; as a virtual ruler of the market-place it is a question of the one who has the most guile who gets the better deal. As a result, each encounter with others—groups we have mentioned: informers directly opposed to him, fiercely intent on exploiting War for their own benefit, or, merely, like the starving farmer whose oxen has been stolen, mutely caught in the middle of the fighting; whatever their standpoint, survival being the name of the game, so to speak, each incident illuminates the main themes of the play: the horrors of War versus the joyous splendors of Peace. A tiny exchange of dialogue shows Dikaiopolis at his most tough and unyielding:

Look you, crying for my lost animals
Has ruined my eyesight. Know who I am? Poor
Dercetes of Phales. If you have an ounce of pity
Anoint my eyes with your Peace-ointment.
Sorry. I'm not a doctor …
I beg you, sir. If you did it, perhaps
I'd find my oxen.
Out of the question. Away you go. Go find
Someone else's shoulder to weep on.

In Act 1, we saw high-class parasites at work—ambassadors, envoys and the like. Here in the market-place, we get a vivid glimpse of a lower type parasite: the informer Nikarchos trumping up ludicrous charges of treason against an innocent farmer. Lantern-wicks that he is selling might be stuck on a water-beetle, put in a gutter, and blown by a strong wind into the port, thereby causing Athenian ships to catch fire! When Dikaiopolis gets rid of the informer, stuffing the odious official into a pot, the Chorus expresses its deeply felt disgust:

No-one would ever use that pot again
After that disgusting fellow has been in it!
Farewell, stranger! Take this good-for-nothing
Informer away, and fling the pot
As far out of sight as possible.

Throughout, the Chorus is obliged to stand and watch the lucky hero. When Dikaiopolis in exchange gets succulent eels and long-forgotten goodies for the household, the envious Chorus breaks out in admiration, overflowing with hatred for War:

You see, good people, how lucky is this man!
Commonsense and wisdom guided him to Peace.
Everything useful and delicious drops at his feet
Without the least effort. Never, never again
Will I invite War to my house. Why, what damage
He does! Chanting bawdy songs, breaking up
The furniture, he's nothing but a sot. He ruins
Everything—makes mischief. Doesn't matter
How kind you are to him. He burns down vines
Tips the wine out of the jars, spills it, the lot.
Look at this fellow. Well-behaved. Succulent
Dishes without number, adorning his dining-room


But what is the outcome of the new order of things? In a sense, Aristophanes' comedy could be understood as a warning: where does justice and fair play stand when the State's power is set aside—i.e. when its citizens no longer respect it or obey its injunctions?—and when the law becomes merely what the code that those with property, produce, food, etc., can impose on others by controlling trade?—in other words, the code that Pericles initiated between States when, in his dispute with Sparta, he unfairly excluded Megara and others from trading with Athens. (In a sense, is Dikaiopolis any different from Pericles?) Dikaiopolis is badgered from every side, seldom giving way, rejecting appeals that might jeopardize his good fortune. But his conduct, nonetheless, makes clear that an unfettered pursuit of self-interest in such conditions benefits an aggressive individual more than conduct that is community-orientated. Authority, confronted with this new threat, finds many of its old power methods ineffective. Like the impoverished farmer (who lost his oxen and got scant sympathy), when General Lamachos dispatches a servant to buy thrushes and eels from Dikaiopolis for the forthcoming Feast of Pitchers, likewise he is also rebuffed; told, to go ‘twiddle his plumes at his daily rations’. Others are rebuffed likewise. A newly married man, who tries to barter meat from the wedding-breakfast for a tiny bit of Peace-Ointment, so that he can avoid being called-up for military service, fares no better. However, his wife, whose bridesmaid begs ointment for her intimate and general purposes gets a happier result—having touched Dikaiopolis on a tender spot: his feelings for the opposite sex. But is there not more than a suggestion here of a hark back to comedy's primitive delights in fertility, phallic symbol celebrations, and the like?

My dear, what is it she'd like?
(whispering). Ah, what a preposterous request!
The bride aches to have her husband's weapon
Kept at home! Okay, let's arrange it for her.
Bring me my treaty. Here—this is for the bride.
A woman is not created to suffer bruises
Of War. How to apply it? Tell the bride
When the soldiers come to take him away,
He's to rub it on where it's most needed.
Slave, enough. Take it away. Hurry with wine!
Fill up the cups to celebrate!

In the Act 2 plot synthesis, the end section was summed up as follows:

A crisis, leading to an unforeseen event. Modus vivendi agreed, ending in compromise and celebrations.


Approaching its climax, Acharnians becomes stylistically unusually complex, following a kind of double-track. Is this perhaps a throwback to earlier influences—deliberately employed, of course—a primitive style of comedy of which we have no record whatsoever? (In using the word primitive I don't mean it was in any way an inferior era in this technical respect; quite the contrary.) In order to bring themes of war and peace into a final clear-cut focus—a kind of summing-up, as it were—the playwright employs opposites in a manner both fanciful and amusing; with just enough of a grip on realism to steady the play on its contemporary axis. General Lamachos and Dikaiopolis, representing respectively war and peace, become involved in competing claims—claims that emphasize in each case how disparate these are. Lamachos, interrupted in the midst of enjoying a feast, to his great dismay and annoyance is summoned back to arms; ordered to collect his troops immediately, and to fight a gang of warring Boeotians. Dikaiopolis, on the other hand, to his intense pleasure, receives an invitation to come to dinner with the priest of Dionysus. The contrast between the situation of the two men could not be more emphatic. A short excerpt from the dialogue shows, in an amusing way, almost operatic in style—as if one were a bass and the other a tenor!—how differently the two men prepare to depart: Lamachos angrily putting on his armor, Dikaiopolis preparing his hamper of food:

Slave, spear off its hook. Bring it here.
Slave, slave, sausages off the fire. Bring them here.
Hold it firm, slave. Hold it tight.
Grip it tightly, slave, whilst I get it off the skewer.
Slave, bracings for my shield.
Slaves, loaves from the oven. And bring bracings
For my stomach.
Now to fix my Gorgon's head.
And I'll have a slice of cheese-cake.

Just so that the point is not lost by the slower wits in the audience, the Chorus adds its comments:

There go the two of them—
How different are their journeys!
One to mount guard, and freeze in the cold;
Watching with anxiety.
The other to drink and make merry;
Sleep with a beauty who will
Not find it difficult to please him.

Each party's standpoint brings about inevitable—and vividly contrasting—results: Dikaiopolis' talents at drinking wine wins him the prize at the Feast of Pitchers; Lamachos' talents at warfare result in being struck by an enemy stake. Tipsy, Dikaiopolis is friendly to Lamachos, hugging the suffering warrior, but does not comprehend wounded Lamachos' condition. Again, the dialogue makes fanciful use of strong contrasts in what is virtually an ironic operatic duet:

Why do you embrace me?
Why, then, did you bite me?
‘Twas a cruel assault—I had to pay it back
In good measure, fiercely.
‘Twas a delicious wine I quaffed just now.
O Paian, god of medicine, come!
Not his feast day today, my friend. No chance.
Hold up my leg. Careful, it's so tender.
I can barely stand up.
Hold this thing, my darlings, hold it, do. I need
Two of you to do it properly.

The end-piece sees Lamachos valiantly trying to muster up enough resolution to return to the battlefield. Dikaiopolis abandons the market, and returns to the feast, the Chorus noisily cheering him on, determined to stick to their hero—as long as the sacred wine-skin lasts:

Dear men, I come when you call.
You win—oh yes, you win!
Brave champion, you triumph over all!
The wine-skin is yours, full to the brim.
And we'll sing of you, again and again
So long as you have the sacred wine-skin,
We'll follow you! Victory! Victory!


Very significant is how Aristophanes handles Lamachos' wounded departure to the battlefield, whilst Dikaiopolis is living it up. Of a sudden, there is a complete change of standpoint, totally unexpected: a distinctly disturbing impression that gaining a treaty and the use Dikaiopolis has made of it is overshadowed by Lamachos' steadfast—even if misguided—conduct. But it is a characteristic of Aristophanes; to be scrupulously fair in handling his characters. Characters remain true to themselves throughout, serving the argument of the comedy itself, a debate in which no party escapes the obligation to conform to commonsense conduct: to measure up to a notion of balance, of behavior within the norm of good citizenship, of personal and civic decency. Throughout Acharnians, the guiding spirit is concerned to show the threat which these clashes—war and peace and the like—illuminate; and to chastise deviations from a civilized standpoint; in other words, attacking its enemies with every resource in comedy's armour, and, at the same time, defending values and traditions of the democratic State. Clearly then, Aristophanes' comedy is firmly rooted in conduct, and what conduct owes in the first place to character ….

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407


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.

Traces the development of comedy and discusses the unprecedented toleration shown by Athenians in response to the Acharnians.

Rogers, Benjamin Bickley. Introduction to The Acharnians of Aristophanes, by Aristophanes, translated by Benjamin Bickley Rogers, pp. v-lvi. London: George Bell & Sons, 1910.

Overview of the Acharnians.

Russo, Carlo Ferdinando. “Acharnians.” In Aristophanes: An Author for the Stage, pp. 33-77. London: Routledge, 1994.

Analysis of the Acharnians, including sections on the significance of the name Dikaiopolis, the lack of stage notes and directions in texts, Aristophanes's use of theatrical time, and the physical operation of the theater.

Silk, M. S. Aristophanes and the Definition of Comedy. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000, 456p.

Explores the nature of comedy and Aristophanes's pioneering efforts.

Sommerstein, Alan H. Introduction to Acharnians, by Aristophanes, edited by Alan H. Sommerstein, pp. 1-31. Wilts, England: Aris & Phillips Ltd, 1980.

Discusses the structure of Athenian comedy, how the comedies were produced, and how they were transmitted.

Taaffe, Lauren K. “The Representation of Female Figures in Aristophanes' Plays Before 411 BCE.” In Aristophanes and Women, pp. 23-47. London: Routledge, 1993.

Analyzes elements of the Acharnians, particularly its female characters, noting that they are more a theatrical device than realistic representations of contemporary women.

Additional coverage of Aristophanes's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 176; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Dramatists; Drama Criticism, Vol. 2; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

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