What problems does Aristophanes identify with democracy as a government form?

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Aristophanes believes democracy is a form of government that is best suited to the small city-state, since it allows for participation in decision making. However, Athens is more than 5 times the size of any Greek city-state and thus can not be effectively managed as a direct democracy.

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Aristophanes's Acharnians was produced in 425 BC during the Peloponnesian War. The Persian War, in which different Greek city-states had united to fight off a foreign invader, Aristophanes viewed positively, as an example of great bravery and a high point in the character of Athens. Unlike the defensive war against the Persians, the war against Sparta seemed to Aristophanes to express the way in which Athenian democracy had moved from a reasonable limited franchise to control of the state by an undisciplined and self-serving rabble and the demagogues that manipulated the greed and ignorance of the rabble for their own ends.

Athens consisted of an urban center surrounded by farms. Aristophanes in the Acharnians represents the viewpoint of the country gentry, who owned and gained wealth through farming, and tended to be conservative and anti-war. Spartan tactics during this period of the war involved attacking the farms and the countryside of Athens every year, but lacking naval power or a decisive advantage in ground troops, the Spartans did not cause extensive problems for city-dwellers or wealthy urban merchants and craftspeople who carried on their business within the city or by sea. 

The policies of the democratic faction included lavish spending on beautifying the city of Athens and daily stipends for citizens who served on jury duty or attended legislative assemblies. Crews of Athenian naval vessels were also paid. In the Acharnians, thus, we see the war as enriching the urban citizens and wealthy merchants at the expense of the country gentry whose farms were being destroyed and who payed certain forms of taxes to support the war effort. This was, for Aristophanes, an example of how democracy can become a "tyranny of the mob."

A particular target of the play's satire was Cleon, a populist politician with whom Aristophanes had a long running feud. Cleon, for Aristophanes, exemplified the worst of Athenian democracy, a populist demagogue who was corrupt, vindictive, and inflamed the anger of the populace to prolong the war and keep himself in power. The key problems of democracy that he exemplified were its susceptibility to corruption, mob rule, and populism. 

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Corruption and militarism are the primary problems addressed by Aristophanes in his criticism of Greek democracy. The Acharnians was produced in the late fifth-century city-state of Athens and it explores the various weaknesses of democracy as a form of government.  Through satire, Aristophanes expresses his disdain for the Greek military's attitude towards war. He also criticizes what he views as the petty concerns and actions of the country's democratic politicians and thinkers, including an often scathing parody of Greek political drama and the work of Euripides.


The Acharnians is set during the Peloponnesian War during the sixth year of conflict between Athens and Sparta. The Athenian military faces pressure to escalate the conflict for revenge against Sparta, while Dicaeopolis wishes to negotiate peace for his family alone. Throughout the play, Dicaepolis must use his wit to thwart his militaristic opponents. Democracy is presented as a vehicle for militarism and it allows many of the Athenian politicians to rally supporters under the guise of cooperation. The arrogant soldier Lamachus is held up as an example of the militaristic attitude that Greek democracy often produced, although his real-life counterpart was quite different.


Throughout the play, corrupt leaders such as Cleon use democracy for their own selfish ends. While Aristophanes clearly praises the free speech provided by democracy when it is used to speak against the war with Sparta, he also criticizes it as a form of government that is easily exploited. His satire of Euripides' work implies that the playwright's idea of democracy was the product of naive idealism. Aristophanes illustrates this criticism through the behavior of the democratic officials in his play who fall far short of the relatively moderate and equitable form of democracy Euripides envisioned. Corrupt officials use the values of democracy to elevate themselves above the populace, creating a clear imbalance of power in Greece. Despite these criticisms, Aristophanes does not express favor towards any one form of government over democracy. Rather, through the commentary laced throughout The Acharnians, he seeks to highlight democracy's weaknesses for both satirical and instructional purposes.

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