The Acharnians – Aristophanes – Ancient Greece – Classical Literature
(Comedy, Greek, 425 BCE, 1,234 lines)
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“The Acharnians” (Gr: “Akharneis”) is the earliest of the eleven surviving plays of the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, and a classic of the highly satirical genre of drama known as Old Comedy. It was first produced in 425 BCE and won first place at the Lenaia festival. The protagonist, Dikaiopolis, miraculously obtains a private peace treaty with the Spartans and he enjoys the benefits of peace in spite of opposition from some of his fellow Athenians.
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The play begins with Dikaiopolis sitting all alone on the Pnyx (the hill where the Athenian assembly meets to discuss matters of state), looking bored and frustrated. He reveals his weariness with the Peloponnesian War, his longing to go home to his village, his impatience with the assembly for its failure to start on time and his resolve to heckle speakers in the Athenian assembly who won’t debate an end to the war.
When some citizens do arrive and the day’s business begins, the subject of the important speakers addressing the assembly is, predictably enough, not peace and, true to his earlier promise, Dikaiopolis comments loudly on their appearances and probable motives (such as the ambassador recently returned from many years at the Persian court complaining of the lavish hospitality he has had to endure, and the ambassador recently returned from Thrace who blames the icy conditions in the north for his long stay there at the public’s expense, etc).
At the assembly, however, Dikaiopolis meets Amphitheus, a man who claims to be the immortal great-great-grandson of Triptolemus and Demeter, and who claims moreover that he can obtain peace with the Spartans “privately”, for which Dikaiopolis pays him eight drachmas. As Dikaiopolis and his family celebrate his private peace with a private celebration, they are set up on by the Chorus, a mob of aged farmers and charcoal burners from Acharnae (the Acharnians of the title), who hate the Spartans for destroying their farms and who hate anyone who talks peace. They are clearly not amenable to rational argument, so Dikaiopolis grabs a basket of Acharnian charcoal as hostage and demands the old men leave him alone. They agree to leave Dikaiopolis in peace if only he will spare the charcoal.
He surrenders his “hostage”, but still wants to convince the old men of the justice of his cause, and offers to speak with his head on a chopping block if only they will hear him out (although he is a little apprehensive after Cleon dragged him into court over “last year’s play”). He goes next door to the house of the renowned author Euripides for help with his anti-war speech and to borrow a beggar’s costume from one of his tragedies. Thus attired as a tragic hero in disguise as a beggar, and with his head on the chopping block, he makes his case to the Chorus of Acharnians for opposing the war, claiming that it was all started due to the abduction of three courtesans and is only continued by profiteers for personal gain.
Half of the Chorus is won over by his arguments and the other half is not, and a fight breaks out between the opposing camps. The fight is broken up by the Athenian general Lamachus (who also happens to live next door), who is then questioned by Dikaiopolis about why he personally supports the war against Sparta, whether it is out of his sense of duty or because he gets paid. This time, the whole Chorus is won over by Dikaiopolis’ arguments, and they lavish exaggerated praise on him.
Dikaiopolis then returns to the stage and sets up a private market where he and the enemies of Athens can trade peacefully, and various minor characters come and go in farcical circumstances (including an Athenian informer or sycophant who is packed in straw like a piece of pottery and carried off to Boeotia).
Soon, two heralds arrive, one calling Lamachus to war, the other calling Dikaiopolis to a dinner party. The two men go as summoned and return soon after, Lamachus in pain from injuries sustained in battle and with a soldier at each arm propping him up, Dikaiopolis merrily drunk and with a dancing girl on each arm. Everyone exits amid general celebrations, except Lamachus, who exits in pain.
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“The Acharnians” was Aristophanes‘ third, and earliest surviving, play. It was first produced at the Lenaia festival in 425 BCE by an associate, Callistratus, on behalf of the young Aristophanes, and it won first place in the drama contest there.
The play is notable for its absurd humour and its imaginative appeal for an end to the Peloponnesian War against the Spartans, which was already into its sixth year when the play was produced. It also represents the author’s spirited response to his prosecution the year before by the prominent Athenian statesman and pro-war leader, Cleon (Aristophanes had been charged with slandering the Athenian polis in his previous play, “The Babylonians”, now lost), revealing his resolve not to yield to the demagogue’s attempts at intimidation.
Old Comedy was a highly topical form of drama and the audience was expected to be familiar with the huge number of people named or alluded to in the play, including in this case: Pericles, Aspasia, Thucydides, Lamachus, Cleon (and several of his supporters), various poets and historians including Aeschylus and Euripides, and many, many others.
Like most of Aristophanes’ plays, “The Acharnians” generally obeys the conventions of Old Comedy, including masks which caricatured real people (as opposed to the stereotypical masks of tragedy), the use of the theatre itself as the real scene of action, the frequent parodying of tragedy, and the constant and merciless teasing and taunting of both political figures and of any personalities known to the audience. However, Aristophanes was always an innovator and not afraid to incorporate variations on the traditional structures, verse forms, etc.
The author himself often becomes a major target for the play’s mock-heroic humour, as he explicitly identifies himself with the protagonist, Dikaiopolis. The character of Dikaiopolis speaks about being prosecuted over “last years’ play” as if he were the author himself, an unusual instance of a character unequivocally speaking out of character as the author’s mouthpiece. At one point, the Chorus mockingly depicts him as Athen’s greatest weapon in the war against Sparta.
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- English translation (Internet Classics Archive): http://classics.mit.edu/Aristophanes/acharnians.html
- Greek version with word-by-word translation (Perseus Project): http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text.jsp?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0023