Aristophanes: Peace, The Acharnians

Continuing right where we left off, we move away from alternate visions of economic systems and back into anti-war territory as first explored by Lysistrata. Both of these plays feature the idea of a lone protagonist single-handedly procuring peace for Athens, but greeted with wildly different responses.

The Acharnians

Let’s first briefly talk about The Acharnians, a play composed in the sixth year of the Peloponnesian war. The main protagonist, Dicaeopolis, is initially frustrated by the assembly, who refuse to even discuss the question of peace, instead focusing themselves on riches and useless subjects. However, he meets a man named Amphitheus, who claims to be immortal but dying of hunger. He claims he is able to negotiate a peace with the Spartans in private. Dicaeopolis agrees to pay him to do so, and Amphitheus successfully comes back with peace treaties.

The war having ended, instead of gratefulness, Dicaeopolis is instead pursued by the chorus of Acharnians, who regard him as a traitor and defender of the enemy. He only manages to temporary stall them by taking a piece of coal hostage (coal probably being an important commodity in Acharnia). Being given the opportunity to explain his actions, he calls upon the tragic poet Euripedes for help, asking for tragic costumes that would make him look more convincing. Finally, in a grand soliloquy, Dicaeopolis outlines the background for the outbreak of the war, exposing it as petty (being caused by the abduction of three prostitutes from Sparta) and not entirely the fault of the Spartans, as they were simply responding in the way any city would naturally do. After this, the general Lamachus appears, and Dicaeopolis critizes him too, questioning his sincerity as a soldier as he is being paid to lead the army. The chorus is finally completely won over, and the parabasis begins.

Up until this point we have seen how Aristophanes has attacked the idea of war through several angles. In terms of logical arguments, the shaky original basis for the war is exposed, as well as the personal financial motives present in the main actors responsible for continuing it (Lamachus). The conduct of the assembly is lampooned through their absurd, useless behavior and dismissive treatment of a starving citizen (Amphitheus). In the final part of the play, the unpleasantness of the realities of war are touched upon: Dicaeopolis opens a market for enemies of Athens to trade goods, and the visitors include a starved Megarian who sells his little daughters (disguised as piglets) for a bit of food. Finally, at the end Dicaeopolis and Lamachus engage in a stichomythic duel where the former imitates the structure of the latter’s lines: Lamachus’ actions in preparation for war are balanced by Dicaeopolis’ actions in preparation for the celebration of a Bacchic festival. The two go onto their separate ways, but when Lamachus reappears he is wounded and miserable, whereas Dicaeopolis is rejoicing in festivity.

We can see that Aristophanes, perhaps aware that he was writing for an audience which had not fully tired of the war, artfully argues his way towards the only logical conclusion: peace is preferable to war. He persistently finds his way through both logical and rhetorical means. One could even argue that the appearance of Euripedes, though certainly mainly for comedic effect and cross-reference (reminding us of Greek comedy’s ever-present awareness of itself and the Greek canon), can also be interpreted as enlisting the past and even tragedy in support of the efforts for peace.

Peace

By the time we get to Peace, a drama composed near the end of the Peloponnesian war, the population is clearly exhausted of the war. Compared to Lysistrata and The AcharniansPeace is more directly set against war. Despite the clear presence of humor, the entire play is permeated with references to how everything in life was much better during peace time. Instead of lampooning the sexual vulnerability of the men who are responsible for the war (as in Lysistrata), it aggressively argues against the abstract idea of war itself.

Trygaeus is an Athenian who goes on a quest to fly to Olympia and negotiate a peace treaty with the gods. Ironically, his flight is powered by a dung beetle. When he arrives in Olympia, he finds that the goddess Peace has been buried in a pit. He stubbornly resolves to pull her out, asking the chorus (who represent a variety of Greeks) to help him out. They initially struggle to do so – Trygaeus comments that only the farmers are enthusiastic; the armorers only impede progress. Clearly, the farmers represent the idyllic, blissful lifestyle only possible in peacetime. Finally with only the farmers and husbandmen pulling, Peace is successfully dug out with her two attendants Opora (Harvest) and Theoria (Festival).

Trygaeus returns back to Earth, full of success. The play’s main action seems to be over, but the aftermath reveals a lot of telling commentary about war. Trygaeus becomes betrothed to Opora and wedding preparations commence. In an explicitly sexual scene Theoria is stripped naked and offered as “entertainment” to the audience (representing the Greek council, or Boule). Despite its potential offensiveness to modern audiences (neither Theoria nor Opora are given any lines; they are props, for all purposes), it seems that the scene’s main intent is to celebrate the impending return of sex, sensuality, and hedonistic pleasures as commonly present in the festivals that would not be possible in wartime. There is a lot of emphasis on the fact that Theoria has been found again. She is the personification of the idyllic wonders of peacetime, craved so much by those weary with the Peloponnesian war.

Despite these scenes of celebration of the coming peace, dark reminders of the trauma of wartime are sprinkled even in this last part of the play. The leader of the chorus imagines the joys of relaxing in the countryside, but also complains bitterly about the arrogant soldiers, who turned out to be “lions in times of peace, but sneaking foxes when it comes to fighting.” During the wedding feast, two children (sons of the warmonger Cleon and general Lamachus) come up to sing songs, but when they start singing songs of bravery and military glory, Trygaeus angrily tells them to stop. At the end, a joyous wedding song is sung and everything ends happily again.

We see from these observations that Aristophanes’ Peace is a celebration of the return of peace. Athens had been sorely defeated by Sparta, so there is no victory to celebrate. Thus there is no focus on the result of the war, instead relief at its passing, and emphasis on getting rid of its presence. The entire play strives to displace symbols and reminders of warfare with peace. In one impressionable scene, armorers and weapon merchants who have profited from the war come to Trygaeus, and he gives them ingenious and comical ways to re-purpose their goods. In the recovery of Peace, the incompetent armorers are removed and farmers save the day.

Finally, in the parabasis, the chorus as usual praises the author, but also notes his ultimately successful opposition to the warmonger Cleon. The latter having died during the war, Peace is Aristophanes’ last laugh. Peace already being an eagerly awaited state by the audience, unlike The Acharnians, it does not need to adopt an argumentation strategy for the need of peace, but goes straight into its celebration. Thus, where The Acharnians and to some extent Lysistrata are arguments and polemics against war, the main purpose of Peace seems to be therapeutic.

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