AILEEN IBARDALOZA Engages
The Acharnians by Aristophanes. Translation by Douglass Parker
(University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1961)
A Comic Poet’s Symbols of War and Peace
Aristophanes’ Acharnians is a quest for peace in poetic meters. It begins with an Athenian farmer, speaking in the voice of the comic poet, desiring peace to restore an old way of life that has been disrupted by war:
…O my city, my city! For myself, I always come to the Assembly before anyone else and sit here; then, when I’m alone, I sigh and yawn, stretch and fart, don’t know what to do, draw on the ground, pluck myself, count to myself, gazing at the countryside and yearning for peace, loathing the town and longing for my village – my village, which never cried “buy charcoal” or “buy vinegar” or “buy oil”; it knew not “buy”, it produced everything itself, and Mr. Buysome was not to be found there. So now I’ve come absolutely prepared to shout, interrupt, abuse the speakers, if anyone speaks about anything but peace.
Middle-aged, poor, and initially marginalized, Dicaeopolis is the ideal Aristophanic comic hero who overcomes all obstacles (Kotini 2010). He is the narrator who unifies the play’s dramatic structure (MacDowell 1995), as well as the collective voice of the poor and powerless. Presented at the Lenaea during the sixth year of the Peloponnesian War, Acharnians is a political comedy tackling the life of the polis, in particular, the significance of war and Athenian politics in relation to ordinary Attic farmers. Athens being a naval power, at the time, naturally did not want to engage Sparta and its allies on land. As a consequence, the countryside was abandoned to the enemy, and countryfolk, like the farmer Dicaeopolis, were forced to retreat within the city walls, essentially becoming refugees in their own country (Spatz 1978).
In the prologue, the comic hero appears as a sympathetic character who longs for peace and his own deme (see Acharnians 32-6) where, as MacDowell points out, he can gather or produce various items which he otherwise would have to pay for in the city. Dicaeopolis attempts to secure a hearing in the Assembly in order to open negotiations for peace with Sparta. When this fails, he sends Amphitheus to conclude a separate peace for himself and his family. Amphitheus returns with three kinds of peace treaty in the form of three wine vintages. Dicaeopolis tastes each and chooses the third:
AMPHITHEUS: I have indeed, these three samples here [showing three wine skins]. This is a five-year one. Take it and taste it.
A: What’s the matter?
D: I don’t like it; it smells of pitch and naval preparations.
A: Well then, you take this ten-year one and taste it.
D: This one smells too – of embassies to the states of the alliance – a very acid smell, as if the allies were being ground down.
A: Well, this is a thirty-year treaty by land and sea.
D [tasting it]: Holy Dionysia! This smells of ambrosia and nectar, and of not being on the alert for the words “three days’ rations”, and it says on my palate “Go where you please”. I accept this, I make the libation of peace, and I’ll drink it dry; and a hearty goodbye to the Acharnians! Myself, released from war and misery, I’ll go inside and celebrate the Country Dionysia.
Spondai/truce (and by association, peace) here relates to sponde/wine in that in Ancient Greece, libations were poured when concluding a treaty (Kotini). For Dicaeopolis, the wine is the first sign of the delights of peace and its attendant pleasures: that is, peace is giving him the chance to celebrate the festival in his own home. The thirty-year vintage symbolizes the thirty-year treaty, as it had existed before the outbreak of the war; it also represents the countryside where “the fantasy space finally breaks free and becomes self-sufficient” (Slater 2002). [Wine, however, being an article of sacrifice, presupposes violence: i.e., the pouring of libations before going to battle, as was the case before the Athenian fleet set sail for Corcyra where it was to join its allies in the summer of 415 B.C. (Hammond 2009)].
In the scenes following the prologue, Dicaeopolis is being pursued by a chorus of Acharnian men for traitorously negotiating peace with Sparta. Acharnae, a charcoal-producing town outside of Athens, was the first to be ravaged by the enemy in 431 B.C. The Peloponnesian army had sought to provoke the Athenians, particularly the Acharnians with three thousand men serving in the Athenian infantry, into engaging in a land battle (Strassler 2008). It follows that, in the play, the Acharnians, whose lives and livelihoods had been devastated by the war, are naturally opposed to making peace with the Spartans and their allies. They throw stones at Dicaeopolis and yield only when he holds hostage a basket of coals. The coals, a parodic reference to the baby Orestes in Euripides’ Telephus, effectively function as a comic metaphor for Acharnian countrymen or children:
DICAEOPOLIS: …I’ll kill in return the dearest of your loved ones; for I’m holding some of your people as hostages, and I’ll take them and cut their throats.
CHORUS-LEADER: Tell me, fellow-demesmen, what is the meaning of this threat against us Acharnians? He hasn’t got a child of one of us here, has he, shut up inside? Or if not, what’s making him so confident?
Like coals, the Acharnians are “fierce, sputtering, and always threatening violence… [but can also be] peaceful [and] life-sustaining” (Spatz). In the agon, Dicaeopolis delivers his speech of self-defense, dressed in Telephean rags first to arouse pity, then to obtain recognition as a citizen and patriot:
Now I hate the Spartans intensely, and I hope the god of Taenarum sends them another earthquake and brings all their houses down on them. I too have had vines cut down. But look – for there are only friends here listening – who do we blame it all on the Laconians? For it was men of ours – I do not say the city; remember that, I do not say the city – but some bent, ill-struck pieces of humanity, worthless counterfeit foreign stuff, who began denouncing the Megarians’ little woolen cloaks. And if they saw anywhere a cucumber or a young hare, or a piglet, or some garlic or lump-salt, it was declared Megarian and sold up the same day. Now that, to be sure, was trivial and purely local; but then some cottabus-playing young rakes went to Megara and stole a whore called Simaetha. After that the Megarians, garlic-stung by the smart, stole two whores of Aspasia’s in retaliation. And from that broke forth the origin of the war upon all the Greeks: from three prostitutes. Then in his wrath Olympian Pericles lightened and thundered and threw Greece into turmoil, making laws worded like drinking songs, “that no Megarian should remain on land or in Agora, on sea or on shore”. After that, when they were starving by inches, the Megarians asked the Spartans to procure a reversal of the decree caused by the prostitute affair; but we refused, though they asked repeatedly. And after that it was clashing of shields.
Dicaeopolis’ argument for peace traces the (probable) roots of war: that is, an ill-judged policy on the part of the Athenians which quelled Megara’s economy (and subsequently caused its citizens to starve (Pelling 1997), and which the Athenians would not revoke, leaving the Megarians and their Spartan allies no other option but to go to war (Hammond).
The chorus unites and identifies with Dicaeopolis in the parabasis: “The man has triumphed in his argument, and convinced the people on the subject of the treaty” (Ach. 626-627). In managing conflicts in the ancient world, the communicator (in this case, the chorus), relied on logic and character to persuade his audience. Elderly and marginalized like Dicaeopolis in the prologue, the twenty four men of Acharnae who make up the chorus are simultaneously speaking for and drawing the audience, representatives of the Athenian citizenry, to empathize with their cause.
In the following comic episodes, Dicaeopolis opens his market and revels in the pleasures of peace. A Boeotian trader from Thebes arrives laden with goods, including the famed eel from Lake Copais:
O dearest one, long yearned for, thou hast come – the heart’s desire of comic choruses, and dear to Morychus. Servants, bring me the brazier out here and its fan. Look, children, on this best of eels, for whom we have longed, just barely come after six years. Greet her, little ones; because of this newcomer I’ll provide you with coals.
Go, take her in; for even when I die ne’er may I part from thee…served wrapped in beet.
Transported a short distance from the lake to Athens, Copaic eels were Boeotia’s most sought after produce. In Greek antiquity, they were articles of sacrifice as well as the centerpiece of many Athenian dinners. Reckford (1987) posits that the scene of the Copaic Eel is one of recognition where the eel is metaphorically transformed into a beautiful lady. It is the very human trait of pothos (yearning) which allows the remembrance or recognition of peace (in this case, a beautiful lady in the image of an eel) in times of war. The Copaic eel, however, while a symbol of peace to the Athenian, represented Boeotia’s economic dependence on Athens.
The agora is symbolic of the ebb and flow of life in ancient Greece – bustling and vibrant on the one hand, ruthless and crude, on the other. Dicaeopolis profits from a starving Megarian who sold his daughters disguised as pigs; the bargaining is full of crass humor as the men inspect the choiros (Ach. 729-815), taken to mean as pig or vagina, and by association, good food and sex. The Megarian being paid in garlic and salt, two of Megara’s most profitable products before the war, implies war’s privations (MacDowell) by illustrating how far a starving man will go (Spatz). As was the case with the marketplace, Athenian life was also centered around wine drinking festivals, such as the Dionysia and the Anthesteria. Dicaeopolis’ celebration of the Country Dionysia and his invocation of the spirit of the phallus are indicative of a “deeply felt local community religion” associated with “peace, freedom, fertility, power, and pleasure” (Spatz). The final setting of Acharnians takes place on Choes day, the second of the Anthesteria. A strange mixture of gaiety and gloom, the festival celebrates new wine and death; those engaged in the Choes drinking parties did so in total silence and isolation:
The main aetiological story explaining this curious rite involved Orestes: when he was entertained in Athens before his trial on the Areopagos, the Athenians, wishing to offer him proper hospitality, but yet to avoid contact with his polluted hands and mouth, instituted this special custom of eating and drinking at separate tables… the ambiguity of the drinking-arrangements at the Choes reflects and continues the ambiguity of Dicaeopolis’ relations with the Athenians…(Fisher 1993)
Dicaeopolis, whose name stands for ‘Just City,’ is an Aristophanic sketch of an ordinary Athenian citizen who intended to save his city (Fisher) by pushing for peace with Sparta, and “when no one will listen to him, does what the City ought to have done” (Croix 1996). Foley (1996), however, does not consider this just behavior as “urging the city to make peace and making a separate peace are not the same thing.” This moral ambiguity has been a constant source of tension for critics. Fisher calls out his selfishness in refusing to share his peace except with a bride because she is “a woman and [therefore] not responsible for the war” (Ach. 1062); MacDowell, on the other hand, stresses that “peace leads to pleasures of every kind – but only for the man who has made the effort to obtain it.” But at the end of the day, Dicaeopolis is simply the poor farmer and the flawed market owner whose yearnings are as ambiguous as they are real. He is also the ordinary man weary of war, and the comic poet yearning for peace. It is, however, Reckford’s view that is most appealing: that while the “hero is a paradoxical and parodic figure, he is also that shared human nature writ large.”
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Slater, Niall W. Spectator Politics: Metatheatre and Performance in Aristophanes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Spatz, Lois. "War and Peace: Acharnians (Akharnes) and Peace (Eirene)." In Twayne's World Authors Series 482. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.
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Aileen Ibardaloza is the author of Traje de Boda (Meritage Press, 2010) and the Associate Editor of Our Own Voice Literary Ezine.