A new edition of Aristophanes’ Acharnians, by S. Douglas Olson, was published recently (Oxford, £65), in time for George Bush not to read it before he blunders into Iraq. Aristophanes’ earliest surviving comedy was first performed in 425 BC, six years into the Peloponnesian War.
The causes of the war were, as causes of war are, complicated. According to Thucydides, as Olson observes in his lucid introduction, the ‘truest cause’ was Spartan anxiety about Athenian power; but the precipitating cause popularly fixed on at the time – the shooting of the Archduke, as it were – was Athens’ refusal to rescind the Megarian Decree. Megara was a small state that kept changing its mind about whether it was allied with Athens or a member of the Sparta-led Peloponnesian League. The Megarian Decree, enacted sometime between 446 (when the Megarians revolted from Athens and slaughtered the Athenian garrison in Megara) and 433, barred Megarians from Athens’ agora and harbours – imposing economic sanctions on them, effectively. Sparta insisted that the embargo be lifted. Pericles persuaded the Athenians not to comply, on the grounds that: a) war was anyway inevitable, b) Sparta was only looking for an excuse to start one, and c) if they yielded they’d only be faced with fresh demands. So in the summer of 431, a Spartan army invaded Attica, laying waste to Acharnai, a rural deme to the north-west of Athens, within sight of the city walls. The Peloponnesians expected that a couple of years of this would force Athens to back down and do what it was told; the Athenians thought that if they sat it out for a couple of years the Spartans would give up and go away. The war dragged on until 404, when Athens surrendered.
The protagonist of Acharnians is an old farmer called Dikaiopolis. As the play opens, he is alone, waiting for a meeting of the Assembly to begin, the only citizen who’s bothered to turn up on time. He intends to make sure peace is on the agenda. It soon transpires, however, that the war is in the private interest of certain powerful individuals, who draw large salaries from the public purse to pay for diplomatic junkets and other essential business. So Dikaiopolis arranges to make his own private peace with the enemy, and secedes from the state. Newly independent, he enjoys free trade with the enemy and lives a life of debauched luxury. He isn’t an admirable figure, and isn’t meant to be. He buys a Megarian’s daughters for the absurdly low price of some salt and thyme; he refuses to help his neighbours, rejoicing instead at the discrepancy between the wartime austerity they labour under and the cornucopia he revels in. He’s no more despicably selfish than any other of the characters, however; perhaps less so – after all, he gave up on his fellow citizens only after they wouldn’t let him help them.
Acharnians is in some sense an ‘anti-war’ play, but it’s not of course recommending Dikaiopolis’ behaviour as appropriate, even supposing it were possible; Dikaiopolis isn’t Aristophanes (he’s too old, for a start: Aristophanes was in his twenties when he wrote the play). It does, however, ask important questions about the relationship between individuals and the state, and about the interplay of responsibilities, at all levels of power.
It’s often asked – I once encountered the question on an exam paper (and wrote a very inadequate answer) – whether Aristophanes is still funny. (The same could well be asked of Short Cuts. Sorry.) The short answer is no: a lot of lame sexual innuendo – he was a master of the single entendre – and incomprehensible political satire. Olson drily acknowledges this when he writes: ‘Kleon himself seems to have been the object of scathing – and doubtless very funny – criticism in the comedy.’ For something to be funny requires a certain complicity between speaker and audience, and in many ways that is missing between Aristophanes and us. But then again, a play is only as funny as its performance, and I have seen hilarious productions of Lysistrata and Frogs. And, in a broader sense, as the world lurches towards war, it’s all too hysterically clear what Acharnians is getting at.