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Christopher Smith
Nicole Fluhr
Great Books 191.018
Aristophanes’ Theatrical Appeal for Peace
The Acharnians is an emphatic attempt by the playwright Aristophanes to condemn
the Peloponnesian War that has been ravaging Athens for several years. In order to
entertain and yet persuade his audience, Aristophanes must make this play a hilarious
comedy that somehow delicately deals with the serious issue of war. The play is indeed
hilarious, and the serious appeal for peace is evident and convincing. Comical scenes such
as Dikaiopolis’ encounter with a Megarian peasant and the mocking of Lamachus by
Dikaiopolis exemplify the use of superficial jokes to further an underscored appeal for
Aristophanes creates Dikaiopolis’ free market so that trade and starvation can
represent the serious argument against the current Athenian policies of war. The personal
market that Dikaiopolis establishes is special because it is the first Athenian market in many
years to be accessible to foreigners. The markets are inaccessible because Athens has shut
off all trade to countries allied with Sparta by issuing laws such as the Megarian Decree. So
for Dikaiopolis to create a source of trade, he must break the law and risk death. In his
plays though, Aristophanes gives his main characters special powers, and consequently,
Dikaiopolis’ act is viewed not as risky but as funny and interesting to the play’s audience.
To protect his illegal market, Dikaiopolis has surrounded it with stones and leather thongs
that symbolically represent the walls of Athens. These will prevent intruders such as the
Acharnian chorus or informers from invading and also act as a barrier of ideology. Within
this symbolically Athenian boundary, Dikaiopolis has, in an unathenian manner, merged the
interests of the individual and the public. Dikaiopolis’ market is a projection of
Aristophanes’ belief in what Athens should be. Aristophanes believes that the trade and
livelihood of a city’s population is more critical than the public ambition for land and
Because of famine and strife, Dikaiopolis’ first customer, a Megarian peasant, must
sell his daughters as slaves so that they may survive rather than starve. Demonstrating the
desperate state of Megaria, the two girls actually delight in the prospect of being sold into
slavery and away from their home. Before any trade begins, Dikaiopolis and the Megarian
speak quickly about life in general. This quick exchange is extremely important however
because of how closely the Athenian audience watching the play can relate to it.
Dikaiopolis asks the Megarian, “How—how are you getting on, where you come from?”
(Aristophanes, The Acharnians 83). “Och, no badly,” responds the Megarian. “We sit by
the fire and shrink” (Aristophanes, The Acharnians 83). Within these few lines,
Aristophanes has made a strong remark. The Megarians, who must sit by the fire of war
between Athens and Sparta, have miserably watched the Athenian army destroy their
livelihood. But the Athenians in the audience also feel this misery. They have also suffered
the wrath of another nation due to the war. The Athenians too must sit in the confines of
their walls and wait for their homes and crops to be ravaged by the enemy. For that reason,
the superficially funny crack of the Megarian has reminded Aristophanes’ listeners of their
own sad situation.
After the Megarian has answered, a misunderstanding Dikaiopolis asks once again
what the state of affairs is in Megaria. The peasant replies, “Och, so-so. When I left tae
come here, the government was doing its best tae see we achieved a speedy and complete
catastrophe” (Aristophanes, The Acharnians 83). An amused Dikaiopolis ironically says,
“Then you’ll be out of the wood before long” (Aristophanes, The Acharnians 83). The joke
is that the Megarian government is freely allowing the Athenian army to destroy their
country as fast as possible. When Dikaiopolis says “out of the wood,” he allows the
audience to interpret the phrase several ways—all reminding the listener of war’s
unpleasantness. The phrase may mean that the Megarians will be able to come out from
their wooden walls and return to their former homes now that the destruction is almost
complete. This interpretation is most likely incorrect however because the Megarian
peasant is already outside of the walls during this conversation. Most probably,
Dikaiopolis’ phrase means the fire (war) that Megaria must sit by will soon be temporarily
put out because all fuel (crops and structures) has been razed and used up. Once again, the
Athenian audience is reminded of their present situation and feels sympathy for the peasant
and their Megarian enemies. When the Spartans make their annual raids, the Athenians
must, like the Megarians, leave their towns and sequester themselves inside the protective
walls of Athens while their homes and farms are thoroughly desecrated. Aristophanes, by
reminding the audience of how much agony the war is causing, is promoting the termination
of an utterly destructive and unprofitable war.
The business transaction between Dikaiopolis and the Megarian continues, and after
several dependably funny sexual jokes about the Megarian girls, Dikaiopolis agrees to buy
them as slaves. The audience’s focus is back on the comedy, but the seed of resentment for
the ongoing war has been planted in the back of the listeners’ minds. Aristophanes has
planted this seed by reflecting on the tragedies and discomforts of war. To reinforce this
seed of resentment, he must now present the pleasurable life of peace and prosperity
juxtaposed to the bleakness of never ending war.
Dikaiopolis’ market has been a success, and he reaps the benefits of free trade. His
personal peace has provided him with a plentiful amount of food. While Dikaiopolis is
cooking this food and planning his dinner, a messenger summons his nearby rival General
Lamachus outside. There, the messenger reads an order instructing Lamachus to
immediately report to a lookout post on the snowy Boeotian front. Upon hearing this,
Lamachus laments, “O General Staff, more numerous than kind! What! – even for the feast
have I no respite?” (Aristophanes, The Acharnians 98). Lamachus’ sadness strikes the heart
of each viewer. He is weary of war and its consequences, and he wants to remain at home
and enjoy the festivities. While portraying the ideals of a good warrior in accepting his
orders, Lamachus is also portraying the average Athenian who cringes at yet another
thought of unwanted and unnecessary fighting.
Shortly after Lamachus has received his bad news, another messenger appears and
summons Dikaiopolis. Conversely though, this messenger brings a wanted message. He
proclaims, “Message from the Priest of Dionysus. You’re to come to dinner as quickly as
possible…He’s got everything ready…the nuts and raisins are out, so are the tarts and
sponge-cakes and flat-cakes and honey-cakes…oh yes, and lovely dancing girls”
(Aristophanes, The Acharnians 99). The party invitation represents all that is good about
peace: a festive atmosphere, good food, and voluptuous women. Dikaiopolis response is the
opposite of Lamachus’. He excitedly tells his servant to lock up the house and prepares to
quickly be on his way. With the seed of desire for the war to end previously planted,
Aristophanes presents a comparison between the desirable qualities of peace verses the
bareness of war via a confrontational yet humorous shouting match between Dikaiopolis
and Lamachus.
The funny altercation between Dikaiopolis and Lamachus erupts as both gather their
things and get ready to leave. As Lamachus calls for each individual item he will need to
take with him, Dikaiopolis does so also but in a mimicking style. When Lamachus asks for
a provision basket, Dikaiopolis asks for a dinner box. Then, Lamachus calls to his servant
to bring him some salt with thyme in it, and some onions. Dikaiopolis mockingly says to
his servant, “I’m fed up with onions. Bring me some slices of fish” (Aristophanes, The
Acharnians 99). In war, only the bare essentials are available. The essential and unexciting
salt, thyme, and onions are no match for the freshly cooked fish of Dikaiopolis.
Aristophanes is simply reaffirming that a man living in peace with his neighbors eats much
better than he who is at war.
The back-and-forth shouting between these two men goes on. Every dreary weapon
or provision of the warlike Lamachus is dwarfed by Dikaiopolis’ mouthwatering foods.
When the scene ends, both men are ready to leave. But before doing so, each reacts to the
current weather differently. Lamachus shivers in the cold and exclaims, “Brr! It’s snowing.
Wintry weather!” (Aristophanes, The Acharnians 101). Dikaiopolis, on the other hand,
rushes out into the cold and merrily yells, “Party weather!” (Aristophanes, The Acharnians
101). Here, Aristophanes is representing the outlook of life in both war and peace. There is
nothing to look forward to in the Peloponnesian War, but in times of peace wonderful things
seems possible. The bounty and joy of Dikaiopolis is far superior to Lamachus’ war
essentials and lethargy. Aristophanes has successfully persuaded the play’s audience to
view the honor and glory of war as less desirable than the comforts of peace.
The Acharians resolves with both Lamachus and Dikaiopolis coming home.
Lamachus has dislocated his ankle and injured his head in a fall while crossing a ditch. His
personal misery is symbolic of the present misery of Athens. He does not bring suffering on
himself, but receives it as a result of the war. While Lamachus is wailing in pain, a
jubilantly drunk and stuffed Dikaiopolis walks by with two girls. He has won a drinking
contest and is hailed as “the champion.” Dikaiopolis is a champion because of his personal
peace, and Lamachus is yet another casualty of unnecessary war. Thus, Aristophanes has
proven that peace is a triumphant champion over war.
Aristophanes believes in peace over war not because he is dishonorable—but
because peace is more practical. He is by no means advocating an immediate and shameful
Athenian surrender, but he sees no sense in continuing a battle that cannot be won.
However, in The Acharnians, Aristophanes offers no honorable solution to the war. Several
years later though, he does write Lysistrata, another peace comedy that represents just how
difficult an Athenian-Spartan peace treaty would be to achieve. But while no attempt to
reach a treaty is made, private Athenian citizens will still suffer as a result of public policy
in the Peloponnesian war. However construed, Aristophanes philosophy of a profitable
peace being the best way of ending the daily suffering of Athens seems clear and is a very
practical argument for discontinuing the destructive war.
A modern-day reader of Aristophanes may interpret the comical dialog of The
Acharnians much differently than an ancient Athenian might. But Dikaiopolis is clearly at
peace with the enemies of Athens, and as a result he is both prosperous and happy. He is
happier while living at peace than the war-driven Lamachus is while fighting an endless
war. While joyfully observing the fun and carefree personality of Dikaiopolis at peace, the
reader and audience also sympathizes with the agony the characters suffer from war.
Aristophanes production is therefore an appeal for peace through demonstration. These
demonstrations of peace verses war are funny because they are exaggerated, but painfully
similar to the reality of Athenian life. Although Aristophanes has taken the reader and
audience to a make-believe world, he has also brought home a desperate and well-supported
plea for peace.