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HIST 298: Sample Student Notes

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Aristophanes' The Acharnians as a War Protest
by Susan Mason

Aristophanes' Acharnians does not, at first glance, seem like it could make a serious point of any kind, let alone be a serious denunciation of war. As a comedy, it has all the essential elements of Old Comedy with its connections to Dionysian romps. Dikaiopolis is constantly talking about food and sex, sometimes both at the same time, as in the conversation with the Megarian trying to sell his daughters (729-835). Other characters are mocked. Peace itself seems to be trivialized by extending the pun of spondai as both treaty and drink offerings to the gods to depict his private peace treaty as flasks of wine. Behind all the elements designed to entertain, however, The Acharnians presents a serious anti-war message. The treatment is not in-depth analysis of the nature of war or of the causes of the Peloponnesian War in particular — these would not fit the nature of Old Comedy — but it still sends a serious anti-war message.

Throughout the play, the hardships of war are stressed. The lack of food from destroyed crops (e.g. 226-9), raids (1016-1036), and diminished trade (only Dikaiopolis can buy all the items the Theban has to sell 860-958) are on Dikaiopolis' mind throughout. His delight in the prosperity from his private peace market indicates that others do not have it. Even Lamachus tries to buy food from him (859-970). Not everyone, of course, suffers equally. Ambassadors living it up in Persia are contrasted with ordinary Athenians suffering behind the Long Walls (65-76). The lack of food is not the only bad result of war decried. The distress of young lovers that they are to be parted is given sympathetic treatment when Dikaiopolis gives some of his peace to a bride so she can keep her groom at home instead of losing him to the army (1049-1069). That even those who might be expected to benefit from war endure hardship is shown when the wounded general Lamachus is contrasted with a partying Dikaiopolis at the end of the play (1174-1226). It is not just Athenians either. The plight of Megarians, under a trade ban with Athens, is both mentioned in Dikaiopolis' main speech (535) and shown graphically in the scene when the Megarian sells his daughters to Dikaiopolis for garlic and salt (729-835).

The usual hardships of war are not the only way that Aristophanes protests the war. In the scenes between Dikaiopolis and Lamachus, the trappings of the military are mocked (572-625, 1095-1141). War is not to be honoured just because the soldiers have special equipment.

As well as some aspects of war in general, this particular war is attacked. Dikaiopolis declares that the war is not just the fault of the Spartans (310-315). The Megarian Decree is specifically mentioned as being an unfair provocation against Sparta (515-545), a serious point, even though the spin is more typical of Old Comedy than serious debate. The behaviour of Athens is equated with that of the Spartans (545-555), a typical way for war protesters to denounce a specific war. The war is not an inevitable from Sparta's behaviour; Athenian politicians have led the people astray to support it (370-375). In short, this war is not worth the suffering.

The Acharnians is a comedy. It is not an essay on the evils of war. It is not an in-depth analysis of the causes of the Peloponnesian War and the merits of those causes. It can still be, however, a serious comment on the evils of war and of the Peloponnesian War in particular. "No blood for oil" is not in-depth debate, but it was serious comment by protestors of the American war in Iraq. Dr. Stangelove is a comedy with elements of the absurd, but it is still a serious comment on the possible outcome of the Cold War.

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