42. The Acharnians, by Aristophanes (425 BC)

Plot : Dikaiopolis, a Athenian farmer, is tired of the war between Athens and Sparta and the attendant bribery and corruption. He buys a personal peace from the Spartans and then sets up a market which is open to all comers including ‘enemies’ of Athens.

I actually had two copies of this play to hand, the ever present Penguin edition translated by Alan Sommerstein and including Lysistrata and The Clouds, (ISBN 0140442871) and a Bantam Classics edition of the Complete Plays of Aristophanes edited by Moses Hadad and translated by Benjamin Rogers (0553213431). The Penguin edition was far superior with a wealth of explanatory notes and a far more bawdy and comic interpretation which clearly spelt out what was happening.

My thoughts:  The earliest surviving of Aristophanes’ comedies, and therefore the oldest example of “Old Comedy”, with its many topical allusions, and a good choice for an April 1st post. To the reader fresh from the fate driven tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, the lively and earthy dialogue and events of Aristiphanes’ plays can be quite a shock. Sexual acts, farting, defacation  and every other imaginable bodily function is presented.  And Sommerstein’s translations pull no punches when it comes to his choice of words to describe the events either. There is also some completely surreal silliness which would fit into any Monty Python script (insisting that a coal scuttle is a person, which the Chorus totally believe, and an Athenian informer is a pot and trades him off to a poor Boeotian who bags him up and takes him away).

There is quite a lot of poking fun at famous contemporary Athenians, including fellow playwright Euripides and powerful politician Cleon, and this alongside the sympathetic treatment of Athens’ ‘enemies’ including the Spartans,shows just how strong the right to free speech was in Classical Athens, (although Aristophanes tells us mid-play of his legal entanglement over his play the previous year, where he was charged and convicted by Cleon of slandering the City in the presence of foreigners)

Sommerstein’s choice of language in making this translation is interesting as well. Besides the quite strong language, there is the flowery speech used by Euripides (“perchance” this, and “wouldst” that), and the choice of very broad Scots and Irish accents to distinguish the Megarian and Boeotian traders. And the Chorus with their short, rhyming verses sound like they read too much Dr Seuss as children!

Also of note in passing is the far greater number of characters which populate this play (21 speaking parts plus the chorus and another dozen non-speaking players), and several examples of the lead character breaking the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience.

And I have said very little about the political nature of the play and the demands for peace in a wartime Greece, which also perhaps makes it the world’s first protest literature.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Now my legs have lost their fleetness

And my joints are stiff and sore

And the fox has dodged the hunters

And the hounds can run no more”                                                               Chorus, page 59


“So  now I can turn to the pleasures I’d always have chosen if I could

Like finding my neighbour’s young slave girl in the act of purloining some wood

and grabbing her tight (for I never have known her to say “I will not”)

and lifting her up to amuse her, then having it off on the spot”     Dikaiopolis, page 61

Personal rating: I have been looking forward to reacquainting with Aristophanes, but The Acharnians is a little disjointed and the author’s self promotion is a little heavy handed. I know there is better to come, so I will settle for a 5

Next : Back to the tragic, with Euripides’ Hecabe




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