Acharnians, Knights, and Clouds are three of the most revered works by Aristophanes. These works are of particular interest to this discourse because they have clear political and social nuances which affected the manner in which they were received in Ancient Athens. The discussion posits that Aristophanes had concrete political concerns and he utilized his craft as a dramatist to expose these matters with the purpose of affecting change in society in a manner that was revolutionary and in so doing Aristophanes laid the foundation for modern philosophical thought.
Aristophanes, the Greek Dramatist, has long been revered as the father of Old Comedy[footnoteRef:1], authoring nearly 40 comedies 11[footnoteRef:2] of which are extant. These eleven works are the only Greek comedies to survive in their entirety. The influence of Aristophanes on drama has not been as significant as his impact on literature. His influence, however, in the field of literature has been significant particularly as it relates to authors such as Rabelais and Fielding[footnoteRef:3]. The limited influence of Aristophanes on drama is due to the highly localized subject matter explored in his works. Most often these highly localized themes were political in nature. Arguments concerning the purpose of the politically themed work of Aristophanes abound. For instance, Heath argues that the use of political themes in Aristophanes works were not designed to influence politics outside the theatre.[footnoteRef:4],[footnoteRef:5] Others such as Starkie and Neil, contend that Aristophanes dedicated himself to influencing politics both inside and outside the theatre. I argue that Aristophanes had concrete political concerns and he utilized his craft as a dramatist to expose these matters with the purpose of affecting change in society in a manner that was revolutionary and in so doing Aristophanes laid the foundation for modern philosophical thought. [1: Old comedy refers to the "initial phase of ancient Greek comedy (c. 5th century bc), known through the works of Aristophanes. Old Comedy plays are characterized by an exuberant and high-spirited satire of public persons and affairs. Composed of song, dance, personal invective, and buffoonery, the plays also include outspoken political criticism and comment on literary and philosophical topics ("Old Comedy")."] [2: The works and their publication dates are Acharnians (425), Knights (424), Clouds (423), Wasps (422), Peace (421), Birds (414), Lysistrata (411), Women at the Festival (Thesmaphoriazousae) (410), Frogs (405), Women in Parliament (Ecclesiazousae) (392), and Plutus (388) ("Aristophanes").] [3: Francois Rabelais a major writer of the French Renaissance. Henry Fielding was an English Dramatist of Satire. ] [4: Heath, Malcolm. (1987) Political Comedy in Aristophanes. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht] [5 A.W. Gomme, in " Aristophanes and Politics," argues that all examinations concerning the political themes of Aristophanes should be based "on the supposition that Aristophanes was not a politician but a dramatist, an artist; a man, that is, whose purpose is to give us a picture-in his case a comic picture-not to advocate a position (102)."]
Political Themes in Aristophanic works
Whitaker (1935) contends that Aristophanes early plays are devoid of plot and instead focused on preposterous situations, usually having a direct relationship to some political or social problem of the time. These problems were then roughly sketched and exploited in a succession of loosely connected scenes. For example, in the Acharnians,
"an Athenian citizen, weary of the war, makes a private treaty with the enemy and consequently enjoys the advantages of trading with them. The iambic scenes develop the ludicrous possibilities of the invention, and enable Aristophanes to hit out at people he dislikes -- politicians, busybodies, philosophers. Characters are often burlesques of contemporary Athenians, and even the gods. These earlier plays are an astonishing mixture of fantasy, unsparing (and often violently unfair) satire, brilliant verbal wit, obscenity, literary and musical parody, exquisite lyrics, hard-hitting political propaganda, and uproarious farce. Aristophanes was essentially a popular dramatist, fond of slapstick and comic business. The Frogs marks the transition to a quieter form of comedy in which personal and political invective plays a smaller part and the plot is more elaborate (Whitaker, 1935)."[footnoteRef:6] [6: Whittaker, M. 1935. The Comic Fragments in Their Relation to the Structure of Old Attic Comedy. The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. ae, p. 181]
Indeed a great deal of Aristophanes early works were influenced by his political ideals and the political climate of the time as it pertained to classical Athens particularly as it related to the Peloponnesian War[footnoteRef:7]. Aristophanes exploration of politics in his plays began in 426 BC with the controversial work Babylonians. This work was so contentious that Cleon, the pro-war populist, prosecuted Aristophanes for slandering the polis in the play. As a result of the prosecution Aristophanes wrote Acharnians (425 BC) in protest, and continued his revenge of Cleon in Knights (424 BC). For the purposes of this discussion the political themes in Acharnians and Knights will be explored. [7: The Peloponnesian war (431-404 BC) took place during the classical period in Greece when the nation was a "hodgepodge of mistrustful Aegean city-states straddling the volatile dividing line between East and West. When Persian Kings Darius and Xerxes came calling in the early 5th century BC, these self-interested siblings banded together long enough to thwart Eastern ambitions on land (Marathon) and sea (Salamis). But then the city-states slipped right back into squabbling. Sparta pushed for appeasement with Persia, while Athens was determined to expel every last enemy garrison from the region. It was then the smaller city-states switched their allegiance to Athens and formed the Delian League. Jealous Sparta, egged on by opportunistic Persia, turned against Athens ("431-404 BC PELOPONNESIAN WAR")."]
The key to understanding Acharnians and Knights lies in our knowledge of Cleon. We have already established that he had Aristophanes prosecuted in response to the content of Babylonians. Much that is written about Cleon characterizes him as an Athenian demagogue who was both violent and relentless. Additionally he was also dishonest and succeeded in politics by bribing people in power and misappropriating funds.[footnoteRef:8] Aristophanes seemed to agree with these assertions since "various comedies, particularly in the Knights and the Wasps, portrays him as a corrupt politician who used his power to blackmail both subject allies and prominent Athenians and took every opportunity to embezzle public funds."[footnoteRef:9] Aristophanes was well aware of Cleon's character which was reflective of other politicians at the time. The dramatist therefore sought to expose the impact of these politicians on the Athenian citizenry. His exposure of Cleon in Acharnians and Knights is but one way that Aristophanes explores the social and political realities of Ancient Athens. Cleon is representative of the status quo which has overtaken the politicians and many Athenians have been coerced into blindly following political leaders even when their leadership is detrimental to the life and well being of the citizenry. [8: Dorey, T.A. 1956. Aristophanes and Cleon. Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 3, No. 2, Jubilee Number (Oct., 1956), pp. 132-139] [9: Ibid]
Acharnians is the first of Aristophanes extant plays and perhaps one of his most political works. Ludwig describes the play as a modern thought experiment that begs the question: "what if justice is self-interest, rightly understood?"[footnoteRef:10] Furthermore Ludwig posits that Acharnians examines this question utilizing the following milieus: international relations; relations between the citizen and the polity; relations between the artist and the polity. The question of the relationship between self-interest and justice is most explicitly apparent in the plot which features an elderly Athenian farmer (Dikaiopolis) forced off his land as a result of the Peloponnesian war. The farmer becomes disenchanted with "imperial politics and secedes from the polis, making a separate peace with Sparta, valid only for himself and his household. When put on trial for his life by a posse of vigilantes from the deme of Acharnae, the most warlike political district of Athens, he delivers an oration defending his secession and impugning the justice of the Athenian war-effort." [footnoteRef:11] [10: Ludwig, Paul W. 2007 Portrait of the Artist in Politics: Justice and Self-interest in Aristophanes' Acharnians. American Political Science Review. 101 (3), 2007] [11: Acharnians contains an important intertextual component related to Euripides' Telephus. Throughout the play Dikaiopolis uses its language and plot to win over his adversaries and to bring about the peace with Sparta for which he longs. This intertextual relationship is also evident during the oration by Dikaiopolis. See Platter, Charles. Aristophanes and the Carnival of Genres. Baltimore, MD, USA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. p 42.]
In this plot Aristophanes is exploring the measures that citizens are willing to take to secure their self-interest. In this instance the farmer sided with the enemy because doing so allowed him to preserve his household. In other words he did not allow his Athenian citizenship to supersede his self-interest. The farmer viewed his peace treaty as a just way of coping with the war that has taken his land and his livelihood.
An interesting variation occurs when the Athenian farmer is placed on trial and morphs into Aristophanes himself, who uses the defense speech and parabasis[footnoteRef:12]…