Can young people handle free speech?

Acharnians, Aristophanes’ first play that has survived in full, was produced at the Lenaia festival in January 425 BCE, a mere nine months after Babylonians. While the apparent aim of Acharnians is to advocate for peace–and that is indeed one of its goals–it is, I think, most fruitful to consider it first and foremost part of Aristophanes’ reaction to his audience’s response to Babylonians (the other part being Knights, a play on which he had already begun work before Acharnians was produced).

Babylonians was a comic Molotov cocktail hurled by a very cocky, very talented young man. In that play Aristophanes seems to have used the queer god Dionysus to rip most of the men of the city of Athens a new one because of their greed, corruption, and incompetence. The majority of Aristophanes’ audience must have perceived enough truth in his accusations to find the play funny and want to see his next one at one of the following year’s festivals. However, that doesn’t mean that even his most vocal supporters didn’t agree with some aspects of Kleon’s attack.

Let’s try to imagine the situation from Kleon’s perspective. In 426 BCE Athens was locked in a fight to the death with its closest and most powerful rival, as it had been for some six years. Kleon and his cohort had been steering the city and its empire for half that time, since the death of Pericles in 429. Old Comedy often portrays Pericles as an imperialist tyrant, and it is true that throughout his life Pericles expanded Athens’ and his own power in manifold ways. However, Donald Kagan and other historians argue convincingly that Pericles generally preferred to operate through “soft power” (cultural and economic influence), such as his building program on the Acropolis and the Megarian Decree (which essentially imposed economic sanctions on the neighboring city of Megara in retaliation for Megara’s military and political support for Sparta–a novel idea at the time, which Pericles or one of his friends must have come up with), retaining military violence as a real threat but one that hopefully would never need to be fully actualized.

For most of his life, Pericles succeeded brilliantly in “growing” Athens’ power (to employ a figure of contemporary business-speech at which Aristophanes would surely roll his eyes knowingly) without dragging the city into violent conflicts that were too painful or scary. But then, when he was in his sixties and at the height of his power and influence, he miscalculated and made a series of decisions that resulted in all-out war with the Peloponnesian League. Once the war had begun, Pericles must have done his best to convince his fellow citizens that it was inevitable, for they knew only too well that even if Athens managed to win such a war and to profit by it, the risks were enormous–risks such as one ought never to accept except under compulsion. He seems to have convinced Thucydides that war was inevitable.

But nothing is inevitable as long as it is so only in relation to certain conditions that are subject to change. Pericles evidently recognized this in the summer of 431 BCE when he prevented the Assembly from being convened, fearing that the residents of Acharnai (the rural deme circled in red below; the city center is circled in orange), seeing the Peloponnesian forces ravaging their homes and lands, would spearhead a vote for a disastrous attempt to repulse the Peloponnesians. The citizens of Athens likewise recognized that nothing is inevitable when in the following year, after the plague had amplified the horrors of war well beyond their collective tolerance threshold, they refused for the first time in decades to elect Pericles to the board of ten stratēgoi (generals), the most powerful positions in the state (especially during wartime), and penalized him with a substantial fine.

After Pericles’ death in 429, nearly everyone in Athens must have agreed in principle that the city’s main goal should be to conclude the war as quickly and advantageously as possible. Kleon is often called a “hawk” because he consistently advocated acts of state violence: executing all the Mytilinean rebels, capturing or killing the Spartans on Sphacteria, etc. But like other human hawks, ancient and modern, Kleon argued that such violence was the quickest and surest way to secure lasting peace. Advocates of compromise, he argued–a category that surely includes Aristophanes, along with Nikias and others often called “doves” or “moderates”–madly persist in propping up unstable systems, only to find that–surprise, surprise!–they always soon collapse once again into violent conflict. His path to peace might be brutal and at times arguably undemocratic, but at least it was short and would leave Athens in a position of strength.

We can infer from Kleon’s first appearance in Thucydides, which comes at the time of his intervention in the debate about the Mytilenean rebels, that the Athenians as a whole had mixed feelings about his position (which he seems to have held with dogged persistence until his death in battle in 422). That debate occurred in 427, so it was surely in the young Aristophanes’ mind when he was writing Babylonians (produced in January 426). Mytilene was, and is, a city on Lesbos, an island in the northeast Aegean most famous as the home of the poet Sappho and the origin of the word “lesbian”. Below is a picture of modern Mytilene and some modern Mytileneans, as well as a map of Greece with Lesbos indicated in red:

The geographical location of Lesbos placed it, both in the fifth century BCE and today, at the margin on Athens’ sphere of influence and on the membrane between Greece and the non-Greek powers to the east. Today it is a popular point for refugees, especially from Syria, to try to cross into Europe. The Greek government cannot prevent such crossings but is not willing to grant legal status to refugees before an extremely long, complex, and inefficient examination process, during which time it is not able or willing to care for them properly, because the state remains near bankruptcy. The unsavory compromise that these opposing forces have generated is a group of overcrowded, underfunded, unsanitary, and inhumane detention centers on Lesbos and Chios. Residents of these islands frequently protest against these detention centers; their protests generate some uncomfortable press for whatever government is in power, but never enough to significantly alter the balance of forces resulting in the detention centers.

In Aristophanes’ day, the cities of Lesbos were among the most distant and most independent members of the Delian League (aka the Athenian Empire). Mytilene was the most powerful of these Lesbian cities–the largest and wealthiest, with the largest fleet–and as an oligarchy, it was more closely aligned ideologically with Sparta and Persia than with Athens. In 427 the leaders of Mytilene, perceiving Athens’ vulnerability in the wake of Pericles’ death and the plague, began to plot a revolt from Athens. Athens discovered their plot prematurely (like with the help of “democracy activists” in Mytilene) and sent a force to crush it, which they easily accomplished.

The question at issue in the Mytilenean debate was how to punish Mytilene for its treachery. Kleon advocated executing all the male citizens of Mytilene and selling all its women and children into slavery, a brutal but profitable plan (Athens would profit from selling the women and children as slaves and from selling the city and all its wealth to loyal colonists) that, according to the perennial logic of military aggressors, would ultimately save lives by guaranteeing the loyalty of Athens’ allies and allowing the city to focus on ending the war with Sparta. This argument convinced the Assembly, which voted to approve Kleon’s plan and dispatched a ship to Mytilene to see that the punishment was enacted.

By the next day, however, the Athenians were having second thoughts. Kleon tried his best to convince the Assembly to stay the course, but he faced stiff opposition from men like Diodotus, who proposed to execute only the thousand or so men who had been identified as the primary conspirators. According to Thucydides, Diodotus argued that Athens’ strength lay in its popularity among its allies: if the latter only remained loyal to Athens out of fear and would therefore seize on any safe opportunity to revolt, Athens would be weaker than it would otherwise. Having voted with Diodotus, the Assembly sent a second ship racing to catch the first and save the Mytileneans from the previous day’s death sentence.

To everyone in Athens, not just the young Aristophanes, the whole Mytilene incident must have seemed horrifically ridiculous. How could a government so fickle that it was squandering time and resources agonizing over whether to execute its own rebellious allies ever hope to defeat the ruthlessly efficient Spartans? Evidently something needed to change. But what?

Aristophanes criticized Kleon in Babylonians, but he also criticized many other people in Athens and many aspects of Athens’ behavior and government. Kleon may well have taken Aristophanes’ criticism of himself personally, and this may be why he took legal action before the Council. Kleon’s argument, however, must have been that Aristophanes’ comedy threatened to further damage Athens’ relationship with its allies, which in the wake of the Mytilenean debacle must have been generally strained. Even Aristophanes’ most loyal supporters must have seen some validity in this concern.

How can we use art to improve institutions? This question, to which the ancient Greeks gave a great deal of thought, is more pressing in today’s Anthropocene than ever before. Even setting aside the manifold crimes and misdemeanors committed by corporate and political institutions worldwide, the “normal”, legal operation of countless businesses, such as oil companies, and political institutions, such as the USA, is killing our planet, our companion species, and us. Institutions strengthen themselves and enable themselves to improve by allowing public criticism. However, even the most democratic institutions strongly prefer that criticism and debate remain internal, for airing problems publicly (in plays, or newspapers, or tweets), even if it facilitates their resolution, can result in lasting damage to the institution’s reputation and efficacy. There is also the question of whether artists possess the knowledge or expertise necessary to offer constructive criticisms, or whether they are more like professional self-aggrandizing complainers.

Young people are often the most vocal and passionate advocates for drastic social and political change, yet their voices carry less weight than those of older people in positions of power. Youth activism is an especially notable feature of humanity’s response to the global ecological crisis, with young people plausibly arguing that the future being shaped by today’s actions is theirs.

As a still fairly young person myself, I know from experience that young people can sometimes be harsh, arrogant, and uncompromising in making their case for change. This is due partly, I think, to insecurity and frustration and having as yet very little real power, as well as to repressed anger at being unable to judge their parents as equals–which is not to say that young people’s complaints are not often, in substance, entirely valid. I myself have more than once made valid complaints in excessively harsh ways because of frustration and anxiety stemming from my lack of job security or my relationship with my family. In such situations, when I’m raging with emotions, it’s very hard to listen to those wise people telling me, loudly or softly, to take it down a notch; but eventually I get the message (so far without being sued).

I suspect that Aristophanes’ mentors agreed with Kleon that the fiery young comedian ought to take it down a notch, regardless of his talents or the legitimacy of his frustration. After all, Athens was locked in a war that if too badly lost could end not only Athenian democracy, but also Aristophanes’ career and comic theater itself. Surely under such circumstances some caution was in order. So the following year, in 426, Aristophanes’ Acharnians was produced at the Lenaia, where only Athenians and resident aliens were present.

Aristophanes’ own focalization of Acharnians mirrors this shift to a more intimate performance context. Whereas in Babylonians Aristophanes took as his avatar the queer, foreign god Dionysus, in Acharnians he takes the form of Dikaiopolis, “Mr. Just City”, an old Athenian farmer exhausted by war and longing for peace but powerless to do anything except sit in the Assembly and lament.

Scholars have debated the political significance of Acharnians at length without arriving at any clear consensus. S. Douglas Olson expresses something like a consensus when he writes, “The basic political argument of Acharnians is that everyone in the city with any power is corrupt and that people could put a stop to this by paying more attention to what is going on around them and acting more responsibly” (2002, xlix). I believe this reading, which largely deprives the play of meaningful political significance, takes it too literally. Instead, I argue that Acharnians is mainly about political masculinity. In an act of speculative biographical criticism motivated by the play’s own identification of Dikaiopolis with Aristophanes, I suggest that Acharnians is partly about Aristophanes working out his own political-artistic identity in the wake of the response to Babylonians.

Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

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