Before I begin this post, let me recommend an excellent video about Aristophanes’ historical context that focuses on Acharnians and Knights:
I can’t find the name of the guy who made this video, but he knows what he’s talking about and has a great intuitive sense of where Aristophanes came from and what he was up to. People in the age of social media, such as this YouTuber and myself, may not know Aristophanes’ Greek as well as scholars of previous generations, but we may be better prepared to understand and appreciate what Aristophanes was up to.
Which brings us to the first scene in Aristophanes’ first fully-extant play, Acharnians. It’s set in the Assembly on the Pnyx hill, a short walk from the Theater of Dionysus, where Acharnians was first staged–but it might just as well be set on Twitter, or in the sort of bar and grill in Birmingham, Alabama, where I imagine my dad having boozy after-lunch arguments about politics with his fellow lawyers.
Like my dad, Dikaiopolis is both an early riser and prone to being rather testy early in the morning, especially when things in general don’t seem to be going his way. Finding himself alone on the Pnyx, seemingly the only person in all of Attica who, as my dad might put it, “gives a shit” about actually fixing Athens’ serious problems instead of just talking about them, sets him off:
Ὅσα δὴ δέδηγμαι τὴν ἐμαυτοῦ καρδίαν
ἥσθην δὲ βαιά, πάνυ δὲ βαιά, τέτταρα:
ἃ δ᾽ ὠδυνήθην, ψαμμακοσιογάργαρα.
How many times must a man get screwed?
One for every grain of sand.
How many times can a man catch a break? Four.Aristophanes, Acharnians, 1
I’ve translated the mathematical joke in Aristophanes’ Greek by playing on the mathematical question that structures “Blowin’ in the Wind”, the first song on Bob Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963). Both the young Aristophanes and the young Dylan get poetic mileage out of the idea, perhaps born in these great minds’ snarky thoughts during yet another high school arithmetic class about counting money or soldiers, that anything of actual importance–human pleasures and pains; the amount of life experience that qualifies one as “a man”, the amount death and destruction technologically advanced weaponry must cause before humans stop using it–could be quantified. My dad, who is always complaining about his insurance company clients requiring him to account for his time in “point ones” (i.e., he must list what billable activity he did in each one tenth of an hour), is on the same page.
What D says next shows that he is not shy about controversy: he hates the tragic poet Theognis and the musicians Moschos and Chaeris; he likes the Knights, seeing Kleon punished, the tragic poet Aeschylus, and hearing the musician Dexitheos singing a Boeotian song. These are like hashtags in D’s profile–#BLM, #ALM (“Athenian Lives Matter”), #SLM (“Spartan Lives Matter”)–or the topics of his pinned tweets. But what do they mean? Who are all these people? What do D’s preferences tell us about the kind of person he is?
Aristophanes’ original audience would have known exactly who all these people were and what D’s tastes say about him. Unfortunately, today, the only names that can give us that kind of information are Kleon, the Knights, Boeotia, and Aeschylus. Aeschylus died around ten years before Aristophanes was born (when, sources tell us, in Sicily, an eagle dropped a turtle on his head, hoping to use the skull containing the brain that conceived the Oresteia to smash the turtle’s shell in order to eat it), so given that D is an old man (as his costume will have indicated to the audience immediately), liking Aeschylus means that he likes the poetry (music, theater) popular during his youth–as most people do. But we can say more. Aeschylus was one of the Athenian hoplites who repulsed the first Persian invasion of Greece (in 490) at the Battle of Marathon, and his plays were remembered as expressing the values that had given the young Athenian democracy the strength to pull off this seemingly impossible feat.
It’s somewhat misleading, then, to say that D’s love of Aeschylus marks him as “old fashioned”, as scholars sometimes do; there were, after all, plenty of much older poets, such as Solon or Hesiod, whom D could have mentioned. It’s true, however, that D’s preference for seeing a re-performance of Aeschylus rather than a new play by a living tragedian tells us that he thinks art was generally better in his youth. We could compare D’s love of Aeschylus with my dad’s love of Bob Dylan, whose old albums he would rather listen to than anything by any artist born since.
We don’t know anything about Dexitheos, but the fact that D enjoyed hearing him singing a Boeotian song conveys significant information that will require a small digression to explain. Boeotia was, and is, the region of Greece immediately to the northwest of Attica; in order to pass from Attica to central or northern Greece over land, or vice versa, you must go through Boeotia:
The largest and most powerful city in Boeotia was Thebes, the city of Oedipus and Antigone. Thebes was governed by an oligarchy hostile to the Athenian democracy. When the allied Greek land army defeated Xerxes’ massive Persian invasion force at the Battle of Plataea, a small Boeotian city southwest of Thebes, in 479 BCE, the Thebans fought with the Persians. Plataea became a loyal ally of Athens, a foothold of Athenian power in Boeotia that threatened and infuriated the Thebans. In 429, the Peloponnesian War having commenced, the Thebans sent a force of 300 troops to sneak into Plataea at night and try to take control of the city. Such techniques were previously considered dishonorable, and therefore off-limits, in Greek warfare, which is why the Plataeans, having managed (just barely) to thwart the stealth attack and capture most of the attackers, quickly and brutally executed them, thus depriving themselves and their Athenian allies of a valuable negotiating chip. Theban, Spartan, and other Peloponnesian League forces quickly laid siege to Plataea. Athens took in many refugees and sent a token military force to contribute to the city’s defense, but the Athenians could do little more, hiding as they were behind their own Long Walls while the Peloponnesians ravaged Attica.
Plataea held out for two years, but in 427 the few remaining defenders, starving, wounded, and dejected, surrendered unconditionally with the understanding they’d be treated mercifully. Instead the Spartans convened a military tribunal that, despite the Plataeans’ stirring reminders of their past services to all of Greece, quickly ordered all of them to be executed and handed the city over to the Thebans, ensuring thereby that Thebes remained a loyal ally. The Thebans razed the city then rebuilt and resettled it with loyal Theban colonists.
When Dikaiopolis says, then, that he likes Boeotian music, he is implying that he is not willing, as we might put it today, to “cancel” the culture of one of Athens’ worst enemies. He is saying something that might trigger his fellow Athenian democrats, something that might at least put them off and at most cause them to question his patriotism.
What D says about the Knights and Kleon is this:
I’ll tell you one good thing:
those five talents Kleon vomited back out of the greedy gut in which he’d stuffed them–
that brightened my heart, and I love the Knights for it,
an act worthy of Greece, with God on its side.Aristophanes, Acharnians, 5-8
First, the Knights: this term refers not to King Arthur’s buddies but to Athens’ “liturgical class”–the wealthy people required to fund public works such as gymnasia, plays, and military operations–“whose sons made up Athens’ cavalry (in this period probably 1,000 strong […] supplemented by 200 mounted bowmen)”, as Olson’s commentary notes. Second, the event: evidently D is talking about an occasion on which Kleon was convicted of corruption and had to repay stolen money. Third, the question: did this conviction happen in an actual Athenian court, or only in Aristophanes’ Babylonians? Scholars are not sure but are inclined to think the latter. Regardless, this statement identifies D as someone who disagrees with Kleon’s strategy of seeking peace through overwhelming military dominance, and as someone quick to accuse politicians he disagrees with of corruption.
When my dad talks politics when he is in a bad mood, he’ll try to convince you that absolutely every politician is a corrupt son of a bitch. Democrats seem to annoy him more than Republicans only because they’re more self-righteous, preaching about protecting the planet while, like everyone else, profiting from its destruction. My dad probably would’ve said the Knights were just as corrupt as Kleon; however, I have heard him say he thinks people with family money (such as the Knights) are less likely to be corrupt, having grown up without ever needing money, than “self-made” rich people.
Perhaps talking about politics puts my dad in a bad mood–in fact, I’m sure it does. It puts him, and judging from social media many other humans as well, into the kind of mood in which he says things in ways that leave little room for polite disagreement. If you felt like Kleon’s aggressive strategy was the best way to guarantee the safety of your loved ones, you might have found D a difficult person to talk to. If you feel like voting straight Republican or straight Democrat, or buying a small arsenal of assault weapons, or participating in LGBTQ+ activism, is the best way to guarantee the safety of your loved ones, you might find my dad a difficult person to talk to.
My dad likes to describe himself as “apolitical”. I take this to mean not that he does not follow politics (he reads the news avidly, mainly on British websites like the BBC, the Telegraph, and the Guardian), or that he does not have political opinions (trust me, he does), but that he does not participate in politics beyond voting, grudgingly. This might seem the polar opposite of D, who is the first to arrive at the Assembly, apparently eager to try to persuade his fellow Athenians finally to show some sense and find a compromise that will result in immediate peace. And where are they?
They’re still yammering in the Agora,
running back and forth to get away from the red rope.Aristophanes, Acharnians, 21-2
This “red rope”, sources tell us, was a very long rope covered and red chalk dust and slung across the Agora, Athens’ main marketplace and the location of most of its main government buildings. As the time for the beginning of an Assembly meeting drew nearer, the people holding the rope would move closer and closer to the Pnyx; anyone found with red chalk on his clothing would be fined for tardiness. D is certainly in no danger of being marked late. But if he really wants to convince his fellow citizens to vote for peace, why isn’t he somewhere in the middle of the crowd, exchanging greetings and pleasantries, asking after wives, mistresses, children, and chickens–in a word, being charming?
My dad can be one of the world’s sweetest, tenderest, most loving humans: when he sat for hours with our beloved old dog Maggie to keep her company as she passed away, for example, or when he worries himself sick about his children’s or grandchildren’s health problems, or when he speaks of his love for my mom. My dad is not one of those men whose toxic masculinity prevents them from showing emotion: he tells me he loves me regularly, and I have seen him cry more than once (indeed, more than twice). I’ve also seen him charm new acquaintances, in more than one state and more than one country, with his warmth and sense of humor.
This same man, my dad, is known (I learned recently) to some of his friends as “MC Hammer” because of his penchant for what my mom calls his “zingers”. MC Hammer (my dad, that is, not the much more famous Stanley Kirk Burrell) is a devout Christian and was for many years a member of the Cathedral Church of the Advent. So serious a student is he of the Bible and Christian thought that when I was in high school, he nearly decided to stop practicing law and go to seminary, though in the end he didn’t. As I recall, the main reservation he expressed, besides the risk of giving up a stable career for one of uncertain prospects, was exchanging the laughing cynicism of lawyers for the humorless sincerity of “church people”. To illustrate his way with church people, to tell a story about a Bible study group he and my mom attended back when they went to Briarwood Presbyterian Church, in the nineties I assume, when Briarwood’s congregants were dutifully arming themselves in Focus on the Family’s latest spiritual weaponry to combat the sexual immortality running rampant everywhere from MTV to President Bill Clinton’s pants. My dad is pretty traditional and conservative when it comes to sexuality and the family, but something about his fellow adult Bible students’ piety irked him, so at last, able to stand it no longer, citing some verse such as Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple”, he delivered to them this zinger: “Jesus hates family values–and he wants you to hate family values, too.”
I imagine these suburban Bible enthusiasts, many parents of newborns or toddlers who talk of nothing else, and who hope that a disciplined devotion to Christianity will keep them and their children safe in this frightening world, clutching the miniature James Dobson figurines in their pockets and looking at my mom as if to say, Can you please make him stop talking?
Not long ago, my dad’s church friend Steve proposed to the relevant official at the Advent, where my dad has always felt much more at home than at Briarwood, that he and Michael Cooper might co-teach a Sunday School class. Hearing the name “Michael Cooper”, the official knitted his brow and shook his head. “Michael Cooper is is an interesting guy, thanks be to God, but he’s just too divisive–we don’t want people causing divisions in the church”, he said, or something to that effect. We can’t have MC Hammer teaching Sunday School.
Evidently this church official didn’t know my dad very well, didn’t know how sweet he is, or how, if he were to feel himself in a position of leadership rather than relegated to the back row, he would have no need for his rhetorical hammer. Whose fault is that? The official’s snap judgment is partly to blame, no doubt. But so, too, perhaps, is my dad’s fear that people won’t want to hear what he has to say, which leads him too often to say nothing until he is boiling with frustration he has no choice but to vent through zingers.
While D, seeing other Athenians begin to arrive at the Pnyx at last, is muttering to himself about how the prytaneis and other officials are belatedly jostling for the most prestigious seats, what are they muttering about him? There’s Mr. Just City, all by himself, thinking he’s better than us.
The Assembly opens in surreal fashion. The first person who wishes to speak introduces himself as Amphitheos, Mr. Doubly Divine, saying that the gods have commissioned to him alone the project of making a peace treaty with Sparta. But the gods, careless of mortal niceties, have neglected to provide him with a travel stipend, so if the good people of Athens could just find it in their hearts to spare a few drachmas…
Over D’s strong objections, the Herald orders the Scythian archers who served as Athens’ police force to throw out this lunatic.
Next comes a report from ambassadors back from a long trip to request military or financial aid from the Great King of Persia. D highlights the excessive length of the embassy, during which time the ambassadors have both been paid two drachmas a day by the people of Athens and been wined and dined by the Persians, unloading a barrage of zingers. What began as a discussion of a diplomatic mission to seek desperately needed help quickly devolves into a masculine pissing contest.
Ambassador: The barbarians deem to be real men only those who can drink and eat the most.
Dikaiopolis: And we those who suck the most cock [laikastas] and get their asses fucked [katapugonas].Aristophanes, Acharnians, 77-9
Let’s try to untangle the nexus of assumptions about race and sexuality that tie together this racist, homophobic joke. In fact there are at least two jokes here. The ambassador begins as if he is going to deliver a piece of exotic ethnographic lore about how the barbarians do everything differently from the Greeks, the sort of lore Herodotus’s Histories, probably published when Aristophanes was in his mid-teens, is full of. Instead–joke 1–it turns out that the barbarians, just like the Greeks, define masculinity as active, unbounded consumption. Consuming meat and drink at a feast stands by synecdoche for all the other things that “real men” actively consume in the largest quantities possible, such as money, women’s bodies, and the air in the room.
This aspect of Greek–and, according to the ambassador, barbarian–masculinity gives rise to a basic principle of Aristophanes’ poetic, theatrical, and political imagination: any kind of active consumption x (eating, drinking, stealing, fucking,…) onstage can represent any other kinds of active consumption a, b, c,… (fucking, stealing, drinking, eating,…) offstage. Recall D’s pleasure at seeing Kleon “vomit” the five talents he had stolen, the way he links the ambassadors’ consumption of state pay to their consumption of fine Persian food, the way he and so many of Aristophanes’ other characters figure political abuse as sexual abuse. This principle, it’s worth noting, is a special case of a more general one: any structure x onstage may represent any similar structures a, b, c,… offstage. By “structure” I mean something very general, any activity or idea or thing whatsoever; one might instead use the word “object”, giving it the very general sense it has in Object-Oriented Ontology.
The principle I’ve stated is just the basic idea of poetic figuration in general, of all metaphors and similes, metonymies and synecdoches. What is unique about Aristophanes’ poetic and theatrical imagination is that the mode of representation may range from one-liner jokes to stories as trippy as the storyteller cares to make them, stories in which the King’s Eye can travel from Persia to tell the Athenian Assembly “no gettum goldum, gapey-arse Ioni-o” (as Henderson translates Acharnians 104); or in which a grumpy old farmer, seemingly lower-middle class, can make a private peace treaty with a regional “great power” at war with his own city; or in which all the other crazy things that happen in Aristophanes’ plays can happen. Scholars have spilled much ink trying to explain how exactly Aristophanes’ portrayals of such evidently “unrealistic” events can and do convey meaningful, intelligent, “serious” analytic insights about his society, his environment, and life in general. Early in the process of researching my dissertation, I read Ian Ruffell’s Politics and Anti-Realism in Athenian Old Comedy: The Art of the Impossible, which deploys an impressive, and at times intimidating, command of modern symbolic logic to try to explain how the Athenians made sense of Aristophanes. I remember feeling, even as a graduate student in Classics with a degree in mathematics, rather bewildered while reading this book; I remember rereading certain chapters many times, sensing that I was missing the simple idea underlying Ruffell’s various elaborate analyses. Now I think I get it. The basic principle is just this: Any object x (whether a word, a proper name, a costume, a joke, a scene, a story–any object whatsoever) onstage may represent any similar objects a, b, c,…. offstage. To interpret Aristophanes’ plays is just to identify various possible offstage correlates for the onstage objects x (for example, Kleon represents men, or politicians, or Aristophanes’ Shadow, or Donald Trump…). Any interesting interpretation is a good interpretation. Perhaps this sounds to you as excessively complex as Ruffell’s book did to me. Anyway, picking up on the penchant for mathematics D shows in Acharnians‘ opening lines, let’s give this principle a grandiose name: the fundamental theorem of interpreting Aristophanes.
Now back to the racist, homophobic joke. The ambassador implies that barbarian masculinity is no different from that of the Greeks. This could be seen as an anti-racist joke–albeit one that wields against racism the essentialist assumption that men everywhere are the same–except that D’s zinger of a reply, joke 2, turns the tables. We Greeks, D implies, to judge from this meeting, in which everyone is listening open-mouthed and trembling to hear whether some barbarian knights in shining armor are going to come and save us, must consider “real men” to be those who enjoy being passive, and who thus enjoy sucking the cocks of powerful men both Athenian and barbarian and then getting fucked by them in the ass. Right??
With this joke D preys on his fellow men’s fear of passivity in order to register his objection to the discussion of foreign embassies. It’s a cheap shot and one unlikely to sway his audience, who might reply with something equally offensive to the effect that on the contrary, the barbarians will fuck the Spartans–and you, Mr. Just City–while they themselves fuck the Spartans’ wives and daughters.
Sensing, perhaps, this probable ignominious conclusion to the day’s proceedings, Dikaiopolis goes outside and finds Amphitheos (Mr. Doubly Divine), gives him eight drachmas, and asks him to run to Sparta and conclude a peace treaty for D and his family alone.
As it turns out, the Assembly does continue in the same vein. Next comes a report from an embassy to the Thracian king Sitalces, a king whose erotic feelings for Athens far exceed those of the Persian Great King:
He [Sitalces] was exceedingly pro-Athenian, too, and truly your lover. Why, he even wrote “Athenians are handsome” on the walls! And his son, whom we’d made an Athenian citizen, yearned to eat sausages at the Apaturia and kept begging his father to help his fatherland. And Sitalces poured a libation and swore he would help us by sending an army so large that the Athenians would say, “What a giant swarm of locusts heads our way!”Aristophanes, Acharnians, 142-50
Making good on this promise, Sitalces has sent to Athens a troop of Odomantians. According to Herodotus, the Odomantians mined for gold and silver on Mount Pangaion, which is marked in red on the map below:
Rather than thanking these men for coming from so far away to risk their lives for the safety and greater glory of Athens, D sexually harasses them, exposing for general mockery their, to him, grotesquely circumcised penises.
My dad, of course, is not nearly as vulgar or as violent as D. Period. But one can see in this first scene of Acharnians, I think, something of the penchant for zingers that characterizes MC Hammer, and the kind of communication breakdown that this can exacerbate.
As my dad knows all too well, I’ve inherited his tendency to behave too much like D, suppressing my thoughts and feelings until they burst out in angry zingers. I’ve made him the target of such zingers recently, while texting about politics, and in return he has called me “self-righteous” and “judgmental”. We’ve traded clever-sounding accusations at great length, supposedly in the interest of trying to persuade and help each other. Now we both feel battered, exhausted, and unheard, and have retreated to our respective corners and continents, only exchanging texts tentatively, as politely as possible, dancing around all the possible triggers.
Which brings me to how Aristophanes may have been feeling when he wrote Acharnians. Recall that Kleon took legal action of some kind against Aristophanes after Babylonians the previous year. I imagine Kleon standing before the Council, and Aristophanes and his father, saying something like this: I don’t personally give a shit if this “comedian” wants to insult me and my service to the city, which speaks for itself. He’s just a boy, after all, perhaps still the erōmenos, the “beloved”, the fucktoy of one of the esteemed gentlemen here present–oh he was cute enough a few years ago, I’m sure, the brat, with his talent for making potty jokes out of Homer. Let him tell me, please, all of my many faults and crimes against the city I serve, let him insult my honest business, which pays for things like comic theater (and at times, I’m afraid, whatever it is people like him do: cure-for-insomnia theater? Teenage-know-it-all theater? Treasonous theater?). Let him, if he must, insult the city’s magistrates, and even the intelligence of the allies who fight and die alongside us–but only, I beg you, only when we are amongst ourselves, when everyone knows who this comedian is and how ignorant and arrogant he is, when nobody is in danger of mistaking his hormonal delusions for the truth and so doubting us, our competence to lead, our values, our history. Not only would such a loss of faith be a great shame to us and loss to them, but given that we are at war, it would imperil all of our lives and property.
I can imagine the young Aristophanes, in the days after this verbal hammering, fuming as his older and wiser mentors tried to translate Kleon’s valid points: Yes, Aristophanes, he was rude–to be fair, in your play you were rather rude as well–and I see why you don’t like him, but he does have a point about…
I think that D, in the opening scene of Acharnians, represents not only my dad and me at our worst, but also a self-critical vision of how Aristophanes realized he had come across to some of his audience as the author of Babylonians.