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Free Speech in Ancient Athens: Acharnians of Aristophanes

Today this blog returns to the Greek theater with the works of Aristophanes.  Aristophanes is the only writer of the Greek genre known as “Old Comedy” for whom complete plays have survived.  Comedy, which tends to rely on pop culture references and current events, is often an ephemeral genre.  The fact that Aristophanes’ plays still get laughs 2400 years after their first performance is the main reason they have survived so long.  Like Shakespeare and Molière, he is one of an exclusive group of comedians whose work is timeless.

Buste van Aristophanes en putto met masker, in cartouche, Abraham Delfos, 1759 [public domain via Rijksmuseum.  color added]

Buste van Aristophanes en putto met masker, in cartouche, Abraham Delfos, 1759 [public domain via Rijksmuseum. color added]

The earliest extant Aristophanes play  is The Acharnians, produced in 425 BCE when he was about 20 years old.  Acharnia is a rural region of Attica which was particularly devastated by the Spartans’ annual raids during the Peloponnesian War, forcing its inhabitants to live as refugees within the walls of Athens.  The Acharnians trivializes the Athenians’ reasons for going to war and criticizes the state for not making peace.  The main character, Dicaeopolis, is an Athenian farmer who manages to negotiate a personal peace with Sparta, allowing him to live a comfortably hedonistic life, free from the hardships of war.  Cameo characters of Euripides and Lamachus (whom we met in Thucydides as one of the generals of the Sicilian expedition) make appearances as Dicaeopolis’ next-door neighbors.  In the final scene we see Dicaeopolis packing a food basket and preparing for a drinking party while Lamachus packs his arms and prepares to repel a Spartan attack (Euripides has long sense retired to an attic to bury himself in his poetry).  At the close of the play Lamachus is carried back on stage, having been injured in battle, while a tipsy Dicaepolis wobbles in supported by two flute girls.

1886 Production of the Acharnians at  University of Pensylvania [public domain via U. Pennsylvania Archives fair use justification: images was taken in 1886 and is out of copyright]]

1886 Production of the Acharnians at University of Pensylvania [public domain via  University of  Pennsylvania Archives]

It is simply incredible that a young playwright was allowed to ridicule state policy in time of war, and even make fun of a popular general.  This is even more exceptional in that the play was performed in the Dionysian theater during one of the most important religious festivals of the year.  It would be as if, at the height of World War II, the Church of England sponsored Benny Hill to write a play, put on in Westminster Abbey as part of the Christmas program, in which the main character mocked the government and made a personal peace with the Nazis.  This would never have happened, even in England.

Admittedly, Aristophanes frequently ended up in hot water for his criticism of Cleon, but Cleon’s revenge took the form of private lawsuits, and he was never effective at shutting the playwright up.  If anything, Cleon’s response seems to have inspired Aristophanes to greater heights of polemic.  For example the next play we have, The Knights, is one long personal attack on Cleon.

Donald Kagan, in his open Yale lecture series, makes the point that the right to free of speech is one of the main factors that set the Athenian democracy apart from other Hellenistic governments.  The Athenians considered it one of the most critical aspects to a functioning democracy.  This is interesting, because when we think of the Athenian democracy, we tend to think of the Assembly.  In fact, however, nearly every Greek city had an assembly, normally made up of all citizens of the Hopelite class and above.  Only Athens had complete freedom of speech–in the assembly, on stage, and everywhere else.  Contrast this to Sparta, where an Assembly vote was required to ratify declarations of war and some treaties.  In these meetings the regular Spartans, who may have been mustered in ranks, were not allowed to speak.  The council offered them a yes or no question and they voted by banging on their shields, with the louder side carrying the vote.  In fact, Spartans did not even enjoy freedom of speech in private; Sparta was known for having one of the most efficient and ruthless secret police forces in the ancient world.

The United States today is more like Athens than Sparta.  The First Amendment protects our freedom of speech, and there is effectively no censorship of the theater.  Even the the censors of broadcast media tend to be more concerned about obscenity than politics.  This is a fairly recent state of events, though, particularly in war time.  At any point from the Civil War to at least the end of the 1960’s a public performance criticizing the government during war would have landed the writer in federal prison.  It was only with the backlash against McCarthyism, followed by the so-called “culture wars” of the 1960s, that Americans began to take back their First Amendment rights.

Today, as in Classical Athens, freedom of speech is essential to Democracy.  I have written in the past that Democracy, as a political system, seems to be on the wane.  Once artists no longer have freedom of political speech, we will know for certain that it is finally gone.

Thucydides Books VI-VIII: Conclusion

I trust you will forgive me for lumping the last three books of Thucydides‘ History together in one post, but I have my reasons.  Book VI is the true climax of the narrative, in which the Athenians mount a massive expedition to Sicily and suffer a loss of men, treasure, ships, and morale from which they can never recover.  Everything after is mere denouement, even though the war lasts for another decade.  In Book VII the war shifts to the Aegean and Athens manages to scrape together enough forces to win a few victories, especially after the fickle Alcibiades switches back to their side, but the final outcome is never in doubt.  By the unfinished Book VIII the Persians have come in on the Spartan side,  Alcibiades is gone again, and it is obviously just a matter of time before the final defeat.  Thucydides leaves off in mid sentence, leaving it to Xenophon to write about the end of the war.

Ancient Greek Acropolis at Selinus, Sicily [Flickr user Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Ancient Greek Acropolis at Selinus, Sicily [Flickr user Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Maybe Thucydides’ health declined, or perhaps he was recalled to Athens and no longer needed a writing project to spend the empty hours of his exile.  As a fellow writer, I suspect that, having laid out his main thesis and arguments, he became bored with the final chapters and put them off, never finishing.  But what was this thesis that he was trying to prove?

I just finished reading Donald Kagan’s book Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, which sheds some interesting light on the question.  Kagan, one of the world’s foremost Thucydides scholars, argues that the “father of scientific history” was a revisionist who crafted the History to support his own platform.  The narrative that Thucydides presents is that the war was inevitable but the Athenians had a strong chance of winning under the leadership of Pericles.  After Pericles died in the plague, the democratic mob, urged on by demagogues like Cleon, went out of control and adopted a reckless policy, including the invasion of Sicily, which destroyed the empire.  Thucydides presents this perspective so effectively that it became the dominant interpretation of the Peloponnesian war for 2400 years.

Kagan, Thucydides the Reinvention of History Cover Image

In Kagan’s book, however, he explains how, while Thucydides clearly believed this interpretation, there is significant evidence within his own work to question whether things were that simple.  The war may or may not have been inevitable eventually, but Pericles was the one who pushed Athens to go to war when they did.  His defensive policy was already being shown to be ineffective by  the time of his death.  It was only after Cleon and others urged Athens into a more aggressive strategy that they began making advances.  Cleon himself, despite being hated by Thucydides, Aristophanes, and others, actually seems to have been fairly competent.

Perhaps most importantly the invasion of Sicily, far from being a mad power grab by the mob, was a fairly reasonable plan which might have succeeded had it not been for the gross incompetence of Nicias.  It was Nicias who, without actually meaning to, talked the assembly into a massive escalation of commitment in Sicily.  It was Nicias who committed one tactical and logistic blunder after another in the Sicilian campaign.  It was Nicias who waited too long to withdraw after it was obvious the campaign was lost, turning a strategic withdrawal into a disaster in which he lost his entire force and his own life.

Thucydides liked and respected Pericles and Nicias but loathed Cleon and distrusted democracy.  Thus, he structured the narrative to support his own bias, which probably went against the commonly held views of the day.  Kagan points out that, despite having a strong viewpoint, Thucydides was true to his own stated methodology and did not deliberately withhold information.  He wrote at a time when the war was still fresh in the minds of his readers and he could assume that they knew the major events, so he could emphasize the speeches and happenings that reinforced his own thesis.

Whether this interpretation is true or not–and perhaps particularly if it is true, Thucydides remains one of the greatest and most influential historians of all time.  Still, the issue reminds us, as readers of the Great Books, that every writer has their own agenda and their own biases, as does every reader, and we need to take them into account if we want to truly come to grips with these texts.

Thucydides Book V: Enter Alcibiades

Thucydides’ fifth book marks an intermission in the Peloponnesian war.  Neither Athens nor Sparta has much to show for a decade of bloodshed and expense, and both are exhausted.  Brasidas and Cleon, “who had been the two principle opponents of peace on either side”, have both been killed in the battle of Amphipolis, clearing the way cooler heads to negotiate a peace treaty.  None of the root causes of the war have changed, but neither side is interested in recommencing hostilities on the mainland yet, even though abroad the “unstable armistice did not prevent either party doing the other the most effectual injury”. This time of comparative peace lasts nearly six years, but it is a tense time for all of Greece as alliances shift.  Argos, a powerful city which has remained neutral so far, begins lure away many of Sparta’s allies and is clearly preparing to make a move of her own.

Against this background, Thucydides introduces one of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, characters in Greek history.  “Alcibiades, son of Clinias, a man yet young in years for any other Hellenic city,” is the new star of Athenian politics.  He maneuvers the Argives into siding with Athens and attacking Sparta, traveling to Argos to personally oversee raids.  Later in Book V, he is promoted, becoming the youngest of the Athenian generals.

Portrait of Alcibiades, Willem van Senus [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Portrait of Alcibiades, Willem van Senus [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Even in his own lifetime, Alcibiades seemed larger than life and more than human.  He is gloriously handsome, athletically gifted, and indecently rich.  The scion of one of the most famous noble dynasties in Athens, he has been fostered by Pericles and educated by Sophocles.  Even his enemies admit that he is a brilliant diplomat and commander.  When we meet him in Book V, Alcibiades has already distinguished himself in the army and, now in his early thirties, has emerged as a leader in Athens’ pro war, pro democratic party, filling the vacuum left by Cleon’s death.  There are many who fear his growing influence, naked ambition, and questionable personal morality,

[A]lthough publicly his conduct of the war was as good as could be desired, individually, his habits gave offence to every one, and caused them to commit affairs to other hands, and thus before long to ruin the city.

His ostentatious lifestyle too is a cause for concern.  Amidst the austerity of war-time Athens, he is famous for his decadent parties, the splendor of his home and clothing, and for the unprecedented act of entering no less than seven chariot teams in the Olympics.   He rationalizes these expenses as being good for the city,

“The Hellenes, after expecting to see our city ruined by the war, concluded it to be even greater than it really is, by reason of the magnificence with which I represented it at the Olympic games, when I sent into the lists seven chariots, a number never before entered by any private person, and won the first prize, and was second and fourth, and took care to have everything else in a style worthy of my victory. Custom regards such displays as honourable, and they cannot be made without leaving behind them an impression of power. Again, any splendour that I may have exhibited at home in providing choruses or otherwise, is naturally envied by my fellow citizens, but in the eyes of foreigners has an air of strength as in the other instance. And this is no useless folly, when a man at his own private cost benefits not himself only, but his city: nor is it unfair that he who prides himself on his position should refuse to be upon an equality with the rest. “

Many are unconvinced.  For the moment, though, Alcibiades’ rise seems unstoppable.

We will be hearing of Alcibiades again, and often.  From this point on, he is one of the central personalities in both Thucydides’ history of the war and Xenophon’s sequel, The Hellenica.  He is also heavily featured in Plato’s dialogues, and Plutarch’s Lives and appears in the pages of Aristophanes, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and others, down to the modern day.

One of the things that makes Alcibiades so fascinating is how un-Greek he is.  The polis, or city state, was the basic unit of Greek society.  Plato, Aristotle, and others wrote at length about how no one could live a happy life outside the polis.  Individualism was always subordinated to the good of the state and a man without a polis was an alien everywhere.  Yet Alcibiades switches sides several times in the course of the war.  He is an individualist at a time when individualism was subordinated to the state, a humanist centuries before the humanist movement, and a Nietzschean superman centuries before Nietzsche was born.  Alcibiades served only Alcibiades.  He was one of those people who were so brilliant that they didn’t believe the rules applied to them.  In many ways he seems like he would have fit in better as a hero in the epics of Homer than as a politician in the histories of the classical period.

One of the most ingrained assumptions of the Greek society was that hubris was always punished.  Alcibiades’ refusal to follow the rules, whether it be by mocking the Gods or impregnating the King of Sparta’s wife often got him into trouble.  He spent a large portion of this life as a hated fugitive and died early and violently.  But he also experienced many moments of glory and triumph and his enduring fame, his kleos, is based as much on his ability as on his ethical failings.  Perhaps he would have seen that as an acceptable trade-off.

Alcibiades on his Knees Before his Mistress, Louis Jean François Lagrenée [public domain via Norton Simon Museum]

Alcibiades on his Knees Before his Mistress, Louis Jean François Lagrenée, c. 1781 [public domain via Norton Simon Museum]