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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 Book I: The Roots of War

Map of Greece, Thrace, and Macedonia Just Before the Peloponnesian War, Karl Spruner von Merz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (1865) [public domain via Wikimedia]

Map of Greece, Thrace, and Macedonia Just Before the Peloponnesian War, Karl Spruner von Merz (1865) [public domain via Wikimedia]

After the introduction in Chapter 1, most of Thucydides first book is given over to examining the causes and events leading up to the war. While he describes several diplomatic incidents, Thucydides points out that,

The real cause I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth and power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable. Still, it is well to give the grounds alleged by either side which led to the dissolution of the treaty and the breaking out of war.

The two Greek power blocks had essentially been fighting a cold war since shortly after the Persian conflict, and each had built up its military assets and financial reserves in anticipation of an eventual war. With both sides primed in this way, it didn’t require much to set them off. Despite this, the Spartans avoided declaring war as long as possible, even when pressed hard by their allies to do something about the Athenian situation. Thucydides blames this on the Spartan culture. As opposed to democratic Athens where risk-taking and quick decision were applauded, the Spartans are conservative and over-cautious. In 1:6 he puts this view in the mouth of a Corinthian envoy addressing the Spartan leaders,

The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your wont is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger there is no release.

This is certainly one possible interpretation. However, it is hard criticize the Spartans for wanting to avoid war, or trying to avoid conflict with an aggressive power that had many times their own military budget. The fact is that in our Western literary tradition, particularly since the renaissance, we tend to be heavily biased towards the Athenians. Mostly, this is attributable to the number of works by Athenian authors which have made it into our official Western Cannon. As later writers have striven to make a case for democracy as the one best form of government, an implicit narrative has emerged where the democratic, freedom loving Athenian philosophers fought nobly against the ranks of faceless, fascist, uncultured Spartans. Our high school history texts dwell on the Academy of Athens, but the brutal training of young men in Sparta.

History, as a genre, is about narrative. It straddles the line between literary and non-fiction, because all historic writing tells a story, yet must still conform to known facts.

The Spartan Mother, Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée [public domain via Wikimedia]

The Spartan Mother, Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée [public domain via Wikimedia]

Ultimately, it was neither the Spartans nor the Athenians who struck the first blows in the war, but some of the second-tier powers to whom they were allied. Things began to get tense when Corinth, allied to Sparta, and Corcyra, a neutral state, went to war over Epidamnus, which each claimed as a daughter colony. Corcyra soon managed to ally herself with Athens, who sent ships to support them. Only the rather convoluted rules of engagement given to the Athenian captains, prohibiting them from engaging Corinthian units unless they tried to land at Corcyra, allowed them to preserve the letter of their treaty with the Peloponnesian League. Reading this section, I was reminded of current events in the paper. The president of Estonia recently published an editorial in the Washington Post about how thrilled he is to have gotten into NATO just before Russia began aggressive operations in nearby Ukraine, because he knows the US and EU are now treaty bound to defend his country. He seems to be right, judging by the recent maneuvers of the 2nd Cavalry a few weeks ago as they helped Estonia “celebrate Estonian Independence Day” 300 yards from the Russian border. We can safely assume that, like those long ago Athenian officers, the US commanders in Estonia have instructions to make a show of force while doing everything they can to avoid actually fighting Russians.

Soon after the Corcyran affair, the several Athenian-aligned cities along the Macedonian border declared independence. Corinth, still bitter over the war with Corcyra, reinforced them. When Athens attacked, Corinth finally had the leverage they needed to convince Sparta that the peace was completely broken. While a formal declaration of war was nearly a year off, there was no longer any possibility of stopping the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides: Introduction

Today I leave behind my study of Greek tragedy and begin the second true history work of my Great Books project. Thucydides was a younger contemporary and sometime protégé of Herodotus. His book takes up roughly where Herodotus’ history leaves off, in the aftermath of the Persian Wars. His main focus is the Peloponnesian War, a long and bloody conflict which drew in the entire Greek world and ended the Golden Age of classical Greek Civilization.

Thucydides actually lived through the Peloponnesian War. As a young man in Athens he realized that the war was coming and, inspired by Herodotus and others, began gathering information for an eventual history. He served as a military officer in the early years of the war, eventually attaining the rank of strategos (general), but was cashiered and exiled when he failed to reach the important colony of Amphipolis in time to prevent its surrender. He spent most of the rest of his life observing the war from his country estate in Thrace. He finished the History shortly before his death in 395.

Greek heavy infantry in a phalanx formation [public domain via Wikimedia]

Greek heavy infantry in a phalanx formation [public domain via Wikimedia]

Thucydides was a more rigorous scholar than Herodotus, and was much more careful about comparing multiple accounts and evaluating the credibility of his sources. He had the advantage over Herodotus of being able to gather information in real time and communicate with people involved while their memories were still fresh. He also seems to have had a more analytical mind, unlike Herodotus who couldn’t resist writing down a good story even if it seemed a bit too fantastic to be true. His career as an officer also gave him a much better grasp of tactics and strategy than Herodotus.

A good example of this is shown in the first chapter of the history, in which he gives an overview of former wars. He makes a very cogent argument that the reason it took Agamemnon ten years to capture Troy was that his supply lines were non-existent. Therefore, after winning the initial beachhead, the Greeks had to detach large portions of their force to forage and even farm, so they never had enough men actually on the spot at Troy to make up for the defensive advantage the Trojans enjoyed because of their fortifications.

At times he is almost prescient in his conclusions. For instance, while trying to estimate the forces that Mycenaean Greece could have mustered for the Trojan war, he points out that the size of the ancient cities cannot be estimated purely on the basis of their surviving ruins,

Now Mycenae may have been a small place, and many of the towns of that age may appear comparatively insignificant, but no exact observer would therefore feel justified in rejecting the estimate given by the poets and by tradition of the magnitude of the armament. For I suppose if Lacedaemon were to become desolate, and the temples and the foundations of the public buildings were left, that as time went on there would be a strong disposition with posterity to refuse to accept her fame as a true exponent of her power. And yet they occupy two-fifths of Peloponnese and lead the whole, not to speak of their numerous allies without. Still, as the city is neither built in a compact form nor adorned with magnificent temples and public edifices, but composed of villages after the old fashion of Hellas, there would be an impression of inadequacy. Whereas, if Athens were to suffer the same misfortune, I suppose that any inference from the appearance presented to the eye would make her power to have been twice as great as it is.

Though history, the Agora of Athens has contained some of the most impressive ruins in the world, while Sparta has been hardly worth the stop for most tourists. J.A. McClymont, writing a travel narrative of Greece in 1906, says of Sparta,

The site of the ancient city is for the most part covered over with olive-groves and corn-fields and other vegetation. Traces of a large theater have been found, and there is a massive stone structure which goes by the name of Leonidas’ tomb. There are a few other remains, but none of any great interest.

Sparta, of course, defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War and ruled the entirety of Greece up to the time of the Macedonian conquest.

Sparta and Mount Taÿgetus (1906), John Fulleylove [public domain via Project Gutenberg]

Sparta and Mount Taÿgetus (1906), John Fulleylove [public domain via Project Gutenberg]

Perhaps the most quoted line from Thucydides occurs in Book 1,

In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.

He was right about this, as well. One of our criteria for a Great Book is that it is timeless and speaks to people of many different periods. It is interesting that so many histories are found on most great Books lists. After all, as skilled a writer as Thucydides was, do we really care about a blow-by-blow account of a war that happened in Greece two and a half millennia ago? We study history not for facts, dates, and names, but to find general principles. People don’t change, nor do politics, diplomacy, or war. At the start of the history, Athens is enjoying an era of prosperity where culture, art, learning and literature have been allowed to thrive for several decades. They have come out of one major war with a much stronger economy and bigger navy than most of their allies. They feel, with some justification, that they are the masters of their world, and are becoming more than a little arrogant.

Does that sound familiar? Exactly the same things can be said for the United States after World War II. It remains to be seen if a new Sparta will manage to drag us down, ending our dominance in our own civilization. Perhaps we would all be wise to read Thucydides closely.

A Note On Translations:

Several English translations of Thucydides exist. The first of these was by Thomas Hobbes, whom I will be writing about later in my Great Books project. His translation, written in 17th century English, might be hard work for many readers, although it would be good practice for reading Leviathan later. Project Gutenberg has Crawley’s 1876 translation, which was the standard for nearly a century and is still perfectly readable, despite some Victorian vocabulary (e.g. “40 sail” instead of “40 ships”). My favorite translation so far is Rex Warner’s 1954 work, published by Penguin. Warner’s language is thoroughly modern and he moves much of Thucydides parenthetical comments into footnotes, on the theory that Thucydides would have used them if they had been available. This makes for a text the reads more smoothly than many current non-fiction books.

Unless otherwise noted, all of my quotations will be taken from the Crawley translation, since all my readers have access to it through Project Gutenberg.