BMCR 2003.02.22

Aristophanes: Acharnians, edited with introduction and commentary

, , Acharnians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. cii, 379 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0198141955. £65.00.

I have an interest to declare, having written letters of support for three applications by O. for research awards related to this edition of Acharnians. O. has abundantly rewarded my confidence and that of the National Endowment for the Humanities. After the publication of four editions of Acharnians in English within the five years preceding the First World War (W.J.M. Starkie, London 1909; W. Rennie, London 1909; B.B. Rogers, London 1910; R.T. Elliott, Oxford 1914), there has been no significant edition since of this lively and controversial play — unless one wishes to count my own edition (Warminster, 1980), whose commentary ran to a modest 58 pages and something like 25,000 words, whereas O. offers us 305 pages of commentary amounting, by my rough reckoning, to some 150,000 words. This edition is everything we could have expected, given the sterling qualities O. had already shown in his edition of Peace (Oxford, 1998) and in many articles on Aristophanic topics going back to the eighties, and it fully merits the company it keeps in the Clarendon series with, for example, Dover’s Clouds of 1968 and Dunbar’s Birds of 1995.

O.’s introduction begins with a discussion of Ar.’s early career, with special reference to Babylonians, whose plot he reconstructs with fair (perhaps excessive?) confidence. In connection with Kleon’s attempt to prosecute Ar. after Babylonians, in whose historicity he clearly (and rightly) believes,1 he need not have weakened his case by conceding (p. xxx) that ‘comedy clearly enjoyed rights of free expression much broader than those granted individual citizens’; in fact it can be shown that comedy had no special right at all to say things that in other contexts would be illegal.2 The allegations of ῤιψασπία made ‘about prominent citizens’ (actually — and crucially — only about Kleonymos) in comedy, which in ordinary circumstances would certainly have been actionable if false, may for all we know have been true.

The next section, ‘Historical Background’, concentrates, as does the play itself,3 on the origins of the war; four times as much space is given to the events of 446-431 as to those of 431-425, and one misses closer consideration of the situation at the time the play was being written and produced, regarding which we only hear that ‘[as] the war dragged on year after painful year … neither side had the ability to break the other and no end to the war was in sight’ (xxxvii-xxxviii). In particular, the plague is mentioned only briefly in the context of 430 (xxxvii), and from O.’s discussion one would never gather that it had lasted, with varying intensity, for four and a half years (cf. Thuc. 3.87.1-3), that it was still claiming victims while Ar. was creating his play, and that even if (as is likely) it was dying away by the time of production, few could have had much confidence that they had seen the last of it. It is never mentioned in the play (nor, for that matter, in any text composed for public performance, delivery or display in classical Athens), but it had been, and might yet be, a greater menace to the average spectator and his family than the Spartan army had ever been. On the origins, O.’s position is clear-headed and generally convincing. Regarding the Megarian Decree, he notes (p. xxxiii) the significance for Athenian attitudes of an event sometimes overlooked,4 the massacre of the Athenian garrisons in the Megarid in 446 (Thuc. 1.114.1), and shows, with the economic insight that is typical of him, that a decree couched in the terms described by Thucydides (1.67.4, 1.139.1) might very well have affected Megara in the manner, even if not to the extent, that Dikaiopolis is made to say it did: in effect it will have tilted the balance of import and export prices heavily against the Megarians, who will thus have had to export a greater and/or import a lesser quantity of food and other products. His picture (pp. xxxviii-xxxix) of a wide section of the Athenian population who regretted having gone to war, and supported its continuation mainly because there seemed to be no safe alternative, is persuasive.

This leads to a consideration of ‘the political argument of the play’, which begins with Dikaiopolis, ends with Aristophanes, and is much concerned with the relationship between the two. An extended analysis of Dikaiopolis’ motives, actions and attitudes concludes that ‘Aristophanes’ audience was clearly intended5 (and doubtless overwhelmingly disposed) to admire and envy him (p. xliv), and O. then proceeds to the ‘central interpretative question’ of the play, namely ‘what its political point might be for an audience condemned to live in the real world’. It may initially seem surprising that for O. the answer to this depends crucially on how we are to understand the relationship between Dikaiopolis and ‘the poet’ (p. xlv); but his argument is at the least very plausible. The play, he contends, shows, or rather is, the poet’s endeavour to induce the Athenian public to emancipate themselves from the Kleons and the Lamachoi and reclaim control of their own fate (very much, we may note, what Demos is eventually brought to do in Knights); if they persist in refusing, as the Assembly refuses to listen to Dikaiopolis,6 the poet has the option of doing what Dikaiopolis then does and withdrawing from public involvement — which, or so the parabasis claims, would be disastrous for the city. O. rightly characterizes the play’s portrayal of Athenian politics as ‘wildly exaggerated’, but it is surely misguided to ask (pp. xlix-l) why in that case this play, and Knights with its very similar diagnosis, were so successful: for one thing wild exaggeration, particularly in denunciation of men in public life, was what was expected of comedy, and for another, as Dover pointed out in relation to Clouds,7 it is impossible to reach sensible conclusions as to why a play succeeded or failed in a competition unless one has adequate information about the other entries — and of the other entries for the Lenaia of 425 and 424 we possess not a single word. It is nevertheless quite reasonable for O. to conclude, from the undoubted fact that plays like these two could be awarded first prize and from the Council’s dismissal of Kleon’s complaint about Babylonians, that such slashing denunciations of virtually every aspect of the Athenian political system were quite acceptable to ordinary Athenians so long as they ‘were simultaneously allowed to affirm, by … voting … the author the prize, that they were victims of their leaders … and deserved nothing like [their recent] sufferings’ (p. li). That was, after all, one may note, pretty well exactly what the politicians themselves were telling them all the time, and continued to tell them through most of the next century — except that where comedy told the people they were victims of their leaders, each politician told them they were victims of their other leaders.

O. next discusses four aspects of the ‘mythological and literary background’ to the play. There is brief discussion of the Golden Age myth8 and consideration is given to the possible influence of Herodotos on certain passages, though only 524-9 is accepted as a genuine reminiscence (not necessarily entailing, however, that a complete written text of the Histories was already in circulation). A much fuller discussion follows of the story of Telephos, Euripides’ play, and its exploitation in Acharnians. Dikaiopolis — or rather, the complex, less-than-fully-merged entity composed of Dikaiopolis and the poet — can be seen, according to O., as being in very much the same position as Telephos: a man despised (beggar/old peasant/comic dramatist) and injured (by Achilles/by Kleon) who argues against a war and yet whose help is essential if the war is to be won (pp. lx-lxi). O. succeeds better than anyone I have come across in elucidating the apparent contradiction just mentioned, without ignoring or downgrading either side of it. A fourth subsection discusses various minor touches that seem to portray Dikaiopolis as a Herakles figure, and presents a good argument for a Heraklean reading of the scene 860-958 (with Nikarchos, κατωκάρα κρεμάμενος, representing Herakles’ victims the Kerkopes); however, he identifies the Boiotian rather than Dikaiopolis as the Herakles figure in this scene and speaks of ‘the Boiotian’s triumph’ (p. lxiii) — an odd assessment, given that the Boiotian (like the Megarian before him) has been thoroughly duped by Dikaiopolis and induced to exchange a sackful of valuable animals and birds for a single item whose value is clearly assumed to be less than zero, and that it is Dikaiopolis and his slave(s) who actually tie Nikarchos up (as Herakles did the Kerkopes) and hand him over to the waiting Boiotian (so rightly O.’s note on 929-951). It is most surprising that no reference is made to the well-known self-presentation of Aristophanes as Herakles in the parabases of Wasps and Peace.9

A range of theatrical matters are discussed in section V of the introduction, though this can give little more than a taste of what the commentary has to offer. O. rightly assumes four actors, but it is quite unnecessary to suppose, as he does (and as I once did) that the part of Pseudartabas requires a fifth: the ‘extremely rapid changes’ (p. lxiii) at 55/64 (Amphitheos/Ambassador) and 125/134 (Pseudartabas/Theoros) are not that rapid if the actor each time ‘had only to take off a mask, put on another mask, and either take off or put on a long cloak which covered the costume underneath’,10 and anyway there is an even quicker one at Men. Dysk. 873/879. It is, however, possible that O. is right to suppose that Pseudartabas is played by a mute, his words being spoken by (probably) the actor playing the Ambassador; O. shrewdly notes that after the Ambassador’s exit Pseudartabas does not speak even when directly questioned. On costume, O. valuably draws attention (pp. lxvi-lxvii) to its systematic use in the play to distinguish (in the Assembly scene) between barbarians (or half-barbarianized Athenians) and ‘real’ citizens, and (throughout) between ‘wealthy … bad citizens … and poor and oppressed good citizens’ (at least until Dikaiopolis puts on a splendid new himation between 1139 and 1142). His championing of a ‘single-door staging’ is more questionable; once it is admitted that some Old Comic scenes require more than one door (and O. himself mentions some that prima facie do so require and makes no attempt to argue that they do not), we know that more than one door was available, and we do not have to devise convoluted arguments to enable Dikaiopolis and Lamachos, in 1097-1133 [better 1068-1142], to share a door without sharing a house.

The introduction is completed by a guide to the Megarian and Boiotian dialects as presented by Ar. and a detailed account of the textual tradition. Here O.’s most important contribution is to argue that the unique good readings introduced by correcting hands into Γ derive not from an independent branch of the text tradition, but from a corpus of scholia which have survived, in a somewhat abbreviated form, in the preserved scholia of Γ : these surviving scholia, one may note, certainly themselves contain some good readings found in no pre-Triklinian copy of the text (234 Βαλλήναδε; 833 πολυπραγμοσύνῃσιν, whence Willems conjectured πολυπραγμοσύνη ‘στιν; a metrical scholion on 971 implying εἶδες ὦ semel).

In the text itself, O.’s own interventions are confined, with one exception (376), to the utterances of the dialect speakers and the concluding lyrics; but his choices among variants and previous conjectures are usually sound and always well considered.

84: O. may be right to give τῇ πανσελήνῳ, as a statement, to the Ambassador, who presumably says the words in a deadpan tone; they will be greeted with roars of laughter, if O. is right (as he probably is) to suppose that the comic point is the same that is implicit in the colloquial English verb ‘to moon’.

110: O. rightly adopts R’s ἄπιτ’, since we need to get rid of all the ambassadors, not just their leader.

376: As the idiom βλέπω + infin. normally requires the infinitive to be present not aorist, O. reads δάκνειν ( δακεῖν codd.). The rule, however, is not absolute; O. himself cites Men. Mis. 801 Arnott ἁρπάσαι βλέπων.

642: Since the expression here is so condensed as to be somewhat obscure, and since the E Γ -scholia on 626 report 32 verses, not 31, in the section 628-658, O. (on 626-718) tentatively suggests a lacuna before or after this line.

731: O.’s conjecture κορίχι’ was narrowly anticipated by me ( Aristophanes: Wealth [Warminster, 2001] 228).

791: O. proposes κἂν ἀναχνοανθῇ, arguing that the verb is elsewhere always χνο not χνοι : but we do not know how Megarians pronounced it, and the noun from which it is derived sometimes appears in poetry as χνοίη (Parm. fr. 1.29, Emp. fr. 46, Schol. Aesch. Seven 153, Anacreont. 17.19). And everywhere else in the scene, as O. notes elsewhere (p. lxxii), the Megarian uses κα, not ἄν. It is just as easy for ΑΙΔΑΝ to be corrupted to ΑΛΛΑΝ (via ΑΛΔΑΝ) as vice versa, and corruption is much more likely to have removed the un-Attic form αἰ (as it did in 742, in 870 according to O., and in R at 788) than to have introduced it. Read αἰ δ’ ἀμπαχυνθῇ (Wilamowitz) κἀναχνοιανθῇ : see S. Colvin, Dialect in Aristophanes (Oxford, 1999) 206 and (for the omission of the modal particle) 224.

803: O.’s τί δαὶ σύ; τρώγοις καὐτὸς ἄν; Με. κοῒ κοΐ (improving on a suggestion by Dover) accounts better for the paradosis than any other restoration; it would, however, leave the second girl silent in this passage — unless the response in 802 is uttered by both girls.

808: O. prefers θηρί’ ( Π 5) to χοιρί’ ( Π 5 s.l. and the medieval tradition); there is a good case for regarding the latter as either a gloss (O.’s explanation) or an intrusion from the context ( χοιρ occurs two lines above, four lines below, and 26 times in the whole scene).

819: O. strongly defends the paradosis ( φανῶ, ‘I intend to denounce’; φαίνω‘I hereby denounce’ Blaydes and most edd.): φανῶ is metrically guaranteed in the parallel passage 914 and presumably implies that the formal denunciation would have to be made in the presence of an appropriate official (cf. Knights 300).

830: O. rightly adopts from Handley τὰ χοιρί’ ἀπεδίδου for τὰ χοιρίδι’ ἀπέδου of the paradosis, since the sale had not yet been effected when the Informer intervened.

884: O. does well to commend, though he does not print, Bergk’s τυῖδε‘hither’, which might well have baffled a scribe.

900: Rather than accept R’s ἐν Ἀθάναις, as most editors have done, O. prints the locative Ἀθάνασιν, deleting the preceding ἐν which is present in all mss., on the ground that ἐν Ἀθήναις is ‘not classical usage’ (i.e. does not occur in classical Attic inscriptions). It does appear, however, in Knights 1037 (hexameters), Thuc. 5.18.7, 5.23.6 (treaty texts), Xen. Hell. 1.1.33, 1.7.2, Arist. Cat. 5b23, Pol. 1268a10, 1303a8; this distribution suggests that while ἐν Ἀθήναις did not come naturally to the lips of Athenians speaking Attic to Athenians in Athens, it might be used by non-Athenians living in Athens (Aristotle), or by Athenians living abroad (Xenophon), or in documents drafted jointly by Athenians and non-Athenians (treaties with Sparta), or by Athenians writing in a non-Attic dialect; in other words, it would not be at all surprising to find an Athenian writer representing a non-Attic speaker as using this expression.

1109-17: O. rejects my transposition ( MCr 25-28 [1990-3] 139-144) of 1109-12 to follow 1117 (which Henderson in the Loeb had adopted), arguing (with van Leeuwen) that 1112 can be taken as addressed to Lamachos (anyway, even if it isn’t, Lamachos might suppose that it is). However, to one argument (which admittedly was not made explicit in my article) he has, and I can see, no answer. In 1113 Lamachos complains about Dikaiopolis’ immediately preceding remark; Dikaiopolis replies (1114-6) that that remark was not addressed to Lamachos but to his own slave, with whom he was disputing the relative merits of locust and thrush. It follows that the line immediately preceding 1113 must have referred either to locust or to thrush; but 1112 refers to neither; therefore 1112 did not, in Ar.’s text, immediately precede 1113.

1190-1231: Since throughout most of this passage the utterances of the first speaker (Lamachos or the chorus-leader) are echoed by the second (Dikaiopolis) in precise responsion (except at 1211 and 1213, when with comic bathos he replies in speech to Lamachos’ lyric cries of grief), O. reasonably adjusts the text so as to remove those few discrepancies which serve no comic function. Thus at 1201 he reads ἐπιμανδαλωτόν (Handley) and posits a lacuna to follow (possibly containing a claim to the drinking prize, cf. 1001-2), with a further lacuna after 1204 containing a retort thereto by Dikaiopolis.

I add a small selection of points from the commentary where O. has shed new light or stimulated fresh thought.

36: My 1980 suggestion that ὁ πρίων is ‘an invented generic name’ is reasonably said by O. to be ‘not particularly funny’; he offers four alternative suggestions, none of which I find very attractive. Is ὁ Πρίων perhaps the nickname of an actual person, introduced παρὰ προσδοκίαν ? One of the joys of country life, in that case, would be that one wouldn’t have to put up with that appalling (or merely annoying) man Mr Saw(yer) — so called, presumably, either because, like the Mnesitheos/Lamios of Ekkl. 77, he had once been (or was alleged to have once been) a woodcutter or the like, or because he had a rasping voice.

187: Since the σπονδαί are only ‘samples’ ( γεύματα), O. is probably right to suppose that they are not large wineskins but libation-bowls (carried in a basket or the like, cf. Peace 666) which can be sniffed or tasted without needing to be opened.

192: O. argues that the πόλεις mentioned here are not those of the Athenian alliance but of the Greek world generally, on the ground that Athens and the allies did not send πρέσβεις to each other ‘except when the allies [were] in revolt or contemplating it’. Precisely; that’s just what they are imagined to be doing (see my Aristophanes: Wealth [Warminster, 2001] 227).

245-6: O. carefully works out the action here: Daughter sets basket down on ground; takes pot of soup from basket and puts it on altar; takes cake from basket, and asks mother to take ladle (or better ‘pouring-vessel’) from basket and hand it up to her; she then dips it in soup and garnishes the cake.

324: Dikaiopolis’ μηδαμῶς is well interpreted by O. as ‘No, don’t do that!’, a reply not to the chorus’s words but to their ‘increasingly threatening posture’; perhaps we should assume that he raises his hands in a gesture combining an appeal for mercy and a desperate attempt to ward off danger?

367-370 is well seen by O. as a red herring: it looks as though Dikaiopolis is just about to begin his big speech ‘in defence of the Spartans’, but his apprehensive musings lead into the long digression of the Euripides scene, and the speech will not come till 497.

450: O. sees specific reminiscence of Eur. Med. 1056, a memorable moment in that play and the only address to the speaker’s soul in what survives of fifth-century tragedy. If he is right, it refutes the deletion of Med. 1056-80 by Bergk, which has been accepted in whole or part both by Diggle (OCT) and by Kovacs (Loeb).

457: Since Euripides takes no offence at this, O. sees we must suppose that he does not understand the gibe about his mother and takes Dik. to mean ‘may you be as happy as your mother was [when she bore you]’.

483: O. disposes efficiently of my quibble ( CQ 28 [1978] 383) about βαλβῖδες and γραμμή : since the former can mean ‘finish-line’ (Soph. Ant. 131, Eur. Med. 1245), there is no reason why the latter should not be capable of meaning ‘starting-line’, particularly since in the diaulos the two lines were one and the same.

585: O. points out that ostrich feathers (cf. 1105) are very soft and downy, and this may be why Lamachos twice calls this one a πτίλον.

723-4: Since Dikaiopolis needs ‘a single weapon to beat intruders with’, his mention of three thongs indicates that ‘they have been braided into a whip’.

871: Since the Boiotian does not in fact have any locusts or other insects, O. suggests that the puzzling τετραπτερυλλίδων is a piece of ‘comically odd Boiotian vocabulary’ and should be taken to mean ‘four-legged’; and certainly fish fins, seal flippers, etc., could be called πτέρυγες, though never the legs of land animals.

878-880: O. points out that many of the animals in the Boiotian’s catalogue might be valued for their pelts rather than as food; cf. 974-5 where Dikaiopolis is said to have acquired some non-food items ‘useful in the home’.

929-951: O. points out that the text strongly suggests Nikarchos is kicked or punched at 932-4 and 942-3 (and perhaps not only there).

1018: In view of 1027, O.’s statement that Derketes ‘appears to be blind’, and his inference that D. is holding out a stick or led by a slave, are reasonable — all the more so because of the play by inversion on his name; it is presumably (somehow) funny that he seems more concerned about the loss of his oxen (which he mentions four times) than about the loss of his eyes (which he mentions only once).

1076: O. notes that a festival is a good time for a surprise attack; in addition to the passages he cites one may compare Thuc. 1.126.4-6 (an attempted Athenian coup d’état during the Olympic Games, which would have been better staged during the Athenian festival of the Diasia) and the twentieth-century attacks on Albania (Good Friday 1939) and Israel (Yom Kippur 1973).

1088: O. acutely sees that if Dikaiopolis has been ‘holding up the dinner’, this must imply that he is the guest of honour; normally dinner would not be kept waiting for invitees who arrived late, even by so considerate a host as Agathon in Plato’s Symposium (175b-c).

1225: Where does Dikaiopolis get the wineskin? ‘Perhaps [from] a confederate … in the front row of seats’, suggests O.; but the front row was for VIPs only. Or were choregoi entitled to sit there?

These are exciting times for Aristophanes. The Clarendon series now covers eight of the eleven plays, with more on the way; Jeffrey Henderson has completed the new Loeb; we are promised soon, from N.G. Wilson, the replacement for Hall and Geldart’s Oxford Classical Text (2nd ed. 1906) that has been needed since the day after it appeared; Silk and Dobrov, Slater and Bierl, Kloss and Reinders11 — one could go on almost indefinitely — enrich the corpus of analysis and interpretation. O. has given us another admirable contribution to the understanding of this ever-fascinating author.


1. He hedges somewhat on (various strands of evidence ‘combine to suggest that there was a real … dispute … . Be that as it may …’), but by p. l he is writing of ‘what we know about the reception of Babylonians and of ‘the fact that the Council declined to bring an indictment of Aristophanes’.

2. See my articles ‘Die Komödie und das “Unsagbare’ (in A. Ercolani ed. Spoudaiogeloion [Stuttgart, 2002] 125-145; English version forthcoming in D.L. Cairns ed. Law, Rhetoric and Comedy in Classical Athens) and ‘Harassing the satirist: the alleged attempts to prosecute Aristophanes’ (in R.M. Rosen and I. Sluiter ed. Freedom of Speech in Classical Antiquity [Leiden, forthcoming]).

3. See the very interesting article by L. Bertelli, ‘Gli Acarnesi di Aristofane: commedia di memoria?’, Seminari Romani di Cultura Greca 2 (1999) 39-62.

4. For example, so far as I can find, G.E.M. de Ste Croix, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (London 1972), does not mention it once.

5. It is very refreshing to find that O. is not afraid to think and talk about authorial intention, any mention of which in interpretative discussion of a literary text nowadays almost constitutes a theoretical manifesto.

6. O.’s harsh judgement of the Athenian Assembly as Ar. portrays it (‘they have no sense’ [p. xli], ‘a general local obtuseness’ [p. xlii]) is perhaps not quite consistent with his later statement (p. li) that Babylonians and Acharnians encouraged ordinary citizens to see themselves as ‘victims of their leaders’. The latter fits better with Dikaiopolis’ attitude in the Assembly scene: he never blames the public at large but the Prytaneis, office-holders, and regular speakers (23-27, 38, 56-58, 60, 62-90, 114, 133, 135-152, 167), who are doing the public wrong (56) and causing them to suffer (162-3).

7. K.J. Dover, Aristophanes: Clouds (Oxford, 1968) lvii.

8. O. gives no references here to any modern discussions of comic utopias; see e.g. W. Rösler and B. Zimmermann, Carnevale e utopia nella Grecia antica (Bari, 1991) and the chapters by P. Ceccarelli and I.A. Ruffell in F.D. Harvey and J. Wilkins ed. The Rivals of Aristophanes (London/Swansea, 2000).

9. See e.g. G. Mastromarco, ‘L’eroe e il mostro’, RFIC 117 (1989) 410-423.

10. D.M. MacDowell, CQ 44 (1994) 327.

11. M.S. Silk, Aristophanes and the Definition of Comedy (Oxford, 2000); G.W. Dobrov, Figures of Play: Greek Drama and Metafictional Poetics (Oxford, 2001); N.W. Slater, Spectator Politics: Metatheater and Performance in Aristophanes (Philadelphia, 2002); A.F.H. Bierl, Der Chor in der Alten Komödie (Munich, 2001); G. Kloss, Erscheinungsformen komischen Sprechens bei Aristophanes (Berlin, 2001); P. Reinders, Demos Pyknites: Untersuchungen zur Darstellung des Demos in der Alten Komödie (Stuttgart, 2001).