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.

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