Aristophanes, Acharnians



This unit has five main aims:

  1. To extend your ability to read, understand and translate accurately into idiomatic English Aristophanes' play Acharnians;
  2. To develop through a study of the play a knowledge of some of the main themes and characteristics of Attic Old Comedy;
  3. To gain an insight into political and social conditions in Athens in the period of the Peloponnesian War, as seen through the eyes of a contemporary satirist;
  4. To gain an appreciation of the structure and literary qualities of the play;
  5. To study features of linguistic interest contained in the play.


Old Comedy

Old Comedy is the name we give to the comedies performed in the theatre of Dionysus in Athens in the 5th century B.C. These comedies were presented at the annual theatre festivals in Athens. Two major festivals were celebrated each year in the city - the Lenaia held in January and the City Dionysia in late March-early April. The Lenaia (the name means "Festival of the Wine-Vats") was much more of a domestic festival than the City Dionysia, because of the difficulty of sea travel in January. The City Dionysia had more of a Panhellenic flavour, since better conditions for sea travel in March-April provided the opportunity for many non-Athenians to attend the plays, including envoys from the allied states who paid their tribute to Athens at this time of the year.

There were two separate competitions at the festivals, one for tragedy and one for comedy. In each competition, up to five playwrights competed for the prize for the best play. Each tragic playwright presented a series of three plays and what was called a satyr play (which took the form of a "send-up" of a well-known myth or legend). Comic playwrights presented only one play apiece. Unlike tragedy, the plots of Old Comedy were fictitious. The comedies were not based on well known myths or legends, but made up by the playwright. None the less, they were judged on their relevance to modern society in terms of the social and political issues with which they dealt. For the most part the comedies of Aristophanes were set in a contemporary context.

The structure of Old Comedy

The structure of an Old Comedy was much more complex, much looser, and much more variable than a tragedy. And the number of characters much greater. As in tragedy, three (or perhaps four) actors were used. These actors might have to divide as many as twenty-one speaking parts among themselves (thus Aristophanes' Birds) although a number of bit players, or "extras", were probably employed for small speaking parts and non-speaking parts. The Chorus numbered 24 (twice that of tragedy). And sometimes there was a secondary Chorus (as in Frogs) - if the choregus, or producer, agreed to pay for it.

Standard elements in an Old Comedy include: (a) a Prologue setting the scene and bringing us up to the point where the story begins; (b) the Parodos - the term designating the first appearance of the Chorus in the play, as also in tragedy; (c) an Agon, a debate between two adversaries, as also in tragedy; (d) a Parabasis, a direct address to the audience in which the actor serves virtually as the mouthpiece of the playwright; (e) the Exodos, the closing scene of the play. Interspersed among all these elements is a series of short scenes which more or less advance the plot. We shall have more to say about each of these elements as we come across them below.


Greek plays were written in verse, using a wide range of metres. We shall not be making a study of these metres, beyond noting that the predominant metre of Greek drama in the 5th century B.C. was the iambic trimeter. This was used for dramatic dialogues, in which the characters spoke their lines, and monologues, which were chanted or intoned. The iambic trimeter consists basically of six iambic feet, each made up of a short syllable followed by a long syllable. However other types of feet were regularly substituted for the basic iambus. A variety of other metres were used for songs and choral odes.

The context of our play

The Acharnians is our earliest complete Old Comedy. It was produced at the Lenaia festival in 425. Its producer was a man called Callistratus (the producer of a number of plays in the latter half of the 5th century), and the production brought success to both playwright and producer. It won first prize in the festival.

It is the first of three plays written by Aristophanes which deal with the topic of the Peloponnesian War. This war, in which Athens and Sparta were the chief opponents, extended over almost three decades, from 431 to 404. The other two plays which treat of the theme of the war are Peace, produced in 421, and Lysistrata, produced in 411. Under the guise of Aristophanic wit and ribaldry, all three plays have a serious message to convey, highlighting as they do the pointlessness and futility of a long-drawn-out conflict which exacted such an enormous price, from the Athenians in particular, in terms of loss of human life and property.

Although in Athens the policy of war was vigorously supported by the "democratic element" which made up the bulk of the citizen assembly, nevertheless there was a growing body of belief that a final peaceful solution to the conflict should be sought at the earliest possible opportunity. This belief is reflected in the "peace plays". The popularity of the pacifist sentiment which Aristophanes presents in these plays is clearly indicated by the reception which they enjoyed when they were performed.

Acharnae was the largest centre of population in Attica outside Athens and lay some 14 kms. to the north of the city. "The choice of men of Acharnae to form the Chorus of this play was partly due to the theatrical possibilities inherent in the distinctive local occupation of charcoal-burning, partly to their supposed inflexibility of temper,...but mainly to their intense hostility to Sparta and to peace, which had originated in the opening weeks of the war when theirs had been among the first Attic territory devastated by the invaders (Thucydides 2.19.2-20.5) and they had been foremost in demanding that the Athenian army should march out and give battle." (Sommerstein)

The success of The Acharnians is all the more noteworthy when we consider that not only did it advocate peace for its own sake, but also expressed a measure of sympathy and understanding for the Spartan point of view - and this at a time when Attica had recently suffered one of the most devastating invasions of its territory by the Peloponnesian forces. By contrast, we note the very unfavourable light in which the play depicts the hawkish element of the Attic population, represented by Lamachus and the brutish Acharnian charcoal-burners.

Remember that we are dealing with live theatre. Try to re-create for yourself the visual impact of each scene on the audience, the "stage-business" that accompanies the dialogue, the blend of song and dance in the choral passages, the bizarre appearance of the characters - the total theatrical experience!

The Playwright

The plays of only one comic playwright of the 5th-early 4th centuries B.C. have survived in more than fragments - those of Aristophanes (c. 460/50 - c. 386 B.C.). This is not simply a matter of luck, since we know that Aristophanes was one of the leading playwrights of his day, and one of the most successful in the drama competitions. He is known to have written at least forty plays, of which eleven have survived in a more or less complete form. His popularity indicates that his plays can be used as a valuable source of information on political and social attitudes and political and social issues in 5th century Athens.

The Notes

In the notes which follow, a number of references are made to comments contained in the edition of the play by A.H. Sommerstein, Warminster, Aris & Phillips, 1980. These notes deal primarily with historical and political allusions contained in the play. Sommerstein's edition also provides an English translation of the play, on the pages opposite the Greek text. Other editions of the play include that of C.E. Graves, Aristophanes Acharnians, Bristol Classical Press, 1982 (the reprint of the edition first published by Cambridge University Press in 1905). Bristol Classical Press has also published A Companion to the Penguin Translation of Aristophanes' Clouds, Acharnians, Lysistrata (1989, by K. Dover and S. Tremewan).

There are occasional variations between the different editions of the texts, in terms of both the readings of particular words or phrases and the line-numbering. For the most part, the notes below follow Sommerstein's edition and line-numbering. In instances where there are significant differences between various editions, these will be pointed out to you in the notes.

The notes make occasional reference on grammatical points to JACT (Joint Association of Classical teachers Greek Course, Grammar, Vocabulary and Exercises). They also contain references to Goodwin's Greek Grammar. Goodwin presents a more detailed and more comprehensive treatment of Greek grammar than JACT. However, if you don't have access to Goodwin, JACT will be quite sufficient as a basic reference work.


The notes provide literal translations of a number of passages. These translations are intended to assist you in analysing and interpreting sentences or phrases which may cause you some difficulty. Occasionally the notes provide a freer or more idiomatic translation of a passage as well as a literal one. But generally it will be left to you to compose a final translation, which should of course be expressed in good, idiomatic English.

Online help

You can call up a Greek text, translation, and morphological help for this text and many more Greek and Latin texts on the Internet from the Perseus Project at Click on 'Ancient Greek texts', then 'Aristophanes', then 'Acharnians'. You will need a Greek font (downloadable) to display the text in Greek on your P.C.