Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: Aristophanes’ War on War
Opposition to war was a recurring theme in Aristophanes’s plays, especially Acharnians and Lysistrata.
While the ancient Greeks are often criticized by libertarians and classical liberals for exalting the arts of war over those of peaceful commerce and productive industry, we’ve seen a number of important Greek thinkers who can fairly plead not guilty, including Hesiod, Euripides, and, at least in some moods, Homer. Another important instance is Aristophanes, whose comedies represent a sustained critique of militarism and a plea for peace.
Indeed, one of Aristophanes’ earliest plays, the now‐lost Babylonians, apparently contained a criticism of Athenian foreign policy – condemning as unjust Athens’ treatment of its allies1 – and consequently attracted the ire of the prominent statesman Kleon, beginning the long feud between him and Aristophanes.
Aristophanes risked audience displeasure once again in his Acharnians, when he had his protagonist Diakiopolis (“Just City”) argue that Athens’ role in the Peloponnesian War was not entirely innocent. “Are we to blame the Spartans for everything?” Diakiopolis asks, and answers that the Spartans, far from being “the only reason for our woes,” are “in many ways … the wronged party,” and that the way in which the Spartans have responded to Athenian provocations is precisely the way in wich the Athenians would have responded to similar provocations on Sparta’s part.2
In his Peace, the gods have stolen Peace and hidden her away to punish the Greeks for their quarrelsomeness, and the protagonist Trygaeus undertakes to storm heaven (flying on the back of a giant dung‐beetle) to steal Peace back and return her to the earth. Upon the successful restoration of Peace, Trygaeus cheerfully undertakes to repurpose a “well‐wrought breastplate” into a “good chamber pot”3 – Aristophanes’ version of beating swords into ploughshares.
In the same play, Aristophanes expresses sympathy for those conscripted into the war:
And there’s some poor devil who hasn’t brought his rations, With no inkling he was being posted till he happened To glance at the garrison notice board pasted On Pandion’s statue, and there he sees his name, And off he scurries, bewildered and full of sorrow.4
While many of his plays focus on the evils of war, Aristophanes also inserts antiwar remarks into plays on other subjects. For example, at the beginning of his Clouds, the protagonist complains that thanks to the war he can no longer afford to punish his slaves, for fear that they will desert to the enemy5 (well, I didn’t promise that all his antiwar arguments would be libertarian ones); and later on, when shown Greece on a map, he begs the mapmaker to place more distance between Athens and Sparta.6
Aristophanes’ most famous treatment of war in general, and of the Peloponnesian War in particular, occurs in his Lysistrata, in which the women on both the Athenian and Spartan sides of the war famously organize a sex strike in order to pressure their husbands to end the conflict. (This aspect of the play recently formed the basis of Spike Lee’s newest movie, Chi‐Raq, dealing with gang violence in Chicago.) Less famously, the women of Athens also seize the Acropolis “[t]o stop you [men] from being able to remove / money from the treasury to spend on war.”7
Further exploration of the economic side of war occurs in the aforementioned Acharnians – along with Lysistrata perhaps the most interesting of Aristophanes’ antiwar plays. The ways of peace and war are vividly contrasted:
— Boy, boy, remove my spear off the wall and bring it here. — Boy, boy, remove the shish kebab from the grill and bring it here. … — Bring me the round buckler with the Gorgon boss. — And me a pizza with a cheese base. … — Hand me, boy, my chain mail corselet. — And me, boy, my corselet flagon. … — How different are the paths you tread! He’ll be garlanded and drink full measure. You’ll be on guard and you will freeze. He’ll be in bed With a lovely girl full of surprise .…8
The Peloponnesian War is described as originating from economic motives, specifically the Megarian Decree, a protectionist measure of around 432 BCE, passed in Athens by what Aristophanes describes as a “gang of spurious obnoxious hooligans” who “kept denouncing the Megarians [at that time allies of Sparta] for importing jackets without paying the tax.”
If they saw a cucumber or a rabbit, a piglet, clove of garlic, lump of salt, “Megarian!” they’d shout and confiscate the lot, then sell it at a knockoff price .…9
Aristophanes, championing free trade, parodies the absurd extremes to which protectionists and security‐state fanatics will go in their arguments in order to foment xenophobic panic and hysteria:
— [Y]ou’re importing lamp wicks from countries we’re at war with. — What? You denounce him for lamp wicks? — A lamp wick can burn down the docks. … Let’s say some fellow from Boeotia stuck a wick on the back of a beetle, lit it and sent it through a gutter till a whiff of north wind came to hustle it towards the ships and sent them on fire.10
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Acharnians is the fact that its protagonist, Dikaiopolis, decides to create his own foreign policy, separate from that of his native Athens, with his own military and trade policies:
I for my part announce free trade between me and all Spartans, Megarians, and Boeotians .… These are for the boundaries of my trading. Within them all the people of Peloponnese, of Megara and Boeotia are free to trade and to sell to me: all except Lamachus [a warmongering Athenian general].11
Soon Dikaiopolis is importing goods that are embargoed for other Athenians, exciting the envy of his neighbors: “What a wonderful stock he’s got / Of things for sale because of the truce.”12
This may well be the earliest statement of the political ideal known as panarchy, in which each member of the community can freely choose which political system to be governed by without having to relocate geographically.13 Unlike later proponents of panarchy, Aristophanes presumably does not advocate such a system literally; it is simply his way of dramatizing the advantages of commerce over warfare. But he deserves credit nonetheless for formulating such an intriguing and fecund ideal.
As we’ve seen previously,14 Plato would later describe Athenian democracy, disapprovingly, in even more explicitly panarchist terms, as a “supermarket of constitutions” in which each citizen can “pick out whatever pleases him,” so that there is “no compulsion … to be at war when the others are at war, or to keep the peace when the others are keeping the peace.”15
While it’s hard to take this seriously as a literal description of the Athens we know through historical records, we can see Plato’s “supermarket of constitutions” as an exaggerated description of the fact that Athens allowed its citizens a fair bit of freedom in choice of ways of life, while the description of Athenian citizens as making their own private policies on war and peace without regard to what the rest of the city is doing might be a sarcastic reference to prominent Athenian statesmen like Themistocles and Alcibiades who intrigued with the enemy while in exile, only to be welcomed back into Athens with open arms later on. However, the specifically panarchist metaphor Plato uses to convey his critique surely derives from Aristophanes’ Acharnians, whose protagonist quite explicitly feels “no compulsion … to be at war when the others are at war.”
1. Theories vary as to what precise charge Aristophanes made in his Babylonians; for details, see David Welsh, “ The Chorus of Aristophanes’ Babylonians ‚” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 24.2 (1983), pp. 137–150.
2. Aristophanes, Acharnians 309–314, 497–556; in Aristophanes, The Complete Plays: The New Translations, trans. Paul Roche (New York: New American Library, 2005), pp. 20, 27–30.
3. Aristophanes, Peace 1224–1235; Roche translation, op. cit., p. 327.
4. Peace 1180–1184; Roche translation, op. cit., p. 325.
5. Aristophanes, Clouds 4–7; Roche translation, p. 134.
12. Acharnians 971–972; Roche translation, op. cit., p. 51.
13. See the recent collection: Aviezer Tucker, and Gian Piero de Bellis, eds., Panarchy: Political Theories of Non‐Territorial States (Routledge, 2016).
A partial anticipation of this idea occurs in an incident of dubious historical authenticity in Herodotus, when the Persian nobleman Otanes, in exchange for his renunciation of any claim to the throne, obtains for himself and his family the concession of not being subject to the authority of the Persian king despite continuing to reside within Persia: Herodotus, Histories III.83 ; George C. Macaulay, trans., The History of Herodotus (London: Macmillan, 1890).
Of course having different systems of laws for different groups of people within the same geographic area is not in itself historically unusual.