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Aristophanes on the Peace


Corinthian helmet. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Corinthian helmet (British Museum)
After eight years of war, an armistice of a year, and another year of war, the Archidamian War finally came to an end. It had lasted almost ten years. The Peace of Nicias was signed in March 421, more or less at the same time as the Athenian theater festival that is known as the Dionysia. The diplomatic breakthrough that appeared to be in the air during the winter of 422/421 inspired the comedian Aristophanes, who wrote a play called The Peace. The opening performance more or less coincided with the ratification of the treaty, and it is likely that Spartan ambassadors were present when the play was put on the stage for the first time.

The story of the play is simple: using a giant dung beetle, a peasant named Trygaeus flies to the summit of Mount Olympus to have a word with the supreme god Zeus. However, he discovers that the gods have decided to leave their residence because they can no longer stand the quarrels of the Greek warriors. The new inhabitant of the Olympus is War, who has imprisoned Peace. However, with the support of the chorus, Trygaeus liberates the goddess, and together with the goddesses of Harvest and Celebration, he returns to earth, where marries to Harvest. The comedy ends with celebrations.

The following fragment describes Trygaeus' arrival in heaven, where he meets the god Hermes. The translator is unknown.

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Aristophanes. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Aristophanes (Musei Capitolini, Roma)

Hermes: I think I can sniff a man. [He notices Trygaeus.] Why, what plague is this?

Trygaeus: A horse-beetle.

Hermes: Oh! impudent, shameless rascal! oh! scoundrel! triple scoundrel! the greatest scoundrel in the world! How did you come here? Oh! scoundrel of all scoundrels! your name? Reply.

Trygaeus: Triple scoundrel.

Hermes: Your country?

Trygaeus: Triple scoundrel.

Hermes: Your father?

Trygaeus: My father? Triple scoundrel.

Hermes: By the Earth, you shall die, unless you tell me your name.

Trygaeus: I am Trygaeus of the Athmonian village, a good vine-dresser, little addicted to quibbling and not at all an informer.

Hermes: Why do you come?

Trygaeus: I come to bring you this meat. [Gives meat to Hermes, who immediately eats it.] [1]

Hermes: Ah! my good friend, did you have a good journey?

Trygaeus: Glutton, be off! I no longer seem a triple scoundrel to you. Come, call Zeus.

Hermes: Ah! ah! you are a long way yet from reaching the gods, for they moved yesterday.

Trygaeus: To what part of the earth?

Hermes: Eh! of the earth, did you say?

Trygaeus: In short, where are they then?

Hermes: Very far, very far, right at the furthest end of the dome of heaven.

Trygaeus: But why have they left you all alone here?

Hermes: I am watching what remains of the furniture, the little pots and pans, the bits of chairs and tables, and odd wine-jars.

Trygaeus: And why have the gods moved away?

Hermes: Because of their wrath against the Greeks. They have located War in the house they occupied  themselves and have given him full power to do with you exactly as he pleases. Then they went as high up as ever they could, so as to see no more of your fights and to hear no more of your prayers.

Trygaeus: What reason have they for treating us so?

Hermes: Because they have afforded you an opportunity for peace more than once, but you have always preferred war. If the Spartans got the very slightest advantage, they would exclaim, "By the Twin Brethren! the Athenians shall smart for this." If, on the contrary, the latter triumphed and the Spartans came with peace proposals, you would say, "By Demeter, they want to deceive us. No, by Zeus, we will not hear a word; they will always be coming as long as we hold Pylos"... [2]

Trygaeus: [To the audience] Yes, that is quite the style our folk do talk in.

Hermes: ... so that I don't know whether you will ever see Peace again.

Trygaeus: Why, where has she gone to then?

Hermes: War has cast her into a deep pit.

Trygaeus: Where?

Hermes: [Points] Down there, at the very bottom. And you see what heaps of stones he has piled over the top, so that you should never pull her out again.

Trygaeus: Tell me, what is War preparing against us?

Hermes: All I know is that last evening he brought along a huge mortar.

Trygaeus: And what is he going to do with his mortar?

Hermes: He wants to pound up all the cities of Greece in it... But I must say good-bye, for I think he is coming out; what an uproar he is making!

Trygaeus: Ah! great gods! let us seek safety; I think I already hear the noise of this fearful war mortar. 






Note 1:
In fact, a sacrifice.

Note 2:
A fortress built in 425, where the Athenians could receive runaway Spartan slaves and helots. This did great damage to the Spartan economy.





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