‘Free Speech’ and Public Opinion in the Athenian Democracy During the Peloponnesian War: Aristophanes and his targets of criticism

Kory L. Plockmeyer (University of Florida)

The political climate changes over the course of a war, fluctuating based on factors such as public opinion and the relative success in the conflict. Throughout the Peloponnesian War, then, one would expect to see some change in the level of ‘free speech’ enjoyed by the citizens of Athens. In this paper, I argue that social pressure created a climate which hampered free speech during the Peloponnesian War in the Athenian democracy, as embodied by the Knights, Lysistrata, and Frogs of Aristophanes.

Most scholarship on the subject of censorship and free speech in comedy focuses on the legal restrictions on speech and the effects of such laws on the stage. While MacDowell (1978) holds that comedy was exempt from censorship laws, Sommerstein (2004) contends that Aristophanes and the other playwrights of Old Comedy constrained themselves within the same laws of censorship as other facets of Athenian life. This debate, then, drives investigations into the specifics of censorship laws and what effect they would have had on comedy. The other aspect of this debate focuses on whether or not any specific censorship laws were passed during the duration of the Peloponnesian War. Reckford (1987) maintains that no such laws were passed, whereas Atkinson (1992) argues that at least one—the Syracosian Decree, was passed in 415/414. Whitman offers perhaps the most poignant summary of this type of study, stating that “whatever laws of censorship existed were difficult to enforce, and perhaps this is the only explanation.” (Whitman 1964). In addition, I attempt to divorce myself from the ongoing debate in Aristophanic scholarship over the political nature and intent of Aristophanes’ comedies, though I do draw on ideas from both sides of issue.

In this paper, however, I approach the issue of censorship from the social climate which existed at the time of production. While this does not tell us of the specific legal censorship which may or may not have existed, it does provide us with keys to the pressures which may have been present when Aristophanes was writing his plays, compelling him to include some themes and personal attacks while leaving out others. In order to investigate this, I have selected the Knights, Lysistrata, and Frogs, three plays from near the beginning, middle, and end of the Peloponnesian War and Aristophanes’ career.

To investigate how social constraints put pressure on Aristophanes, I examine the targets of Aristophanes’ criticism in these three plays. This investigation reveals that Aristophanes moves from attacks on specific political figures and policies in the Knights, to a general critique of the war with little specific political attack in the Lysistrata, to even more broad political criticism and attacks on literary figures in the Frogs. I contend that by examining these plays and their subjects within the framework of their contemporary events in the Peloponnesian War, one is able to reconstruct an idea of the social climate in which Aristophanes wrote each of these plays. When one applies this social climate to the Knights, Lysistrata, and Frogs, it is possible to discern a progressive limitation on Aristophanes’ invective, a decisive check not due to any political or legal constraint, but rather due to the all-powerful force of public opinion.

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