Aristophanes’s Archanians is his third comedy, and his earliest surviving play that has come down to us from antiquity. It won first prize at the Lenaia in 425BC, under the production of Callistratus, as Aristophanes was a young dramatist at the time.
Like The Clouds, The Acharnians begins with a lone soliloquy. A rustic arrives very early at the Pnyx (the hill for the Athenian assembly). He is Dikaiopolis, whose name means something like “the just citizen” a rustic who has been compelled by the war to live within the gates of Athens (recall Thucydides’s descriptions of the constant attacks by the Peloponnesians and the Boetians on the rural demes of Athens, forcing the farmers to dwell within the city gates). Dikaiopolis is determined to discuss nothing but peace at the assembly of Athens, for he is a Music man, that is, a lover of the Muses, and he wishes to end the war so he can return to his rural deme because the city of Athens has brought him only four pleasures, but brought innumerable pains. Finally everyone arrives for the assembly.
At the assembly, Amphitheros, an immortal who speaks for the gods, wants to bring about peace with Sparta, but the assembly quickly brushes him aside for a series of absurd alliances: first the ambassadors to Persia return and describe large, luxurious events in Persia, alienating themselves from the daily life of war in Athens. Thus, Dikaiopolis arranges for Amphitheos to go to Sparta to make peace just for himself, since Athens (the city) is too addicted to war. Then ambassadors from Thrace arrive with similar objectives for paying mercenaries. Athens has made alliances with barbarians.
When the assembly is barely dissolved, Amphitheos arrives in return, but he is chased by a wild group of Archanians, rural farmers who are demanding revenge against Sparta for their destruction. They do not want peace to be made in the war. They mistake Dikaiopolis for Amphitheos, and Amphitheos is never heard from again in the play.
The Acharnians is a light comedy about the heavy issue of treason. The Acharnian men, old Marathon fighters whose property has been destroyed by the war, demand Dikaiopolis’s execution, but he persuades them that he has hostages, and he points to the higher justice beyond the city’s blind patriotism. Thus he must disguise himself not in the form of a strong, emblazoned fighter, but rather as a pitiable character to arouse the Acharnians compassion. He goes to the home of Euripides, who will have to suffice in the absence of Aeschylus, and he dons the outfit of a beggar. Much of the play, in general, reads like a parody of a Euripides tragedy. While tragedy must not mingle with comedy, Comedy can and sometimes must borrow from tragedy. Just as Dikaiopolis disguises himself knowingly, and the audience knows that he becomes Aristophanes, comedy becomes the most effective disguise for wisdom.
He goes before the crowd and blames the abduction of “three whores” kidnapped by Megarians for the war. Thus he draws a distinction between this war and the Persian War, which was fought over noble origins. He succeeds in convincing half of the Acharnian mob and thus the war for them becomes internal, civil, and Dikaiopolis is freed. He goes on to a feast and a drinking party as his life is safe for now. He has escaped treason by wearing the disguise of tragedy in a comedy play -of discussing serious things in ridiculous rags. In many ways, the Acharnians is Aristophanes’s apologia to the city for Cleons recent lawsuits against Aristophanes for defamation in his earlier plays mocking Cleon, and it is Aristophanes’s defense of comedy.