As with other comedies by Aristophanes, The Peace (“Eirene”), begins in an ordinary and everyday situation and extends out into the absurd, or the impossible. Like The Wasps, it also features a wealthy gentleman overcome by a unique and ridiculous appearance of a mental disease -he plans to fly up to the gods on a giant dung beetle, much to the confusion of his servants. Trygaios is his name, a vinedresser. His name brings to the mind the word “vintage” originating from the practice of viticulture, as well as the word “trygedy” -the word Aristophanes sometimes uses to describe his brand of comedy.
The Peace was performed during the Peloponnesian War, along with its setting, which is shortly after the death of Brasidas (Sparta) and also Cleon (Athens), whom Aristophanes continues to ridicule even in death. In 421 BC, with both of the key hawks dead in battle, Nicias secures a peace between the warring nations (as detailed in Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War Book V). Aristophanes plays on the Athenians desire for peace, putting a Quixotix gentleman atop a dung beetle which flies into the heavens. He crosses the boundary between physiologia and theologia. However, he finds it quite empty save for Hermes, who tells him that the gods have left for other regions because they cannot stand the war between the Athenians and the Peloponnesus. In their absence, “War” has kidnapped and enslaved “Peace” in a nearby cave. War appears onstage, lamenting the death of Brasidas and Cleon, his two chief tools for the destruction of the Greeks.
Trygaios razes an army of Greek farmers who help him discover the cave of “Peace” where she has been kidnapped, along with “Harvest” and “Festival” -the former being key to the farmer’s lifestyle. In the end, like a Greek hero, Trygaios, rescues the trio and returns to Greece amidst celebration, where he marries “Harvest.” It ends in a praise of the idyllic and peaceful country life. However, the rescue of Peace supports the farmers, but not the merchandisers who were profiting from the war. Trygaios refuses to allow a recitation of Homer’s Iliad at his wedding.
Why is Trygaios not a hero like Odysseus descending into Hades? Why is he laughable? According to the classical conception of comedy, someone is laughable if they have a certain defect, and believe they possess excellence, but in fact they fall short of their own standard. This causes us to lose seriousness, heaviness, and release us into a kind of drunken state of relaxation. It also releases political constraints, and weighty topics like war. Laughter has an odd way of making clear certain lines between things that are surely noble, like reclaiming peace for Athens, and things that are odd and impossible, like flying into the skies to meet the gods on the back of a dung beetle. Odysseus, Herakles, and even Dante, venture downward where things are dark and heavy in the underworld, while Trygaios flies upward in a silly fashion. Surely Odysseus would never be caught flying on the back of a beetle.
In reflection, in The Clouds Socrates denies the existence of the gods and turns his back on the city, while the comic poet of the Acharnians rejects the city but not the gods, and in The Peace the poet acts in harmony with the city, but against the will of the absent gods. We are left to wonder whether The Clouds is a greater satire of the highest things for Aristophanes, depicting the atheist philosopher among the clouds and contemplating the irrelevent, or if The Peace satirizes higher things with an ordinary man flying on a dung beetle to the gods who are largely absent and silent.