As with other comedies by Aristophanes, The Peace (“Eirene”), begins in an ordinary and everyday situation that is soon challenged with an absurd or impossible scenario. Like The Wasps, The Peace also features a wealthy gentleman overcome by the 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 first performed during the Peloponnesian War. The play’s setting takes place 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 had just secured a peace treaty between Athens and Sparta (as detailed in Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War Book V). In the play, Aristophanes playfully addresses the Athenian’s desire for peace by putting a Quixotix gentleman atop a dung beetle which flies into the heavens. Aristophanes crosses the boundary between physiologia and theologia. However, upon doing so he finds the heavens 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 the gods’ absence a character named “War” has kidnapped and enslaved another character named “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 (the gentleman protagonist) 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 essential for the farmer’s lifestyle. In the end, like a Greek hero Trygaios rescues the trio (Peace, Harvest, and Festival) and he 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 (i.e. Aristotle’s Poetics), someone is laughable if they have a certain defect while believing they possess excellence, when in fact they actually fall short of their own standard. This ‘missing of the mark’ causes an audience to lose seriousness or heaviness, and it offers a release into a kind of drunken state of relaxation. The effect of comedy also releases an audience from political constraints, along with other 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 gods who are mostly absent. We are left to wonder whether The Clouds is a greater satire of the highest things for Aristophanes. In The Clouds he depicts the atheist philosopher among the clouds and contemplating irrelevent things, while The Peace satirizes higher things with an ordinary man flying on a dung beetle to the gods who are largely absent and silent.
For this reading I used the Loeb Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.