Stories from the Greek Comedians - Alfred J. Church


An interval of four years separated the production of the Acharnians from that of the play with which I am now dealing.

The successes achieved by Athens in the years 427–5 B.C., especially the capture of the Spartan garrison of Pylos,—an event to which frequent allusions are made in the Knights,—were succeeded in 423 by great disasters. The Athenians had long coveted, the fertile country of their Bœotian neighbours, a country widely different from their own barren though picturesque and attractive land. They had once asserted their supremacy over it, and had maintained it for seven years, till dispossessed by the disastrous defeat of Coronea in B.C.440. And now, again encouraged by a sense of immunity from invasion,—they had threatened to put all their prisoners to death if a Spartan army should again cross their frontiers,—they attempted to renew it. Their hopes were again crushed. The whole military force of the city, except a few small detachments that were serving elsewhere, was routed by the Bœotians at Delium. Another defeat, even more serious, at least as threatening more widely reaching consequences, followed. The reverse at Delium did nothing more than convince the Athenians that certain hopes which they had long entertained must be abandoned forever; but the losses which were sustained in the following year in Thrace deprived them of possessions which they had long regarded as their own, and threatened to bring down their whole empire in ruin. Brasidas, probably the ablest man that Sparta ever produced, succeeded, by a remarkable combination of military skill and attractive personal character, in detaching from Athens some of its most important dependencies on the northwest coast of the Ægean. Amphipolis and other cities of Thrace were now in the hands of the Spartans. Athens made a great effort to stay the tide of Spartan victory, despatching the largest force she could raise to attempt the recapture of Amphipolis. The effort failed totally and even disgracefully; the Athenian forces were routed under the walls of that city,—routed almost without making a struggle.

But this disaster had its compensations. The Spartans lost but eight killed in the battle, but among the eight was Brasidas; and Brasidas was not only a very able soldier, but he was vehemently opposed to peace. Among the slain on the Athenian side was Cleon, the notorious leader of the war party. And now came the triumph of the peace party in the two states. Aristophanes, conscious that he had the majority of his fellow-citizens on his side, again did his best to promote his favourite object. The Peace  was exhibited in January, 321. About three months afterwards peace for the period of fifty years was made, and, a few days later, an alliance, offensive and defensive, between Sparta and Athens was concluded. (This is known in history as the "Peace of Nicias.")

[Illustration] from Stories from Greek Comedians by Alfred J. Church


"Now my man," said the steward of Trygæus the Athenian to one of the under-slaves, "bring another cake for the beast." With much grumbling the man obeyed, and fetched first one, then another, and then, again, several more, till the creature was satisfied.

But what was the beast? Nothing less than an enormously large dung-beetle which Trygæus had contrived to catch, and which he kept in one of the courts of his house, and was feeding up till it should grow big enough and strong enough to help him in carrying out a certain purpose of his. The fact was, that Trygæus, like many another Athenian citizen, was heartily sick of the war, and had got the idea into his head that, if he could contrive to get up to the palace of Zeus, he might persuade the god to fulfil his wish, which was, to put it shortly, to secure Peace,—long-banished, long-desired Peace. His first plan was to get some very thin scaling-ladders made, and to scramble up to heaven by means of them. Unfortunately they broke, and brought him down with them to the ground. After this he got the beetle, and proposed to fly on its back up to the sky.

The animal having finished its meal, Trygæus mounted on its back, and was preparing to start, first giving his steed sundry cautions not to set off at too great a pace, or to put itself out of breath. The steward entreated his master to give up the idea, and after vainly endeavouring forcibly to stop him, called to the old gentleman's daughter to come and help him. Accordingly the girl came running out of the house into the court-yard, where Trygæus, who had now risen some way from the ground, was preparing to fly off. "Father," she said, "surely it isn't true that you are thinking of leaving us and going to the crows? Tell me the truth, if you love me."

Trygæus.   "Yes, it is true. The fact is, that I can't bear to hear you poor creatures saying to me, 'Papa, give us some bread,' when I haven't got a stiver of money in the house to buy it with. Only let me succeed in this plan of mine, and I will give you, not only bread, but the biggest buns that you ever saw."

Girl.   "But, dear papa, how are you going? Ships can't carry you."

T.   "I have got a winged horse. None of your sea-voyages for me."

G.   "What! a beetle, papa? How can you get to heaven on a beetle?"

T.   "'Tis the only living creature that ever got to heaven; so Æsop tells us."

G.   "Oh, it's past all believing, that such a nasty, creeping creature should get so far!"

T.   "Yes; but it did, when it went to break the eagle's eggs."

G.   "But why not mount Pegasus?"

T.   "Far too expensive to feed, my dear."

G.   "Well, if you must go, take care you don't fall off. If you should, the fall would be sure to lame you, and then Euripides would make you the hero of one of his tragedies. Think of that!"

T.   "I'll see to that. Good by, my dear."

Finally, not without running many risks, chiefly from the animal's inclination to descend in search of its favourite food, the rider reached his destination, and found himself outside the celestial palace. He at once called loudly for admittance. Hermes, who was acting as porter, opened accordingly, and was not a little astonished and disgusted at what he saw. "What is this?" he said. "A beetle-horse," said the visitor. "Away with you, then, you and your beetle-horse," cried the god. Trygæus, however, had come prepared to overcome this obstacle, and made his peace with a piece of flesh that he had brought with him. "And now," said he, "step in, and tell Zeus that I want to see him."

Hermes.   "Oh! that's impossible. You can't see the gods; they are gone to the seventh heaven."

T.   "But how come you to be here, then?"

H.   "Oh, they left me to look after a few little matters, pots and pans, and so forth, that they left here."

T.   "But why did they go away?"

H.   "Because they were displeased with the Greeks. That is why they went away, and left War settled here for good. He is to do what he likes with you. They are not going to look at you with your everlasting fightings any more."

T.   "Oh, but why is this? What have we done?"

H.   "When they wanted Peace, you were always for War. First the Spartans would get a little the better of the fight, and then it was, 'These Athenian rascals shall suffer for it.' Then you had a turn of luck, and it was, 'No, no, we won't listen; as long as we keep Pylos, we shall always have them on their knees.' "

T.   "Yes, yes; that is exactly what we said."

H.   "The end of it all is that you will probably never see Peace again."

T.   "What? Where is she gone, then?"

H.   "War has thrown her into a deep pit."

T.   "What pit?"

H.   "The one you see down there. Just look at the heap of stones he has piled on the top to prevent you from getting her out."

T.   "And what does he mean to do with us?"

H.   "That I can't say. I only know that last night he brought a monstrously large mortar into the house."

T.   "What can he want with a mortar?"

H.   "He is thinking of pounding the cities up in it. But I must be going. I hear him making a noise inside, and I think that he is coming out."

The next moment, War, a fully armed figure, with a great nodding plume, came out of the palace of the gods, carrying in his hands a huge mortar, and muttering, as he went, about a bad time coming for men. He set the mortar on the ground, and began throwing in the ingredients for a salad. First came leeks. "You'll be nicely pounded up, my friends," said he, as he threw them in.

"That doesn't matter to us," said Trygæus; "that's a blow for our friends the Spartans."

Garlic followed.

"That's a bad lookout for Megara," was Trygæus's comment.

After garlic came cheese.

Trygæus rubbed his hands. "Now for the Sicilians," he said.

But the next ingredient did not find him so indifferent. It was honey, actual Attic honey from Hymettus.

"Hold!" he cried; "none of that. That costs sixpence a pound."

"Now," said War to his boy Hubbub, dealing him at the same time a sharp rap on the knuckles, "bring me a pestle."

"We haven't got one, master," said Hubbub. "We moved in only yesterday."

War.   "Then run and borrow one from Athens." Hubbub. "I'm off, or I shall catch it."

"This is a terrible thing," said Trygæus. "If that varlet brings back a pestle, there'll soon be nothing left of our cities."

In a short time Hubbub returned. The Athenian pestle had been lost.

W.   "Then fetch the Spartan pestle, and be quick about it."

T.   "This is an anxious moment."

In a short time Hubbub returned empty-handed, and in a great state of dismay.

W.   "How now? Why haven't you brought it?"

H.   "The Spartan pestle is lost, master."

W.   "How is that, you rascal?"

H.   "They sent it to some folk somewhere Thraceway, and they lost it."

T.   "And they did quite right, too. By the great Twin-brethren, all may be well yet!"

W.   "Hubbub, take the things indoors. I will make another pestle for myself."

Overjoyed to see War depart, Trygæus shouted out, calling on all Greeks to take the opportunity of ridding themselves of their troubles by pulling Peace out of the cave in which she had been imprisoned.

A miscellaneous crowd of husbandmen, natives and foreigners, dwellers in the islands and dwellers on the mainland, answered to the call, and came hurrying in, furnished with crowbars and ropes, and loudly expressing their delight at accomplishing the rescue of Peace, best and greatest of goddesses.

"Hush!" cried Trygæus; "make less noise, or you'll rouse War, who is indoors there."

Husbandmen.   "Oh, we were so glad to hear your proclamation! So different it was from that hateful 'Come with three days' rations apiece!' "

T.   "Yes; but remember Cerberus down there. With his blustering and barking he may do what he did when he was up here, and hinder us from dragging the lovely goddess out of her cave."

Hus.   "Hinder us! Nothing shall tear her from us, if we only once get hold of her."

T.   "I tell you that you'll be the ruin of the whole business with your dancing and singing. Why can't you keep your tongues and your feet still?"

The husbandmen protested that they could not help themselves. Their legs would dance whether they wished or not. All Trygæus's cautions and exhortations were in vain. They begged for only one more turn with the right leg, and when this was granted, for only one turn with the left, and wound up with a vigorous movement of both. "Wait," cried Trygæus, "till you've got her safe. Then you may really rejoice." So delighted was he with the prospect that he broke out into a song:—

"Oh, then you'll have time to laugh and to shout,

To stop in your homes, or go sailing about,

To feast and to sleep and the kottabos  play,

To be merry all night, and be merry all day."

The husbandmen replied with another:—

"O thrice blessed day! may I see it at last!

I've had trouble enough in the time that is past!

No more will you see me so stern and severe,

But tender and younger by many a year,

When our troubles are gone, and no more we appear

Day by day on parade with a shield and a spear.

Only tell us our work, and we'll do what we can,

For you are our master, most fortunate man."

Trygæus then began to inspect the stones that covered the pit in which Peace was immured, and to consider the best way of moving them. At this moment Hermes appeared, and loudly protested against the daring deed on which they were about to venture. Trygæus and his friends entreated him not to betray them. At first he absolutely refused to listen. The death penalty had been proclaimed by Zeus against all that presumed to dig in that place, and he could not but denounce the offenders. Prayers seemed in vain till Trygæus bethought him of working upon his fears. "I'll tell you," said he, "about a great and dreadful secret, no less than a plot against the gods."

Hermes.   "Go on; you may say something worth hearing."

T.   "Well; it is this. The Moon and that terrible rascal the Sun have been plotting against you now for many years; they are intending, in short, to betray Greece to the barbarians."

H.   "But why are they doing this?"

T.   "Why? Because while we sacrifice to you, the barbarians sacrifice to them: so, of course, they want to get us out of the way, and then they will get all the sacrifices themselves."

H.   "Oh! I see; and that, I suppose, is the reason why they have been filching part of our days, and nibbling off bits from their rounds."

T.   "Just so, my dear Hermes; so lend us a hand, and help to pull Peace out of the cave; and it is to you that we'll keep all the great feasts,—the feast of Athené, the feast of Zeus, and the feast of Adonis, and all the rest of them. Yes; all the cities will sacrifice to you as Hermes the Saviour. And here, my dear Hermes, by way of earnest, is a gold cup." (Produces a gold cup.)

H.   "Dear me! how very pitiful the sight of the gold makes me. Now, my men, it is for you to do the rest. Up with your shovels, and work away."

T.   But let us first do our duty to the gods. Hermes, hold out the cup, and we'll begin with libations and prayers."

H.   "Silence for the libation!"

T.     "I pour and pray. Let this glad morn begin

       All joy to Greece; and he who lends to-day

       A willing hand ne'er carry shield again."

Hus. "Yea, let him spend his days in peace, and sit,

       His wife beside him, by a blazing hearth."

T.     "If any armourer, who would sell his arms,

       Love battle more than peace, a curse upon him!"

Hus. "And whoso, greedy for a general's pay,

       Holds back and helps us not, a curse upon him!"

T.     "Again I pour to Hermes, to the Hours,

       The sister Graces, and the Queen of Love,

       And fond Desire."

Hus. "And shall we say to Ares?"

T.     "To Ares? Heaven forbid it! Name him not."

(Spits on the ground in disgust.)

This ceremony ended, all set to work, and pulled away at the rope with which the prisoners, that is, Peace and her attendants, were to be hauled out of their dungeon. Hermes encouraged them, and Trygæus watched to see that none shirked their task. This, indeed, he soon found some inclined to do. The Bœotians were very lukewarm, and made only a show of working. Then some of his own country-men, such as Lamachus, did nothing but get in the way, while the men of Argos made no effort at all, but laughed at both sides, and took their profit from each. As for the men of Megara, they seemed eager enough, but they were so weak with hunger that they gave no help. Sometimes it seemed as if no progress was being made. Still the work went on, and at last, with a long pull, and a strong pull, and a pull all together, the thing was done. Peace, with her two handmaids, Harvest-home and Mayfair, was lifted out of the pit. Trygæus was almost beside himself with delight. "Welcome, mighty mother of vintages!" he cried, "welcome, Harvest-home! welcome, Mayfair! O Mayfair, what a lovely face you have! and how sweet your breath! what a perfume!"

H.   "Not the smell of a knapsack, eh?"

T.   "A knapsack indeed! No such abomination as that, but a fragrance of harvests, and feasts, and flutes, and thrushes, and bleating of lambs, and empty flasks, and all kinds of good things."

Then he burst out into song again:—

"Oh, think of the pleasures

Peace gave us of yore,

Of her sweet country treasures,

Her bountiful store;

Of the figs, and the vine,

And the olives divine,

And the myrtle-tree growing,

And violets blowing,

Where fountains were flowing.

These are the joys for which long we've been yearning,

For these we will welcome the goddess returning."

Hus. "Welcome, welcome, once more

       We have longed for thee sore.

       Still desiring again,

       With a passionate pain,

       In the sweet country-side

       Of our farms to abide,

       We who follow the trade

       Of the tillers of land,

       For our labours are paid

       By the gifts of thy hand.

       Not a flower, not a fruit,

       Not a tender young shoot

       Of the fig or the vine,

       But will fondly combine

       Through the length and the breadth of our country to greet

       The thrice welcome sound of thy home-coming feet."

"Now," said Hermes to the husbandmen, "I will explain to you the cause of all the mischief. Phidias began it by getting into trouble. Then Pericles, fearing lest he should be involved with him, and knowing your fierce temper, set the city in a blaze by his decree against Megara. The smoke of that burning drew tears from every eye in Greece. Not a vine there was but groaned when it heard it, not a cask but dashed itself against its neighbour. There was nobody to stop the uproar, and Peace disappeared. Then the subject cities, when they saw you snarling at each other, thought that they could get rid of their tribute, and bribed the great people at Sparta to help them; so there was trouble abroad and trouble at home, and the greatest mischiefmaker of all was a certain tanner."

T.   "Say no more about him, my dear Hermes; let him rest where he is; he is one of your people now. But, my dear lady (turning to Peace), why so silent?"

H.   "She has been too much wronged to forgive easily."

(Peace, it should be said, was represented by a colossal statue with a head which could turn round. Hermes speaks to her and affects to listen to her answers.)

H.   "Dearest lady, tell me your thought. Ah! that is it, is it? She says that when she came, after that affair at Pylos, with a chest full of treaties, she was thrice rejected in full assembly."

T.   "So she was; but our wits were covered up with hides in those days."

H.   "She wants to know who among you loves Peace and hates War most."

T.   "Cleonymus, of course."

H.   "What about him?"

T.   "He is not the son of the man whom he calls his father, and when he goes to battle, he throws away his shield and runs away."

H.   "Peace wants to know who is the first man in the Assembly now?"

T.   "Hyperbolus, of course. But, dear lady, why so disgusted?"

H.   "She is disgusted with the people for choosing such a leader."

T.   "Oh! he is only a make-shift. And besides, we thought that, as we were all groping in the dark, he might throw a little light on affairs."

H.   "How so?"

T.   "Because he makes lamps."

H.   "She wants to know whether witty old Cratinus is alive.

T.   "No, poor fellow, he died when the Spartans invaded us. He saw a butt of wine staved in, and it broke his heart to see so much good liquor wasted."

In the end it was arranged that Trygæus should return home with Peace and her two handmaids, one of whom, Harvest-home, he should have for his own wife. He accordingly, after taking an affectionate leave of Hermes, called for the beetle. The beetle, however, was not available, having been harnessed to the car of Zeus; and Trygæus and his charges descended to earth by a staircase, which Hermes pointed out to him. "Dear me!" he said, when he felt his feet on firm ground again, "what a business it was to get up to the gods! How my legs ache! And how small you looked," he went on, speaking to the slaves, who had assembled to greet him, "from up there! I thought you seemed a bad lot, when I looked down on you, but now I see you closer, I find you very much worse."

A servant.   "What have you got, master?"

T.   "Got? A pain in my legs from travelling so far."

S.   "And did you see anybody else wandering about up there?"

T.   "Only a minor poet or two."

S.   "And is it true that when we die we are turned into stars?"

T.   "Of course it is."

S.   "What are the shooting stars, then?"

T.   "Rich stars going from dinner with lighted lanterns in their hands. But take the young lady; let her have a bath, and be dressed for our wedding. She is to be my bride."

S.   "And is she to have anything to eat?"

T.   "To eat? No. She can't eat our food; she's used to ambrosia."

Harvest-home being thus disposed of, Trygæus proceeded to make a sacrifice to Peace, to whom he and his servant, assisted by the husbandmen, addressed an ode of praise and thanksgiving:—

"For thirteen long years we have longed to behold you,

And now you are come we will steadfastly hold you.

When our fightings are stayed and our tumults allayed,

We will call you in future the war-ending maid;

We beseech thee to end all the whispers of doubt,

All the clever suspicions we bandy about,

All the Greeks with the solder of friendship to bind,

Breathing into them thoughts that are honest and kind."

While the sacrifice was going on, a soothsayer approached, crowned with laurel, after the manner of his profession. Trygæus thought that he was going to interfere with the ratification of the treaties of Peace; the servant, on the other hand, believed that he was attracted by the smell of the meat. Both turned out to be right, in a way. The soothsayer did wish to have a finger in the pie, and made sundry suggestions as to the treaties, which would be repaid, he hoped, by an invitation to share in the feast. But as his advances were rejected with very scant courtesy, he proceeded to quote prophecy after prophecy, foretelling a disastrous end to the proceeding. Trygæus, however, had an answer ready to all his sinister suggestions, and when finally asked to produce the prophecy in reliance on which he had himself been acting, he bravely replied with what was wanted. It came from Homer, he said, but of course it was an impromptu of his own.

"When the sons of Greece had driven lowering clouds of War away,

Lovely Peace they gladly welcomed, making feast and holy day.

Flesh from thigh-bones duly burning, tasting duly, as is meet,

Savoury morsels from the inwards, pouring out libations sweet.

I, whom now you see before you, I the holy rites began,

But with bright gold goblet no one blessed the prophesying man."

Soothsayer.   "Strange the words that thou halt uttered; not the Sibyl's speech, are they?"

T.   "Strange they may be, yet full wisely did the mighty Homer say:—

"He who loves the savage strife that severs men of kindred race,

Motherhood he scorns and custom and the home life's kindly face."

The soothsayer continued to interrupt and intrude and in the end Trygæus and his servants drove him away. The sacrifice ended, it became time to lay out the wedding-supper, at which it was soon evident there would be no lack of guests. Trygæus took his helmet, and pulling out the crest, handed it to the servant, with the remark that, as he had no more use for it, it had better be used for wiping down the tables. While this was being done, a sickle, maker and a cooper made their appearance. Both were in the highest spirits. The first had sold sickles, for which for years past no one would give a farthing, for a couple of pounds; the latter had disposed of a lot of casks for country use at half-a-crown each. They offered Trygæus as many of both articles as he wanted, and gave him some money, too, by way of wedding present. The bride-groom invited them in to take part in the feast. The next moment a maker of crests appeared. He was as much depressed as the others had been elated. "What is the matter?" said the bridegroom, "A surfeit of crests? eh?"—"You have ruined my trade," replied the man; "and my neighbour's, too, who burnishes spears."

T.   "Well, what shall I give you for these two crests?"

Crest-maker.   "What will you give?"

T.   "I hardly like to say. Well, as there is a good deal of work about them, say three quarts of raisins for the pair. They'll do to wipe my tables with."

C.-m.   "Fetch the raisins; better that than nothing."

T. (handling them, when they came to pieces)  "Take the rotten things away. The hairs are all coming out. Not a single raisin for the pair."

An armourer now appeared on the scene with a breastplate, which had cost, he said, forty pounds. Trygæus offered to buy it for a pan, but found it unsuitable, and packed the man off. A trumpeter followed, wanting to sell a trumpet, which had cost him, he said, two pounds ten. Trygæus could only suggest that he should fill it with lead, fasten a pair of scales at the top, and use it for weighing out rations of figs for the labourers at the farm. A helmet-maker was advised to take his helmets, which had cost him, he said, four pounds, to Egypt, where they might be used to measure medicines with, while the man that burnished spears had an offer made to him that if he would lop off the heads, and saw the shafts in two, Trygæus would buy them for vine poles, at twelve a penny. The men went off greatly insulted. Trygæus now espied some singing boys, whom the guests had brought with them by way of contribution to the feast. "Come," he said to one of them, "stand here by me, and let me hear you practise what you are going to sing."

The boy began:—

"Sing of heroes, sing the younger."

T.   "None of that, boy; have done with your heroes. There is peace, and I want to hear nothing about them."

Boy (singing again).

"When the armies met together, marching slow across the field,

Loudly buckler dashed on buckler, loudly round-bossed shield on shield."

T.   "Buckler! Boy, how dare you talk about bucklers?"

Boy (singing).

"Vaunts of victors, groans of dying, rose together to the sky."

T.   "Say another word about 'groans of dying' and you shall repent it."

Boy.   "But what am I to sing? Tell me the sort of songs you like."

T.   "Then on flesh of beeves they feasted,—something of that sort."

Boy (singing).

"Then on flesh of beeves they feasted, first from off their sweating steeds

Loosing chariot yoke and traces, wearied sore of warlike deeds."

T.   "That's good. They had had enough of war, and then feasted. Sing again of how they had had enough and feasted."

Boy (singing).

"Rested well they called for calques."

T.   "Yes, called for casks, and very glad to do it."

Boy (singing).

"From the towers and walls descending rushed they to the fight again,

Till once more the roar of battle rose unceasing from the plain."

T.   "Confound you, boy, you and your battles! You can't sing of anything but war. Who is your father?"

Boy.   "Lamachus."

T.   "Ah! I thought when I heard you that you must be the son of some swash-buckler. Go and sing to the spearmen. Where is the son of Cleonymus? Here, sing us something before we go in. You won't sing of such things. Your father has too much of the better part of valour."

Second boy (singing).

"Some foeman I doubt not is proud of the shield,

The shield without blot that I left on the field."

T.   "Good boy! Are you singing about your father?"

Sec. boy.   "But I saved my own life."

T.   "And your parents you shamed. But go in, my boy. If you are your father's son, you won't forget about the shield, I fancy. And you, my friends, set to; there is plenty for all, and there is not good in having fine teeth if you don't use them.

Hus.   "We will do our duty; but you were quite right to mention it."

T.   "Set to; or you will be sorry for it some day."

Hus. "Now it's time that the bride and the torches you bring;

       And those that come with her shall dance and shall sing;

       And we'll pray to the gods to give plenty and peace

       Forever henceforth to the children of Greece;

       Their fruit in abundance our fig-trees shall yield,

       With the yard full of wine and of barley the field;

       With sons and with daughters our homes shall abound;

       By the side of our hearth shall the blessings be found,

       That of late we have lost, though we had them before,

       And the name of the sword shall be heard of no more."