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Hot Topics: Aristophanes’ Acharnians and Charcoal Production

Molly Schaub

University of Michigan

In Aristophanes’ play Acharnians, produced in 425 BCE, the chorus of Acharnian old men are the rural, nationalistic antithesis to the peace-loving protagonist Dikaiopolis. When Dikaiopolis tries to end the Peloponnesian War by making a personal peace treaty with the Spartans, the men of Acharnae come in arms to stop him and are stubbornly resistant to any of his reasoning. Aristophanes leads us to believe that this reaction is just what we should expect from these men hardened by many years of labor producing charcoal in the foothills of Parnes. Charcoal production, in fact, emerges as a fruitful literary trope to both characterize the Acharnians and provoke the plot of the play as a whole. The Acharnian old men embody not only the opinions of the rural demesman but also take on the traits of their specialized craft production at every step.

Although Olson posits that the Acharnians were strictly the transporters of charcoal, the persistence of craft production as a literary device throughout Acharnians represents nearly every step of the charcoal-making process, showing that the complexity of charcoal production lies not in an intricate division of labor but rather in the multifaceted Acharnians who have a dynamic relation to their specialty of production throughout their lives. When read against other texts that discuss charcoal-making procedures, such as Theophrastus’ treatise On Fire, the nuances in the role of charcoal-making in the play become even more clear.

Finally, charcoal production has special place not only in the characterization of the Acharnians but also in the hero Dikaiopolis’ complaints about the capitalistic life in wartime and his idealistic picture of a life of peace. The specialization of charcoal production in Acharnae represents a contrast between urban life where goods are acquired at the market and an idyllic rural world where one produces the necessities oneself. Craft production emerges as a platform to discuss not only people but the political situations they find themselves in. 

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