You are here

Scapegoats and Slapstick: Laughing with Expulsion in Aristophanes’ Acharnians

Brian Credo

University of Pennsylvania

Yearly festivals throughout the classical Greek world featured the expulsion of scapegoats, φαρμακοί, to appease the wrath of the gods.  Certain scenes from Athenian Old Comedy encourage us to view aggressive laughter as a punishment which closely imitates and accompanies this divinely-mandated ritual expulsion, thus pitting the gods and the polis against a humiliated, expelled ‘other.’  To this end, my project argues (1) that there exists in classical Athens a unified concept of expulsion spanning the institutions of φαρμακός ritual, ostracism, and exile by ἀτιμία, and (2) that Aristophanes’ Acharnians provokes aggressive laughter at some of its characters precisely by employing this unified concept.  Two loci to observe this phenomenon are the play’s slapstick ‘intruder scenes’ and its final uproarious agon between Dicaeopolis and Lamachus.

My intervention is much indebted to previous scholarship. It examines Acharnians as a test case for an assertion made but only partially elaborated by Faraone: that the slapstick expulsion of certain ‘intruders’ from the comic stage enacts φαρμακός ritual to some degree (cf. also Rosenbloom).  Faraone draws upon Brenne’s archaeological connection of scapegoat ritual to ostracism (cf. Kustec, Sickinger).  To this expulsive pair, I would like to add ἀτιμία.  I follow de Ste. Croix in viewing the Megarian Decree, central to the plot of Acharnians, as a form of ἀτιμία.

My argumentation can be summarized as follows.  Eight ostraka from the Ceramicus and the Agora attempt to expel Λιμός, Hunger.  This closely parallels Plutarch’s description of the Βουλίμου ἐξέλασις, a ritual ‘expulsion of Hunger’ (Mor. 693-94).  Scholars uniformly associate this passage with φαρμακός rituals, which similarly view their subjects as gluttons/Hunger-personified or cast them in that role by feasting/fasting them before their exile, e.g. Hipponax frr. 5-10, 128W (cf. Bremmer, Bowie, Faraone).  If ostracism and scapegoating are part of a shared concept of expulsion, I would like to extend this concept to cover ἀτιμία as well.  Several sources locate the origins of ostracism in a desire to prevent tyranny, e.g. Androtion FGrH 324 F 6, Ath. Pol. 22.3; and ἀτιμία is likewise an expulsive punishment for those with tyrannical aspirations, e.g. Ath. Pol. 16.10, SEG 12.87.  In addition, Aristophanes punishes a detestable figure in Birds with ἀτιμία (1072-87), much as he punishes (or threatens) other characters, including Cleon, with ostracism and φαρμακός ritual in Knights (855, 1405).

The exclusion from the Agora stipulated by the Megarian Decree and enacted in Acharnians seems to have been a form of ἀτιμία (cf. e.g. Antiph. 5.10 to Plut. Sol. 19.3).  This ἀτιμία, however, is enforced with comic instruments of slapstick humor: leather straps to beat characters and drive them offstage (719-28).  They come in handy against two sycophants, for instance (818-35, 908-58).  Such ‘intruder scenes,’ like φαρμακός rituals, typically expel gluttonous ritual moochers (e.g. Pax 1043-1126).  These φαρμακός-style expulsions, however, are only a taste of what is to come.  The play’s use of ἀτιμία culminates in the agon between Dicaeopolis and Lamachus.  Barred from Dicaeopolis’ agora (623-25), Lamachus, like the sycophants, is on the outside looking in.  He sees the prosperity of Dicaeopolis’ pseudo-polis and his ritual feast for the gods, and his own plight is hilariously heightened through contrast with Dicaeopolis’ delicious festival food (1069-1142).  Lamachus fares much as Cleon does at the end of Knights.  Through his hunger, he is put into the role of φαρμακός.  Because a unified concept of expulsion can freely utilize multiple institutions, it is only natural that ἀτιμία eventually makes the sycophants and Lamachus into humiliated φαρμακοί, cut off from gods and humans alike.

Session/Panel Title

Laughing with the Gods: Religion in Greek and Roman Satire Comedy Epigram and other Comedic Genres

Session/Paper Number


Share This Page

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy