A new play by Aristophanes!

A new play by Aristophanes has been discovered! Click here to open or download an English translation of Austerity – a long-lost play by Aristophanes.

Hellenistic scholars knew of forty-four plays ascribed to Aristophanes, though they regarded four as spurious. We have inherited eleven of these intact and we know the titles of and have a few fragments from all the remaining thirty-three. But the newly discovered play does not seem to be one of the latter.

Then is it by Aristophanes? Here I very briefly review the principal evidence.

Aristophanes commonly refers to himself in his Old Comedies as author or as ‘teacher’ of the chorus. In this play he goes a step further and on two separate occasions refers to himself by name.

Moreover, the play’s central character is Demos (the Athenian electorate). Demos refers to his role in Aristophanes’ Knights twenty-three years earlier, as if he is the same character, but grown older. This also provides strong internal evidence that the new play was produced in 401 BCE. Thus it helps fill a large gap between Frogs (405) and Assembly Women (391).

The play also throws remarkable new light on the situation in Athens in the years following defeat in the Peloponnesian War and the subsequent brief rule of the Thirty Tyrants. It is well known that Athens was bankrupt following the war but not that the Thirty Tyrants borrowed very large sums from the oligarchic states, mainly Sparta and Thebes, that had enriched themselves through the long conflict – money that simply ‘disappeared’. This, at least, is the situation that Aristophanes presents and it is hard to believe that he invented it – though being Aristophanes no doubt he exaggerated various aspects of it and its aftermath.

What is most remarkable is the parallel between the situation Aristophanes depicts and the current (post-2010) economic, political and social crisis in Greece. The basic idea of the play is that the bankrupt post-war Athens has received a ‘bailout package’ from Sparta and Thebes, on condition that it adopts stringent austerity in order to make itself ‘more competitive’. In other words, it will have to learn Spartan discipline and frugality. The central character, Demos, has reluctantly supported austerity and, at the start of the play, he has just voted for a new tax on free speech that threatens to undermine the democracy. However, when Demos finally realizes that the true goal of austerity is to turn Athenians into Spartans, he begins to rebel. But because he is still influenced by the argument that ‘the alternative would be much worse,’ he is not yet prepared to tear up the bailout agreement and becomes persuaded by a prophet to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia-like, to Artemis instead. His daughter refuses, however, on the grounds that she has been sacrificed by Demos already, for the youth of Athens have no future. Finally, Demos tears up the agreement. At this point the new god Money appears, along with Austerity herself.

In fact, Ancient Greek has no word that precisely corresponds to English ‘austerity’ in its modern economic sense. The allegorical figure I have called Austerity is Arpage in the manuscript, a word which refers to looting, despoiling or plundering. The context, however, makes ‘austerity’ the perfect translation (as, in reverse, does the experience of those who’ve lived in Greece over the past few years).

This can be seen in Arpage’s own words:

Money sent me to you. I did not wish it. Like Madness when she first refused to visit Heracles, I argued, resisted, said I would not cause this City of the Festivals to choke and freeze to death its children. But he – upstart yet strongest of the nether gods – insisted. “Compassion,” he decreed, “is not your part. You are no longer plain and simple Poverty, which serves to motivate the farmer and the artisan to honest work. The world has changed its ancient ways – for what has honest work got to do with me, with Money? Austerity is now your name, and you more cruel than any thief. The less a man has, the more you must take from him. You must snatch the food from a hungry child’s mouth to give to the bloated, the indolent and the insatiable. Where Justice weighs all equally, you – her perfect negation – must give to those that have what you take from those that have not. Such redistribution is necessary to my plan.” Those were his words. I call upon the Sun and Moon to witness, when I came to bleed you dry and grind you in the dust, I did so unwillingly.

I have adopted Austerity as the play’s title, since no title is indicated in the manuscript.

The play has two choruses. The main chorus is made up of tragic and comic poets who have joined forces to protest against a decision to cut the size of choruses, but who can’t stop fighting each other. The secondary chorus is of olive trees which have marched to Athens to protest a crippling tax on them and to teach mere human beings true non-monetary values.

No doubt there will be those that claim that Austerity is not by Aristophanes at all, but a forgery. However closely it resembles Aristophanic Old Comedy in form and style, they may prefer to believe that the extraordinary parallel with the situation in modern Greece is just too much of a coincidence. No matter – as long as they can see that, if Aristophanes were alive today, he’d mock the absurd policies being imposed on Greece in just such a way.

Of course, there must still be some people out there who will question my characterization of the Berlin and Brussels inspired policies for Greece as “absurd”. There will even be some who claim that such policies are what Greece deserved. The latter’s gross confusion of economics and morality puts them beyond the reach of sense, but the former could usefully check out the following research by economists Paul de Grauwe and Yuemei Ji that confirms what so many economists have been arguing for so long, that European austerity is misconceived and deeply damaging: Panic-driven Austerity in the Eurozone and its Implications (21 February 2013). Among the ‘many economists’ referred to above, Yanis Varoufakis has been indefatiguable in exposing the irrationality of Europe’s prescription for Greece through his blog: thoughts for the post-2008 world. For a more general view of what’s wrong with austerity as economic policy, this link will take you to Henry Farrell’s informative review of Mark Blyth’s new book Austerity: the History of a Dangerous Idea. This paragraph is especially relevant:

After the initial shock [of the 2008 crash] wore off, American neoliberals interpreted the economic crisis as a morality tale about the need to reduce government debt by ending entitlements and hacking away at out-of-control government spending. Their European counterparts used Greece’s travails to tell another morality tale—one about the dire consequences of dishonesty and political corruption. As Blyth argues, by interpreting the problem as one of government failures, they sedulously overlooked the bad behavior of the private sector and made taxpayers liable for banks’ morally hazardous behavior.

In another timely new book, David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu not only show that austerity kills, but also that the fiscal multiplier of public money spent on health care is higher than for money spent on bailing out banks or defence – in other words, in hard times it makes economic sense to spend more on health! And lastly it’s worth reading Oxford economist Simon Wren-Lewis’s attempt to explain why so many politicians remain committed to austerity when all the evidence says that that’s the wrong course to follow – all the hard evidence, that is, even before the Reinhart-Rogoff debacle! As part of this, he makes the parenthetical but very relevant remark that “The market is seen by many as a mysterious deity“.

That would certainly have amused Aristophanes!

4 Responses to A new play by Aristophanes!

  1. mayamarkov says:

    Objective laws, such as the ones governing the market, have been historically personified as deities by people who have not understood them but have suspected their existence and action. E.g. in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, out-of-control spending brings the gods’ wrath. To me, this approach seems far better than the fabrication of “evidence” by the Blyth, Wren-Lewis and others trying to mislead us that there is something wrong with austerity. To be sure, there have been many economists from Adam Smith to present day of the opposite opinion, i.e. that you shouldn’t and, in the long run, couldn’t spend more than you produce.

  2. I doubt that anyone disagrees that in the long run you shouldn’t (couldn’t) produce more than you earn. But what is ‘the long run’ here? And what happens when the ‘paradox of thrift’ arises, as in several European countries during the ‘short run’ of the present period, when cutting your spending (i.e. ‘austerity’) causes an even greater reduction (by the IMF’s now corrected multiplier of around 1.5) in what you produce, hence earn, so that you end up with even higher debt? I live and work in Greece and so I see the insanity of this all round me.
    Presumably you mean by the ‘objective laws’ governing the market that markets are rational? This may be so in the long term but their irrationalities in the short term make that a source of precious little comfort. Objective laws that so obviously need greater regulation (as in the financial markets) bespeak a kind of objectivity we might be better off without. But even if you were right about that, I’d still have to object to your characterisation of (presumably) the tapestry scene in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. That has nothing to do with out-of-control spending. When Clytemnestra tempts Agamemnon to step on the tapestry, she says they can easily afford to replace it. After all, hasn’t he just come back with all the loot from Troy? And it’s not the gods who punish him for what may or may not be a sacrilege – it’s Clytemnestra herself who punishes him for a quite different reason. True, later it’s a god, Apollo, who urges Orestes to punish her – but not for having wasted a good tapestry!

  3. mayamarkov says:

    I mentioned “Agamemnon” in relation to the chorus’ opinion there that if you have “too much”, misfortune is likely to follow. I guess that in the world of that time, with its very slow technological progress, there could hardly be such a thing as normal acquisition of wealth.
    About the tapestry – some scholars argue that Agamemnon’s stepping on it was an act of hubris sealing his doom. This seems strange to the modern reader, but it is also strange how much dialogue is devoted to whether Agamemnon would step on that damn tapestry or not. I do not feel qualified enough to argue here. Anyway, to return to Aristophanes, his “Clouds” (with undisputed authenticity) is definitely pro-austerity and warning against debt.
    Austerity is what saved us in Bulgaria from chaos beyond description, with uncontrolled spending, speculation and theft. We are still not very prosperous today, but we are very much better than we were before our currency board was introduced. Right now, I am in Greece, indulging in a short-lived immersion in prosperity. Later today, I must cross the northern border to return home – with regrets!

  4. Marcus France says:

    When, where, and how was AUSTERITY found?

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