TAXIARCHOI (Tax Collectors) – By Eupolis. Tax Day is the most appropriate day to examine this comedy because its premise serves as a pointed reminder of the inherent ugliness in all taxation – that the power to impose and collect taxes is, ultimately, backed up by the use of force. (If you doubt me go without paying your personal property taxes. Then we’ll discuss how much you truly “own” your home or your car.)
In Taxiarchoi the god Dionysus is depicted joining the title military unit. Those Taxiarchoi units would periodically collect the “taxes” or – in its most honest form – “tribute” from the various regions, not only of Athens proper but of the Athenian subject states. Military units were necessary for such tasks for the reasons you would expect – attempted resistance on the part of those being taxed and/or attempted robbery by bands of thieves after the taxes had been collected.
Sometimes a particular community might try to poor-mouth their circumstances and provide the taxiarchs with less money than had been assessed against them. In such cases the officer in charge was empowered to either seize portable property to make up the difference or to ransack the town and its vicinity to determine if the citizens were simply hiding their wealth.
For Athens proper, a representative of each of the traditional Ten Regions of Athens would lead the taxiarchs collecting taxes in their region and would select the squadron leaders. I’ll discuss the breakdown of the Ten Regions and the way they factored into political representation, the law and the census in ancient Athens in the future when I examine comedies that deal with issues relevant to those regions.
Though it would be appropriate, given the daring nature of the ancient Greek satires, if Taxiarchoi was a hard-hitting commentary on the taxation process, unfortunately it was not. It was a comedy about the god Dionysus joining a unit of taxiarchs who were about to go on a tax collecting expedition. As usual in the comedies Dionysus was depicted as a fey, bumbling figure and in this particular case the laughs come largely from how the wine god’s soft, lazy nature was incredibly ill-suited for military life.
Adding to the humor would be the fact that the well-known General Phormios was depicted as the officer in charge of whipping Dionysus into shape for his military service. Phormios was a noted hardcase so think of R. Lee Ermey in the role. As with so many other ancient Greek comedies Taxiarchoi has survived only in fragmentary form, in this case VERY fragmentary so comparatively little else can be gleaned about the comedy’s storyline.
Here’s a quick rundown of what else can be determined about the comedy:
* The politician Opountios is ridiculed at one point for his missing eye and his odd nose.
* One scene of the play seems to be a parody of Sophocles’ tragedy Tereus. Think of how The Simpsons or Family Guy frequently incorporate brief parodies of movies or television shows into their stories. The ancient Greek comedies did that VERY often.
* Dionysus moans at one point that his hair has become as disheveled as Elektra’s.
* The all-important chorus of the comedy seems to have consisted of Taxiarch officers.
* Dionysus joins the armed forces because he is on the run, but who he’s running from has not survived. Many sources speculate that it is Hera given her tendency to persecute the bastard children of her husband Zeus.
* A few other sources speculate that the wine god is joining the Taxiarchoi to lead them against Tyrrhenian pirates, the brigands who kidnapped the god once when he was a young man.
* Dionysus consistently misinterprets Phormion’s military commands, mistakenly thinking he is referring to children’s games or games played at dinner parties.
* Phormion chews out Dionysus for arriving at “boot camp” with “a bathtub and a brass-pot, like a pussy from Ionia”.
* Dionysus at one point makes comparisons between his usual elegant meals and the cheap fare he must live on in the military.
* Dionysus bemoans the fact that military training has dirtied his saffron-dyed clothing.
* At one point Dionysus sardonically observes that the first to rush into battle are usually the first to die, too.
* One joke indicates that Phormion is exasperated with Dionysus for using his shield as a tray for holding hor d’oeuvres.
* Artwork on one of the surviving Choregoi vases shows a figure from a comedy rowing a giant fish to shore. Some sources speculate that the vase was depicting a scene from Taxiarchoi. Their reasoning goes like this:
They believe the figure doing the rowing is Dionysus himself based on the fact that a few lines from the comedy present Phormios training the wine god in the proper way of rowing a ship of war. In addition to that, one of the Homeric Hymns about Dionysus relates a myth about the deity riding a dolphin to shore.
That myth deals with the young Dionysus being kidnapped and taken to sea by the aforementioned Tyrrhenian pirates. The wine god dealt with his captors by causing grape vines to suddenly grow all over the pirate ship, entangling the crew and the sails, thus bringing the ship to a halt.
Leaving the pirates trapped far from land Dionysus dove into the sea and rode a dolphin home. The reasoning goes that on the Choregoi vase the elegant dolphin was replaced with a fat, ugly fish that Dionysus rowed to shore at the end of the comedy, employing the rowing technique taught to him by Phormios.
Whew! Lots of speculation there, but you get used to that when you examine ancient Greek comedies.
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