The City as Comedy: Society and Representation in Athenian Drama

By Gregory W. Dobrov | Go to book overview

DAVID KONSTAN


The Greek Polis and Its Negations
Versions of Utopia in Aristophanes' Birds

In the opening scene of Birds, which Aristophanes exhibited at the dramatic festival of the City Dionysia in the year 414 B.C., two Athenian citizens, weary of constant lawsuits back home, take off in search of a better, or at all events less litigious, city in which to take up residence. 1 They seek out first an odd creature, the former king of Thrace named Tereus, who, legend had it, had been transformed for his sins into a hoopoe. 2 The idea is that this hoopoe, knowing what both humans and the soaring birds have seen, is best equipped to point them in the right direction (119). The hoopoe turns out to have established himself as a figure of authority among the birds. Thus Pisthetaerus, the cannier of the two Athenian wanderers, after hearing and rejecting a couple of possible sites for relocation, suddenly hits on a different plan: to found a city among the birds themselves. That will be the new, litigation-free community they seek.

What is more, such a city will be in a position to achieve limitless power, and even challenge the gods themselves for supremacy over the universe. The reason is geopolitical: the birds occupy the air, which is the region between the earth, where humans dwell, and the heavenly abode of the gods. If the birds will fortify this zone by surrounding it with a wall, and declare it off limits to all trade and trespass unless official permission is granted, then the birds can strictly control the passage from earth to heaven of sacrificial aromas--that is, the substance on which the gods depend for their nourishment. In a word, the birds can starve the gods into submission. As for humans, the birds can offer

-3-

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