Alcibiades at Sparta: Aristophanes Birds

Classical Quarterly 45 (2):339-354 (1995)

Although there is a long tradition, going back at least to the tenth century, that would see Aristophanes' Birds as somehow related to the exile in Lacedaemon of Alcibiades, and to the fortification of the Attic township of Decelea by his Spartan hosts, current scholarship surrounding Birds is firmly in the hands of those who are antipathetic to seeing the creation of Cloudcuckooland in terms of a political allegory. ‘The majority of scholars today…flatly reject a political reading’; Birds has ‘no strong and obvious connection with a topical question of public interest’; ‘attempts to find in Birds any extensive allegorical comment…are unconvincing’. Not only is it widely believed that ‘Birds… is strangely free of political concerns’. but also that ‘the theme of the Birds is absurdity itself…it is about meaninglessness’. This is a tradition that descends from A. W. von Schlegel, for whom Birds was ‘merely a “Lustspiel”, full of imagination and the marvellous, with amusing touches at everything, but with no particular object’. This approach was reinforced by the fact that by the second half of the nineteenth century, the allegorists had apparently spun out of control. By 1879, there were no fewer than 79 accounts of the Tendenz of the Birds —some political, some ‘escapist fantasy’–on offer. The most influential allegorical interpretation of Birds was J. W. Suvern's study of 1826, but which is now generally dismissed, and only mentioned to be held up as a warning to those who might be tempted to take the allegorical route. This paper takes a different point of departure, namely Pierre Brumoy's Le thétre des grecs, an allegorical treatment that is full of good sense, and which was too hastily dismissed by Suvern, and ignored by others.
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