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BIRDS OF ARISTOPHANES.
W. C. GREEN, M.A.,
LATE FELLOW OF KING'S COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE;
EDITED FOR THE SYNDICS OF THE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
AT THE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
London: CAMBRIDGE WAREHOUSE, 17, PATERNOSTER Row.
Leipzig: F. A. BROCKHAUS.
[All Rights reserved.]
INTRODUCTION TO THE BIRDS.
THE BIRDS was exhibited at the city Dionysia in the year 414. It gained only the second prize, Ameipsias being first with THE COMASTAE, Phrynichus third with THE MONOTROPUS. Thus we see that an interval of seven years separates THE BIRDS from Aristophanes' preceding play, THE PEACE; nor, as far as we know, did he write any play during this interval.
A brief review of the course of events in Greece, so as to bring the history up to the spring of 414 and shew the state of Athens at that time, and a sketch of the play itself, will best put us in a position to understand it and to form some judgment about its scope and plan, concerning which the theories propounded are both numerous and conflicting.
The peace concluded in 422 between Athens and Sparta, from which so much was expected, turned out a disappointing one. Mistrust and jealousy continued. There were some who wished for war; especially at Athens Alcibiades, who only waited his opportunity. And, despite of the nominal league, there was indirect war: Athenian troops were opposed to a Spartan garrison in Epidaurus in 419 Athenian troops in 418 fought on the Argive side at Mantinea. The reduction of the Dorian island Melos and the massacre of its inhabitants was not likely to be forgotten by their kinsmen on the mainland. Athenian pride was preparing for herself a heavy retribution, of which Sicily was to be the scene.
Of foreign conquest the Athenians had long ago had ambitious dreams, as we learn from Plutarch's life of Pericles and from other sources. Africa was not too far for them: the great Phoenician city Carthage was ultimately to be theirs. Aristophanes himself,. when in THE KNIGHTS he bids the sausage-seller cast his eye to Carthage, speedily to be his own" (V. 174), or speaks of Hyperbolus "asking for a hundred triremes to go against Carthage,” is but ridiculing with some comic exaggeration schemes that were actually talked of. And Sicily was a step on the way to Africa, on which Athens had long desired a footing. Vessels had been sent to that island on several occasions, but nothing important had been done. But in 416 there was an opening for interference. Egesta quarrelled with a neighbour town, Selinus. Selinus turned to Syracuse, the chief Dorian town of the island; Egesta, having been in league with Leontini, a town with which Athens had had some friendly relations, now asked aid of Athens. Athenian envoys were sent to Egesta to see how matters stood, whether the Egesteans could pay for an Athenian force if sent. Deceived by the Egesteans as to their power and wealth, the envoys brought back a report which induced the Athenians immediately to vote sixty ships. Alcibiades was for the expedition; Nicias opposed it, and, when his opposition and warnings were vain, said that if they would go to Sicily they must have at least one hundred ships and five thousand hoplites. All this or more the people at once voted: they were ready to put all their strength into this attempt, and to hazard all on the throw. We need not criticize the wisdom of the Sicilian expedition: it is easy to blame the folly of what has failed; but it was within a little of success; and Thucydides, a sober critic, attributes its failure not so much to a miscalculation at the outset as to shortcomings in the execution from the half-hearted way in which the home government supported those who were fighting for them abroad. Nor was the enthusiasm for the Sicilian expedition quite universal. The democratic party, a great majority, were for it; and Alcibiades, their present leader, was its life and soul.
Nicias and his followers, the cautious moderate party, were against it. Again, the third party, the thorough oligarchs, formidable though not numerous, were against it, because they were bitterly hostile to Alcibiades, and ready to do anything to bring him into discredit. And they did ultimately succeed in removing him from his command in the Sicilian expedition and from Athens altogether.
The preparations for the expedition had been going on vigorously and were now nearly completed, when a shock was given to Athens by 'one of the most extraordinary events in Grecian history' (Grote). On the morning of May 11th the busts of the god Hermes, which were distributed in great numbers through the streets of Athens, were all found to have been mutilated during the night. The general horror at the sacrilege was beyond what we can imagine; we are not concerned here to explain why, for though the Athenians claimed to be most god-fearing, their religion may seem to us a free-and-easy one, and their manner of speaking of their deities flippant and irreverent. But the fact is certain that there was this general horror, and an indignation against the unknown perpetrators of the outrage. There is now little doubt that the mutilation was a contrivance of the oligarchical clubs (éraipiai) to ruin Alcibiades. Pythonicus, one of their agents, denounced him as guilty of a profanation of the Eleusinian mysteries, with some evidence, and as implicated in the mutilation, without evidence and against all probability. These charges he met with a resolute denial, which was temporarily accepted, and he sailed with the fleet for Sicily in July. The setting forth of the fleet for conquest of a new world in the south was a splendid spectacle, and may for a short time have diverted the minds of the Athenians from the gloomy subject of the mutilation. But they soon recurred to it. Investigation went on; evidence was forthcoming; many were accused, condemned, and put to death. New charges, if not of participation in the sacrilege against Hermes, yet of other impiety, were now brought against Alcibiades. The Salaminian galley was sent to order him back to stand a