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Source Exercise 1: The Athenian Empire: 4

This is an extract from a play, Birds, which was first performed in Athens at the city Dionysia festival in spring 414 BC, where it failed to win first prize. It was written by Aristophanes, an Athenian comic poet whose plays were both politically very engaged and often obscene. By this time city audiences would have known the work of Aristophanes for at least 13 years and he was one of the city’s leading comic playwrights. Clearly Birds was primarily entertainment, but as with the work of modern playwrights such as David Hare it had an underlying political message and commentary. Birds was not as seriously political, however, as Aristophanes’ other works.

At the time of first performance the Athenians were embroiled in the long and costly Peloponnesian War with the Spartans and were besieging Syracuse, having taken the bold step of attacking the previously neutral island of Sicily in an attempt to win the war. Some critics claim to find references to this in Birds, but it is more generally seen as an attempt to divert Athenians from their larger worries at this time by providing light relief rather than directly alluding to contemporary politics.

In Birds Aristophanes constructs a fantasy in which the birds build a new city, Cloudcukooland, in the sky, between heaven and earth, guarded by birds, which will intercept all communication between the gods and their worshippers. Although less overtly political than Aristophanes’ other works, there are references to aspects of Athenian democracy which would have been familiar to contemporaries but less so to a modern audience. 

In the light of this information now consider the extract in more detail and try to answer the following questions. It may help you to know that proxenoi are citizens of state A, living in state A, but looking after the interests of citizens of state B, perhaps something like consular officials today.

  • What can you learn from this extract about the way Athenian democracy worked?
  • What criticisms of the system of government can you identify?
  • To what extent can a piece of drama like this be used as an historical source?

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