Abstract–The Lord of the Wings: Political Leadership and the Rhetorical Manipulation of Athenian Law in Aristophanes' Birds

 In Aristophanes’ comedy Birds (414 BCE), the protagonist Peisetaerus —not surprisingly named as “he who persuades his companions”— becomes an outstanding master of rhetoric, who smoothly manages to use his λόγος to convince birds, gods and mortals about his own ruling primacy. However, this triumph is not only achieved by the mere power of language, but can be explained more especially as the result of a well-thought legal manipulation. A close reading of the play can show how Peisetaerus is capable of adjusting Attic law to different situations, both bringing and pushing back –at the same time– his personal experience as a former citizen of the polis.

When the two Athenians first arrived in the Utopian landscape of birds, nature and civilization seemed to stand apart, and yet thanks to Peisetaerus neither law ends up being an exclusive human domain nor peace rests among the birds. Through some ad hoc statements that alternate acceptance and rejection of the Athenian institutional mechanisms, the comic message is ready to be disseminated.

The aim of this paper is to analyze the ways in which Peisetaerus efficiently quotes the relevant Athenian laws and uses the forensic background with the purpose of overthrowing the gods and becoming the ruler of everything after his final wedding with Basileia. Tyrannical power can be subtly attained on stage by manipulating justice and laws. In short, Aristophanes creates a city —Cloudcuckooland— that stands as an alternative Athens and gives rise to a protagonist that behaves like a self-centetd demagogue driven by personal interests; the examination of legal references in the play shows then, in my opinion, how Birds ends up dealing with the spectators’ most urgent anxieties on their own political system and on the ethics of leadership.