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The ‘Modern’ Prometheus in Aristophanes’ Peace and Birds

Samuel D Cooper

Bard Early College

       This paper argues that Aristophanes’ Peace and Birds both creatively rework the tragedy Prometheus Bound, and that this intertextual link between the two comedies has large-scale thematic implications: both Trygaios and Peisetairos reshape the world of anthrōpoi in its technological dimension and thus become ‘modern’ Prometheis, albeit of a very different sort. Whereas Trygaios eliminates technologies of war that have proved baneful in order to facilitate a return to an agricultural mode of life, Peisetairos’s technological innovations embrace bellicosity while transforming both anthrōpoi and birds into entirely new kinds of creatures. Both plays grapple with fifth-century theories of technological progress that are reflected in the PB (especially PB 436-506; Dodds, Griffith, Ruffell 2012).

       Aristophanes’ interest in the PB has been well documented. Creative rewriting of particular lines of the tragedy begins as early as Knights and continues as late as Wealth, where the emergence of all the technai among anthrōpoi is attributed to the agency of Ploutos rather than Prometheus (Wealth 160-1; Herrington, Flintoff). While the most obvious tragic intertext for Peace is Euripides’ Bellerophon, it has been noted that this comedy, too, plays around with the PB: Peace 320 clearly echoes PB 994 (Olson), and the Hermes of Peace resembles the Hermes of the PB (Bowie). I argue that the engagement of Peace with the PB, and with the Prometheus myth generally, is more extensive than has hitherto been observed. Trygaios’s theft of the hidden Peace from the Olympians echoes Prometheus’s theft of fire while inverting Hesiod’s Prometheus-to-Pandora narrative. Furthermore, the manner of Trygaios’s theft and his subsequent actions both echo and revise Prometheus’s role in the PB as agent of human technological development. It is not the citizens or one polis or another who are able to recover Peace, but rather the practitioners of Trygaios’s technē, the farmers (Peace 511). Afterwards, Trygaios neutralizes the threat of those whose technē depends on war by reinventing the martial tools they make and sell as farm implements (543-6; 1210-64), and he restores the practitioners of agricultural technai to good fortune (546-81; 1198-1208). Thus, his role as ‘savior for all anthrōpoi’ (914-15) echoes the similar role of the Prometheus of the PB in having a marked technological dimension, with the significant difference that Trygaios ‘uninvents’ maleficent technologies.

       Already in Peace, then, Aristophanes goes beyond the (probably) Protagorean identification of ‘Prometheus’ with human technical intelligence to invent the rich trope of the ‘modern Prometheus’: that is, an anthrōpos who reinvents ‘modern’ human life through technē. A quite different form of this trope appears in Birds. Here engagement with the PB is explicit, as the mythic and tragic Prometheus appears onstage near the end to help Peisetairos (Birds 1504-52; Herrington, Anderson and Dix). Yet as Rothwell has shown, this scene serves mainly to highlight the Promethean role that Peisetairos and the birds, with their technological innovations, have performed throughout the play. As a visionary innovator in the domain of martial technē, Peisetairos both inverts the role of Trygaios and transcends the Prometheus of the PB. I argue that the much-discussed question of whether Peisetairos is to be seen as admirable (Whitman, Henderson) or pernicious (Arrowsmith, Hubbard, Bowie) is one that the play itself poses intertextually, as follows: is Peisetairos a PB-style or a Hesiodic Prometheus—and can he negate the memory of Trygaios?

       This paper, then, contributes to our understanding of Aristophanes’ career-spanning preoccupation with the PB. It clarifies the place of Peace, still a somewhat neglected play, in his oeuvre. It contributes to the recent discussion of technology and materiality in Aristophanes (Payne 2010 and 2016, Telò) and Greek drama generally (Holmes, Mueller). And it contributes to our understanding of the ancient versions of the ‘modern Prometheus’ trope, of special interest in light of Weiner et al.  

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Allusion and Intertext

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