The sacrileges of 415 and the gods of comedy


  • Thomas K. Hubbard University of Texas, Austin


Aristophanes, Birds, Syracosios, Decree of Syracosios, Zeus, gods


This paper examines how Aristophanes’ Birds attacks the self-proclaimed moralists who led the prosecutions and the humorless piety toward traditional divine cult that they presumed to defend. This reactionary pietism was also a threat to Comedy’s many customary freedoms with the seriousness of the gods and its frequent burlesques of civic ritual, which may have even inspired the aristocratic hijinx behind the sacrileges. By constructing a comic plot in which the Olympians appear craven and ineffective, and the rule of Zeus is ultimately overthrown, Aristophanes boldly reasserts against the moralists a comic vision of gods who are all too human. Were the sacrileges of 415 really any worse than what people had seen many times on the comic stage? Central to consideration of the moralistic threat to Comedy is the much-discussed Decree of Syracosios. This paper argues that Syracosios’ decree was never meant to punish the sacrilege defendants so much as to punish Comedy as a genre for having inspired disrespect of civic institutions. To Syracosios, the sacrileges were no laughing matter.