Human Achievements and Transgressions of the Natural Order in Greek Drama: The Literary Ancient Roots of a Real Current Crisis

Kaiti (Aikaterini) Diamantakou*


Trying to reconstruct the “archeology” οf system-wide human achievements and transgressions of natural thresholds, the essay is mapping the early literary traces that ancient Greek drama has left behind, not just for writing the disaster but also, and mostly, for thinking about and beyond it. Greek drama, created for and staged in the literally “environmental” theatre of Dionysus in Athens, seems to have been sensitive to pro-ecological issues and prophetically conscious of a dystopian, short or long term, future for the perpetrators and for their community alike. Beginning with two remarkable examples of a holistic reflection on human achievements and their consequences for both civic and cosmic order (Prometheus’ generous beneficence towards human race and the praise of the human being in Antigone’s first stasimon), we shall then focus on two specific cases of precursory ecocriticism, located in the realm of Greek tragedy and comedy, respectively: The technically impressive coupling of the Hellespont by Xerxes as depicted and valued in Aeschylus’ Persians and the more than amazing construction of Cloud Cuckoo Land by a feathered army in Aristophanes’ Birds. Both examples signal a clear human intervention in nature, provoking a temporary or permanent disturbance of the surrounding ecosystem, and both may express a germinal posthumanitarian discourse and an early ecological conception of the intrinsic value of life as a whole natural ecosystem, with no de facto, self-evident, inherited privileges for the human beings.

Keywords: Early eco-criticism, theatre of Dionysus, environmental theatre, anthropocentrism, biocentrism, Greek tragedy, Oresteia, Prometheus, Persians, Antigone, Greek comedy, Birds

Although the present burning ecopolitical insights and concerns for the environmental crisis have their origins in the era of industrial revolution and scientific investigation in the nineteenth and early twentieth century (Egan 17–50; Goodbody 11–40), ancient Greek discourse had already given shape to stories and premonitions which impacted the human being and, vice versa, of the human impact on the natural world and its more or less disastrous effects, intended or unintended, irreversible or reversible, especially and mostly for the human agent itself (Civelekoǧlu; Lempert; Hardin).

At a time when there was no ecological crisis, no global warming, no environmental preservation organizations, no understanding of pollution and its deleterious effects, Greek literature seems to have been intrinsically sensitive to pro-ecological issues, if not prophetically conscious, in the short or long run, of a dystopian future for the perpetrators and, alas, for their cohabitants alike. However, a not so obvious case of politicized ecocriticism, that is, analysis of ancient drama, just like the “studying of ancient myths” in a broader perspective (Zekavat) or the “analysis of poetry,” in an even broader perspective, “can be where we wield ecopolitical insights to re-examine past representations of analogous situations, and indeed to see how past understandings of the world gave rise to the conditions of the present” (Egan 50).

Τheatre of Dionysos, Athens, Greece. Photo retrieved from the official site of DIAZOMA association
A Literally Environmental Theatre

Taking into account the intrinsic relationship between ancient drama and the natural surroundings, both in terms of theatrical performance and dramatic text, we could suggest that classical Greek theatre is, after all, a rather obvious space of pro-ecocriticism, appropriate for retrospectively rethinking the global ecological crisis through the intersection of literature, culture and environment. Built on the natural slope at the southeastern foot of the Acropolis hill, around the focal area of a flat earthy orchestra and with a wooden stage structure low enough not to obstruct the view of the landscape and the city, the open-air theatre of Dionysus in the fifth century B.C. was essentially and de facto inscribed into the natural environment. Its form recalled the ancestral open spaces of the threshing floors, where improvisational and primitive, proto-theatrical and ritual events were performed in the context of earlier rural Dionysian festivals (Segal 32), and at the same time, it served the evolving identity of the theatre as a hitherto semiotically coded and semantically organized specific domain of art (Aston and Savona 113; Paden 59).

Despite its clear tripartite division and the more-or-less distinguished practical function of its three parts – that is, the stage, a space of the actors; the orchestra, a space of the chorus, and the auditorium, a space of the audience—the ancient theatre was distinguished for its fundamental sociopetal character (Elam 58), which was achieved primarily through the mediating existence of the nuclear, probably circular in the late fifth century B.C. orchestra, which connected  actors, chorus and spectators in a single, cultural and socio-political, community, illuminated by the common and uniform natural daylight (Wiles 72–78). Richard Schechner, author of the pioneering article “6 Axioms for Environmental Theatre,” in discussing the third axiom, “The theatrical event can take place either in a totally transformed space or in ‘found space,’” refers to mass performance spaces such as New York Shakespeare Festival or the Avignon Festival as follows: “Ιn neither case has a negotiation been tried between the large environment and the staged event. Only the Greeks—see Epidaurus—knew how” (Schechner 54, n. 21).[1]

Within this theatrical space, which dominates and is dominated by the surrounding real space, the fictional action is always set outdoors, whether we are, according to the dramatic script, in front of one or more urban buildings, palace, mansion or temple in the case of many tragedies, everyday Athenian houses in the case of many comedies, or in a natural environment, adapted scenographically to the fairly unknown architectural conditions and aesthetic standards of the ancient skene area.[2] The Caucasian rock in Scythia, where Prometheus is bound throughout the whole of the eponymous tragedy; the cave of Philoctetes in Lemnos, in front of and around which the whole action of the eponymous Sophoclean tragedy takes place; the coastal grove, where Ajax commits suicide, far from everyone, in the Sophoclean tragedy that bears his name; the aerial, even if briefly, route of the farmer Trygaeus from the earth to the heavenly dwelling of the gods in Aristophanes’ Peace; the Lake Acherousia crossed by Dionysus and Xanthia in the Frogs; the cave of Polyphemus in the Sicilian Mount Etna in the extant Euripidean Cyclop; but also the natural sites of action (Serifos’ coast and bucolic Arcadia) in the fragmentary satyr plays Dictyulci of Aeschylus and Ichneutae of Sophocles; all the above are indicative green sites of tragic, comic or satyric stage action.

Theatre of Dionysus South Slope of the Acropolis, retrieved from “You go Culture”

Even when the represented outdoor space of action is declared as urban and somehow architecturally marked, its juxtaposition and communication with the natural space is frequent and structurally organic through other, narrative or diegetic, dramatic channels: through messenger speeches, which mentally transport us to various natural extra-scenic environments; through choral parts that focus on mythical episodes and images, which develop in purely natural settings; through many lyrical intermedia, in Aristophanic comedies par excellence, sometimes in the form of  invocative hymns, which indulge in the praise of nature.

As especially characteristic of the so-called environmental character of the ancient theatre of Dionysus, Martin Revermann points out those moments in which the inclusion of the sun in the theatrical action seems to be dictated by the specific situational logic of a specific scene: “I am walking in the air, and speculating about the sun,” declares Socrates during his meditation, in flight, onto the crane (mechane),  in Clouds (verse 225),[3] looking probably at the real sun, which thus becomes an integral part of the mise-en-scène; “I adore thee, oh! thou divine sun, and thee I greet, thou city, the beloved of Pallas; be welcome, thou land of Cecrops, which hast received me,” the ex-blind God  addresses the real, visible Sun in Wealth (verses 772–74),[4] turning then to the also visible Acropolis and, perhaps, to the theatrical audience itself, which represents the city. Those are the examples from ancient comedy which, together with their counterparts from ancient tragedy, that is, Euripides’ Phaethon, Medea, Ion, Helen et al., lead the scholar to conclusions about the many different implications—scenographic, acting, staging, directorial, kinetic—of the “fundamentally environmental nature of ancient Greek theatrical practice” (Revermann 11–13).

Prometheus Bound, directed by Theodoros Terzopoulos, scenic installation by Yannis Kounellis, Elefsina 2010. Co-production: Attis Theatre, Athens Festival, Istanbul European Capital of Culture 2010, Essen European Capital of Culture 2010. Photo: Johanna Weber
Anthropocentrism versus Biocentrism in Greek Drama

It is not only the balanced relationship between architectural-material, dramatic-fictional and natural-physical space, as outlined by the above indicative technical information and textual records, that was a basic compositional principle of the ancient theatre. The ancient hero belongs and moves in parallel, inextricably linked spheres of origin and attendance, which include: the individual; the specific house; the wider genus, which may extend back many generations in the past; the city-state to which the hero belongs; the wider national community (Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Trojan and so on); and, last but not least, nature itself, considered as the totality of forces and elements of the non-human world, in constant osmosis with the supra-human world of the Gods. Thus, even if in Aeschylus’ work the apparent occurrence of nature (physis) and its cognates is rather infrequent and has much less bearing on characterization, in contrast with Sophocles’ and Euripides’ work, where nature per se or in contrast to education/culture (agogi) and law (nomos) plays a central role even in characterization (Hajistephanou), still the element of the Earth, its wealth and its chthonic powers, are fundamental.

In Aeschylus’ Oresteia, for instance, the discourse about justice (dike) focuses insistently, among other semantic dimensions of the term, on the problematic human relationship with the Earth and its resources. In Agamemnon, the first play of the trilogy, unjust wealth is projected as an eternal cycle of saturation, greed, abuse and waste of material, natural and human resources. The third play of the trilogy, Eumenides, returns to the topic of the indissoluble involvement of excessive wealth with criminal action to provide a final solution to the fundamental problem of the human relationship with wealth and with the Earth itself (Rose 185–265).

From this point of view, we could contend that ancient theatre, while recognized diachronically as a thoroughly anthropocentric cultural product, is also highly biocentered in a precursory and early eco-critical way: “One should see oneself not as an atomistic individual engaged in the world as a resource of consumption and self-assertion, but as a part of a greater living identity” (Clark 2–3), which is a deeply ecological  conception of the intrinsic value of life as a whole natural ecosystem (cosmic-religious, social-political, ethnic-familial-personal) with no de facto, self-evident, inherited privileges for human beings. Under a similar perspective, we could also dare to say that ancient theatre intrinsically carries “the discourse of posthumanism . . . seeking ways to overcome the negative legacies of humanism . . . to recover, empower, and bring into more just relation both intra-specific differences of gender, ethnicity, race, and class, and inter-specific differences between human and non-human organisms and objects” (91). The following exemplary cases will perhaps reinforce this assumption.

Prometheus Bound, directed by Aris Biniaris. Poreia Theatre, Τheatro Petras (Petroupoli, Attica). Photo: Mariza Kapsabeli
The Human Conquests and Their Limits

Greek drama was formed at a time when civilization had already made very important gains not only in its basic political, social, spatial and linguistic organization, but also in other cultural domains, such as professional specialization, the tax system, monumental architecture and the systematic cultivation of the arts, medical care, the exploitation of agriculture, animal husbandry and fishing, as well as the intensive development of parallel artistic and philosophical modes of addressing the origins, aims and future of the individual and the community.

In Prometheus Bound, the eponymous hero, a child of Heaven and Earth like all Titans, bound on a high, rugged rock, reveals to the Chorus a concise history of the genesis and evolution of civilization, in which he, as “the great inventor,” occupies a central position (verses 436–525).[5] Among his many and varied blessings to human beings, which transcend the proto-mythical era of the fictional there-and-then and reach the here-and-now of the performance’s classical era, the Titan includes consciousness and logic, building, astronomy, mathematics, writing, agriculture, navigation, medicine, pharmacy, divination and mining. For these cultural offerings to humans, which come after the first great “gift of fire,” but also for the “blind hopes” he gave the humans to face the fear of death (verses 248–50), Prometheus is brutally punished by Zeus, who fixes him in a liminal—physically and symbolically—space, a transitional place between nature and culture, heaven and earth, Olympians and mortals, signifying the transcendence of the human on the one hand and the fall of the divine on the other. The martyrdom of Prometheus’ sedation, which will be replaced, at the end of the tragedy, by the hero’s sinking into “this jagged cliff with thunder and lightning-flame” and, much later, by the martyrdom of the hero’s liver being devoured all day long by a “ravening eagle” (verses 1017–25), is resolved in the next lost tragedy of the Aeschylean Prometheia, Prometheus Unbound, where balance was probably restored through the dialectical synthesis of opposites, the meeting of power and justice, material power and spiritual order, similar to the end of the Oresteia (Mossman 66–7).

Antigone, directed by Theodoros Terzopoulos, Teatro Olimpico di Vicenza 1994. Co-production: Attis Theatre and Teatro Olympico di Vicenza. Photo: Johanna Weber

Complementary to Prometheus Bound, with convergences and identifications, or with additional elements in one or the other source, the Chorus of the Sophoclean Antigone in the famous first stasimon (verses 334–75),[6] shaped in important ways by not a few literary antecedents (Staley 561), also summarizes both the practically fundamental and mentally more complicated achievements (verses 334–57: house-building, navigation, agriculture, hunting and fishing, medicine, speech and thought, numbers, religion, divination and, above all, laws) of the all-powerful human being, who “has resource for everything” (verse 360).[7] If Prometheus is a symbol of the violent detachment from the world of superhuman powers and attachment to the world of the mortals, from the transcendent to the chthonian existence, in the land of Antigone, humans took nothing from the gods, and no god gave them anything: the achievements of civilization are explicitly credited to human ingenuity (Pefanis 271). 

Despite this shift in focus, the same mutatis mutandis positive evolutionary perception and optimistic belief is here again obscured, both at the beginning and at the end of that stasimon. In the first two verses of the first stanza, the Chorus states that “there are many strange things [deina], but there is nothing stranger [deinoteron] than a human,”[8] two lines to describe the primary trait of the essence of humanity within which all other aspects must find their essence. Humankind in one word captures the extremes – deinos, “one of the most ambiguous words in the Greek language” (Staley 563), “terrible” or “wonderful,” inspiring fear and respectability at the same time. A human being is twice deinos, says Sophocles, appealing to two generally distinct senses of the word, each of which makes its own contribution to the overall meaning (Crane 104–05). Quite a while later, at the end of the third stanza, Sophocles has still a strong sense of the final unconquerable: “From Hades alone he will not bring in means of escape; and as will appear later, the subsequent course of the play is a long and painful qualification of the apparent or ironic optimism of this ode” (Segal 31–2).

Finally, in the fourth stanza of the stasimon, Sophocles projects a second limitation of the deinos, apart from people’s inability to master their death (supra), that is, the inability to master their own radical dichotomy between good and evil: “Possessing resourceful skill, a subtlety beyond expectation”, humans move “now to evil, now to good.” And continuing through to the end of this last stanza, human prowess is accompanied not only by the limitation of one’s wisdom in distinguishing between evil and good but also by the determination of one’s wickedness or evil, worth or unworthiness, no longer on the basis of the practical, technical achievements, but on the basis of the respect for the laws of the land and the justice of the gods to which one is bound by oath.[9] As Atkison (225) points out:

Following these laws well, means that man will be held high-in-the-city (hypsipolis) (verses 368–71). The Chorus’s use of the term hypsipolis thus pertains to both city and man equally. Obedience to the laws of the earth and the laws of the gods is a requirement that the individual achieves in and with the collective, that is, by way of the city. Recklessness and ignoble action, in contrast, severs the bond between individual and community by casting the individual outside and beyond the constraints and support of the political.

Antigone: Family versus State, National Theatre, London, directed by Polly Findlay. Extract from the official site of National Theatre. Accessed 27 Nov. 2022

If Prometheus’ generous beneficence to the human race, beginning with the stealing and offering of fire, results in his literally seismic punishment by a resentful or perspicacious Zeus, who fears, in the words of Prometheus, the progress of humanity, the Sophoclean Chorus’s “great ode on human progress and control” (Segal 31) is followed by plenty of injuries, caused by inextricable civic and moral conflicts inside the Theban polis and oikos, proving the double meaning of deinos.

Apart from the above two emblematic examples of reflection on human achievements and their consequences for both the civic and cosmic order, which originate in the overall sense of human progress in the fifth century B.C., two more specific cases of precursory ecocriticism and ecological sensitivity in ancient drama will concern us in the following section.

Human Interventions Against Nature and their Outcomes

In two cases in the extant Greek theatre, there is a clear human intervention in nature, provoking a temporary or permanent disturbance of the surrounding ecosystem. In the first case, which has a historical basis, adapted fictionally to the setting of the respective tragedy, human intervention has immediate devastating effects on both the perpetrator and the community to which he  belong. In the other case, which is purely fictional and belongs to the realm of comedy, the radical intervention of the human agent in the ecosystem seems to lead to a destructive alienation of the natural ecosystem and its proper morality.

Persians, directed by Theodoros Terzopoulos, Theater of Aixoni, Attica, 1992. Photo: Takis Vekopoulos

The first case is Aeschylus’ Persians, the only extant Greek tragedy which addresses not a myth from the distant past but a fairly recent historical event and which was staged at the theatre of Dionysus eight years after the naval battle of Salamis (480 B.C.). After the extensive narrative by the Persian Messenger of the destruction of the Persian army and its withdrawal from the Greek territory, the Chorus and the Persian queen Atossa invoke the dead King Darius, who appears as a Phantom. Next, there is an extended cross-talk (stichomythia) between the royal couple, in which the dead King is informed of the defeat of the Persian army and the circumstances under which it occurred. One of Darius’ questions is the following: “But how was it that so vast a land force won a passage to the farther shore?” (verse 721).[10] Atossa answers very briefly that Xerxes found a “clever device” to “yoke [a verb often used metaphorically in that tragedy] the Hellespont so as to gain a passage” (verse 722), omitting all the detailed information that Herodotus would give some twenty years later in his Historia (7.34.1–37.3) and which was probably known, in part or in full, to the Athenian public in the lapse of the eight years between the naval battle of Salamis and the City Dionysia of 472 B.C. (Rosenbloom 23–4, 92–3).

Atossa also omits in her narrative Herodotus’ episode about the reaction of nature, which was incorrectly decoded by the Persians, after the completion of the work of yoking the Hellespont:

As it was setting out, the sun left his place in the heaven and was invisible, although the sky was without clouds and very clear, and the day turned into night. When Xerxes saw and took note of that, he was concerned and asked the Magi what the vision might signify. They declared to him that the god was showing the Greeks the abandonment of their cities; for the sun, they said, was the prophet of the Greeks, as the moon was their own. Xerxes rejoiced exceedingly to hear that and continued on his march.[11]


Instead of this episode and the Persians’ misinterpretation of the physical messages, Atossa tells Darius that “One of the divine powers must have assisted him in his purpose,” a view that Darius himself immediately confirms, adding the negative consequence of this divine intervention: “Alas! Some mighty power came upon him so that he was not able to think clearly” (verses 724–25).

Persians, the production of Theatro Technis, directed by Karolos Koun (1965), was first presented in London (Aldwych Theatre), then at Odeon Herodus Atticus in Athens and finally at Epidaurus Festival (April 1965). Photo from the archive of Theatro Technis. Photo credit: Elite

After this episode of Xerxes’ fundamental intervention in the natural order of the Hellespont, that “represents not only the most impressive surviving Persia’s short-lived imperial presence in Europe, but also one of the most of ancient marine communication engineering anywhere” (Isserlin 83), the Phantom of Darius returns a little further on to deliver a long speech, the first part of which is devoted to the interpretation of the catastrophe, based on a constellation of additional factors, to which Atossa will add others in her next reply (verses 739–58): some ominous old oracles of unknown content here; a personal frivolity that hastens the fulfillment of the ominous prophecy; Xerxes’ youthful audacity and impetuous character; his associations with evil men; the strong paternal, political and military standard to which the young king is called upon to reach. All the above, combined with other basic political, cultural and moral weaknesses of the vast and heterogeneous Persian empire mentioned in other parts of the tragedy, compose here the multilayer substrate of Xerxes’ hybris (Rosenbloom 91–6), which was revealed and culminated, according to the wise Darius’ Phantom, in the event of the bridging of Hellespont (verses 744–53). If modern scholars disagree more or less about what was Xerxes’ real offence (Papadimitropoulos 452), it is much clearer how his father Darius sees the hybris of his son (Rosenbloom 92):

Darius condemns Xerxes, accusing him of hoping to hold the sacred flowing Hellespont in bond like a slave (745–46), changing the shape of the Hellespont (747), and making a path for his great army “by throwing hammer-beaten shackles” on the Hellespont (747–48). Darius’ charge is not that Xerxes tried to enslave a free people, or that he challenged superior Greek sailors to naval battle. . . . Rather, he excoriates his son for trying to dominate all the gods, singling out Poseidon, god of the sea (749–51).

Without any linguistic and directly intertextual correspondences, Xerxes and his interference with the nature of Hellespont is a precursory example of the deinos, powerful as well as terrifying, human, which in no way here corresponds to the later, Sophoclean ideal of the hypsipolis, who respects both “the laws of the land and the justice of the gods” (see above).

Die Perser, Deutsches Theater Berlin, directed by Dimiter Gotscheff, 2006. Accessed 27 Nov. 2022

Political conditions and the balance of power changed rapidly from the end of the Persian Wars, which rallied the Pan-Hellenes against a common alien enemy in the first decades of the fifth century, to some fifty-sixty years later, when an equally destructive War took place, this time a civil one, between Sparta and Athens and their respective allies (431 B.C.-404 B.C.). More specifically, the Athenian campaign to distant Sicily was underway in order to conquer the hegemonic city of Syracuse and make it a base against the Greek cities of southern Italy (Konstan 186). At that time, in 414 B.C., Aristophanes’ comedy Birds, “the most complex and most ambiguous” among the comedies that have survived whole until nowadays (Lauriola 120), was staged in the same theatre of Dionysus and in the same theatrical Festival, City Dionysia, as the distant Persians. In this play, two Athenian citizens, Pisthetaerus and Euelpides, weary of constant lawsuits back home, set off in search of a better, or at least less litigious city in which to take up residence. They first seek out an odd creature, the former king of Thrace, Tereus, who had been transformed for his sins into a hoopoe and who, knowing what both humans and the soaring birds had seen, was best equipped to point them in the right direction (Konstan 183).

The brilliant idea of Pisthetaerus not only to choose the land of the birds as a dwelling place but also to urge the birds to block the heavenly dome (polos) and thus create a new city (polis) between heaven and earth (Konstan 194), depriving the gods of all sustenance from human sacrifices and abusing all their power over men and the world in general (verses 155–93), finds immediate support from the ex-human and now hoopoe Tereus, who calls the birds to a gathering so that Pisthetaerus can explain his plan to them. Pisthetaerus actually develops his plan, after first convincing the birds that power rightfully belongs to them, since they had ruled the whole world, that is, Greece, Persia, Egypt, Phoenicia, long before Zeus, Cronos, the Titans, the Earth itself and before they submitted to the hunting, trading and gastronomic jurisdiction of men (verses 466–538). Pisthetaerus is now ready to move on to the core of his proposal, which is to “build a wall of great bricks, like that at Babylon, round the plains of the air and the whole region of space that divides earth from heaven” (verses 550–2):[12] a construction whereby, in case the gods should refuse to peacefully cede their power to the birds, the latter would forbid the former from crossing and together would exclude the gods’ sexual encounters with common mortals (verses 554–69). After another set of individual arguments that mitigate the birds’ hesitation to take power, the two humans are feathered so as to be able to communicate with their cohabitants from then on and together they watch the dance of Nightingale, the former Athenian princess Prokne, who had suffered from human and male violence at the hands of her barbarian husband Tereus (Fitzpatrick; Dobrov 105–32).

Birds, directed by Yannis Kakleas, Municipal Theatre of Crete, Theatre Vrachon, Athens, 2012. Photo from the Digital Depository by the Vyronas municipality of Athens. Accessed 27 Nov. 2022

After the Chorus’s parabasis, which emphatically confirms the supremacy of the birds, “immortal beings, ethereal, ever young and occupied with eternal thoughts” (verses 688–9), over the “weak mortals, chained to the earth, creatures of clay as frail as the foliage of the woods, . . . unfortunate race, whose life is but darkness, as unreal as a shadow, the illusion of a dream” (verses 685–7), the now winged Athenians, together with the Chorus’ leader, choose the name of the new city, and Pisthetaerus’ second suggestion that the new city be called Nephelokokokkygia is unanimously accepted (verse 819ff).

The whole trap most likely originates from the very name of this enigmatic no-man’s-land between earth and sky: Nephelokokokkygia, that is, a city made of clouds (nepheles), synonymous with deceit and (in)consistency, and of the coccyx, the bone that has to do with the human anus, a favorite target of Aristophanic scatological jokes (Andreadis 239). As Nelson (447) points out: “Instead of embracing the peace in the birds’ home, the Athenians persuade the birds to go to war against the gods, to enforce an embargo on trans ethereal trade, and to claim the air as the kingdom of Cloud Cuckoo Land.”

The raising of the city is organized both off-stage, with the construction of a protective wall which Euelpides goes to supervise without appearing again, and on-stage, with the usual foundation ceremonies (verse 848ff.). After the second parabasis of the Chorus, a messenger announces the completion of the wall, “a most beautiful, a most magnificent work of art,” the length of which is “one hundred stadia” and the building of which required collaboration among all species of birds in large numbers and with various technical commitments (verses 1125–61). If the reference to the “one hundred stadia length” of the wall may refer to Herodotus’ precise information about the dimensions of the Pyramids in his History (2.127), the above detailed reference to the construction of the wall of Nefelokokokkygia is not unlikely to refer also intertextually to Herodotus’ corresponding description of the mechanical “yoking” of Hellespont but must also be intertwined with the corresponding and more concise description of the same event in Aeschylus’ Persians (see supra). If in the case of the Persians, the intervention of the “racially barbarous” Xerxes in Hellespont is projected as the culmination and the condensation of the multifactorial self-destructive and insulting attitude of the Persian king, in the case of the Birds, the reference to the destructive human intervention of the two “morally barbarous” Athenians in the natural/ornithic order is more latent, more pervasive, but distinct for many scholars of the play, who do not see in it only a painless, that is to say, a minimally profane and minimally political, entertaining comedy of escapism (Konstan; Lauriola). 

Aristophanes – Herondas: Contra-tempo, directed by Giannis Rigas, National Theatre of Northern Greece, Odeon of Herodus Atticus, 2022. Photo: Mike Rafail

After the foundation of Nephelokokokkygia, all humanity becomes possessed by the “bird-madness” and seeks to go to the new place, so that Cloud Cuckoo Land will soon be crowded by humans (verse 1314). Philanthropist Prometheus appears here again, parodically mutated (Mossman 61, n. 15), to warn Pisthetaerus that he is about to be visited by an embassy of starving Greek and barbarian gods and to urge him not to capitulate to them unless Zeus hands the scepter back to the birds and gives Pisthetaerus as his wife Zeus’ general treasurer, Basileia (Sovereignty). Pisthetaerus will manage to convince the international divine embassy, Poseidon, Hercules, Tribellus, to grant him the Kingdom (verses 1565–1687).  However, his most important and efficacious blackmail weapon, with which he will first win over gluttonous Hercules, is the group of birds he is preparing to fry with cheese and spices, birds which have been “punished with death for attacking the people’s friends” (verse 1583–84). The innocent world of birds, untouched by human wickedness, has already been disturbed and the last lyrical Chorus’ intermezzo will be dedicated to a peculiar race of birds, in a context that refers explicitly to the Athenian courts and the Athenian assembly of the citizens (verse 1694–1705).

The supposed absolute sovereignty of the Birds, invoked repeatedly earlier in the play, yields now to the absolute sovereignty of the absolute ruler of the universe, the human Pisthetaerus himself, who comes to a triumphant exit in glorious light and indescribable fragrances, literally glorified like another Zeus. The “thrice happy race of airy birds” now simply follows and praises their king “more brilliant than the brightest star,” whom the Messenger introduces as “tyrant” (verses. 1706–10; Tsakmakis 50; Konstan 202). As Nelson (460) points out: “The play is only superficially about either birds or war; it’s a satire of human vanity and opportunism, where rhetoric, cunning, and aggression, whether human or avian, all serve a drive toward domination that made Athens a warlike empire. . . . For all the talk about their beauty and freedom, the birds are just pawns in a human game, there to be exploited.”

The peaceful country initially sought by the two wandering Athenians (v. 44) will be finally replaced by a non-topos, which is inhabited by a strange mixture of people who have become or want to become birds and birds acting like Athenians and merges the idyllic and the monstrous, the “wonderful” and the “terrifying” (deinon), already present since the initial grotesque appearance of the (ex-human) Hoopoe (Andreadis 239-41). The distant utopia between earth and Heaven, although it begins as an ecotopia by nature, is gradually transformed into a humantopia, where the behaviors of Athenian hegemony and the sad socio-political daily life of human society seem to be ironically and allegorically reproduced (Konstan 185). In other words, the desired positive utopia, the eutopia, bears more and more the characteristics of a negative utopia, a dystopia or even an anti-utopia (Fitting 135-53), which will be pending after the end of the triumphant wedding exit of the Pisthetaerus-Basileia human couple represented on stage in the midst of the peripheral and ornamental Chorus of the Birds.[13]

Birds, directed by Nikos Karathanos, Onassis Foundation, 2016. From the official site of the Stegi / Onassis Foundation. Accessed 27 Nov. 2022

Trying to reconstruct the archeology of human achievements and transgressions in the natural sphere, this essay has mapped, not exhaustively for sure, the early literary traces that Greek drama has left behind in relation to ecological balance of the universe, not merely for writing the disaster but mostly for thinking about the disastrous effects of human greed and for finding in the relics of past discourse a resource for present action.

Ancient Greek theatre, by its very nature environmental in terms of spatial configuration and thematic to a certain degree, developed in an era of general and multilayered cultural flourishing. Within a broader context of constant and critical reflection on the past, present and future, ancient theatre seems to have, on the one hand, an absolute awareness and admiration for the cultural achievements and admirable potential of the human species and, on the other hand, absolute awareness of and horror for the dangers of transgressing and violating the balance between humanity, nature, city and the religious/universal world. In a precursory and early eco-critical and biocentered way, the human being is conceived as a part of a greater living identity and life as a whole ecosystem, with no de facto, self-evident, inherited privileges for human beings.

Prometheus’ generous beneficence towards the human race, beginning with the stealing and offering of fire, tries to forestall Zeus’ decision, in a distant proto-mythic time, to annihilate the human race and replace it with a new one (verses 244–45), and thus provokes a series of forceful reactions on the part of the father of the gods, Zeus, who, behind his apparently tyrannical behavior, may better understand what all these cultural offerings and developments imply for the human race. The Chorus’s praise of the cultural achievements of humanity in Antigone’s first stasimon is also acutely aware of the inherent limits imposed on humans by the unconquerable Death, while their generally optimistic outlook is later tempered if not completely reversed, as the stasimon is followed in the next episodes by plenty of human injuries, caused by inextricable civic and moral conflicts within the Theban city and royal family. 

Apart from these two remarkable examples of a holistic reflection on human achievements and their consequences for both civic and cosmic order, two more specific cases of precursory ecocriticism and ecological sensitivity are found in the realm of tragedy and comedy, respectively. The technically impressive coupling of the Hellespont by Xerxes, as depicted and valued in Aeschylus’ Persians, in addition to Herodotus’ Histories, and the more than amazing construction of Cloud Cuckoo Land by a feathered army in Aristophanes’ Birds, depict two sublime and marvelous yet terrifying human interventions in the natural environment, one historical, the other fictional, with fatal results, short or long term, both for the perpetrator and especially for the community, whether human Persians or non-human Birds.

The above examples of early theatrical ecocriticism and its effect on cultural achievements are not few, considering the small number of extant ancient dramas and especially considering the vast span of time that separates the fifth century B.C. from the era of industrial revolution and scientific investigation of the second half of the nineteenth century. High civilization and culture may favour, among others, great empathy and profound consciousness, and these may, in turn, favour insightful and prophetic vision, especially when the object of the latter is the unpredictable and volatile human being, capable of the greatest achievements and the most terrible fallacies. At least, that is what human actions have proved before the fifth century B.C., during the fifth century B.C., and through to the present day.

Birds (Or How to Be One) by Babis Makridis, International Trailer. Inspired by the ancient Greek comedy Ornithes [Birds] by Aristophanes and the homonymous theatrical performance by Nikos Karathanos and Onassis Stegi (2020)


[1] The theatre of Epidaurus, although it is later than the theatre of Dionysus in Athens, follows a similar architectural pattern and is the reference point for contemporary scholars and artists, since it hosts performances, unlike the theatre of Dionysus, which can only be visited as an archaeological monument.

[2] Without forgetting the “natural rock hypothesis,” that “on the left-hand side of the orchestra in the theatre of Dionysus there was at one time an outcrop of limestone which formed a natural eminence of some size, about 5 m across. At some stage in the theatre’s development it was removed, but N. G. L. Hammond has made a good case for believing that it was still there in Aeschylus’ time and that he sometimes made use of it to represent a hill or mound” (West 135).

[3] If there is no other indication, all translated passages come from Perseus Digital Library. For the Clouds (translated by William James Hickie), see here. Accessed 20 June 2022.

[4] Wealth, translated by Eugene O’Neill, Jr. Accessed 20 June 2022.

[5] Prοmetheus Bound, translated by Herbert Weir Smyth.Accessed 25 June 2022.

[6] Mostly known and written as “Ode to Man.” Against the linguistic and cultural norm of the ancient Greek language, where the generic term man (aner) meant adult male, husband and human being alike, as well as against both the modern English translations of Greek theatre and the modern English-speaking literature on Greek theatre, where man is also and very often used to describe the experience of all human beings, thus ignoring the existence and the contribution of women, I tried as much as possible not to use the male as generic. Νevertheless, the exclusion of gender-discriminatory terms is still not possible in the case of citations, extracted either from the existing translations or from the existing literature.

[7] Antigone, translated by Richard Jebb. Accessed 25 June 2022.

[8] My own translation.

[9] As Crane (107) points it out: “Still, when the first three stanzas build up a grand vision of what man can do, they show us what we stand to lose if we yield to our baser instincts. The brighter the light of 332–364, the darker the shadows of 365-370.”

[10] Persians, translated byHerbert Weir Smyth. Accessed 25 June 2022.

[11] Histories, translated by A. D. Godley. Accessed 25 June 2022.

[12] Birds, translated by Eugene O’Neill, Jr. Accessed 30 June 2022.

[13] For the connection between ecology and dystopia, both words improvised from their Greek roots in the mid-nineteenth century, with various literary traces, see Stableford.


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*Kaiti (Aikaterini) Diamantakou is a Professor at the Department of Theatre Studies, National and Kapodistian University of Athens (NKUA), Greece. She holds a BA (Hons) in Classics and a BA (Hons) in Theatre Studies (NKUA), and she acquired her PhD in Classics from the same university in 1998, being a State Scholarship Foundation (IKY) holder. Her scientific interests focus on ancient drama. She is the author of three books on ancient Greek comedy and/or its reception by the modern stage. She has also edited books, conference proceedings and issues of academic journals related to theatre and drama, and she has contributed, with forewords, introductions and epilogues, in publications of plays, theatre programs and books. Webpages: site 1, site 2.

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