The War Between the Sexes in Lysistrata

Lysistrata is the only surviving Aristophanean play whose title designates the name of the main character. Most other plays convey the collective name of the Chorus, or else another chief theme of the play. Lysistrata means something like “releaser of war” or “army disbander” and we are invited by Aristophanes to consider her character above all others, as the title of the play suggests.  

The play opens with a complaint -Lysistrata is a political woman, caring chiefly for the concerns of the city (though there is no Euripidean soliloquy, as the play assumes the characters are free peoples engaged in a free enterprise. In other words, there is no need for the audience to be aware of Lysistrata’s private thoughts). Currently, Athens is engaged in the long war with Sparta, and Lysistrata longs for the war to end. She calls together the women of Greece, though they arrive late, in order to propose an unorthodox end to the Peloponnesian War. When the women finally show up, most of the women echo the opinions of other Athenian men -that women should prefer to stay home to care for the servants, the men, and, above all, the babies. One is left to wonder whether or not Lysistrata has any children. We are given scant information about her home, husband, or children in the text.

Lysistrata gathers together the women of Greece (not just of Athens, but also of Sparta and Boeotia, as well) to save Greece from certain destruction. Her plan is for the women of Greece to withhold sexual intercourse with men, until the men can make peace and end the war. The women sacrifice one immediate good, namely sexual intercourse between men and women, for the greater good of peace among the Grecians. The way to achieve peace is by means of war, by waging conflict on those who engage in war. Their ultimate objective is peace through deprivation. The power of the women is not in their actions, but rather in their lack of actions, or at least withholding of actions. The only potential problem with the plan is whether or not women have greater self-control and can successfully withhold sex (Lampito, a representative from Sparta, notes that in Sparta the women have greater power over the men). The implication is the one thing men desire more than victory in war (i.e. victory over other men) is victory in the bedroom. The comparison between war and sexual gratification is striking.

The women depart one another after making a solemn oath over wine, and the women of Sparta go home to the Peloponessus while the women of Athens (who have less power over their men as they are a less orderly polis) occupy the Treasury of Athens. The old men of Athens suddenly realize the female rebellion and attempt to smoke out the sacred treasury building by lighting a fire, but more old women come to aid the occupation with buckets of water.

The play inverts the old Homeric axiom to “let war be the business of the men” so that the more modest sex (women) must take charge over the imbecilic war that has been so foolishly managed by men (recall the botched Sicilian Expedition). Eventually, some of the women start to give in, longing for sex with their husbands, and Lysistrata must continually rally them to the cause. She seems to be the only one capable of perfect continence. Her political power, however, is merely protest. She can only withhold provisions. The women’s political protest takes the form of a strike, and they starve the men of sex, abandoning natural desires in favor of political desires. The debate between men and women is exemplified beautifully between two competing choroi (one of old men and one of old women) as the debate (or “agon”) continues. Indeed, the war has brought about new agonies for Athens as threats of Greek destruction implies destruction of the homes of the women, as well. Thus, the war turns internal and transpolitical as the women build a new alliance based on gender across the Greek territories, and they bring civil strife until peace can be achieved.

Eventually delegates of Sparta and Athens meet (with erections showing forth from their tunics) to bring about a peace agreement in the name of a naked and sexually gratifying woman named “Reconciliation.” Men respond to the actions and in-actions of the women. The play ends in a Dionysian celebration, and a praise of Athena at the Acropolis, though surely it was Aphrodite who brought about the ultimate peace. The normal order and peace among the nations are brought about thanks to Lysistrata and her army of women.

Lysistrata is the most indecent of Aristophanes’s plays, making private and sexual matters public and political, yet it is also the most harmless and perhaps the most moral and just of Aristophanes’s plays. The war of Lysistrata is intended to bring about a harmony of Physis (nature) and Nomos (law or custom) by inverting the two temporarily, in order to bring about a better political order. Her actions are civil, her ends virtuous, though her means are indecent. She is not a revolutionary in the proper sense. 

Lysistrata is likely the most popular of Aristophanes’s works, likely due to its harmlessness and graphic innuendos. Lysistrata is the natural partner of The Knights, which also features an Athenian savior, and in another way of The Acharnians and the Peace, both of which point to the ultimate objective of peace and harmony in the end. However, Lysistrata is also impossible. Few women exist like Lysistrata, seemingly absent of love and family ties, resistant to natural desires, and capable of marshaling an army of other women. Additionally, the alliance of Spartan and Athenian women is also unbelievable, as they are natural enemies. The extension of the inversion of physis and nomos is what makes the joke of the sexual and political dominance  of women over men humorous (i.e. “women on top”). The impossibility made possible by the comedy play is what makes the play laughable, aside from its vulgar thematic content. The true teaching of the play can only be a “likely story” however we are left to wonder whether the poet’s true ambition was to bring about a regime change in Athens.

Both Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae were staged within months of the infamous Athenian oligarchic revolutions in 411 BC.

For this reading I used the Loeb Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.

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