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.

Aristophanes’s The Birds: A New City in the Sky

Aristophanes The Birds (“Ornithets”) is the only comedy written by Aristophanes whose entire action takes place far from the city of Athens. Consequently, the play makes little mention of the circumstances of the Peloponnesian War, or of contemporary Athenian politics. It won second prize at the Dionysia in 414 BC.

It is a play about the Arcadian ideal, the pastoral romance that every man has felt at one point or another in his life -to escape the drabness of the city and live out a dream in a quiet, rural town. In The Birds, we follow two men: Eulpides (meaning “Hopeful” or “son of Hopeful”) and Peisthetairos (a hybrid of “persuader of his comrade” and “trustworthy comrade”). They have literally turned their backs on Athens, tired of the endless lawsuits, and they are guided by two birds who are leading them to the fabled king, Tereus. Tereus once morphed himself into a bird, so perhaps he can help them find a better place to live, since he knows the politics of mankind but also has a better perspective, i.e. he can fly and see all things from above.

When they meet Tereus, Peisthetairos persuades the birds that they should build a great human-inspired city in the clouds like those of men, one that will rival the gods. They decide to name this new city “cloud-cuckoo-land.” In the end, the birds begin making new laws, but nevertheless gods and men start sneaking into the new city, from Iris to Prometheus. Peisthetairos’s cleverly politically outmaneuvers the new presence in the city to be crowned king. The play closes with a joyful scene of marriage between Peisthetairos and Zeus’s lovely maiden, Sovereignty (note: not every Aristophanes play concludes on a positive note, recall the ending to The Clouds). Why does Aristophanes present the ruin of Socrates in The Clouds but the triumph of Peisthetairos in The Birds? Aristophanes claims not simply to entertain his audiences, but to teach of the just things. In The Clouds he presents Socrates, the gatekeeper of the new-fangled intellectualism of Athens, a particular kind of sophistry that allows for the possibility of the non-existence of the gods, a radically a-political skepticism. He welcomes new sciences from across the Mediterranean into his “Thinkery” while turning young men against their fathers. Peisthetairos, on the other hand, maintains the validity of the gods, though he proposes to replace to the traditional pantheon at one point, convincing the birds they are the new gods. He is, no doubt, shocking in that he upends the gods and their power, even replacing himself as king of a new city in the sky. However, he expels the astronomer and is rigidly opposed to father-beating. In this way, Peisthetairos is more in line with the necessities of the city, than Socrates. Hence why Peisthetairos meets his triumph and Socrates meets his downfall in Aristophanes. To what extent does this presentation of political necessity agree with Socrates’s exposition as found in Plato’s Republic? The one obvious distinction is the musical character of Peisthetairos’s new city -his Chorus sings praises of his new Orphic theogony, whereas Socrates comes across as aloof and unmusical, intellectual and silly.

We cannot understand the play without disentangling the relationship of the two chief characters: Peisthetairos is the dreamer, the visionary builder of a new city, while on the other hand, Eulpides is the devotee to the retired, quiet, and rustic life. He is closer to Aristophanes, in a word. Thus, since Euplides disappears midway through the play, the poet expresses his disagreement with Peisthetairos’s vision -a vision sometimes echoed today by people who wish to found a new city, amongst only friends and people they agree with, a mythical dream. However, Aristophanes suggests this vision is nevertheless feasible in concept (to found a new city) but of course it is absurd and manifestly impossible to construct a city in the clouds.

However, Euplides’s rejection of the city (Athens) as well as the new city in the clouds, points us to the tension between the poet and the city, and his role as a citizen. For if ‘no man is an island entire of itself’ (to quote John Donne), even the rustic must rely upon the city for at least defense and resources. In this way, Arcadia is a dreamland, yet still within the defensible bounds of the Peloponnesus.

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

The Peloponnesian War, Book V: Battle Recommences and Melos Enslaved

Book V of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War opens at the conclusion of the truce between Athens and the Spartans. Cleon leads the Athenians in an attack on Thrace. A double surprise attack is launched against Cleon and the Athenians by Brasidas of Sparta. The attack catches Cleon off guard and kills him en route, as well as Brasidas.

After this cataclysmic juncture, both sides desire peace. Athens fears further revolt from its allies. Spartan men and their land/economy begin to suffer. New leadership (King Pleistoanax in Sparta, and Nicias in Athens) desperately desires peace. Thucydides called Nicias the “most fortunate general of his time” (5.16). Many of their allies did not agree with the yearning for peace, nevertheless they make a treaty, allying Sparta and Athens for fifty years. Thus ends the “first war” spanning ten years.

Thucydides digresses from this juncture to discuss the nature of the peace being a mere interval in the ongoing hostilities, rather than a true peace. He mentions his own age being old enough to reflect on the activities and his exile for twenty years after his command of Amphipolous as mentioned earlier. As a result of his exile to the Peloponnesus he was able to see things with far more clarity. The city in motion lacks clarity absent the benefits of hindsight.

Hostilities resume in the war following the fifty year truce. Alcibiades leads a faction of Athenian allies in diplomacy against Sparta. The Spartans are barred from the Olympic games. Sparta battle the Argives, allies of the Athenians. The Melians choose to remain allied with the Spartans, despite Athenian warnings of ruin. Eventually the Melians are defeated: the men all killed, and the women and children enslaved. Athens settles the Melian country.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

What Is Tragic About Greek Tragedy? Euripides’s Hecuba Considered

Euripides’s Hecuba is perhaps the most bleak of the Greek tragedies. It takes place shortly after the sack of Troy by the Achaeans. The few remaining Trojans have been either killed or enslaved by the Greeks. Hecuba, Queen of Troy and wife of Priam, has been captured and enslaved by Odysseus. Like Job, the her life has had a complete reversal of fortune: her husband Priam was killed by Achilles’s son Neoptolemus, her famous son Hector was killed in battle by Achilles along with her other son Troilus, her son Paris was killed by Philoctetes, her son Deiphobus was mutilated during the sack of Troy, her son Helenus the seer was taken as a slave by Neoptolemus. Her youngest son, Polydorus who appears as a ghost at the outset of the play, was killed by an ally of Troy, the Thracian King Polymestor. Polydorus was sent by Priam just prior to the sack of Troy to Thrace to hideaway with a large pile of gold so that he might survive. However Polymestor betrayed Priam and slaughtered Polydorus, leaving his body floating in the surf, and he took the gold.

“Hecuba” by Giuseppe Maria Crespi in the 18th century

Additionally, Hecuba lost several daughters: her daughter Cassandra the seer was taken as a concubine of Agamemnon and was slaughtered by his wife Clytemnestra out of jealousy upon his return home, as detailed in Aeschylus’s masterful Agamemnon, part of the Oresteia cycle. Her last remaining child, Polyxena, was taken by Odysseus and slain upon the grave of Achilles.

In total, Hecuba lost eight children either directly or indirectly as a result of the Trojan War.

The first part of the play concerns this latter tale of Polyxena being reunited with her mother and then promptly taken away for her throat to be slit on the grave of Achilles. Odysseus hears Hecuba’s pleas to release her, but says that he is powerless to the politics of the situation – Odysseus has already promised the Achaeans the sacrifice of a Trojan princess if the conquered Troy. Everybody laments the situation but nobody can prevent the death of Polyxena. Hecuba bemoans her station in life, a fallen Queen with nothing and no one. Her sorrow quickly turns into action.

In what we may call the second part of the play, Hecuba seeks revenge on Polymestor, King of Thrace, for killing her youngest son and stealing his gold. Agamemnon willingly grants her request and deals justice to Polymestor, who notes the impending doom for Hecuba before he is lead away. Lastly, as a note of foreshadowing, Agamemnon is eager to leave to return home to normalcy, however readers of Aeschylus will recall that Agamemnon returns home to a trap that is laid against him by his own wife.

As is common in Euripides, the world of Hecuba is devoid of the gods. Humans, alone, must bear the weight of their great downfall. Outside of Job, truly few other humans have reached the depths of despair where Hecuba find herself. Her world is a life of loss with no hope of redemption. Instead, politics becomes the primary vehicle by which men may find hope. But even politics is insufficient as men like Odysseus the great tactician, and Agamemnon the warlord, are powerless to the necessity imposed on them by political circumstances. Surely, the Hecuba represents the darkest depths to which a human being might fall, from royalty to slavery, with no hope of recourse to the gods, family, or politics. Hecuba’s will is meaningless and powerless as she has lost everything worth holding onto in life, with absolutely no possibility of redemption, while the deliverance of death has come for all but herself.

For this reading I used the William Arrowsmith translation.