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 Courts Ridiculed in the Wasps

At the outset of the Wasps, we are presented with two slaves who are awakening after drinking. They have been tasked with keeping guard over the entrances and exits of their house. A huge net has been cast over the house. Their instructions come from their master, Bdelykleon (“Kleon despiser” -in the play, Aristophanes continues his ridicule of Kleon), who tells them not to let his father escape from the house.

We learn that Bdelykleon’s father, Philokleon (“lover of Kleon”) suffers from a rare disease. The two slaves invite guesses as to his malady from the audience – gambling? drinking? No. Philokleon suffers from an obsession, a love for the law courts -he is a “trialophile.” We also learn that Philokleon is paid for this work, per Kleon’s new ruling in Athens at the time, and as such the income for the house of Philokleon is dependent upon his participation in the law courts. Philokleon loves exacting punishment, or vengeance, as he lives for the high drama of the courts. He is something of a rabble-rouser, a trouble-maker, and he yearns to bring ever more convictions (rather than acquittals) in the courts.

Just then the Chorus of old men from the law courts comes walking up to the house, guided by young men through morning darkness. They arrive to pick up Philokleon for another day’s work at the law courts. Upon discovering the imprisonment of Philokleon they spring into action, making several attempts to physically free Philokleon. The chorus of men headed to the law courts are the stinging “wasps.”

Unable to escape, Philokleon and Bdelykleon decide to settle their disagreement in a mock court scene. Philokleon claims he gains a great deal from the law courts -flattery, prestige, and money. Bdelykleon responds with arguments claiming the law court juries are actually the tools of politicians who profit the most from the Athenian empire, while the juries are actually underpaid for their work. The real money of the city is taken by men like Kleon. In flattering the jury, and the universal belief of each man that he is underpaid, the Chorus of wasps sides with Bdelykleon. Philokleon is distraught but not wholly cured of his disease.

The second part of the play focuses inward -on the home- as the household of Philokleon is turned into a mock court-room and he judges a disagreement between the household dogs, one who appears like Kleon and the other who appears like Laches. Bdelykleon is happy to indulge and oblige his father’s obsession for a trial, so long as it remains within the home. Bdelykleon plays a trick on Philokleon and the trial ends in acquittal, leaving Philokleon disappointed. He prefers convictions, rather than a just and fair trial. There is a late parabasis in which Aristophanes addresses the audience about the dangers of men like Kleon, and he defends his previous play, The Clouds.

At the conclusion, Bdelykleon attempts to convert his obsessive father into an upstanding gentleman. In a strange turn of events, Philokleon ruins the party and storms out attempting to fight anyone, he also steals a woman from the party. A line of people follow him down the street to his house threatening lawsuits. Philokleon attempts to talk his way out of the legal disputes until his son drags him in the house. A vague moral lesson is instructed at the end -old men like Philokleon cannot be changed.

The play exposes the tensions between justice in the home, which is to say families and households, and justice in the city, or the polis. The city relies heavily upon participation in the jury courts, while harmony at home demands attention, time, and order (recall the slaves were drinking and sleeping at the outset). But a just city relies on harmonious homes, and the two are closely related to one another. Recall from Plato’s Republic that in order for justice to be found, harmony also must also be found, with each person doing his part, not unduly concerning himself with his neighbor’s business. In Aristophanes’s Wasps Bdelykleon is neglecting his role in watching over his slaves who have grown lazy, Philokleon is neglecting his household for an obsession with the power and prestige offered him through the courts system (also his main source of income). He is concerned mainly with the affairs of others, rather than looking after his own (an indication of injustice also found in Plato’s Republic). However, Bdelykleon is also worthy of further criticism -he is impatient and compassionless toward his father. He makes little effort to reorient his ailing father, and he when he does it fails miserably. The play was released during a one-year armistice in the Peloponnesian War, performed at the Lenaia in 422 BC, however peace and justice have not come for the families of Athens. As with most Aristophean comedy, he points us to lowly things, or things worthy of ridicule, in order to direct our attention at high things, like justice.

The key point of the play is Bdelykleon’s attempt to cure his father of an ill. He wishes to transform his father, through punishment and restraint, a punishment which cannot overcome the nature of Philokleon, who is naturally drawn to mischief. Kleon’s courts, in contrast, provide a better outlet for Philokleon’s base desires. How can Bdelykleon overcome his father’s malady? Surely not by forcibly restraining, nor by exposing him to the new sophistications of Athenian youth (his party at the end). Perhaps the crux of the problem lies not with Bdelykleon, but rather with Kleon who has created this new court system which offers payment to juries, thus incentivizing mischief.

In many ways, Aristophanean comedy mirrors the nastiness and “waspishness” of Philokleon, as the comedies are filled with accusations and condemnations (such as of Kleon). Audiences come to a comedy yearning for a public trial, and there is no better way to kill something than to laugh at it (to paraphrase Nietzsche). Aristophanes’s comedies are a kind of trial, wherein something, or more likely someone, is brought before the eyes of the people and ridiculed, under the guise of innocent comedy. Humor is likely never innocent, especially when the comedy is political, as in the case of Aristophanes. Aristophanes’s comedies point to the broader problem of Athenian social degradation -as old men have become obsessed with law courts so they can behave like stinging “wasps,” while young men also neglect their duties by partying and imitating the new foreign sophist’s teachings. It is not the same city as the Athens of the old Marathon fighters. By laughing, Athenian citizens acknowledge this fact, and expose an underlying truth of their city -for laughter can be considered a kind of release from political and social mores. To rephrase Aristotle in the Poetics, laughter exposes the noble things by forcing us to recognize the lowly things. To “get the joke” is to be made aware of this discrepancy. The distinction between laughter and pity is the issue of suffering -we laugh at lowly things that strive to be noble but miss the mark, while we weep with noble characters who suffer and are thus brought below their station through tragic circumstances.


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

Cleon Ridiculed in the Knights

Aristophanes’s Knights is his fourth play, and his second surviving play in the modern era. It won first prize at the Lenaia in 424 BC. Earlier in his career, Aristophanes is rumored to have been brought to trial by Cleon for a brutal satire called the Babylonians. After the charges were laughed out of court, Aristophanes vowed revenge on Cleon, a vow he kept in the Knights.

In the Knights, the play begins with two slaves ironically named Demosthenes and Nicias, as they run from the house of Demos (an ironically named older man representing ‘the people’ of Athens). They have just received a beating and they complain of the preferential treatment Demos gives to Paphlagonian, who clearly represents Cleon. Aristophanes calls him a “villain” and an “arrant rogue” and a “perfect glutton for beans” with a “pig’s education.” They steal his treasured oracles, in which they find out that it is Paphlagonian’s destiny to rule Demos but he will be upstaged by a sausage-seller. Just then, a sausage-seller, Agoracritus, comes walking by and the slaves convince him of his destiny. Suddenly, Paphlagonian appears and accuses them of theft while the slaves call upon the old Knights of Athens to protect them, and a chorus of Knights appear and attack Paphlagonian (Cleon). They accuse him of manipulating the system for his own personal gain. The Knights defend Agoracritus, the sausage-seller, over Aphlagonian (Cleon).

In the end, Paphlagonian (Cleon) is forced to resign from his privileged position with Demos, and the sausage-seller is celebrated with a banquet, while Paphlagonian becomes the new sausage-seller. Demos is adorned in the garb of the old Marathon fighters and the Knights defend ridiculing dishonorable people (like Cleon).

The play ends happily for all, except for Cleon’s character who is reduced to selling sausages. In all, the comedy is another brutal satire of the war-mongering imperialism of Cleon (perhaps also by proxy of Pericles’s prior leadership, as well). Cleon is lambasted in the writings of both Thucydides and Aristophanes, as well as later writers including Plutarch and Lucian.


Who Was Cleon?
Cleon was a 5th century Athenian general and a speaker on behalf of the commercial interests of Athens, though he was also a member of the aristocracy. He came to attention in opposition to Pericles when he refused to do battle against the invading Peloponnesian League. He was the lead voice against Pericles in the 5th century, especially after the failed expedition to the Peloponnesus (as detailed by Thucydides). Shortly thereafter, Pericles dies of the plague in 429 BC and Cleon is brought to power. He was a demagogue, claiming to speak for the demos. He was able to whip up the emotions of the people, and he instilled a culture of suspicion and a network of spies in Athens (a kind of ancient McCarthysim). He raised taxes on Athenians allies so that Athenian juries could be paid more, allowing for poor Athenians to have a livelihood by participating on juries. Plutarch describes Cleon as coming to power during a mad and desperate time for Athens, and he was ultimately killed in battle against Sparta.


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