A Woman’s Take on War: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

Image result for lysistrata cartoon images

 

Ancient sources on war and warfare are, in large part, written by and about men. But every now and then, we catch glimpses of a different perspective on war from the ancient world. Aristophanes was an outrageous comic playwright from the fifth century B.C. His play Lysistrata (411B.C.) desperately sought an end to the Second Peloponnesian War. At the time of the performance, the war was already in its twentieth year and was destined to lead to the downfall of the Athenian empire.

The heroine Lysistrata has a hilarious plan: the women will force their husbands to make peace by holding a sex strike. Lysistrata reasons that if the women of Athens and Sparta refuse to satisfy their husbands, the men will be so crippled by perpetual desire that they will have to agree to a truce. She also plans to get hold of the Athenian finances by taking over the Parthenon! Aristophanes was a male playwright but he was certainly capable of switching gender viewpoints: the script that he gives to the heroine Lysistrata is so funny, compelling and powerful in its perspective. I recommend reading the whole play (it’s not very long). Here is an excerpt of some of Lysistrata’s more serious commentary on the subject of war (1):

“All the long years when the hopeless war dragged along we, unassuming,
forgotten in quiet,
Endured without question, endured in our loneliness all your incessant
child’s antics and riot.
Our lips we kept tied, though aching with silence, though well all the
while in our silence we knew
How wretchedly everything still was progressing by listening dumbly the
day long to you.
For always at home you continued discussing the war and its politics
loudly, and we
Sometimes would ask you, our hearts deep with sorrowing though we spoke
lightly, though happy to see,
“What’s to be inscribed on the side of the Treaty-stone
What, dear, was said in the Assembly today?”
“Mind your own business,” he’d answer me growlingly
“hold your tongue, woman, or else go away.”
And so I would hold it.

Well, so I did nothing but sit in the house, feeling dreary, and sigh,
While ever arrived some fresh tale of decisions more foolish by far and
presaging disaster.
Then I would say to him, “O my dear husband, why still do they rush on
destruction the faster?”
At which he would look at me sideways, exclaiming, “Keep for your web
and your shuttle your care,
Or for some hours hence your cheeks will be sore and hot; leave this
alone, war is Man’s sole affair!”

But when at the last in the streets we heard shouted (everywhere ringing
the ominous cry)
“Is there no one to help us, no saviour in Athens?” and, “No, there is
no one,” come back in reply.
At once a convention of all wives through Hellas here for a serious
purpose was held,
To determine how husbands might yet back to wisdom despite their
reluctance in time be compelled.
Why then delay any longer? It’s settled. For the future you’ll take
up our old occupation.
Now in turn you’re to hold tongue, as we did, and listen while we show
the way to recover the nation.”

Aristophanes presents this portrait of the silenced isolated wife so masterfully and vividly. The good Athenian woman stayed indoors, did her weaving, managed the household, and kept her nose out of politics and war. This is in stark contrast to the role that the heroine Lysistrata assumes in the play. She is the essence of the Greek female spirit – confident, outspoken, wily and wise. She uses all of her gifts (physical, emotional and intellectual) to make men pay attention to her cause. It is possible that women, along with men, attended the performance of this play. I wonder what impact the play might have had – both on them and their husbands?

(1) Aristophanes, Lysistrata (ed. Jack Lindsay), lines 486ff: text available online at

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0242%3Acard%3D486

(2) Image from: http://coursesite.uhcl.edu/HSH/Whitec/texts/Tragedy/Lysistrata.htm

 

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