Aristophanes' Lysistrata, originally performed in 411 B.C.E., is the first Classical Greek (and Western) comedy to feature a female protagonist and focus on women's issues and concerns. The comedy's backstory is the long Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.) and especially the Athenians' disastrous expedition to Sparta-allied Syracuse in Sicily, which ended with the Athenian expeditionary force being totally wiped out in 415 B.C.E., sparking protests and much discontent at home. In the comedy, Lysistrata is an ordinary Athenian housewife who becomes an extraordinary peace activist, struggling “to end the war” and “force the men to make peace” by means of women's sexual boycott of their warring husbands and lovers (Aristophanes 182: 111, 120). She opposes the Peloponnesian War as evil and senseless, especially since it is turning into an unmitigated disaster for Athens. That is why a frustrated Lysistrata appeals directly to both fighting sides, “[W]hy are you at war? Why not stop this terrible behavior? Why not make peace?” (ibid. 208: 86-87). She becomes a protest leader who on stage brings the long war to a negotiated end, so that the fighting men from her Attica can finally come home. Euripides' tragedy The Trojan Women may be the first antiwar play in the history of drama, but the central character of the “Old Comedy” Lysistrata appears to be the first peace activist and women's protest leader portrayed on stage.
The dramatic conflict is between female protagonists and male antagonists, with the playwright clearly taking the side of the female protagonists who are represented in a far more positive light than their male counterparts. What Lysistrata and the other female peace activists want, above all, is “to end the war” and “rescue Greece” (Aristophanes 182). According to the Spartan war protester Lampito: “...we shall bring our menfolk around to making...fair and honest peace” (ibid. 183). Since the warring men will not come willingly to peace terms, Lysistrata and the other women want to take over the entire war effort—or, as she declares, henceforth “War shall be the business of womenfolk!” (ibid. 192: 81). It is a most daring and ambitious goal, since warfare is among the most important political decisions made by the adult men controlling the ancient polis (city-state). For Athenian women to take charge of the Peloponnesian War means that they'll have to take over politics (“the affairs of the polis” in Old Greek). Because all decisions about war and peace were traditionally made in the all-male Athenian Assembly, using the votes (black and white pebbles) of the men present (all free and native-born Athenian males, aged 20 years or older).
Given the odds, the women's strength must therefore be in their unity: “...if the women gather together here—the Boiotian women, the Peloponnesian women, and ourselves—together we'll be able to rescue Greece” (Aristophanes 180). Here is their audacious “plan” in a nutshell: “That's how we'll wind up this war, if allowed, unsnarling it by sending embassies, now this way, now that way” (ibid. 193). The impetus for the women's actions is the prolonged agony of the Peloponnesian War, which is not going well for the Athenians (who will end up losing to Sparta and its allies). Lysistrata complains in particular about the protracted war's disruption to young women's lives: “when we ought to be having fun and enjoying our bloom of youth, we sleep alone because of the campaigns...it pains me to think of the maidens growing old in their rooms.... But a woman's prime is brief; if she doesn't seize it no one wants to marry her, and she sits at home looking for good omens” (ibid. 194: 138-140). The war is also leading to the depopulation of her Attica, with women “in the streets openly crying 'There isn't a man left in the land,' and someone else saying 'no, by Zeus, not one'—after that we women decided to lose no more time and to band together to save Greece” (ibid. 192). According to the Athenian women, whatever men are left in Attica, they are all behaving like deranged, “fully armed and acting crazy” (ibid.).
Lysistrata holds the men of Athens and Sparta equally responsible for the fratricidal war, in which “it's Greek men and Greek cities you are determined to destroy” (Aristophanes 207: 62-63). But she is no absolute pacifist bent on abolishing all war. Thus, Lysistrata tells the assembled delegates of the Greek city-states that they should be fighting the non-Greek “enemies available with their barbarian armies” (ibid. 207: 61-62), instead of each other. She and the other women also blame the war for bankrupting Athens' treasury: “[W]e are heading for bankruptcy on account of you” (ibid. 195: 35-36). She attributes the ruinous and interminable war to pig-headed men like her husband, who has declared that “war shall be the business of menfolk” (ibid. 192: 63). Since the warring men in their obstinacy cannot reach a peace agreement, Lysistrata proclaims defiantly that “the salvation of all Greece lies in the women's hands!” (ibid. 180: 28-29). Although she is just a conditional (contingent) pacifist opposed to internecine wars only, her subversive rhetoric and actions pose a major threat to the men’s political authority that has never been challenged before.
Lysistrata is a courageous and steadfast protest leader who remains committed to the cause of ending the war even when the other women begin to waver in their sex strike against their war-fighting husbands and lovers. When other women want to abandon the antiwar campaign and go back to their homes, husbands, and children, she manages—through her persuasive oratorical skills and iron will—to keep them in line. She is a skillful orator and agitator who demonstrates an exceptional ability to captivate her audience, as when she addresses the war-weary women: “Don't you all pine for your children's fathers when they're off at war? I'm sure that every one of you has a husband who's away” (Aristophanes 181: 101-102). Lysistrata convinces the women to launch their sexual boycott, as well as swear an oath to stick to it for as long as the hated war drags on. She and the other women also seize and occupy the Acropolis (seat of Athens' treasury), so that the Athenian military will “be withdrawing no more money from this place” (ibid. 191: 18-19). Lysistrata believes that if the women hang together now, “all of Greece will one day call us Disbanders of Battles” (ibid. 192: 95)—a pun on the meaning of her name in Old Greek.
Lysistrata is also a social reformer who wants to remake Athenian politics, rather than just end an unpopular war, while the oppressive male-controlled status quo continues. Even though she is a well-to-do housewife, Lysistrata does not accept a suffocating lifestyle for women who are restricted only to taking care of their husbands, children, and family households. According to her friend Kalonike: “For wives to get out of the house is a lot of trouble, you know: we've got to look after the husband or wake up a slave or put the baby to bed, or to give it a bath or feed it a snack” (Aristophanes 179: 13-15). Lysistrata wants male respect and recognition for the women's contribution to the war effort. Listening to the Magistrate (an important political and judicial office of the Athenian polis occupied only by adult, native-born men, who are selected by lot rather than through elections) complain that women protest too much, but supposedly “share none of the war's burdens!” an angry Lysistrata explodes: “None? You monster! We bear more than our fair share, first of all by giving birth to sons and sending them off to the army” (ibid. 193: 135-136).
Lysistrata thus refuses to accept for herself and the other women a subordinate social status which limits them to their traditional role as domesticated women, obedient wives, and dutiful mothers who are deprived of all political and economic rights. As a proto-feminist champion, she complains that marital abuse have kept women docile and silent: “All along, being proper women, we used to suffer in silence no matter what you men did, because you wouldn't let us make a sound...too many times we'd hear in our homes about a bad decision you'd had made on some great issue of state. Then, masking the pain in our hearts, we'd put on a smile and ask you, 'How did the Assembly go today?...' And my husband would say, 'What's that to you? Shut up!' And I'd shut up” (Aristophanes 191: 49-56). Lysistrata recalls that when she criticized the men's disastrous conduct of the war with Sparta in front of her male-chauvinist husband, “...right away he'd glare at me and tell me to get back to my sewing if I didn't want major damage to my head” (ibid. 192: 61-62).
Lysistrata's social rebellion is well justified. Athenian women are clearly treated as second-class citizens who are systematically discriminated against by men and whose rights and freedoms are regarded as being far less important than those of the free adult males. Like the slaves, foreign-born males, and the under-aged in Classical Athens, women do not have the right to vote or take part in running the participatory democratic institutions of the polis. The lives of even affluent housewives like Lysistrata are restricted to taking care of their husbands, kids, and family finances. Nor do Athenian men have a particularly high opinion of their spouses: “...women, the very creatures we've kept in our homes, an obvious nuisance....” (Aristophanes 185). Physical violence against women is not too far from their misogynistic minds: “By Zeus, if someone had socked them in the mouth a couple of times, like Boupalos, they wouldn't still be talking!” (ibid. 187). Men sometimes voice their open contempt for the fair sex: “There isn't a wiser poet than Euripides: no beast exists so shameless as women!“ (ibid. 188). But their contempt is mixed with fear and even some admiration of women: “A woman's harder to conquer than any beast, than fire, and no panther is quite so ferocious” (ibid. 204). As leader of the women's war resistance movement, Lysistrata finds the status quo ante intolerable, because she wants social change and putting an end to the totalitarian male dominance. She does not want to restore the status quo ante of a patriarchal, jingoistic, war-like, and imperialistic Athens, which is eternally engaged in military conflicts abroad in trying to dominate the entire ancient Greek world. She is an independent-minded, emancipated woman fighting for gender equality and shared political power in ancient Athens. That is why Lysistrata should be seen not only as the first female antiwar activist on stage—in addition to being a women's protest leader with a radical proto-feminist agenda—but also as an archetypal revolutionary heroine who is well ahead of her male-dominated time.
As is typical of any committed revolutionary, Lysistrata is quite different from the other women, who are often reluctant to challenge male power, especially in time of war. She defiantly declares “I am a woman, but I've still got a mind: I'm pretty intelligent in my own right” (Aristophanes 207: 55). In fact, Lysistrata is smarter and wittier than any other character in the comedy. She berates women for being consumed by their sexuality: “Oh what a low and horny race are we! No wonder men write tragedies about us...” (ibid. 182: 137-138). Lysistrata is more decisive and single-minded than the rest of the female war resisters. She also speaks more wisely and with greater authority, while engaging less frequently in the very racy banter and innuendo that this bawdy comedy is famous for. Even though she is an idealistic believer in female power, Lysistrata recognizes that women's sensuality is weakening their resolve to fight against war and militarism: “Now if someone has invited the women to a revel for Bacchos, to Pan's shrine, or to Genetyllis's at Kolias, they'd be jamming the streets with their tambourines. But now there's not a single woman here” (to rally against the war) (ibid. 179: 1-3).
In consequence, male officials treat her with greater respect and civility than the other females. She has demonstrated her persuasive powers over women and men alike, so even the assembled Greek delegates listen very deferentially to her. The chorus-leader praises Lysistrata for her courage, cunning, and will-power: “Hail, manliest of all women! Now is your time...because the head men of Greece, caught by your charms, have gathered together with all their mutual complaints and are turning them over to you for settlement” (Aristophanes 207: 38-42). She also turns out to be a crafty negotiator and diplomatic go-between, successfully mediating between Athens and Sparta and adroitly settling all squabbles between their obstinate male ambassadors. In the end, Lysistrata and the other women force their war-fighting husbands and lovers to conclude a peace treaty with Sparta and return peacefully to their Attica homes, but in reality the disastrous conflict ends only with the final defeat and Spartan occupation of Athens in 404 B.C.E.
Of course, Aristophanes' Lysistrata is not a feminist or even proto-feminist comedy in the modern sense of the word "feminism" (for example, American feminists have not protested en masse against any of America's foreign wars of aggression). Lysistrata is, above all, an antiwar and anti-militarist comedy—much like Joseph Heller's black-comedy novel Catch-22 (and the great satirical movie with the same title which was directed by the late Hollywood film-maker Mike Nichols), in which a young airman, Captain Yossarian, refuses to fly any more bombing missions against enemy targets. Yossarian has a young Italian girlfriend who has been wounded and scarred in an American air raid, but he has also come to hate all his commanding officers, the entire U.S. military, and even World War II (the so-called “Good War”). When one of his commanders, Major Danby, asks him (in the same superior, self-satisfied way as the Magistrate in Lysistrata would have asked): "But Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way?" (In other words, what if every other U.S. serviceman refuses to fight the enemy?) To which Yossarian replies in the same sarcastic way that Aristophanes would have probably replied: "Then I'd certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn't I?" Like Captain Yossarian (and Jesus Christ before him), Lysistrata is not known to have been a living historical figure.
Aristophanes. Lysistrata. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. Eds. J. Ellen Gainor et al. New York: Norton, 2014. 175-212. Print.