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Lysistrata was the first ever female hero of an Ancient Greek comedy. Way to break that glass ceiling, Lysistrata! Because of this trail-blazing, it's not surprising that she's a pretty extraordinary woman. Part of what makes her interesting is that, even though she plays a revolutionary role in bringing women's voices to the forefront of (fictional) Athenian politics, her personality actually contains a mixture of traditional and forward-thinking qualities.
On the forward-looking side, Lysistrata seems to care about the fate of all Greeks, including enemies of Athens like Boeotia and Sparta. She's totally critical of corruption in Athenian politics; and she thinks women should be able to get their voices heard in the politics of the city. And of course, you've got that whole crazy let's-go-on-sex-strike-until-the-war-ends thing, which is a pretty radical idea.
But before you start imagining Lysistrata's face superimposed on a Che poster, remember that a lot of her characteristics fall on the traditional side of the spectrum. To begin with, Lysistrata is a middle-class Athenian housewife. Her speeches at various points in the play comparing politics to sewing, spinning, and weaving reveal her experience in these fields; like most Athenian women, she probably spends a significant amount of her time performing domestic chores, or overseeing the activities of the household slaves and servants. Yup. Lysistrata is half 1960's anti-war protester, and half 1950's housewife.
Lysistrata is clearly proud of her position as a free-born woman, and expresses scornful feelings about slaves and servants. Clearly, she isn't exactly the champion of the downtrodden across the board. In fact, she's not even really a pacifist. In the tongue-lashing she gives the Athenians and Spartan Delegates towards the end of the play, Lysistrata makes clear that one of her major beefs with the Peloponnesian War is the fact that the Athenians and Spartans are wasting their time fighting each other, when they should be teaming up to fight the barbarians (mainly the Persians):
Now that you're my captive audience I'm ready to give you the tongue-lashing you deserve—both of you. You two sprinkle altars from the same cup like kinsmen, at Olympia, at Thermopylae, at Pytho—how many other places could I mention if I had to extend the list—yet when enemies are available with their barbarian armies, it's Greek men and Greek cities you're determined to destroy. (1128-1134)
In most of her views, Lysistrata is aligned with the views of "mainstream" Athenian society of her day. Could this be Aristophanes' way of making her radical message of peace and respect for women more acceptable to that audience? Our money's on yes.
What really makes Lysistrata interesting isn't her views so much as her personal qualities. To begin with, Lysistrata clearly has an incredible amount of intelligence and creativity. How else could she come up with the successful idea of a Greece-wide women's sex-strike? It's genius.
She also has crazy organizational and leadership skills. She summons women from all over Greece to her meeting (not an easy feat, even nowadays) and gets them all to agree to the plan (which, once again, includes a very strict "no sexytimes" policy). And it's not exactly as though the Greek women are excited about wartime celibacy:
Lysistrata: "Here goes, then; no need to beat around the bush. Ladies, if we're going to force the men to make peace, we're going to have to give up—"
Calonice: "Give up what? Tell us."
Lysistrata: "You'll do it, then?"
Calonice: "We'll do it, even if it means our death!"
Lysistrata: "All right. We're going to have to give up—the prick. Why are you turning away from me? Where are you going? Why are you all pursing your lips and shaking your heads? What means your altered color and tearful droppings? Will you do it or not? What are you waiting for?"
Calonice: "Count me out; let the war drag on."
Myrrhine: "Me too, by Zeus; let the war drag on." (119-130)
Yup. Lysistrata has the motivational tactics of a hostage negotiator. But her ability to convince these desperate housewives to give up one of their fondest recreational activities speaks loads for how charismatic and persuasive she is.
Then, once the plan actually gets underway, she shows tremendous amounts of determination. When the Magistrate and the Chorus of Men get in her face and try to get her to back down, she dishes back as good as she gets. And when some of the women try to break the strike and run off to their husbands, Lysistrata catches them and holds them to their original agreement:
First Wife: "I want to go home. I've got some Milesian woolens in the house, and the moths are chomping them all up."
Lysistrata: "Moths indeed! Get back inside."
First Wife: "By the Two Goddesses, I'll be right back; just let me spread them on the bed!"
Lysistrata: "Don't you spread anything, or go anywhere."
First Wife: "So I'm supposed to let my woolens be wasted?"
Lysistrata: "If that's what it takes."
Second Wife rushes from the Acropolis.
Second Wife: "Oh my god, my god, my flax! I forgot to shuck it when I left the house!"
Lysistrata: "Here's another one off to shuck her flax. March right back here."
Second Wife: "By our Lady of Light, I'll be back in a flash; just let me do a little shucking."
Lysistrata: "No! No shucking! If you start doing it, some other wife will want to do the same." (728-741)
And let's not forget to mention that Lysistrata seems to have special connections with the gods. True, we can't know for sure whether the widespread sexual anguish experienced by the men of Greece is the result of Lysistrata's prayers to Eros, the god of desire, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love—but it's possible. After all, Lysistrata did send up this prayer:
If Eros of the sweet soul and Cyprian Aphrodite imbue our thighs and breasts with desire, and infect the men with sensuous rigidity and bouts of truncheonitis, then I believe all Greece will one day call us Disbanders of Battles.(551-554)
Then, at the end of the play, Lysistrata actually summons onstage the goddess of Reconciliation to help her fine-tune the peace process. Not too shabby. This combination of personal strength and free-thinking makes Lysistrata a fascinating female hero.
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