Study Guide

Lysistrata Politics

By Aristophanes

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Magistrate: "We're at war on account of the money, is that it?"

Lysistrata: "Yes, and that's why everything else got messed up too. It was for opportunities to steal that Pisander and the others who aimed to hold office were always fomenting some kind of commotion. So let them keep fomenting to their hearts' content: they'll be withdrawing no more money from this place." (489-492)

Unless you've been living in a cave, you'll know that a lot of people think that politicians are untrustworthy, and just interested in money. Newsflash: this isn't just a problem in modern democracy; such problems also were found in Ancient Athens, the birthplace of the whole democratic system. You can hear that frustration ringing out loud and clear in these lines by Lysistrata, where she accuses prominent Athenian politicians (like Pisander) of waging war so that they can make themselves rich.

Lysistrata: "Before now, and for quite some time, we maintained our decorum and suffered in silence whatever you men did, because you wouldn't let us make a sound. But you weren't exactly all we could ask for. No, we knew only too well what you were up to, and many a time we'd hear in our homes about the bad decision you'd 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? Any decision about a rider to the peace treaty?' And my husband would say, 'What's that to you? Shut up!' And I'd shut up."

First Old Woman: "I wouldn't have shut up!"

Magistrate: "If you hadn't shut up, you'd have got a beating!" (507-516)

Isn't the whole point of democratic politics supposed to be—as Abraham Lincoln put it—that it's government "of the people, by the people, and for the people"? But how can that be the case when at least half the people (women) don't get to make their voices heard? In these lines, Lysistrata and the First Old Woman express their anger at being shut out of the political decision-making process. The Magistrate, however, seems to think that's just as it should be. Women making their voices heard threatens his own long-standing power.

Lysistrata: "Imagine the polis as a fleece just shorn. First, put it in a bath and wash out all the sheep dung; spread it on a bed and beat out the riff-raff with a stick, and pluck out the thorns; as for those who clump and knot themselves together to snag government positions, card them out and pluck off their heads. Next, card the wool into a sewing basket of unity and goodwill, mixing in everyone. The resident aliens and any other foreigner who's your friend, and anyone who owes money to the people's treasury, mix them in there too. And oh yes, the cities that are colonies of this land: imagine them as flocks of your fleece, each one lying apart from the others. So take all these flocks and bring them together here, joining them all and making one big bobbin. And from this weave a fine new cloak for the people." (574-586)

In this extended metaphor, Lysistrata critiques Athenian politics as it currently stands. And she does not mince words. First of all, there are those references to the "riff-raff" and other people mooching off the political system. These people have to be kicked out. Then, she talks about the "thorns" of corrupt politicians, and takes a very Queen Of Hearts stance by essentially shouting "Off with their heads!"

Men's Leader: "No free man should be asleep now! Let's strip for action, men, and meet this emergency!" (They remove their jackets.)

Men's Chorus: "I think I smell much bigger trouble in this,
a definite whiff of Hippias' tyranny!
I'm terrified that certain men from Sparta
have gathered at the house of Cleisthenes
and scheme to stir up our godforsaken women
to seize the Treasury and my jury pay,
my very livelihood." (614-625)

The Hippias the old men are talking about was the tyrant of Athens in the 6th century BCE. In 510 BCE—in other words, about a century before Lysistrata takes place—Hippias got kicked out of power, paving the way for the new Athenian democracy. The men of Athens here think that the women's sex-strike must be a Spartan plot to bring back the days of tyranny, and put an end to democracy. The men decide to take patriotic action to defend their freedom. And what do they see as the most important part of that freedom? Getting paid to sit on juries—a popular source of income among poor old men. Hmm. Maybe these guys aren't so patriotic after all.

Women's Leader: "I owe it to the polis to offer some good advice. And even if I was born a woman, don't hold it against me if I manage to suggest something better than what we've got now. I have a stake in our community: my contribution is men. You miserable geezers have no stake, since you've squandered your paternal inheritance, won in the Persian Wars, and now pay no taxes in return. On the contrary, we're all headed for bankruptcy on account of you! Have you anything to grunt in rebuttal? Any more trouble from you and I'll clobber you with this rawhide boot right in the jaw!"

With these words, the Women's Leader shows that she has every right to play a role in politics. The Men's Leader was saying that women have no stake in the community: that the men's decisions don't affect them, and they don't contribute anything anyway, so they should just butt out. And boy, does the Women's Leader let him have it. At the very least, that rawhide boot should get his attention.

Herald: "All Sparta rises, and our allies all have hard-ons. We need Pellana."

Cinesias: "Who caused this calamity to befall you? Was it Pan?"

Herald: "No, the one who started it, I reckon, was Lampito, and then the other women in Sparta all together, as from a starting place, excluded the men from their pork pies."

Cinesias: "So how are you faring?"

Herald: "We're hard up! We walk around town hunched over, like men carrying lamps. The women won't let us even touch their cherries till all of us unanimously agree to make peace with the rest of Greece."

Cinesias: "So this business is a global conspiracy by all the women! Now I get it! Very well, you go back to Sparta as quick as you can and tell them to send delegates here with full powers to negotiate a treaty. And I'll arrange for our Council to choose their own ambassadors; this cock of mine will be Exhibit A." (995-1006)

What would have happened if only Athens had been inflicted with endless sexual excitement, but not Sparta? We think it's likely the Spartans would have showed up and cut the Athenians into pieces. Once everyone's in the same boat, however, it gives everyone an incentive to come to the bargaining table. This shows the importance of political organization and collective action. If the women from all the different cities hadn't been acting together in their sex-strike, they never would have been this successful. Lysistrata's leadership and the other women's stick-to-itiveness provided the key ingredients for political change. Wow. That's so stirring we can almost forget that "pork pies" was just used as a euphemism.

Chorus Leader: "Their condition seems to jibe with these others. Now, does this cramping seize you in the wee hours?"

First Athenian Delegate: "Yes, and what's worse, we're worn absolutely raw by being in this condition! I mean, if someone doesn't reconcile us soon, there's no way we won't be f***ing Cleisthenes!"

Chorus Leader: "If you've got any sense, you'll cover up there: you don't want one of the Herm-Docker clan to spot you."

First Athenian Delegate: "That's certainly good advice." (1088-1095)

Aristophanes has worked in a reference to contemporary politics (contemporary for him, anyway) into this quote. The first thing you need to know is what a "herm" is. Basically, a "herm" is a special type of ancient statue sacred to the god Hermes. What made this statue special was that it was actually just a rectangular pillar, with a sculpture of Hermes's head on top… and an erect phallus at waist level. You can see a picture of these weird doohickeys here. These statues were used on the streets for various purposes, as boundary markers, sign-posts, and so on.

What's this all have to do with Athenian politics? Oddly enough, one night in 415 BCE (4 years before Lysistrata's theatrical debut), some hooligans went through the streets and smashed the faces and genitals of the herms. This was considered especially bad luck because it was right before Athens sent a massive naval expedition against its enemies in Sicily—an expedition that ended in total failure. When Lysistrata was performed, the culprits in the "Herm-Docking" had not all been identified, and Aristophanes is hinting that some of them might be in the audience (making the First Athenian Delegate want to cover up).

Lysistrata: "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. That takes me through one of my arguments."

First Athenian Delegate: "My cock is bursting out of my skin and killing me!" (1128-1136)

Uh, so what does this have to do with politics, exactly? Aha! That's exactly the point. The point is that, in politics, not every decision gets made for stereotypically political reasons. Sure, Lysistrata is giving the Spartans and Athenians a "tongue-lashing" in the form of a reasoned series of arguments. But it seems like the First Athenian Delegate is less interested in listening to well-wrought arguments and more interested in, uh, getting off. Maybe necessity really is the mother of political invention.

Lysistrata: "Next, Spartans, I'm going to turn to you. Don't you remember when Pericleidas the Spartan came here once and sat at the altars as a suppliant of the Athenians, pale in his scarlet uniform, begging for troops? That time when Messenia was up in arms against you and the god was shaking you with an earthquake? And Cimon went with four thousand infantrymen and rescued all Sparta? After being treated that way by the Athenians, you're now out to ravage the country that's treated you well?"

First Athenian Delegate: "They're guilty as can be, Lysistrata!"

Spartan Delegate: "We're guilty, but what an unspeakably fine arse!" (1137-1147)

Even while Lysistrata is giving her balanced speech, turning to one side, now the other like a conflict-negotiation expert, her audience's mind is elsewhere. They are hankering to relieve themselves from the sexual torment that has gripped them ever since the women went on their sex-strike, and so they are willing to do anything to make a deal. They will even do that hardest of things, admitting that they were wrong—as the Spartans do at the end of this passage.

Second Athenian Delegate: "I've never seen such a party! The Spartans were really charming, and we were superb company ourselves over the drinks."

First Athenian Delegate: "That figures, because when we're sober we get unhinged. If the Athenians will take my advice, from now on we'll go on all our diplomatic missions drunk. As it is, when we go to Sparta sober, we at once start looking for ways to stir up trouble. And so when they say something we don't hear it, and when they don't say anything we read things into that, and we each come away with different reports of the same discussions. But this time everything was agreeable. When somebody sang Telamon when he should have been singing Cleitagora, we'd applaud him and even swear up and down that—"
The Slaves approach.
"—Hey, those slaves are back again! Get lost, you whip fodder!" (1225-1240)

These lines are spoken by the Athenian Delegates as they stumble out of the party celebrating the new peace treaty between Athens and Sparta. They reveal that political conflict—including war—often arises simply because of misunderstanding and mistrust. To solve this problem, the First Athenian delegate has a novel solution: every time the Athenians go on a diplomatic mission to Sparta, they should be sure to get drunk. You can't start too many fights (or, more realistically, finish very many fights) when you're smashed.

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