Study Guide

Lysistrata Power

By Aristophanes

Power

Calonice: "And what if they grab us and drag us into the bedroom by force?"

Lysistrata: "Hold onto the door."

Calonice: "And what if they beat us?"

Lysistrata: "Then submit, but disagreeably: men get no pleasure in sex when they have to force you. And make them suffer in other ways as well. Don't worry, they'll soon give in. No husband can have a happy life if his wife doesn't want him to." (160-166)

In these lines, Calonice worries that the women simply won't have enough power to keep up their sex-strike. If the women's husbands are, on average, more physically powerful, what will be stopping them from turning to rape? Lysistrata still thinks they have some power to resist, through passive resistance. By making it abundantly clear that they don't want to get it on with their husbands, Lysistrata suggests that they can still make their husbands lives' miserable. Her point seems to be that the husbands don't really want their relationships to be based on power; they want their wives to want to have sex with them.

Calonice: "Well, if the two of you agree to this, then we agree too."

Lampito: "And we will convince our menfolk to keep a completely fair and honest peace. But how can anyone keep your Athenian rabble from acting like lunatics?"

Lysistrata: "Don't worry, we'll handle the persuasion on our side."

Lampito: "Not so, as long as your battleships are under canvas and your Goddess' temple has a bottomless fund of money."

Lysistrata: "No, that's also been well provided for: we're going to occupy the Acropolis this very day. The older women are assigned that part: while we're working out our agreement down here, they'll occupy the Acropolis, pretending to be up there for a sacrifice." (167-179)

Lampito's objections here show that she understands the role power plays in politics. Sure, she seems to be saying, it's all well and good if the women get their men to sign a peace treaty—but how can they trust that the Athenians will keep holding up their end of the bargain if they still have the financial power to wage war? Lysistrata shows that she, too, understands the role of power. She has had the foresight to send the Athenian women to take over the Acropolis; by seizing control of the money supply, the women can cut off the Athenian men's source of financial power. Looks like the women of Greece have grabbed their men by the, uh, well, you get the picture.

Magistrate: "Really, you witch! Where's a policeman?" (to First Policeman) "Grab her and tie both hands behind her back."

Lysistrata: "If he so much as touches me with his fingertip, mere public servant that he is, so help me Artemis he'll go home crying!"

These lines by Lysistrata show how complicated the issues of power are in this play—and how it isn't all that easy for modern readers to see Lysistrata as all about support for the downtrodden. On the one hand, Lysistrata shows her own personal willpower by refusing to be frightened by the Magistrate's threats. On the other hand, look at the language she uses to express her willpower: she says that the policeman is going to get it because he is nothing more than a "mere public servant." This shows that Lysistrata still thinks in terms of class divisions. Sure, Lysistrata is campaigning for women to have a voice, but she certainly isn't campaigning for servants (public or otherwise) to have any more power than they do already.

Magistrate: "Damn my luck, I'm out of policemen. But men must never, ever be worsted by women! Form up ranks, Scythians, and let's charge them!"

Lysistrata: "By the Two Goddesses, you'll soon discover that we also have four squadrons of fully armed combat women, waiting inside!"

Magistrate: "Scythians, twist their arms behind their backs!"

Lysistrata: "Women of the reserve, come out double time!"
Enter Old Women.
"Forward, you spawn of the marketplace, you soup and vegetable mongers! Forward, you landladies, you hawkers of garlic and bread! Tackle them! Hit them! Smash them! Call them names, the nastier the better! That's enough! Withdraw! Don't strip the bodies!"
Policemen run away howling; Old Women reenter the Acropolis. (449-461)

The Magistrate starts off this exchange by expressing his horror at the thought that men could be defeated by women—who are usually thought of as being less powerful than dudefolk. Lysistrata has no illusions about the fact that, on average, individual men are likely to be physically stronger than individual women. But is individual physical strength the only source of power? Far from it: power also comes from teamwork. We can see this in action when Lysistrata calls upon a whole host of different women to mount a counterattack against the Scythian policemen. Aw, yeah, Lysistrata & Co. Get it.

Magistrate: "But what do you plan to do?"

Lysistrata: "You're asking me that? We'll manage it for you."

Magistrate: "You'll manage the money?"

Lysistrata: "What's so strange about that? Don't we manage the household finances for you already?"

Magistrate: "That's different."

Lysistrata: "How so?"

Magistrate: "These are war funds!" (493-496)

Here, we see Lysistrata and the Magistrate debating about how much power women should be allowed to exercise in the city. Lysistrata makes the point that women have important power already, as managers of the finances in their households. The Magistrate doesn't really have much to say to this argument, does he? Isn't just saying "These are war funds!" pretty much the same as an ostrich sticking its head in the sand and pretending it's not in danger? Lysistrata: 1; Magistrate: 0.

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)

These lines show how men maintain their power over the women of the city. This happens in part through the women's politeness; most of the time, they simply don't want to give their husbands a hard time about the bad decisions they are making in the assembly. Eventually, however, the women feel that enough is enough, and at this point, the power dynamic shifts to one of physical strength, as the men use threats of violence to keep their wives from speaking up. As Lysistrata tells it, this usually had its desired effect: "I'd shut up," as she puts it. But the men can't keep these women silent forever.

Lysistrata: "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)

In these lines, Lysistrata shows another way that the women can have power over the men: through their ability to arouse sexual desire. To make sure this plan goes off without a hitch, Lysistrata even prays to the gods (Eros, the god of Desire, and Aphrodite, the goddess of Love) to make the women even sexier than usual, so that the men will be gripped by painful erections.

Men's Leader: "It's shocking, you know, that they're lecturing the citizens now, and running their mouths—mere women!—about brazen shields. And to top it off they're trying to make peace between us and the men of Sparta, who are no more trustworthy than a starving wolf. Actually, this plot they weave against us, gentlemen, aims at tyranny! Well, they'll never tyrannize over me: from now on I'll be on my guard, I'll 'carry my sword in a myrtle branch' and go to market fully armed right up beside Aristogiton. I'll stand beside him like this (posing like Aristogiton's statue): that way I'll be ready to smack this godforsaken old hag right in the jaw!" (advances on the Women's Leader) (626-635)

The Men's Leader here is comparing himself to Aristogiton, a heroic figure from Athenian history. Aristogiton, together with his buddy Harmodius, became famous for killing Hipparchus, the brother of the tyrant Hippias, in 515BCE. This action was seen as a blow struck against tyranny, and in favor of democracy. To commemorate this act, the city placed bronze statues of Harmodius and Aristogiton in the city center. How is this relevant? The Men's Leader thinks that, if he gives an inch to the women, they will take a mile: any increase in women's power places Athens on the road to tyranny.

Men's Leader: "If any man among us gives these women even the tiniest handhold, there's no limit to what their nimble hands will do. Why, they'll even be building frigates and launching naval attacks, cruising against us like Artemisia. And if they turn to horsemanship, you can scratch our cavalry: there's nothing like a woman when it comes to mounting and riding; even riding hard she won't slip off. Just look at the Amazons in Mikon's paintings, riding chargers in battle against men. Our duty is clear: grab each woman's neck and lock it in the wooden stocks!" (advances on the Women's Leader.) (671-681)

This time, the Men's Leader is making an historical comparison to the famous queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus (a city on the west coast of what is now Turkey). Artemisia was a feisty, independent woman, who became known for joining the Persians in their invasion of Greece. At the battle of Salamis, Artemisia commanded a ship against the Greeks; then, in the middle of the battle, after she accidentally rammed a Persian ship, she decided to make good on her mistake—and switched to the Greek side. The Men's Leader's next comparison is to mythology: the Amazons were famous female warriors, who (according to legend) once took over the Acropolis of Athens. Once again, the Men's Leader clearly thinks that any small amount of power given by men to women is equivalent to handing Athens over to her enemies.

Lysistrata: "A man! I see a man coming this way, stricken, in the grip of Aphrodite's mysterious powers. Lady Aphrodite, mistress of Cyprus and Cythera and Paphos, let the path that you've embarked on be upright!"

Wife: "Where is he, whoever he is?"

Lysistrata: "He's by Chloe's shrine."

Wife: "Oh yes, now I see him! But who is he?"

Lysistrata: "Take a good look. Anyone recognize him?"

Myrrhine: "Oh God, I do. And it's my own husband, Cinesias!"

Lysistrata: "Then it's your job to roast him, to torture him, to bamboozle him, to love him and not to love him, and to give him anything he wants, except what you and our wine cup know about." (831-841)

It may not be all that clear on a first reading, but when Lysistrata says that she sees a man "in the grip of Aphrodite's mysterious powers," she means a man who has been dominated by the goddess of love—in other words, a man who is super aroused. This shows that the women's sex-strike has had its desired effect—by making the men weak with desire. But even this isn't good enough. Lysistrata wants to turn the screw (badoom ching!) of Cinesias's torment just a little bit tighter… all for a good cause, of course.