Episode 36: War and Peace and Sex

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, with all of its nudity, sex, and explicit language, was nonetheless his most powerful salvo against the Peloponnesian War.

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Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 36: War and Peace and Sex. This episode is all about Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, which probably premiered in the city of Athens in 411 BCE. Lysistrata might be the single most famous work of Ancient Greek comedy. It’s a magnificent, hilarious, and in the end, heartwarming piece of theater that I guarantee will make you laugh and smile. But it didn’t arise out of nowhere. Lysistrata, and Aristophanes himself, grew out of a long and rich tradition of political satire, political satire enabled by Athens’ unique democratic system. In the hands of Aristophanes, maybe for the first time in history, theater was suddenly something that could make and break political careers, deflate pomp and demagoguery, and change the course of a nation’s history.

In this show, I’m going to begin by telling you the story of Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata. And then I’m going to tell you about the historical climate that produced it – what was going on in Athens’ history during the turbulent winter of 411 BCE, what the play likely meant to its original audience, and how Lysistrata fits in with Aristophanes’ other and less famous surviving works.

Now, the title of this episode – Episode 36 – is War and Peace and Sex. And that should serve as a warning to you. There is a lot of graphic nudity in this play. There are explicit references to sex, and male and female bodies, and the entire story is focused on what we might call a sexual emergency in Greece. There are four letter words that I will not bleep out, because they occur in the original text. I usually try to avoid harsher language to try to make for as family friendly a show as possible, but we’re talking about Aristophanes here, and Aristophanes isn’t exactly G-rated. So, if for any reason any of this sounds objectionable, I respectfully advise you to consider listening to something else. And if for any reason this sounds awesome, then, well, don’t feel guilty. People have been reading, circulating, copying, acting in, producing, staging, and watching this play for two thousand four hundred years. That means, even if it’s filled to the brim with references to penises, and vaginas, and that kind of thing, the play Lysistrata says something profound and enduring about the human condition. So, folks, let me give you just a minute of background upfront, and then we’ll dive right into Aristophanes’ most famous play. [music]

Lysistrata‘s Time and Place: Athens in the Winter of 411 BCE

Let’s talk about the city of Athens in 411 BCE. Aristophanes lived from about 450 until about 385. When he was twenty years old, his city became embroiled in a war. This war would last for twenty-seven years. And, as many of you know if you’ve caught recent episodes, this war was called the Peloponnesian War. During the most productive period of his life, between the ages of twenty and forty-seven or so, Aristophanes lived, often under siege, in wartime Athens, as Athens fought Sparta and its allies. Because he was producing comedy, set in contemporary Athens, Aristophanes’ plays have hundreds and hundreds of references to the Peloponnesian War – to important statesmen, generals and citizens who influenced the course of the war, and also to events taking place during this period of history that were affecting all of Greece.

Map Peloponnesian War 431 BC-en

The territories and battles of the Peloponnesian War. This war dominated the later life of Sophocles, and the careers of Euripides and Aristophanes.

The play that we’re about to read – again, Lysistrata, was staged in 411, in Athens, and it was also supposed to take place in 411, in Athens. That’s easy enough to understand, but it sets the work of Aristophanes and other comedic writers apart from Athens’ tragic writers. The most famous works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are set in the remote past, in times of legend. Their characters – the Agamemnons, the Oedipuses, and the Medeas – are most often mythological figures who would have been familiar to audiences by means of collective oral and musical traditions. Aristophanes’ work, on the other hand, reflects the pop culture, the fads and oddities, and the controversies and political realities of an in-crowd of Athenians who attended his plays. This makes Aristophanes’ plays particularly fun for a podcast like ours, because we’re going to get to laugh at all of his naughty jokes, but we’re also going to walk away with a deeper understanding of what it actually would have been like to be an everyday Greek person, living at the end of the 400s BCE, and watching Aristophanes in the theater.

So, because Lysistrata is set in Aristophanes’ Athens, during a specific moment of ancient Greek history, we know a lot about specific events that compelled Aristophanes to write Lysistrata, and other related plays. By 411 BCE, the Peloponnesian War had been on and off for 21 long, complicated years – years that Aristophanes and his audience had all lived through. Political figures had risen and fallen, generals had come into prominence and then died, new cult religions were spreading and flourishing, and in all ways, ancient history was rocking and rolling. We’ll get into this history with some degree of detail later, after the play, but what you really need to know is that when this famous production was first staged, an ugly, two decade long war was almost done chewing Greece into a pulp.

The Peloponnesian War was not, like the Persian Wars that had happened two generations before, a fight to preserve Greek independence from a massive foreign conglomerate. No, the Peloponnesian War was a war of Greeks fighting Greeks, a war in which egotism and poor diplomacy, profiteering and ambitious politicking kept armies on the field year after year. Economies were drained, and commerce was disrupted, and prejudice and factionalism thrived at the expense of intercultural exchange. So, for anyone with a coherent sense of history and international relations, it would have been an absolutely infuriating and disgusting time to live. And indeed, the stage comedy that survives from ancient Greece demonstrates that as army after army was put on the field – as spears were put in hands and a perpetually withering population of rowers were seated on the benches of warships, ancient Greece’s satirists seem to have picked up their pens and written works for public performance in response. And if in the 420s or 410s you were an Athenian demagogue, or a politician turned general taking advantage of the pain and desperation of your city, there was one man who scared you more than any Spartan general or Theban admiral. And this man was Aristophanes. Enemies on the field might send profiteering military leaders to honorable deaths. But Aristophanes, with a play like Lysistrata, could incinerate their reputations and end their political careers before an entire city.

The play Lysistrata is set just outside of the Acropolis at Athens. In 411 BCE, this was the religious center of the city, and a place where emergency stores of money were maintained. Those emergency stores of money are a crucial element of the play’s plot. The main character of the play, a woman named Lysistrata, has a house down at the foot of the Acropolis, and her friends live nearby. So that’s the setting. Lysistrata and her friends, down at the base of the Athenian Acropolis. In fact, as the play opens, Lysistrata is just outside her house, and she’s waiting for her friends to arrive.

There’s just one other thing to keep in mind before this play begins. The play Lysistrata has an unusual feature, in that it has not one chorus, but two choruses. We’ve seen a lot of choruses in this podcast – from the conservative elders and bloodthirsty monsters of Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy, to the Theban citizenry of Sophocles’ Oedipus plays, to the violent and drunk zealots of Euripides’ Bacchae. But we have not seen two choruses onstage at the same time. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata has just this. One chorus is a group of old men. The other chorus is a group of old women. And because the central feud in Lysistrata is essentially girls against boys, the pair of choruses are able to enact this dichotomy in ways that are amusing, and profane, and really entertaining.

With all that said, we’re ready to begin the play. The translation I’m occasionally quoting from is in a volume called Lysistrata and Other Plays. It was translated and has an introduction and notes by Alan Sommerstein, and was published by Penguin Books in 2002. So get comfortable in your Ancient Greek theater bench, tell your slaves and livestock not to wait up for you, have a swig of wine and get ready for one of the funniest things ever written, by anyone. [music]

The Opening: Lysistrata Lays Out Her Plan

It was early morning at the western edge of the Acropolis, in the city of Athens. A residential neighborhood sat quietly in the shade as the city began to come to life. From the door of one of the houses, a woman emerged. Her posture was impatient and ever so slightly surly. She looked around hastily, in search of any inbound arrivals, but saw no one. While she was just a single woman, of average size and appearance, she had quite an imposing name. Her name was “Lysistrata.” And Lysistrata means the “Liquidator of Armies.”1


Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Lysistrata, from the 1890s, show a sensuous, confident heroine.

Lysistrata was displeased at the sight of the empty street. She had summoned an assembly of women, and they weren’t there. Lysistrata said that if she’d tried to bring everyone together for a celebration, they’d already be in attendance. But soon enough, Lysistrata’s neighbor appeared. Her name was Calonice. And Calonice said it was reasonable that the other women hadn’t shown up yet. After all, they had their duties to attend to – their waiting on their husbands and taking care of babies. Hearing her friend Calonice reciting all the chores that women had to do, Lysistrata interjected, “But damnit, there are more important things than that!. . .Why, Calonice, we women have the salvation of all Greece in our hands. . .if [we] women join together – not just us [Athenians], but the Peloponnesians and Boetians as well – then united we can save Greece.”2

Lysistrata’s friend Calonice was confused. Women, after all, could do little more than wear soft gowns and pretty makeup and ornamental slippers. How could they stop the war? Lysistrata said they would stop the war with those soft gowns and pretty makeup and ornamental slippers. They would stop the war, and no one would fight for an entire generation. Except – uh – where were those other women who were supposed to show up?

Finally, after Lysistrata and Calonice talked a bit further, some other women showed up. One of them was called Myrrhine. Additionally, a Spartan woman named Lampito showed up with some Theban and Corinthian women. Together they were a colorful lot. Lysistrata told Lampito the Spartan that Lampito looked gorgeous, and strong – like Lampito could take down a bull. To showcase her fortitude, the Spartan woman demonstrated a high jump. In fact, Lampito the Spartan was a source of fascination to Lysistrata’s friend Calonice, as well, who touched the Spartan woman’s breasts admiringly. More female on female body inspections followed in earnest. A Boetian girl’s dress was lifted and her “fine broad lowlands” (144) and “carefully plucked. . .herbage” (144) were proclaimed splendid. A Corinthian woman’s belly and breasts were pointed out and declared perfectly curvy. After this curious little session, it was time to get down to business.

Lysistrata asked the women how long it had been since they’d seen their husbands. Calonice, Lysistrata’s Athenian neighbor, said that her husband had been gone five months. Myrrhine, the other Athenian woman, said that her husband had been gone seven. And Lampito the Spartan said that her husband had been absent on and off as long as she could remember. Lysistrata asked the assembly a question. Did they want to stop the war, she asked? Calonice the Athenian said she’d give everything to stop the war. Myrrhine the Athenian said she’d cut herself in half and donate half of herself to stop the war. Lampito the Spartan said she’d climb an enormous mountain southwest of Sparta. At this, Lysistrata nodded. She looked around at the women and chose her words carefully. “Women,” she said, “if we want to force the men to make peace, we must renounce” (145). Lysistrata broke off, looking around, and they urged her to continue. And after some prodding, Lysistrata explained her plan. “We must renounce – sex” (145). [music]

The women grew pallid. There were tears. Heads shook. They began to move away from Lysistrata. Myrrhine the Athenian said yes – she’d cut herself in half, or walk through fire – and Calonice the Athenian agreed – they would do anything at all – but not give up sex. Only the Spartan Lampito, once asked, said yes. It would be difficult, she said, but she could do it.

Lysistrata turned to the others. Wouldn’t they reconsider? Lysistrata was asked exactly how this giving up sex would aid the war effort. Lysistrata explained. All the women of Greece would slink around their homes in gauzy gowns, nude underneath, and “we walk round the house wearing sheer lawn shifts and nothing else; the men are all horny and can’t wait to leap on us; and we keep our distance and refuse to come to them – then they’ll make peace soon enough, you’ll see” (146). The assembly of women considered it. What if, said Myrrhine the Athenian, the men were okay without sex? What if the women were all just disregarded? Lysistrata assured them that if things got really bad, they’d all still have their dog skin leather dildos. And yes, this, by the way, was a thing in Ancient Greece.

The dog skin leather dildos fallback plan did not convince the assembly of women that Lysistrata’s scheme would work. Myrrhine the Athenian asked what would happen if the men beat them, or raped them, and Lysistrata said that against these they could employ frigid resistance and cold censure.

The Swearing of the Oath

And finally, the gathering of women was won over. They would, they resolved, deny their husbands sex until the war concluded. After a question from Lampito the Spartan, Lysistrata explained some of the fine points of her plan. Atop the Acropolis, she said, there was a large emergency fund of money, stored in the Temple of Athena. The women, said Lysistrata, would occupy the Acropolis, thus hindering Athens’ war effort.

Now that they had a plan, the women decided that they needed to swear an oath to carry their mission through. There was talk of a sacrifice, and then possibly a sacrifice of a white stallion, but in the end they decided on using a large container of unmixed wine as the centerpiece of their ritual. The women then gathered around the wine, and repeated the solemn vows that Lysistrata recited. The – I guess we should say solemn and x-rated vows. Because the women vowed not to let their husbands approach them with erections. They vowed to wear thin dresses and enticing makeup. They vowed that if they were forced into sex, they would not thrust back, or assent to lift their feet up to the ceiling. They vowed not to – well – they vowed not to do some other stuff, which Alan Sommerstein in the Penguin edition translates as “I will not adopt the lioness-on-a-cheesegrater position” (149). There’s a footnote that explains that one – I invite you to buy a copy of the book and find out for yourself.

As the women took their vow, sudden news arrived among them. The Acropolis had indeed been overtaken by women! I – uh – I guess that in the ninety seconds in which Lysistrata and company took their vows, the Acropolis had utterly fallen to a bunch of unseen women who had somehow skipped the vows. Anyway, the Acropolis had fallen, and the women resolved to hold it, no matter what. Now, a scene change takes place. Probably at the original production, a wheeled platform called an ekkukelma brought out a new skene, or scene painting, depicting the Acropolis. Lysistrata and her companions then hurried into the secured Acropolis, prepared to guard it to the last. [music]

Leo von Klenze - The Acropolis at Athens - WGA12199 lysistrata set

The set for the remainder of Lysistrata would have been a recognizable image of the Acropolis. The painting is Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens by Leo von Klenze (1846).

The Male Chorus Arrives

Once Lysistrata and her companions had gone into the Acropolis, a company of old men arrived onstage. These old men will serve as the one of the play’s two choruses, observing and reacting to the unexpected sexual boycott. Now, again, the play Lysistrata is extremely unusual in its use of two choruses. One is a chorus of old men, and the other is a chorus of old women – and this is the first time we’re seeing either of them. So, the old men of the male chorus brought with them logs of green wood, and torches, and containers filled with hot coals. Their intention was to send smoke and fire up through the Acropolis, and retake it from the usurping women.

Looking up at the occupied Acropolis, the chorus of old men cursed the insubordinate women. The women were likened to adulteresses, and then, the women were likened to a Spartan tyrant who had held the Acropolis some hundred years before. The old men were resolute, and yet as they tried to stoke the fires of their hot coals, the smoke blew into their eyes. A few more times, they tried to stoke the coals, and got smoke in their eyes, and when they tried to set their coal pots down, smoke poured into their eyes again. I imagine this was a great piece of physical comedy when it was originally staged – and eventually, the old men managed to set their pots down, and continued to try and light the wood they’d brought with them. Their efforts weren’t particularly successful, but they did manage to attract some attention. Specifically, the old men of the male chorus attracted the attention of the old women of the female chorus – a chorus of old women who will naturally serve as counterpoint to the first chorus of old men.

The Female Chorus Arrives

The second chorus – the one made up of old women – saw the smoke caused by the first chorus and hurried onstage. And just as the old men had brought fire, the old women brought water, in a obvious symbolic pairing of male warmongering and female peacemaking that’s at the heart of the play Lysistrata. Naturally, a confrontation soon took place.

The leader of the women accosted the leader of the men. She said they were treacherous scum, profaning the sacred environs of the gods. The leaders of the two groups squared off against one another. The male leader said it was time to put down their sticks and give the women what they deserved – a punch in the eye. The female leader announced that if he did, she would retaliate by tearing his testicles off. Tempers rose quickly. Threats were made – the leader of the woman would be skinned – no, she would be bashed; and then the leader of the women would have his lungs and guts ripped out. The leader of the men was called an “old corpse” (155) and the leader of the women a “rotting relic” (155), and I think these lines remind us that even though frightful threats are being voiced, those voicing them are sufficiently feeble that the whole altercation was comedic.

Fortunately, no real violence unfolded. The women dashed their water all over the men, and soon the men were shivering and thinking of using their coal pots to get warm again. The situation seemed to be defused, but then, a new group appeared onstage. There was a stern magistrate, dressed in the most formal clothing. This magistrate brought with him two slaves bearing iron bars, and four heavily armed police officers from the northeastern lands of Scythia.

The Magistrate Attempts to Take Control

The magistrate looked around witheringly. It was all, he said, of course just a result of women practicing one of those newfangled religions. Women were insolent, he said, and their carelessness and faddish tendencies were harmful to everyone. The leader of the male chorus saw the magistrate and voiced his complaint – the leader of the male chorus and and his companions, he said, had been “brutally assaulted” (156) – just as humiliatingly, they’d been made to be soaking wet, as though they’d all peed themselves!

The magistrate was unsympathetic. Men, he said, did everything they could to nurse women’s vices. Using memorable innuendoes involving necklace pins sliding out of holes and tender pinkie toes needing to be loosened up, the magistrate emphasized that men were always catering to their wives’ most carnal desires. The magistrate said it was time to put an end to Lysistrata’s absurd occupation of the Acropolis, and a moment later, he had his slaves move in with their iron bars in preparation to force their way inside. [music]

Lysistrata, standing in the threshold of the Acropolis, said “No need to use crowbars; I’m coming out of my own free will. What’s the use of crowbars? It’s not crowbars that we need, it’s intelligence and common sense” (157). The magistrate told an officer to grab Lysistrata and restrain her, but Lysistrata said there would be dire consequences if he did. The magistrate ordered a second officer to grab Lysistrata and tie her up, but at this – and I’m quoting Alan Sommerstein’s stage directions in the Penguin edition, “a ferocious-looking OLD WOMAN comes out of the Acropolis and belligerently confronts them” (157). And what did this old woman say? She said to the magistrate, “If you so much as lay a finger on her, by [our ancestors], I’ll hit you so hard you’ll shit all over the place!” (158).

Everyone stared at the old woman, but the magistrate regained his composure and ordered the errant women to be restrained. But, a second old woman appeared from the Acropolis, and said she’d give anyone who touched Lysistrata a black eye, and then a third old woman said that any assailant of Lysistrata would have their hair torn out. The magistrate told his four police officers to charge – and fighting broke out onstage – Lysistrata called to the “daughters of the porridge and vegetable market” (158) and soon a large group of formidable elderly women set upon the police officers and trounced them.

After a bit more dialogue, the result of the quarrel onstage was clear. The women were superior in numbers and resolution, and so the magistrate was forced to result to questioning them, rather than going after them physically. The magistrate asked why Lysistrata and the others were there. Why had they taken the Acropolis?

Lysistrata was quite clear. She said she and the other women wanted to stop the war, and keep the city’s money out of the hands of warmongers. The magistrate objected – there was no link between war and money! – but Lysistrata corrected him. Money and its uses had often been causes of fanning the flames of war. Against the objections and the incredulity of the magistrate, Lysistrata said that she and her companions would take charge of the state’s money, and end the war, and make sure the men were safe, whether they liked it or not.

The magistrate demanded to know more. Where, he asked, was all this coming from? Lysistrata told him. Greek women, she said, had patiently watched their husbands’ diplomatic blunders. Greek women had watched all of this, and when they tried to speak up, they were shushed, or worse, threatened, by their husbands. What did men say? Lysistrata asked. Oppressive Greek husbands, said Lysistrata, would often quote Homer’s Iliad – a speech that the Trojan champion Hector gives to his wife, the core of which is the line “Let war be the care of the menfolk” (161). The magistrate heard this quote and rallied, saying, “Quite right, too, by Zeus” (161). And the magistrate – uh – evidently forgot that Hector, after making this proclamation, died and lost the war.

Lysistrata continued. She and her supporters had taken the Acropolis because it was getting to the point where there were literally no men left. Bursting into song, Lysistrata told the magistrate that he should be the one veiling himself from the sun, and working at the loom, because Greece’s women were going to take care of the war, now. In the song, the women steeled themselves, saying that they’d do whatever it took, and once the tune reached its conclusion, Lysistrata said that as long as men and women suffered from lust, she and her compatriots would be able to bring the war to a stop.

The first step, Lysistrata and her companions said, would be to scale back the extent to which Athens had become ridiculously militarized. Men were going to the marketplace dressed in full armor, bearing weapons with them. Wasn’t a man with a gigantic shield and blade, buying sardines at the fishmongers, a bit of a silly sight? Wasn’t it a bit much when a cavalry officer rode into the marketplace on horseback, having the porridge that he bought spooned into his helmet? What about a man who sent to buy figs, and went armed with a javelin, and made the poor old woman who ran the fig stand faint with fear? This militarization, Lysistrata and her companions agreed, needed to be scaled back.

When asked to further explain her strategy for peace, Lysistrata said that it would be a bit like the way women spun wool. The situation in Greece was a messy, dirty knot, just now, said Lysistrata – the first thing they’d do would be to send little runners out on diplomatic missions as they unraveled the wool ball. Then it would be like a typical day’s work at the spindle – the ball would continue to be unraveled, irregularities would be sorted out, and dirty spots, and eventually from a hulking and foul mess, Greece would be a tidy warm cloak.

The magistrate said this was a stupid analogy, and women had done nothing for the war. Lysistrata said that in actuality, they had birthed every single soldier involved in the war, and now they were alone, without their husbands, and young women were growing up with no marital prospects. The magistrate began to object, but the women started dressing him up in a farcical costume until he lost his temper, storming off and growling that he’d inform other magistrates of the absurdities taking place at the Acropolis.

The Central Feud Between the Two Choruses in Lysistrata

So the magistrate left, and Lysistrata went back into the Acropolis, leaving the male chorus and the female chorus facing one another onstage. The two choruses then had another fracas. The male chorus first removed their over garments. The men said what was happening was clear – the rebellious women were being manipulated by Spartans – and they would lead to the downfall of Athens! The leader of the male chorus said he wasn’t falling for anything – the said that he would bear arms and armor into the marketplace – and that he would stand proudly, sword in hand, like the strapping young man who had once assassinated a tyrant of Athens – and that he would give the leader of the female chorus a punch in the face.

Well, of course the female chorus wasn’t going to take this sitting down. The female chorus members began by removing their own over garments. Then the women said that they had once been young priestesses atop the Acropolis, and they’d undertaken sacred rites and rituals, and been chosen for select religious performances. The point was that they had once been professionally and blessedly associated with the Acropolis, and so they weren’t some riffraff who could be smacked and tossed aside. The old men, on the other hand, according to the female chorus, were freeloaders on the city of Athens – a bunch of gasbags living off of tax revenue and salaries from their state jury service. The old men, said the old women, had spent money, and they had squandered it on a war, and now the city was on the verge of becoming insolvent.

Naturally, the men had to answer to this, and so they took off the rest of their clothes. Now, if you saw this, you would find it strange for two reasons. One, the fact that they are taking off their clothes as the argument escalates. The explanation for this removal of clothing is a single line in which the leader says, “Let’s not be wrapped in fig leaves – let’s be men / Who smell like men! Come on now, strip again!” (167). Again, a strange argumentative strategy. We need to escalate this debate, so let’s get naked and let them smell us. I’m glad they don’t do that in political debates today. Or am I? Well, anyway, the second reason you would find this stripping scene odd is that onstage the men would have worn close fitting garments that the audience would have known indicated their nudity, and they would have been wearing large leather penises. And if there’s one thing that’s not particularly intimidating, it’s a crowd of naked, feeble old men with huge weenies made of animal hides strapped onto them. It’s just something to keep in mind – the words are going to get harsh, here, but the overall timbre of the scene, if you were looking out at this spectacle early in 411 BCE in Athens, was definitely comedic.

So, the men recalled, now that they were naked, the glories of old battles, and said it was time to reawaken their masculine virility, and be young once more. The leader looked at the women with anxiety, saying that the women, if left unchecked, would start constructing warships. They’d create a powerful cavalry, too – after all, women could stay on a galloping stallion, couldn’t they? They sure could ride, couldn’t they? Wink wink. So, anyway – yeah – said the leader of the men’s chorus, the women needed to be seized. At this the male chorus leader tried to grab the female chorus leader, but she evaded him.

The female chorus leader threatened the male chorus leader with dire physical violence. And then the female chorus, taking a cue from their leader, removed all of their clothes. The old women were confident that their nudity would intimidate their elderly male adversaries, and made clear that any other males who charged them would have their teeth knocked out and their scrotums smashed. It was time to call an end to their stupid war, and braggadocio, and idiotic decrees. The female leader attacked the male leader, and the male leader fled, which caused the male chorus to beat a retreat away from the Acropolis gates. [music]

The Women’s Resolution Wavers

With the latest fight between the two choruses concluded, Lysistrata came out of the Acropolis. There was a crisis, she said. Somewhat formally, the female chorus leader asked what was amiss? Tell her, she said – Lysistrata couldn’t keep all the troubles to herself all the time! And then Lysistrata voiced one of the more famous, and more profane lines in Aristophanes. “Few words it takes to say,” Lysistrata explained. “[W]e need a fuck” (169). The women began singing. Lysistrata elaborated. A woman had escaped on a cable dangling down the Acropolis, and Lysistrata herself had intercepted another deserter.

Abruptly a woman appeared in the Acropolis doorway, sneaking along, but Lysistrata saw her. Lysistrata asked the woman where she was going. The woman said she was heading home. She had some – uh – some fleece – all balled up at home – and it – uh – needed to be spread out on the bed. Lysistrata told the would-be deserter that she wouldn’t be spreading anything out on any beds any time soon – not while the conflict was going on.

A second woman emerged, and Lysistrata confronted her, as well. The second woman’s excuse was that she had a really nice – uh – bunch of flax that needed to be pulled apart. Yeah. Just a quick errand. She just needed to head home and strip the flax into threads. Lysistrata glowered. There would be no going home and stripping, Lysistrata growled.

A third woman emerged all in a fluster and hurry. This third woman said she needed to get home, immediately. Why, she was about to give birth! Lysistrata frowned. Uh – Lysistrata said. The woman hadn’t been pregnant the day before. What was – uh – up with that? The woman stammered – she was – well, she was pregnant, now, and she needed to give birth. [clang]. Lysistrata knocked on her stomach. That was one hell of a strange pregnancy, she noted, and, when she lifted up the woman’s top, she saw a bronze helmet. The third woman, said Lysistrata, could stay on top of the Acropolis until her bronze helmet was born, couldn’t she? Lysistrata told them all to imagine their husbands, and how much their husbands were enduring privations, as well. Lysistrata said she’d heard an oracle – that if the little female swallows could keep away from the great big crowing cocks, then the order of things would indeed change. But if they couldn’t, said Lysistrata, “if the swallows rebel and fly from the sacred enclosure, Then ’twill be patent to all that there’s no bird that’s so nymphomaniac” (171). Having voiced this prophecy about swallows and cocks that she may or may not have totally just made up on the spot, Lysistrata ushered her wayward companions back into the Acropolis. [music]

Cinesias Arrives to Beg for Sex

This left the still nude male chorus, still wearing their fake leather schlongs, alone on stage with the still nude female chorus. The old men sang a song about a virginal, brawny hunter who shunned the company of women, and they said that they also detested the female sex. The women, in response to the men’s tale of the hunter, told a story about legendary figure who loathed all men, but by contrast deeply loved women. Soon the argument had degenerated into insults regarding one another’s pubic hair. Before things could get any worse, though Lysistrata and her Athenian friends Calonice and Myrrhine came out of the Acropolis. They had seen a man coming. He was hurrying toward the Acropolis, said Lysistrata. And he looked aroused.

Soon enough, the newcomer was recognized. It was the husband of Lysistrata’s friend Myrrhine. His name was Cinesias, and stage directions indicate that he wears an exceedingly large and erect fake penis. Not exactly subtle, but, the meaning is clear. Cinesias was not enjoying the sexual boycott.

Cinesias asked if he could see Myrrhine, and after a short delay, Myrrhine came out. Cinesias begged her to come down from the Acropolis. He’d brought their baby, he said, and the poor thing needed its mother. Seeing the infant, Myrrhine consented to comfort it. Her husband then began begging for sex. Myrrhine said she’d only come home – as would all the other women – she’d only come home if the men figured out a way to wind up the war. He promised he’d do this – only, would she have sex with him just once, immediately, to seal the deal?

Myrrhine hesitated. Their baby was taken away by a servant. Where was the sex to take place? She asked. Her husband Cinesias suggested the ground at the foot of the Acropolis. She rejected this. He suggested a nearby cave called Pan’s Grotto, and said she could purify herself in a nearby spring, prior to climbing back up the Acropolis afterward. Myrrhine said she’d fetch a bed, and returned with one a moment later. Which – yeah – I guess there were rentable sex beds sort of sitting all around in Aristophanes’ imagination. Myrrhine then delayed three more times. She said she needed a mattress, and got one. Then it was a pillow – she said of course she needed a pillow, and she ran off and brought one back. Meanwhile, Cinesias was all but losing his mind with lust. Just as it seemed he would be satisfied, Myrrhine went away a third time in search of a blanket. Cinesias became increasingly explicit and profane about what he required – I won’t go into details, but anyway, Myrrhine brought back a blanket, and had her husband lie on the bed. As he nearly fainted with desire, she put first one perfume on him, and then a second, and just as he was about to draw her toward him, he looked up and saw that she was gone.

This nearly did in Cinesias, the husband of Lysistrata’s friend Myrrhine. He writhed and groaned, and said that his lust was unendurable. The male chorus pitied him, and Cinesias proclaimed that his wife had become a villain, and prayed that she would get what was coming to her. [music]

A Spartan Herald Arrives


Aubrey Beardsley’s The Spartan Ambassadors (1896). Beardsley doesn’t exactly shy away from Aristophanes’ distinct prosthetic props!

At just this moment, as Cinesias lay in a miserable state, a new male character appeared onstage. He was a Spartan herald, and he had a – very conspicuous bulge protruding from his cloak. This visibly erect Spartan herald announced that he was looking for the leaders of Athens. In a series of hilarious and difficult to translate puns, Cinesias pointed out the newly arrived Spartan herald’s erection and suggested they were undergoing the same difficult experience. And Spartan women, the herald lamented, weren’t letting men get anywhere near them, either!

And in a rush, the truth dawned on Cinesias. All the women in Greece were in on the scheme. No one was going to get laid until peace was established. In two – amusingly – swift lines, Cinesias resolved to put peace brokering documents in front of his city’s high council. He told the Spartan herald to bring peace delegates to Athens and the two ran off opposite sides of the stage.

Lysistrata‘s Climax: The Two Choruses Unite

Now, while all of this had been happening, the male chorus and the female chorus had been hanging around the wings of the stage, eyeing one another. The old women had got hold of the old men’s clothes. A dialogue began between them of much the same ilk as earlier dialogues – the men accused the women of being pitiless and stubborn. Yet this time the women’s leader asked that if the men knew how stubborn they were, how absolutely unyielding – if the men knew this, then why did they always work against their female counterparts? The women said that the old men looked rather ridiculous, standing there naked, and they gently dressed the male members of the chorus with their garments. The old male leader of the chorus had something in his eye, and the female chorus leader looked in his eye and helped extract an insect that had flown into it. The male chorus leader thanked her sincerely, and then not just one of his eyes was giving off tears, but, for some reason, both of them were. The old woman wiped his tears off and then – quite to his surprise – gave him a kiss.

All in a flood, the old women began kissing the men, and the men, exasperatedly, against their wills, admitted that they were at a loss without women in their lives. Peace, they consented, needed to be made. The two choruses, previously groups of twelve, united into a single group of twenty-four, and sung a long song together. As the song came to its conclusion, an envoy of Spartans appeared, all of them bearing large swellings in their crotches.

The Athenians greeted the Spartan envoys and asked how they were doing. In order to answer the question, the Spartans dropped their tunics and revealed their rigid fake penises. The male chorus leader said that indeed the Spartans looked like they were in dire straits. Then, from the other side of the stage, an assembly of male Athenian leaders arrived, also sporting bulging erections. The Athenians, just like the Spartans, removed their clothing, showcasing their own stiff members. This, by the way, must be a record in theatrical history for the largest quantity of jumbo fake penises onstage. Anyway, the male chorus leader expressed sympathy for the affected men onstage, and then – he recommended they put their clothes back on. The male chorus leader, along with the two groups of delegates from Athens and Sparta, all decided it was time to have a talk with the instigator the crisis. It was time to talk to Lysistrata. [music]

Spartans, Athenians, and Sexy Reconciliation

Lysistrata came out of the Acropolis, and the men all greeted her respectfully. Lysistrata was informed that the Spartans and Athenians were all there, ready to submit to whatever peace decree she formulated. And so Lysistrata summoned an assistant. This assistnat was a stunningly beautiful young woman, and she was completely naked, and her name was Reconciliation. This nude woman, Lysistrata said, would help abet the peace process.

Lysistrata asked the naked woman Reconciliation to bring the Spartans to her, and to do it in a gentle, diplomatic fashion. It was, Lysistrata implied, time to do away with the rough treatment and the diplomatic blunders that had characterized the war’s beginning. So the naked woman Reconciliation brought the Spartans to stand on one side of Lysistrata, and then the Athenians. Lysistrata told the men that she had blunt words for them, and she began her speech.
You worship [, Lysistrata said,] the same gods at the same shrines,
Use the same [purifying] water, just as if
You were a single family – at Olympia,
Delphi, Thermopylae – how many more
Could I make mention of, if it were needed?
And yet, though threatened by [Persian] foes,
You ruin Greece’s towns and slay her men.
Here ends the first part of my argument. (186)

Now, this was certainly a strong start. Lysistrata’s reasoning was difficult to counter. And even more difficult for the men was the fact that a beautiful, naked young woman stood in front of them, reminding them of the rewards that would come with peace. One Athenian interjected, “How much longer? I’m dying of erectile hyperfunction!” (186). But Lysistrata wasn’t done.

Lysistrata reminded the Spartans of how, back in the 460s, Athens had saved Sparta from ruination. And she reminded the Athenians of the pivotal role Sparta had played in the days of their grandfathers and great grandfathers in freeing Athens from despotism and paving the way for democracy. The Spartans and Athenians, listening to Lysistrata’s speech, alternately admired Lysistrata’s noble deportment and the naked Reconciliation’s body. Soon peace negotiations were being worked out in detail – on the nude body of beautiful Reconciliation.

The Spartans, looking at gorgeous young Reconciliation’s bottom, said they wanted to have the rocky mound of Pylos. The Athenians, looking at Reconciliation’s – uh – crotch, said they wanted the Malian Gulf and the city of Megara. There are many extremely pornographic puns that you can read in translator Alan Sommerstein’s notes in the Penguin edition, in which Spartans and Athenians point to this or that feature of the naked woman and make territorial claims involving Greece. Anyway, Lysistrata then said both groups would need to discuss the negotiations in detail with their allies, but the Athenians and Spartans said no discussion was necessary. Everyone, after all, wanted the same thing – this being, obviously, sex. With the agreement made, Lysistrata led the bulging Athenians and Spartans into the Acropolis. [music]

The Spartans and Athenians Celebrate

The united chorus sang a song of celebration. In the Acropolis, meanwhile, people were drinking heavily and celebrating. A couple of Athenians staggered out the door in a buoyant mood. One of them remarked that the Spartans were actually wonderful company – great to drink with, in fact. The second Athenian said that in the future they should always undertake diplomatic missions to Sparta while drunk. On diplomatic missions, they agreed, people read into things too much, and brought back contradictory reports, as had happened a few years earlier. What really needed to happen was boisterous fun and the consumption of huge amounts of wine. Soon enough, some Spartans also tottered out from the Acropolis. One of them was carrying a wind instrument, and began as song. A Spartan man danced and sang to the tune. His song was about the Persian Wars of seventy years earlier – a time when Sparta and Athens fought together at land and sea, and distinguished themselves equally. At the end, the Spartan singer and dancer prayed that no self-serving politicians would jeopardize their peace.

At the song’s end, Lysistrata appeared, dressed with the ceremonial garb of the goddess Athena, the same garb priestesses used to officiate marriages. Lysistrata said that now that peace was settled, the Spartans and the Athenians could get back together with their wives. They did so, and the chorus also paired off into couples.

Lysistrata performed a song in which she said she hoped that peace – the peace that love had inspired – would last. The chorus joined in the song, and then a Spartan boisterously joined in, singing of his homeland and river, of its great residents, and of the mighty goddess Athena, who reigned atop the Acropolis. With peace thus established, and the couples reunited, and even the crotchety old members of the chorus paired off with one another, the whole assembly began a hymn to Athena, and made their way from the theater. And that’s the end. [music]

By This, and This Only, We Have Existed

Lysistrata. Lysistrata, Lysistrata, Lysistrata. We will always need this play. This is another one of those plays that I would have liked to be in the original audience to see the end of. To see the audience reaction. Now – the first months of 411 BCE were not rock bottom for Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Two years before, their situation looked much bleaker, and a few years later, it would look dire again. 411 wasn’t rock bottom, but I imagine that after 21 years of war – war that was increasingly involving mass executions and mutilations like we talked about a few episodes ago – I imagine that after 21 years of war, any play that called for lasting peace would have received an explosive applause. I think that if you were in Athens in 411, and you watched this play, and heard the harmonies of its closing songs, and watched the choreography of its dances – you would know on one hand that you’d just watched a bawdy comedy overflowing with sex and dirty jokes. You would know that – but you would also know that the play that you’d just watched was a prayer. You’d know that Lysistrata was a prayer that that the core elements of humanity – those biochemical impulses that drive us to be together, could be harnessed to overpower long and ugly conflicts between states.

Thomas Stearns Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1934)

T.S. Eliot in 1934. The climax of “The Waste-Land” communicates the same core message about sex and human genesis as Lysistrata.

It’s strange, maybe, to think that a play that’s so full of dildos, and nudity, and boners, and bulges, and crude language articulates such a profound statement about human experience. We have – almost all of us, anyway, a core magnetism that drives us to be together. This magnetism might manifest itself in ways that are socially awkward or inconvenient – those – uh – painful swellings in Aristophanes’ men, and those desires that lead Aristophanes’ women to try and defect from Lysistrata’s protest movement in order to spend some quality time with spouses. And though we can giggle at characters displaying such embarrassing degrees of lust – though their sexual needs might be a bit more intense and immediate than is strictly realistic, nonetheless the characters in Lysistrata remind us that beneath the varnish of civilization we are all humbled by the same biological forces – that in spite of our pretensions toward high ideals or civic loyalties or sacred vows, sometimes, as Lysistrata says, “[W]e need a fuck” (169). It’s a crude statement, but it’s the same idea that T.S. Eliot hammers home at the crescendo of “The Waste Land” 2,333 years after Lysistrata was first staged – “The awful daring of a moment’s surrender,” says the narrator of “The Waste Land,” “Which an age of prudence can never retract / By this, and this only, we have existed.”3

It’s – again – funny that such harsh language can articulate such a kind and modest statement about human experience. By the end of Lysistrata, Spartans, Athenians, and all the citizens of Greece have been reduced to this common denominator, and once this happens, they celebrate together. They drink with one another in the Acropolis, and they wonder why they haven’t done so before, on diplomatic missions. They find that beneath allegiances to state and country, and behind old grudges, they are all a part of the same species, and they seek the same unions and pleasures.

I think Lysistrata is Aristophanes’ most well known play today because out of all of his comedies, its message, and its satire, are the simplest. It’s not his only tract against the Peloponnesian War, but the universal quality of its message – that love and sex are far more natural to us than being stuck in a cobweb of far off military campaigns – the universal quality of this message makes Lysistrata more accessible than his other anti-war plays, like The Acharnians (425) or The Knights (424). So you’ve heard the story of Lysistrata. And you know that this play articulates a simple, potent, and occasionally vulgar message about peace being better than war. What I want to do now is talk about the history behind this play. A few anti-war plays survive by Aristophanes, and they were produced 425, 424, and 411. By looking at these plays in context, and culminating with Lysistrata, we can understand exactly why this famous play is so clear, and emphatic in its political message. [music]

Thucydides, Aristophanes, and Cleon

The Peloponnesian War that dominated Aristophanes’ life lasted from 431 until 404. This 27-year conflict between Athens, Sparta, and their respective allies grinded Greece into chaos. Amidst all of ancient history’s other wars, the Peloponnesian War wasn’t a very geopolitically significant one. On a global scale, the loss of lives wasn’t great, and the outcome – a narrow victory by Sparta which dissolved into renewed Athenian autarky shortly thereafter – the outcome was little known beyond the eastern Mediterranean. What makes the Peloponnesian War so famous is one single person. He wasn’t a king, or a prince. He wasn’t a victorious admiral, who smashed an enemy fleet. He was a minor general, whose most famous military action was a failure in the winter of 424 BCE, in which he lost a city to enemy forces. He lost this city to enemy forces, and he was subsequently exiled, and that was the end of his role in the war. He thereafter went up to the north, to Thrace – the south of modern day Bulgaria, and stayed out of the fray. His name was Thucydides. And while we call Herodotus the father of history, I think we can call Thucydides the superhuman of history.

Thucydides, a Roman marble copy of a 5th-century BCE Greek original, created during the Hellenistic period.

When you read Thucydides alongside other ancient historians – Herodotus, and Livy, and Plutarch, not to mention the Old Testament’s Deuteronomist – when you read Thucydides amidst these other folks, he almost doesn’t feel real. You read him, and you think that no one writing at the end of the 400s BCE could possibly sound so modern, so elegantly impartial, so beautifully rational, and so factually corroborated. Thucydides, who was probably a religious skeptic, takes divine providence out of the history of the Peloponnesian War, and he tells a story about people. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is filled with astute analyses of international relations, detailed records of military campaigns, and a sound understanding of how politics and money influence the course of a war.

Because of Thucydides, we know more about the Peloponnesian War – this minor domestic squabble – than a dozen other ancient conflicts that were many times larger and more significant. And one of the things we know from Thucydides – that Aristophanes would have known from living through the war – was how the war began. Now, this war’s beginning was generations long – it stretched all the way back to the end of the Greco-Persian wars at the end of the 480s. Athens and Sparta had never quite got along well, and really the growth of the Athenian Empire during the middle of the 400s, and Sparta’s increasing unease with Athens’ rising power – these were the early causes.

We’ve talked about the Peloponnesian War plenty in this podcast, already, mainly in Episodes 29 and 30 about Sophocles’ plays Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. These two plays were produced during the beginning and ending of the Peloponnesian War, and we talked about some of the events that Athenians experienced at the end of their golden age – the plague that struck Athens in the early years of the war, the shaky peace of Nicias, that central failed expedition to Sicily, and then the final Spartan victory and enthronement of the Thirty Tyrants.

One thing that we haven’t talked about, though, is the politics of the Peloponnesian War. This is a topic that Thucydides handles in great detail, and a topic in which Aristophanes was directly embroiled. Now Aristophanes deprecates a lot of real people in his plays. We saw him go after Socrates in the previous show on The Clouds. But more than Socrates, and more than any other individual, Aristophanes went after an prominent Athenian politician named Cleon – one who assumed power after the death of Pericles in 429, and continued to dominate Athenian foreign policy for eight violent, destructive years. Cleon was a warmonger, and he was obviously hated by Aristophanes. And Thucydides, who is normally factual and mostly unprejudiced in his history, is at his most biased in his discussion of Cleon. I want to talk about Cleon very briefly, because Cleon was the catalyst behind Aristophanes’ early anti-war plays, and the story about the feud between Cleon and Aristophanes is an entertaining potboiler, all by itself.

Cleon’s Martial Populism vs. Aristophanes Patrician Pacificism

Cleon came to power during the early part of the war. His politics were populist – he identified with the common Athenian, against the interests of the moneyed elite. And Cleon was ardently pro-war. Viciously prejudiced against Sparta, its allies, and anyone who stood against Athens, Cleon was one of the early architects of policies that we would today call war crimes – mass executions and mutilations – that increasingly characterized the Peloponnesian War. In 427, when the city of Mytilene rebelled in the eastern Aegean, Cleon sought to have its male citizens all executed, and after a debate, it was decided that only about a thousand citizens of this city would meet the fate that Cleon wanted. For this, and other reasons, Thucydides calls Cleon “the most violent among the Athenian citizens.”4

Two years later Cleon was the central obstacle to peace brokering that could have taken place in 425 and prevented the next two decades of bloodshed. Cleon’s appeal was to the lower class, and like many of history’s populist warmongers, Cleon promised the average citizen glorious benefits would abound after military victory. Cleon was the son of a tradesman – probably a leather merchant, and he and his followers had little to lose if there was a radical restructuring of power relations throughout Greece. Cleon’s political opponents, on the other hand, were the aristocratic families who wanted the existing power structure to continue and peace to be made so that business as usual could resume. So, against Sparta, and against the landed property holding class of Athens, Cleon fomented strong pro war sentiments in the masses, and campaigned for mass executions of those who double crossed his city.

To historians, Cleon has traditionally been labeled one of the historical villains of the Peloponnesian War – one of those who made things worse when they might have been better. After Cleon was killed up in the northern Aegean in 422 fighting his hawkish Spartan counterpart – just the next year – the Peace of Nicias was signed, which brought a much needed respite in the war torn Greek world. The demise of Cleon, while it wasn’t the sole cause, was part of the reason why there was a successful, interstate effort to end the war.

During the mid to late 420s, though, Cleon was not only spearheading a war with Sparta. He was also fighting a war with Aristophanes. The two were any many ways opposites. Cleon was an up-by-the bootstraps new money man, an aggressive champion of the common citizen and a hardheaded warmonger, with a particular detestation of Sparta and the Peloponnesian League. Aristophanes, on the other hand, was from an educated class, his family owning property abroad, and if evidence from his plays can be trusted, respected Sparta and sought a peaceful restoration of prewar power relations. The two men were both obviously intelligent and influential, and for three different seasons of theater, they went at one another relentlessly.

Beyond Lysistrata: The Babylonians, The Acharnians, and The Knights

The feud began in 426. When Aristophanes was about twenty-five, he staged a play called The Babylonians. The Babylonians won first prize for comedy at the City Dionysia. This play hasn’t survived, but purportedly this early work painted such an irreverent picture of the social hierarchy of Athens that Cleon condemned it as slander, and took legal action against the young comic playwright. There were citizens from out of town that spring for the City Dionysia, and Cleon probably objected on the grounds that foreigners might take away a negative impression of Athens as a result of Aristophanes’ iconoclastic values. Cleon probably figured that this was the end of Aristophanes – the pesky, entitled young jokester would go away and learn some respect for the institutions of his city, now that he’d been dragged to court and charged with slander.

Oops. Aristophanes didn’t go away. Instead, for the next two theatrical seasons, he focused his considerable power of satire directly on Cleon and Cleon’s war efforts. In 425, Aristophanes produced a play called The Acharnians, named after a group of pro war provincials who loathe Sparta and want to continue fighting at all costs. The main character of The Acharnians is a stand in for Aristophanes himself, and he makes the case that the Peloponnesian War was commenced for stupid reasons and that it continues for the sake of profiteering and political agendas. At the play’s ending, the provincial Acharnians are won over, a warmongering general is humiliated, and against the hysterical anti-Spartan rhetoric that’s been deployed throughout the play, a respect and fair minded tolerance of Spartans wins the day. Cleon, who probably owned a punching bag with Spartans printed all over it, must have been grinding his teeth, as he watched this 425 play, The Acharnians.

Only, Aristophanes wasn’t done with him. The next year, in 424, the great comedic dramatist laid an epic smack down on Cleon. The previous year’s play, The Acharnians, disparaged Cleon’s value system. But in 424, Aristophanes went after Cleon himself. In the play The Knights, also called The Horsemen, Aristophanes has Cleon take a starring role. The play is about three slaves who serve a master called Demos, which means “people.” The other two slaves are also prominent Athenians, and are portrayed much more favorably, but as for the slave aligned with Cleon, he has insinuated himself into the favor of their collective master, Demos, or the people. Using his new power from Demos, or “the people,” Cleon has begun persecuting everyone. The allegory in this play – again, The Knights, produced in 424 – the allegory in this play is simple. Cleon has usurped power and he’s using it with heavy hands. As the play continues, Cleon is eventually pushed aside by a sausage vendor. The other two slaves have their positions restored, and Cleon is forced to sell sausages at the city gate, and peace treaties are signed. So, throughout The Knights, Aristophanes portrays Cleon as a manipulative, devious, revolting slave who will do anything to lick the boots of his master, the people, not the least of which is to prevent peace from being established. And in the spring of 424 BCE, The Knights won first prize at the winter theater festival of Athens. As historian John Hale writes, “[I]t was a bitter moment for Cleon, sitting in the full glare of ten thousand citizens, when the herald announced that [The Knights] had won first prize.”5 That would have been something to see. A lot of literary feuds get worked out slowly. Dante disparages the Black Guelphs throughout the Divine Comedy, but he never returned to Florence. Dostoevsky wrote endlessly about his experiences as a Siberian prisoner, but never got any direct revenge for his political persecution. But Aristophanes – Aristophanes, in the twenty-four months after being dragged to court, went after Cleon with nuclear warheads, and he pressed the red buttons, and he was vindicated in front of the whole city. That’s a great story in and unto itself. [music]

Aristophanes’ Views During the Late War

Well, let’s return to the play Lysistrata. When we look at Aristophanes, and his plays The Acharnians and The Knights, we’re tempted to picture a fiery young pacifist who used his pen and papyrus to dog the political careers of his city’s jingoists and militants. We’re tempted to see an anti-war poet who fearlessly stood up against powerful military men and won over the hearts and imaginations of the common people. This isn’t quite right, though.

Aristophanes -lysistrata  Project Gutenberg eText 12788

Aristophanes seems to have taken on an increasingly unadulterated pacificism over the course of the Peloponnesian War.

One of the reasons Aristophanes’ play The Knights won first prize in 424, with its crushing satire of Cleon, was that Cleon was a commoner, and that his demagoguery – his power to foment the masses, scared the hell out of the city’s aristocrats. In other words, Cleon may have been disliked by Athenians like Aristophanes and Thucydides because Cleon violently drove the city into war. But Cleon was also disliked because he was an uncontrollable rabble rouser – exactly the kind of populist leader who just might drag a pitchfork-wielding mob into your wealthy neighborhood and steal your silver. So when those ten thousand citizens sitting there at the assembly gave Aristophanes’ satire of Cleon a standing ovation, they were applauding for the anti-war sentiment. But maybe even more so, they were applauding because a dangerous, unpredictable self-styled man of the people who came from common stock and would do anything to advance his reputation – they were applauding because this man had been portrayed as exactly what he was, and many people there had personal reasons to dislike him that had nothing, whatsoever, to do with war.

When Aristophanes was publically sparring with Cleon, the war was still young – just six or seven years had elapsed. And during these same years – 426 to 424, Aristophanes himself was also younger – he was a combative young dramatist in his mid-twenties, seeking to build a literary reputation and disassemble anything that stood in the way. But by the time he produced Lysistrata, Aristophanes was somewhere around forty. The war had been taking lives and limbs for over two decades. Ambitious demagogues like Cleon had become par for the course. Mass executions had become standard operating procedure.

And there was something more profound that had changed throughout Greece. There was no longer a sense that a bit of fisticuffs between the dominant powers was taking place, as it had always taken place. There was no longer a sense that Sparta and Athens and Corinth and Thebes were all having a bit of a contest, as they had always done for as long as anyone could remember. When Aristophanes was twenty-five, maybe, this was the sense – that a war was going on, but that Ancient Greeks were stubborn and prideful, and they were going to fight with one another, and at the end of it the city-states would retain their sovereignty and commerce would continue as normal. This might have been the sense early on. But in the winter of 411, for Athens in particular, there could not have been any sense that this was just another friendly bout of Aegean swordplay. In the winter of 411, Aristophanes and his city knew that twenty-one years of war had put them into a state of existential crisis.

Two years before, Athens had experienced its most consequential loss of the Peloponnesian War, when the majority of its navy was destroyed during what historians call the Sicilian Expedition. The Athenian juggernaut – its navy – the thing that they had absolutely relied on – was almost totally gone. Draining emergency funds allowed Athens to build a secondary, weaker fleet, and in the winter of 411 this fleet was anchored at the island of Samos, and had done passably for its first year of existence. Still, even with their new ships, the audience of Lysistrata lived with the vivid memory of a military defeat – a defeat that could have resulted in invasion and mass execution in their city.

But this wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that something had awakened in western Turkey. It was something that their grandfathers and great grandfathers had beaten, an old boogeyman that had great reason to hate Greece. This something was the Persian Empire. Athens was hysterical at the thought of an alliance between Persia and Sparta. And Persians and Spartans had been in frequent dialogue on just this subject. Sparta had almost annihilated Athens two years before. Against a Spartan-Persian alliance, Athens wouldn’t stand a chance, and everyone in the city knew it.

So the really potent thing to remember about the play Lysistrata is this. Aristophanes wrote a number of anti-war plays. The early ones were produced in the 420s, and although they are across the board funny, the anti-war sentiment of The Acharnians and The Knights is clouded with a personal agenda against Cleon, against low-born populist rabble rousing, and against anyone who might besmirch the young poet’s budding reputation. But Lysistrata is different. Although it has a few political bones to pick, it presents a much purer and more emphatic pacifism than Aristophanes’ earlier works that deal with the Peloponnesian War. His earlier war plays were part smear campaigns and part self-promotion, but Lysistrata is much more unmistakably a statement about the imminent necessity of restoring peace to all the states of Greece. By the windy winter afternoon that Lysistrata was staged, there must have been a general sense that no one was going to win the Peloponnesian War – no one except for Persia. [music]

Wrapping Up Golden Age Athens

Well, at this point, we’ve had ten full episodes on the great fifth-century BCE playwrights of Ancient Greece. We’ve heard the story of Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra, and his son Orestes in the three plays of Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy. We’ve heard the story of Oedipus, and Jocasta, and their daughter Antigone in Sophocles’ three Theban plays. We’ve met Euripides’ magnetic super villain Medea, and heard the dark religious allegory of his play The Bacchae. And now, we’ve heard some comedy, too, having explored Aristophanes’ intellectual satire in The Clouds, and the more undiluted pacifist message of his play Lysistrata. As we reach the conclusion of all these wonderful plays, and the end of Golden Age Athens, you should feel proud that, out of all the stuff you could have listened to and squeezed into the spare moments of your life, you chose Aeschylus, and Sophocles, and Euripides, and Aristophanes. These four gentlemen have been read and appreciated for two and a half thousand years. Now, they’re a part of your life, too, and you’re a part of theirs.

Ancient Greece Declassified

Before we go I wanted to remind you to check out another podcast. This other podcast came up a couple of episodes ago, and it’s called Ancient Greece Declassified, hosted by a guy named Lantern Jack. In every episode of Ancient Greece Declassified, Lantern Jack interviews a specialist on some field of ancient history – usually ancient Greek history, or ancient Greek literature. So, for instance, he’s done a long interview with Princeton’s Andrew Ford, an influential and highly esteemed Homer scholar. He’s interviewed Stanford’s Rush Rehm, not only a scholar of ancient Greek theater but also an actor and director, and in that interview you can hear all about the playwrights we’ve been discussing throughout the past eleven episodes. Ancient Greece Declassified has an interview with Eric Cline, author of a very important book on the Bronze Age Collapse, and Andromanche Karanika, a specialist on Sappho and Greek lyric poetry, and others continue to be posted regularly. Lantern Jack, or LJ, as his listeners call him sometimes, is a really terrific interviewer, and he always manages to keep discussions balanced in such a way that they have a lot of substantive information, but are at the same time very accessible in podcast form to normal people like us. So again – that’s Ancient Greece Declassified – and it’s your opportunity to learn directly from some of the world’s experts on Ancient Greece.

Moving On to the Era of the Diadochi

So, as far as Literature and History is concerned, in the next show, we’re going to stay in Athens, but we’re going to jump forward a hundred and five years into the future. It will be the winter of 316 BCE. The Peloponnesian War has ended generations ago. The city’s libraries hold the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and company, but these men are ancestors, rather than contemporaries. Their politics, their lives, and their wars are now the things of past generations. Because as of 316 BCE, a person has come and thundered through the ancient world, rearranging it as he saw fit. His life and his deeds made the Peloponnesian War seem like a playground scuffle. He was born in what was before his time an obscure corner of the southern Balkans. He lived from 356 to 323, dying just a few weeks before his thirty-third birthday. Everyone knows his name. From the place where the Danube opens into the Black Sea, down to the southern Nile; from the old Egyptian highways in the Negev desert up to the Southern Caucasus; from the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates to the southern Caspian Sea; from the northern Indian Ocean all the way to the banks of the Indus River, his actions have affected the lives of millions of people. He was fearless, and lived hard, and expected to die young. Later generals – even hard-as-metal military men like Hannibal Barca and Scipio Africanus would agree that this was the greatest general ever to have lived. He slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow, and believed himself to be a modern day Achilles. And his name was Alexander of Macedon.

Alexander’s life rearranged much of the civilized world. Without Alexander’s unique eastward military aggression, the Persian Empire might have persisted and triumphed over Rome. Without the dissemination of Alexander’s culture through modern day Israel, and the spread of Egyptian and Aegean religion into Canaan, the New Testament, if it were written at all, would have taken a dramatically different form, and would certainly not have been written in Greek.

Tucked deeply in the secure western part of Alexander’s empire, seven years after his death, the city of Athens continued on as it always had. In the chaotic checkerboard of mega-states that Alexander left behind him, Athens sat in a fairly tranquil place, and continued its City Dionysia and its winter theater festival, as well. Now, Aristophanic comedy – the comedy that we see in The Clouds and Lysistrata – this comedy is called Old Comedy by theater historians. But there was a later style of comedy that we call New Comedy. Old Comedy focused on high themes like politics and intellectual trends, and Old Comedy satirized important figures, just as we’ve seen Aristophanes deprecate Socrates, and Cleon, and harp on the necessity of ending the Peloponnesian War. But New Comedy – this style that persisted after Alexander the Great – New Comedy more often focused on the lives of ordinary people – their struggles, their foibles, and their small triumphs. We have almost no New Comedy – it’s mainly just fragments and scraps. But we do have one play almost in its entirety. It’s called The Grouch. And it’s by a brilliant later Athenian writer whose name has come down to us as Menander. In the next show, we’re going to look at one last work of Athenian comedy – a coda to the giants we’ve been reading over the past ten shows. And Menander will bring us to the world after Alexander, a world whose intellectual center was not Athens, but the Egyptian city of Alexandria, a world in which all established city states and kingdoms had seen some restructuring, and anything can happen. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and if you’re down for a comedy song, I’ve got one coming up. Otherwise, thanks for listening, and caring about classical literature, and I’ll see you next time.

Still here? Alright! Time for some more fun! Yeah, so, this time around, I got to thinking. Got to thinking about what some of those choral songs in the original version of Lysistrata must have sounded like – particularly because those male chorus members and those female chorus members are going back and forth and back and forth, you know, and I thought I’d write a short choral song that sums up the feud and the happy ending of the play. So this one’s called “Lysistrata in Three Minutes,” and it’s a summation of the whole play Lysistrata. Hope it’s entertaining, and I’ll see you next time.

1.^ Aristophanes. Lysistrata and Other Plays. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Alan H. Sommerstein. London and New York: Penguin Books, 2002, p. 136.

2.^ Aristophanes. Lysistrata and Other Plays. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Alan H. Sommerstein. London and New York: Penguin Books, 2002, pp. 141-2. Further references noted parenthetically.

3.^ Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land.” Quoted in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. Margaret Ferguson et. al. Fifth Edition. New York and London, 2005, p. 1355.

4.^ Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. 3: 30-50.

5.^ Hale, John. Lords of the Sea: How Athenian Trireme Battles Changed History. Gibson Square, Kindle Edition, Location 3087.