Research Papers and Essays
Ronnie Oldham

Aristophanes' Lysistrata:  Sex Strike - Never Happen

    Aristophanes’ significant contributions in the development of the theater arts and his standing in the Athenian community are well documented. His hilarious comedy, Lysistrata, reflects the disgust with war prevalent at Athens after the disastrous expedition to Sicily. It is ripe with sexual innuendo and provides much insight into the timeliness of human sexuality, desire, and the war of the sexes, yet it was intended to make a political statement regarding the folly of Athenian military aggression. Aristophanes was not suggesting that a sex strike might be an effective means of ending the Peloponnesian War, more likely that the reasons for the war itself were suspect. Lysistrata’s scheme to force the men of Greece to the peace table could never have been successful. Property concerns, gender roles, and the sexuality of Athenian men prevented Athenian women from exerting the necessary political influence.

    Logistically, it would have been quite difficult for Lysistrata to enlist the aid of the women of Athens in her scheme. Greek society imposed standards of decorum that restricted a woman’s freedom of movement and required her to be escorted by a slave woman or an elderly relative when in public (Gulick 54). These restrictions were designed primarily to limit a wife or daughter’s contact with men outside her family and served men’s goal of avoiding uncertainty about the paternity of children, however they did allow women friends and relatives to socialize freely in each other’s homes. Even the scene of Lysistrata waiting to meet with Kalonike, Myrrhine, and Lampito doesn’t seem particularly out of the ordinary. Still, the coordination required would necessitate that Lysistrata be of substantial means. Only the wealthiest of women could successfully deploy couriers across battle lines, initiate a relationship with a Spartian woman of significant influence, and arrange for Lampito’s visit to Athens. Since, as Charles Gulick writes, "every woman of good family was under the guardianship of a man" (56), it seems unlikely that Lysistrata could managed such a feat.

    Wives, in ancient Greece, were strategically selected for the purpose of producing legitimate heirs and maintaining control of property (Gulick 57). They were typically not the objects of their husband’s sexual desire. "Marriage was a matter of good family, good dowry, and good health. Given the differences in ages, education and experience, there were no real grounds for companionship. Bearing children and managing a household were all that would ordinarily have been asked of a wife" (Hooper 254). Athenian men, unlike women, had opportunities for sex outside marriage that carried no penalties. Besides sex with female slaves, who could not refuse their masters, men could choose between various classes of prostitutes and hetaera. Reay Tannahill noted in her book, Sex in History, "What Athenian men liked about the hetairai was that they excelled at all the things those same men prevented their wives from learning" (101). Though the primary motivation for the women of Lysistrata to end the war is the return of their husbands to their beds, it is apparent that the men have been neglecting their duties for some time. Tannahill also points to the impact of the increasing popularity of pederasty and homosexuality (84). What is clear is that a man in Cinesias’ predicament would have several avenues for acquiring the necessary exercise to prevent stiffness.

    The seizure of the Acropolis is an excellent military tactic and the more realistic aspect of Lysistrata’s plot. Technically, it was indeed treason and crimes against the state, as in Socrates’ case, carried the most severe penalties. Though Aristophanes effectively communicates the power of the purse and its relationship to the ability to wage war, an attack on the Acropolis would surely result in much bloodshed. Concern for the welfare of the state and the financial benefits of a wealthy, powerful Athens were paramount. These were their wives and mothers. No one would want to repeat Orestes’ folly and bring down the wrath of the Furys, but man’s sense of honor and ego has resulted in worse.

    Although many Athenians believed that women were potentially capable of intellectual and philosophical thought, the exclusion of women from the polis and the need to keep the mothers of their heirs safe at home kept women ignorant of affairs of state. Even Aristotle remarked that "the female indeed posses [the faculty of deliberation], but in a form which remains inconclusive" (Austin 182). Women’s views of political affairs were not taken very seriously and the attitude of the commissioner was probably typical of the Athenian citizen. Women should attend to their carding and weaving. "War’s a man’s affair."



Works Cited

Austin, M. M. and P. Vidal-Naquet. Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece: An Introduction. Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1977.

Gulick, Charles Burton. Modern Traits in Old Greek Life. New York: Cooper Square. 1963.

Hooper, Finley. Greek Realities: Life and Thought in Ancient Greece. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 1978.

Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. London: Scarborough House. 1992.

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