Make Love, Not War
in Aristophanes' "Lysistrata"
Ancient Greek Literature | December 2017
            Although strong female characters appear in the bulk of Ancient Greek tragedy, Lysistrata, written by Aristophanes in 411 BC, was the first known Greek comedy to be titled after one such female character. Aristophanes lived in the late fifth century through the early fourth century BC, and his work exemplifies models of the Old Comedy (Platnauer). In many of his plays, Aristophanes addresses the suffering of man and excavates its causes. Lysistrata examines gender differences and the unjustifiable Peloponnesian War. Writing in the midst of the war not long after Athens’ failed Sicilian expedition, Aristophanes condemns the pitfalls of war and how it affects the women fighting their own battles at the homestead. In reality, peace was desired but, supposedly, it “…could [only] come from Athenian surrender or by a miracle from the world of fantasy, the world in which Old Comedy dwells” (The Comedies of Aristophanes: Lysistrata, 3). Aristophanes chose the latter. While the play is peppered with crude jokes, the superficial comedy does not deprive the play of its fundamental and important message. 
            Aristophanes succeeds in criticizing men and the situation that Athens, and in turn all of Greece, were by using Lysistrata and her cohort of women as comedic implements. Aristophanes tastefully combines political satire, criticism of the male sex, appreciation of women, and lewd comedy to create a timeless masterpiece. Comedies serve as a vehicle for presenting tough issues that people might be reluctant to discuss in a palatable way. While Aristophanes portrays women as proactive and astute, he condemns the expected strength and irrational behavior of men as the women seek a solution for their suffering through a baseless war bred out of man’s own folly.
            Perhaps most importantly, the cast of female characters displays a broad spectrum of attitudes towards women during the Classical Era of Greece. At the time, women were socially restricted by their domestic responsibilities and were politically restricted by a lack of suffrage. Examples of such social restrictions are immediately evident in the play, as told by Cleonice to Lysistrata, “…It’s not easy, you know, for women to leave the house. One is busy pottering about her husband; another is getting the servant up; a third is putting her child asleep or washing the brat or feeding it” (Aristophanes 7314). Women were treated as inferior to men despite possessing cogent opinions of their own. Aristophanes constructs a world where these societal norms are incredibly visible. His ridicule of the gender dynamics, along with the Peloponnesian War, constitutes the body of the play. 
            Aristophanes also found a way to create meaning through the nomenclature of the titular main character, Lysistrata. The name “Lysistrata” is derived from lysis and strata, meaning "loosening the army” (Meaning of Name Lysistrata). Titling a play after a woman who could dismantle a whole army would have been considered anomalous in an ancient civilization where the only prominent figure who recognized that women should be granted political rights was the philosopher Plato. Moreover, the etymology of Lysistrata’s name attests to her character and what she accomplished. Despite being a woman, Aristophanes depicts Lysistrata as an exemplary leader; she is decisive, goal-oriented, and swift in action. Her elevated diction and wit puts her on par with male leaders, and it even places her above the Magistrate. For example, when the men try to barge into the Acropolis that has been seized by the aged women, Lysistrata handles the situation calmly. This scene contrasts the hostility of men with the sophistication of a wise woman. She halts them by saying, “No need to force the gates; I am coming out — here I am. And why bolts and bars? What we want here is not bolts and bars and locks, but common sense” (Aristophanes 7722). The key words in this quote are “common sense”; Aristophanes takes a direct jab at the men and their lack of common sense that keeps sustaining the war they caused.
            Part of Lysistrata’s success as a leader can be attributed to her lack of noticeable sexual desire. In this regard, she can be perceived as more serious than other female characters. For example, it is apparent that thoughts of sex have colonized Cleonice’s mind, and that shows through her liberal use of double-entendres and ribald remarks. Lysistrata’s lack of farcical language allows her to devote more of her speech to the serious matters at hand. Again, Lysistrata comes across as logical and professional when the Magistrate demands to know why her and the other women have occupied the Acropolis. She explains very rationally to the Magistrate, “To seize the treasury; no more money, no more war” (Aristophanes 7777). The Magistrate rebuts with, “Then money is the cause of the war?” (7777), to which Lysistrata very sharply responds with, “And of all our troubles” (7777). The war had been ravaging Greece for decades, and it was equally as tolling on the women as it was for the men. Though women were not actually physically fighting the battles like the men were, they were responsible for managing domestic life in their husbands’ absences. In this regard, the women were comparably affected by the war. They fought an emotional and mental battle, imprisoned by the ill-effects of a war they could not do or say a single thing about. The metaphysical suffering that women all over Greece experienced should not be discounted. However, their devotion to their family duties was the glue that held their household together. In the context of Lysistrata, the women were what held Greek society together as well.
            In addition to Lysistrata, the chorus of women plays an integral role in the characterization of women. They stand resolute in their beliefs and fail to show signs of weakness towards the chorus of men. The verbal exchanges between the male and female chorus clearly exhibit Aristophanes’ more positive attitude towards women and his exasperation with warmongering men. Both choruses banter by shouting obscenities at each other, but the chorus of women elevate their status through using logic as opposed to institutional ignorance.
            With Lysistrata as their leader, the army of women’s first course of action was to organize a sex-strike against the men. The second campaign consisted of seizing the Acropolis, where the treasury was located in order to stop the funding for the war. Both brilliant concepts devised by Lysistrata speak to her intelligence and ambitious character. Just like any general, Lysistrata organized her troops and resources effectively and efficiently, assigning all the younger women to the sex-strike and entrusting the elderly Athenian women to guard the Acropolis. Though the sheer thought of a sex-strike seems hilarious at first glance, Aristophanes uses it to make an important point: women are stronger than men when it comes to resisting carnal urges. It is equally as difficult for women to be abstinent as exemplified by Cleonice’s initial resistance to Lysistrata’s plan. Cleonice pleads, “Anything, anything but that [the male altogether]! Bid me go through the fire, if you will — but to rob us of the sweetest thing in all the world, Lysistrata darling!” (Aristophanes 7449). Even though some of the women were reluctant at first to adhere to Lysistrata’s plan, they ended up willfully submitting because they recognized the collective good of their society surpassed their own physical desires. The mental willpower of the women in Lysistrata resembles that of characters featured in tragedy.  Unsurprisingly, Aristophanes applauds women and continues to criticize men.
            On a superficial level, the treatment of women as mere sexual objects appears to be offensive; however, from a deeper perspective, the women’s employment of their sexual power is quite genius. The women are intelligent enough to realize that merely opening their mouths and vocalizing their desire for peace to the men will not suffice; instead, they leverage their sexuality because they know it will help them achieve peace. Aristophanes shows that sex can be utilized as a weapon, and when wielded correctly, it proves to extremely effective. To the audience, this bawdy humor would have been hilarious and successful in meriting cheap laughs, yet  Aristophanes’ obscenities serve deliberate purpose in illustrating women as perceptive and inventive.
            One of the more outstandingly comical scenes the play offers is the interaction between Myrrhine and her husband Cinesias. Cineseias, bursting with lust for his wife, is led on to believe that Myrrhine will succumb to his urges though she continually evades his advances by searching for new materials to make their moment perfect. This scene could be easily featured in modern sitcom. Ah, the timeless eagerness of males awaiting sex. This is one of the many criticisms of men Aristophanes provides.
            On that note, Aristophanes characterizes the men of the play as inconsiderate, sex-crazed, warmongering idiots. This is especially visible via the male-led chorus and the Magistrate. The pugnacious manner of both the Magistrate and the chorus of men is somewhat congruent with the behavior of modern day politicians. The Magistrate is the main perpetrator of spewing hateful language at Lysistrata and the other women. His blatant misogyny contrasts with his obvious pining for the goddess of Peace in the form of a beautiful nude girl at the end of play; Aristophanes pokes fun at how men will not respect women’s opinions but will respect them in the bedroom. After the chorus of women douse the men in water, the Magistrate sarcastically states, “We men must share the blame of their ill conduct; it is we who teach them to love riot and dissoluteness and sow the seeds of wickedness in their hearts” (Aristophanes 7712). The Magistrate even goes so far as to partially blame the women for the failed Athenian initiative at Sicily, when in reality it was the fault of Demo’stratus. This dissolves any credibility the Magistrate could have had and shows how his androcentrism blinds him from the truth.
            Lysistrata also provides indirect characterization of men at the time by revealing that they were often verbally abusive. For example, when discussing the prospect of peace with men to the Magistrate, Lysistrata explains, “Then with sad hearts, but smiling lips, we would ask you: Well, in today’s Assembly did they vote peace? — But, ‘Mind your own business!’ the husband would growl, ‘Hold your tongue, please!’ And we would say no more”  (Aristophanes 7830). Then, she goes on to imply physical violence in response to women voicing their opinion about the war, “But he would only look at me askance and say: ‘Just weave your web, please; else your cheeks will smart for hours. War is men’s business!’” (7838). Lysistrata sketches the controlling nature of men in a patriarchal society.
            The Magistrate provides a great example of this ignorant misogyny. When arguing with Lysistrata he declares, “May I die a thousand deaths ere I obey one who wears a veil!” (7834). He clearly scrambles to assert his dominance and masculinity; he will not even consider hearing the opinions of a female. The Magistrate’s language seems primitive in comparison to that of Lysistrata’s.  Lysistrata speaks diplomatically and in such a way that should garner respect . For example, she speaks and acts maturely towards the Magistrate, “Open your ears to our wise counsels and hold your tongues, and we may yet put things on a better footing” (7845). If one did not know the gender of both the Magistrate and Lysistrata, one would infer that Lysistrata was the wiser being. This portrays the Magistrate’s immaturity and perhaps insecurity that women could indeed do a better job than him.
            Additionally, Aristophanes criticizes man's pride. Once even the Magistrate realizes that walking around with an insatiable erection is quite painful, he allows peace negotiations to commence. Curiously, if the war meant that much to the men of Greece, it seems odd that the threat of involuntary abstinence would be enough for them to abandon their causes. Aristophanes excoriates the Peloponnesian War and exposes it as unjustifiable by mocking its soldiers' fidelity to the fight. 
            Aristophanes also includes tacit symbolism to further his disapproval of male aggression. When the chorus of men come bearing fire, the women are equipped to combat this with water. This symbolizes the men’s passionate sexual fire and the women’s power over them. Water always conquers fire. Similarly, on a more comical note, the men’s attempt at ramming down the gates of the Acropolis signifies sexual penetration. Looking closer, this also stresses how men tend to act very forcefully and impulsively. This very same forcefulness and impulsiveness is what landed men in this position of war in the first place.
            Taking everything into account, Lysistrata shows how actions as simple a female-led sex strike can mitigate a prolonged, unjustifiable war and provide peace and happiness. Their end goal of returning to a state of peace and friendship with Sparta was achieved. Though strange, the play ends with praises sung by a Spartan chorus, gesturing towards the idea of panhellenism. At first glance, Lysistrata may appear to be simply a crude comedy laced with vulgar sex jokes; however, Aristophanes does not make these jokes in vain. Aristophanes harnesses the power of comedy to discuss matters that needed to be addressed. The play revolves around the unjust treatment of women and the ignorance of men, while discussing the futility of war. 
Works Cited
Aristophanes. “Aristophanes: The Complete Plays” (Kindle Locations 7290-8538). Pandora's Box. Kindle Edition.   
Aristophanes. The Comedies of Aristophanes: Lysistrata. Translated by Alan H. Sommerstein, vol. 7, Aris & Phillips, 1990. 
Meaning of Name Lysistrata” List of Names,
Platnauer, Maurice, and Oliver Taplin. “Aristophanes.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 30 Dec. 2016,   

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