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1: Critical Introduction and Discussion Guide

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      Aristophanes’ Lysistrata: An Introduction, by Jessalynn Bird


      Aristophanes and His Career

      A contemporary of Socrates (469-399 BCE) and Plato (c. 429-347 BCE), Aristophanes (Air-is-TAH-fah-knees) was a citizen of Athens. Plato’s Symposium, as we will see, describes him as the life of the party and unapologetically heterosexual (in contrast to some of the other participants). He was a prolific writer, authoring over 40 plays. Eleven survive and offer an unique opportunity for readers to try to understand the political nature of comedic plays in Athens in the fifth century BCE. Aristophanes’ own perspective is difficult to summarize, but he skewered contemporary politics and social institutions (a bit like The Daily Show, Colbert Report, or Saturday Night Live) and was hauled into court twice by the demagogue Cleon. He was particularly preoccupied with the effects of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) and Lysistrata was written and produced at a time when Athens was not faring particularly well in that conflict and some parties longed for peace.

      Greek Drama in Athens

      Greek theater’s origins were indebted to the political and religious climate of Athens. Long before Aristophanes was born, the tyrant Pisistratus established a new holiday, The Great Dionysia, to complement another festival, the Lenaea, already dedicated to Dionysus, god of wine. These festivals included the staging of plays. Greek drama had evolved within a religious context, from humans acting out mythic narratives told by a chorus with songs, speeches and dance, all to honor a particular god (in this case Dionysus). There were three main types of plays: tragedies, comedies, and satyr plays. Playwrights would contribute plays to the festivals in the hopes of winning prizes (we don’t know which award Lysistrata might have received).

      In Athens, the wealthy were subject to special taxes, including being chosen to sponsor one of the plays required for these festivals. Once chosen, the sponsor was responsible for selecting the writer and financially underwriting the entire production. Similar to Romans competing with each other to put on lavish spectacles in order to win the political support of the people, so too wealthy Athenians sought to earn political capital through supporting a government-sponsored religious festival attended by every male citizen in Athens (we do not know how many, if any, women attended). The plays were judged by a jury and substantial prizes were awarded.

      Imagine a modern comedian lampooning a prominent political figure live, with that person sitting in the front row; that is what Aristophanes’ plays did with leading power players in Athens. Aristophanes did not hesitate to criticize entire social groups or to “get personal” with attacks on individuals’ life, family, and public and private conduct.  And he seems to have gotten away with his indictments of particular individuals and the system itself because he did so in the name of the public good, the benefit of the very audience attending and the individuals and state funding his plays.

      What about the logistics of productions? The surviving ruins of the Theater of Dionysos in Athens give us some sense of the struggles ancient producers faced; the seats are distant from the dancing floor and stage and there was no artificial lighting, curtain or sound system. Most props were probably hand-held. Actors were all men and sometimes played multiple roles in the same play. Comedies in particular involved an element of burlesque or circus-like atmosphere with stylized and exaggerated masks, costumes, and slapstick humor similar to techniques utilized by professional wrestlers or circus clowns. Unlike the formalized and solemn declamations and dance of Greek tragedy (similar to Japanese Noh plays), Greek comedy was fast-moving and bawdy. 

      Similarly, while tragedies strove for the universal, dealt with the cosmic events decreed by fate, and stimulated powerful emotions to evoke catharsis, comedy relied on reacting to contemporary events. In tragedy, a prominent but imperfect individual comes to a sticky end through a personal flaw or unfortunate action. Sometimes this tragedy engulfs other members of the family or society itself. In contrast, in comedy, a relatively unknown character takes charge and brings resolution from chaos. The roles of the chorus also differed. In tragedy the chorus’ comments reflect social norms and values; in comedy, the chorus represents the fringe.


      Democracy in Athens

      In Lysistrata, arguments about the functioning and purpose of democracy are fundamental. The play opens with women, who would never in real life be allowed to attend the Athenian General Assembly, forming an assembly of their own under their demagogic leader, Lysistrata. Their assembly storms and defends the Acropolis from a counterattack by the chorus of old men, who suspect a coup by a special interest group (the opinions of the old men represent those who had originally urged on the Peloponnesian War). The Councillor, part of a government board, tries to make peace by accusing the male Assembly which voted for the attack on Sicily (this Assembly consisted of all male citizens, including those with a vested interest in continuing the war). Myrrhine’s husband, Cinesias, then meets the Spartan ambassador and brings him and the Athenian ambassadors to the Council of Five Hundred instead. Lysistrata successfully guides the bargaining there and, peace made, a feast follows.

      Shortly after Lysistrata was performed, popular government was suppressed by a real oligarchic coup--the Fourth Hundred seized dictatorial control (supported by Athenian factions and Persian and Spartan infiltrators).  By 411 BCE, Theramenes favored making peace with Sparta after Athens won the Battle of Cyzicus in 410 BCE. However, the demagogue Cleophon, backed by a “hawkish radical democracy” seized control and the war dragged on. After Athens lost the war in 404 BCE, the Spartan-backed regime ruled with an iron fist (the climate of fear under Critias and his cronies, who targeted democrats and moderates, is sketched out in the materials on Neaira).

      The excesses and potentials of Athenian democracy were weighed by the founders of this country, but the government of the United States was and is far different than that of 5th century BCE Athens. Thank heavens it is. But in comparison to the leadership style described in The Iliad and The Odyssey, Athens’ government as a city-state was a vast improvement and Athenians were highly invested in it. Pericles’ famous speech on those who perished during the Persian Wars implied that what made Athens special was worth dying for. Athenians venerated Draco as their first lawgiver, while Solon dealt with a faltering economy by erasing debt and encouraging trade. He also widened the possibility of holding both high and low government positions to new groups by stressing a certain level of income rather than family ancestry. Even citizens with no income could participate in the Assembly. His reforms led to temporary anarchy and the rule of a tyrant, Pisistratus. A Greek “tyrant” was a different creature than a twenty-first century “tyrant”. Their rule was generally short-lived and consisted of executive wielding of emergency powers. They were often demagogues, that is, deriving their powers from promising to serve the interests of the common people. Pisistratus claimed to represent the urban poor and impoverished farmers and preferred to work within existing institutional forms. He redistributed land and encouraged Athenians to extend their power through war, colonies, and trade.

      After another period of uncertainty, Cleisthenes reformed the very government of Athens in 508/507 BCE.  The Council of Four Hundred had received one hundred men from each ancient Ionian tribe, leading to factionalism. Instead, Cleisthenes created new tribes based on groups of administrative areas (demes): one from the coast, one from the inland, and one from the city proper. Fifty men from each tribe composed a new Council of Five Hundred. Each fifty took one-tenth of the year to serve as the Prytany Council. Shortly thereafter, each tribe elected one general each and soon one-commander-in-chief was chosen as well. All these choices appear to have been by lottery. Ostracism served as another check to the ambitious. Citizens could vote for the ten-year exile of any citizen they wished by writing their name on a pottery shard (ostraka). Under Ephialtes and Pericles, the Council of the Areopagus, dominated by aristocrats, had its powers curbed to the consideration of homicide and serious crimes, while all other cases fell to the popular court of the Assembly. Pericles introduced pay for all officeholders, including those who served on juries and promoted the expansion of the Athenian empire to prop up domestic spending on welfare programs and building campaigns, including the Parthenon.

      This ever-evolving system of government was consistently tested by critics and elitist factions who continued to exercise power, mostly outside the government, because Athenian democracy deliberately sought to limit their participation and kept office-holding stints by in large short, by lottery, and without formal training (unlike the Romans). Charismatic and well-spoken individuals could cultivate power by giving speeches in Assembly and prosecuting opponents in court. Influence could also be wielded by access to private or state money. Salaries for elected offices were essential (otherwise no one would want to or be able to serve), yet corruption and pork-barreling were also widespread. In particular, law courts paid jurors for their time and individuals appear to  have brought lawsuits as a means to intimidate rivals, obtain influence and revenge. Sycophants--men who looked out for any kind of infraction in order to prosecute an individual in court (and obtain a reward) or extort money from their victim, created a semi-professional and deeply unscrupulous class of informants and public prosecutors (see Stephanus in the trial of Neaira). Moreover, the Athenian police were more like public bodyguards responsible for ensuring the physical safety of officials and keeping order at public festivals and gatherings. They did not enforce the law and all cases were brought by private individuals. So there was little to limit self-interest or revenge or encourage the creation of peace, which is what makes the final scenes in Lysistrata so startling and surprising.


      Greek Warfare

      In ancient Athens, war was an omnipresent fact of life. The pictorial symbols for binary gender we still use today derive from this. That for a male represents a shield and spear, that for a woman, a hand-held mirror. Every able-bodied male citizen and even male foreigners (metics) were theoretically required to serve in the army. Families invested in training and equipping men under the age of sixty for military service; it was part of male identity. Aristophanes’ attitude towards war was complex. War per se was never condemned outright in Athens, although certain groups had vested interests in negotiation and peace-making. Unlike the United States, in Athens, generals were elected officials and decisions to go to war, how to conduct it, and when to end it were debated and voted on. The Peloponnesian War was controversial from its outset and as a male citizen of Athens, Aristophanes was obliged to offer his opinion. What is daring about Lysistrata is that he has Athenian and Spartan women hijack what were traditionally male decisions.

      If the Iliad and Odyssey reflect the world of Mycenaean Greece, it is clear that warriors dominated leadership positions. Wars were often fought over personal matters and by loose conglomerations of individuals bent on obtaining and retaining fame, glory and spoils. Achilles withdraws from joining Agamemnon’s forces in battle because his spoils have been confiscated and his honor attacked. Both Achilles and the women of these epic poems are well-aware that life is irreplaceable,  the fortunes of war fickle, and the fate of the losers wretched. However, Dark Age Greece saw the rise of colony-building which required sustained military engagement. City-states therefore required their citizens to furnish themselves and train for proficiency in a certain style of fighting. For Athens and Sparta, this was “hoplite” warfare. All middling to upper-range income individuals were required to be ready to serve with shield and spear in phalanx formation. As navies grew in importance, democracy in Athens was expanded to include the less-wealthy, who were required to serve as rowers in trireme ships. These conscript citizen armies were wielded by city-states to appropriate land and engage in what we would consider piracy or banditry.

      After the Persian Wars of 490 and 480-79 BCE (most Greeks viewed these as morally just wars protecting the ability of city-states to self-govern against a tyrannical and alien culture), the Delian league of city-states was transformed into the basis of the Athenian sea-based empire. Athens used its navy to demand protection money from the league’s members in return for patrolling and controlling sea trade in the eastern Mediterranean. Foreigners were at  a disadvantage, in that all disputes were settled in Athenian courts.These foreigners included other Greeks, some of whom turned to Sparta for leadership, eventually sparking the Peloponnesian Wars. These wars became in a sense, proxy wars, as Athens and Sparta fought through their allies and other states and ethnic groups quickly became embroiled in a long-running and ugly conflict which resembled, in many ways, a civil war complete with atrocities and meddling in the internal politics of rival city-states (431-404 BCE).

      Women in Athens

      Aristophanes’ play is a commentary, partly, on the status of women in Athens. What then, was the life of an Athenian woman like? Most representations of women from this period are created by male artists and portray women as naturally prone to violence and promiscuity and thus needing to be physically and mentally restrained, a view voiced by Lysistrata when she mimics a man declaiming “women are capable of anything.” As you have read in the article about Greek men and the oikos (household), most Athenian citizen males married much younger teenage women whom they viewed as needing to be “broken in” and carefully watched in order to avoid illegitimate children and the wastage of household resources. For many males, rigid parameters and roles were considered necessary. An unmarried woman was a tragedy, and marriage the solution to female biological, moral, and intellectual weakness.

      Xenophon’s famous treatise on how to manage an estate famously depicts a male character laying out the duties of his wife (fifteen at the time of their marriage). Brought up under strict supervision so she would “see, hear, and say as little as possible,” she claims that the only things she has learned from her mother are that she must preserve her chastity and how to produce woolen textiles. Her husband therefore instructs her on how to manage the household resources and supervise the slaves working for her. This is clearly male fantasy, but the fantasy is revealing. Better a blank slate than a cunning woman full of tricks and stratagems. 

      If upper class wives were necessary evils for the production of legitimate heirs and management of the household, their identities and roles were to remain bound to that private world. Pericles’ famous speech reminds women that it is a compliment for their names not to be publicly known. Respectable women were identified by their male relatives (“the wife of Socrates,” “the daughter of Lysurgus”). In contrast, Lysistrata is filled with the names of women precisely because they are doing what “good” women should not -- entering into the public sphere. Respectable upper-class women confined themselves to the women’s quarters within the home except for certain public religious festivals and rites and visits to other women. If they appeared on the street, they were veiled and accompanied by slaves and/or chaperones. These restrictions, of course, could not apply to female slaves and women from the poorer classes, as we have and will see from other sources.

      Because upper-class women were confined to the home, apart from textile production and children, they were reduced to being consumers rather than producers. And yet to be taken seriously, an Athenian citizen had to be married. The result? A proliferation of misogynistic (anti-woman) literature. Relationships with other males confirmed and strengthened a male’s masculinity whereas spending too much time with women might make him “effeminate,” or uxorious (dominated by his wife) as in the case of Paris in The Iliad.

      To make matters worse, Athenians determined eligibility for citizenship based on lineage. Pericles sponsored a law, in 451/450 BCE, that citizenry would be restricted to the legitimate children of two Athenian citizens. This law in a sense aided Athenian women by preventing Athenian men from marrying foreigners, but also resulted in thousands of individuals claiming Athenian citizenship being convicted of “fraud” and sold as slaves. How could one prove citizenship without documentation? How could prove the legitimacy of a child without DNA testing? We will see these issues explored in the trial of Neaira. In contrast, the city-state of Sparta was organized along communal lines; adultery and legitimacy lost much of their meaning if children were surrendered to the state.

      Athenian women sacrificed freedoms in return for a tenuous security; Athenian men must marry them to produce citizen heirs and the government provided primitive forms of social security such as providing dowries for poor female citizens, supporting widows and orphans (numerous due to disease and war), and passing laws which ensured that women could not be completely abandoned (such as those requiring males who inherited a deceased males’ property having to marry his widow). Athenian citizen women jealously guarded their prerogatives against foreign women and female slaves and prostitutes. Their imagined concerns in time of war are highlighted in Lysistrata. Athenian comedy depended on a carnivalesque model of the world turned upside down; that women must appear in public and create peace is a condemnation of Athenian men rather than an encomium to the capabilities of women. Lysistrata also highlights the near monopoly women had in certain religious festivals and rites woven into the political and religious life of the city-state.





      By what methods do Lysistrata and her band of protestors hope to stop the war? Would we use these methods today? Why/why not?

      We will be watching Spike Lee’s Chiraq, an adaptation of Lysistrata set in besieged African-American communities in Chicago.  Imagine what changes he might need or want to make as you read through the play (but don’t watch the movie yet!).

      In what other contexts (historical or modern) could you imagine Lysistrata being staged? What other conflicts might be addressed through women (or another politically disenfranchised group) taking charge?  

      How do the actions taken by the women in Lysistrata compare to recent forms of protest in the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements? What about the reactions of those in power?


      SECTION 1:


      Go to section 1 of Lysistrata (2.1).

      In section 1, what kinds of male assumptions and stereotypes about women are voiced by Lysistrata and her comrades (who are being played by male actors in female clothing)? List them out.

      In section 1, the translator chose to give the Spartans a stereotypical Scottish “brogue," claiming it reflects the “shrewd, canny, uncouth Scottish highlander of modern times.”  What dangers lie in this approach? How might an American translator signal the differences between Sparta and Athens by the way Lampito speaks? What dangers and advantages come from the option you proposed?

      What kinds of religious activities did Greek women participate in and why might this have made section 1 so funny for a Greek male audience?


      SECTION 2:

      Go to section 2 of Lysistrata (2.2).

      What is meant to be so funny about the clash between the chorus of Old Men and that of the Old Women? Is it important that it takes place on the Acropolis? Why/why not?

      The Magistrate’s speech compares and contrasts the roles of men and women in Athens: what are they? Compare Lysistrata’s speech on the same topic towards the end of section 2.

      What criticisms and insights are being offered in section 2 about the nature of war? Would they transfer to modern conflicts? Why/why not?

      Section 2 also deals with status and position. How do individuals rank themselves and claim authority and/or rights? 

      What problems might arise from using Scythians to maintain public order (see the notes for section 2)? Have we seen similar criticisms about police forces in our country?


      SECTION 3:

      Go to section 3 of Lysistrata (2.3).

      The two choruses of men and women stake competing claims as to who has sacrificed and served Athens and who deserves benefits from and a say in its government.  List out these competing arguments.

      Lysistrata voices Greek attitudes towards the nature of women--what are these attitudes? Do the actions of the female protesters confirm or contrast with these views?

      The Old Man and the Old Woman both reinterpret existing legends to prove their points. How do they adapt these legends and what point are they trying to make? Do we do this with our own history?


      SECTION 4:

      Go to section 4 of Lysistrata (2.4).

      There is an important exchange between Cinesias and Myrrhine. What Greek attitudes towards marriage and family does their exchange illustrate? List them out and explain how they are similar to or different from 21st century attitudes towards family and marriage.

      What does Myrrhine want Cinesias to do? How does she persuade him to do it? Would women use similar methods of persuasion today? Why/why not?

      The magistrate meets a Spartan herald. What does their exchange tell us about stereotypes? Peace negotiations?


      SECTION 5:  

      Go to section 5 of Lysistrata (2.5)

      Why does the exchange between the old man and old woman begin this section? Are the differences between men and women in Athens more or less reconcilable than those between Athens and Sparta?

      The chorus gives us a glimpse into the workings of Athenian politics at the beginning and end of section 5. What information about various motives for the war can we extract from the chorus' speech?

      Lysistrata takes the floor as arbitrator with Reconciliation. How do the two lead the Spartans and ambassadors to peace? What arguments do they present? How might this part of the play be staged and/or performed? 


      SECTION 6:

      Go to section 5 of Lysistrata (2.5)

      Aristophanes is at time and has to wrap the play. Given the rest of the play, is this ending satisfying? Why/why not?


      1: Critical Introduction and Discussion Guide is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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