I will have naught to do whether with lover or husband
Albeit he comes to me with strength and passion
I will live at home in perfect chastity
Beautifully dressed and wearing a saffron-coloured gown
To this end I may inspire my husband with the most ardent longings
Never will I give myself voluntarily
And if he has me by force
I will be as cold as ice and never stir a limb
I will not aid him in any way
Nor will I crouch like carven lions on a knife handle
And if I keep my oath, may I be suffered to drink of this wine
But if I break it, let my bowl be filled with water.
[The oath of Lysistrata and female company in Ancient Greece – taken to persuade their menfolk to stop making war with each other. ]
Lysistrata is the only Greek comedy we are reading this semester, a light-hearted look at social relations in Ancient Greece that is as revealing as the tragedies – and certainly as provocative. Although the only authentic female voice from this era to have survived the violence of history is Sappho’s, we have to believe the representation of women in the works of male writers is to be taken as believable to audiences of the day even though we must surmise in Lysistrata that characteristics of both sexes were exaggerated for comedic effect.
If we pursue the text this way then what I found most interesting about Lysistrata is the portrayal of women in Ancient Greece as:
- Interested in the sensual despite the daily chores of their lives.
- Disdainful of the prevailing image of women as dainty, lounging creatures.
- Essential to the running of the household, and the care for children.
- Powerful within their own domain, though excluded from public discourse and shunned from decision-making outside the home.
- Body-focused and interested in the physical form as was the norm for men in Ancient Greece.
- Important economically to their households – there is continual reference to the activity of carding wool which would have been done to create textiles for household and market.
- Financially capable.
- Grudgingly accepting of violence against women as a given.
- Totally accepting of the distinction between freeborn and slave women and willing to differentiate in quality of feeling depending on which group one was in.
- As sexually needy as men.
[Although the play provides scenes between the male and female choruses in which the women beat the men and humiliate them publicly, it is hard to imagine that in a society where women were so totally excluded from power outside the home and market this would have stood.]
Lysistrata is also an interesting reversal of gender norms seen in other Greek plays (particularly tragedies) where women are the representation of more passionate impulses against the rational men who hold guard on tradition and “truth”. Although women are represented unevenly in this play, the key female figures (Lysistrata, Mhyrrhine, Calonice) agree to what is an entirely reasoned approach to ending the war in Greece – that is exerting power within the sphere that they do control. It is the men in this play who are cast as somewhat pathetic, railing against that which they can not change – generally puffing themselves up – and ultimately unable to contain their desire. By the end of the play, the men desire their wives who refuse them so greatly that they are doubled over with erections and barely able to walk.
Unable to walk, they are unable to fight and thus bring in Lysistrata to broker the peace – which is the only reasonable thing to do given the disruption years of war have wreaked on the society. Is Aristophanes – who wrote this during the war – making the argument that because men are responsible for such foolishness, the old paradigms are subverted and only women can be trusted to lay passion aside to end the war?
For a modern-day version of the same story (with impeccable timing I might add) – see the following video about women in the Philippines who recently staged a sex strike in their village in order to end a civil conflict that was impeding their ability to bring their textile goods to market:
Post-class discussion notes:
On more reflection about the actions of Lysistrata and her country-women, not to mention the above YouTube piece – it occurs to me that the sex strike is only a possible weapon because of women’s economic centrality in their society. Not only are the women in Lysistrata disrupting the bedroom, but the fact they are not in the home would be profoundly disruptive to the economics of Greek society. As noted in my earlier reflections, there are repeated mentions of the carding of wool in the text which suggests to the audience the actual importance of women’s work in bringing money into the home. Additionally it was raised in discussion that women in this role would have been responsible for running every aspect of their households and also the fields in their family possession. To remove themselves in the way suggested in the play is amusing on the surface, but represented a real threat to smooth functioning of ancient Athens.
Interestingly, the person who introduced the text in class argued Aristophanes as conservative (in contrast to a more progressive Euripides) – as the entire objective of the play is to get women back into their place by the end, and in fact when their demands are met, the women return to their homes. But to accept this analysis, I would also have to accept that women in Ancient Athens were akin to slaves and were *only* oppressed by their existence… that to willingly re-enter their homes was a step backward. That, I’m afraid, is a little too much looking through our own modern lens to prescribe motive. While it’s true that women did not have the same rights or access as men in their society, it is equally true that they did exercise power and influence in their own spheres that would have provided real satisfaction in their contributions. This marks the middle-class women of ancient Athens as profoundly different from their Victorian counterparts 2000 years later – women who had little to do, controlled by their male relations, and so suffered the oppression of boredom. We can not overlay gender analysis without also understanding that in each specific era the oppression of women would be understood differently from the subject perspective. That is, women have not always understood their position as oppressed in the way that we currently might view it. We also need to recognize that humans are inherently conservative in the preservation of their social order – thus the return to the familial home by all in the end – which is a fact that even a more progressive playwright would have to observe for a story to be accepted by the audience as realistic.
And to that, which would be a more progressive ending in real terms? In Lysistrata the women exercise power by making their private sphere public business and achieve their objective allowing them to return to the regular rhythm of family life. To instead go on from there in a greater social revolution of changed gender roles would imply more upheaval which is exactly what the women in Lysistrata are attempting to avoid. They are exhausted from warfare (as was Aristophanes by the sounds of it), and they do what they can to extract their communities from it. It’s hard to imagine that a continuance of conflict would be desired by anyone at the point of resolution.