Anti-War Sex Strike
Lysistrata: And not so much as the shadow of a lover! Since the day the Milesians betrayed us, I have never
once seen an eight-inch gadget even, to be a leathern consolation to us poor widows.... Now tell me, if I have
discovered a means of ending the war, will you all second me?
Cleonice: Yes verily, by all the goddesses, I swear I will, though I have to put my gown in pawn, and drink the money the same day.
Lysistrata: Then I will out with it at last, my mighty secret! Oh! sister women, if we would compel our husbands to make peace, we must refrain...
-Lysistrata selection from EAWC Anthology
Fantastic Reversal of Societal Norms
This is fantasy, of course, and was even more improbable at a time when women didn't have the vote and men had ample opportunities to whet their sexual appetites elsewhere.
"The sexual theme is just an attention-grabber.
... [T]he comedy neatly inverts spaces
and boundaries -- the women turn the city into an extended
household and seize control of the actual polis -- not as
"intruders" but as reconcilers and healers. He [sc. Konstan] demonstrates how
the women's visions and concepts surpass the fractious politics
and warfare of the men."
- From BMCR review of David Konstan's Greek Comedy and Ideology
Making Lysistrata even more far-fetched, according to Brian Arkins in "Sexuality in Fifth-Century Athens", (1994) Classics Ireland, "an Athenian male could be held incompetent at law for being under the influence of a woman." So, had Aristophanes' plot been the historical reality -- since the women actually do get their way -- all the Athenian soldiers might have lost their legal rights for being under their wives' power.
Control of the War Chest
Lysistrata's band of chaste wives is supplemented by a band of older women who have taken the acropolis in order to deny the soldiers access to the funds they need to wage war. When the Athenian men approach the acropolis, they are surprised by the number and determination of the women. When they express concern that the Spartans will destroy their city, Lysistrata assures them that women are all they need for defense.
Lysistrata uses an analogy from the mundane world in which ancient women lived to explain how their strategies will work:
First you wash the
city as we wash the wool,
cleaning out the bulls**t. Then we pluck away the parasites; break up strands that clump together, forming special interest groups; Here's a bozo: squeeze his head off. Now you're set to card the wool: use your basket for the carding, the basket of solidarity.
There we put our migrant workers, foreign friends, minorities, immigrants and wage-slaves, every person useful to the state. Don't forget our allies, either, languishing like separate strands. Bring it all together now, and
make one giant ball of yarn. Now you're ready: weave a brand new suit for all the citizens.
Lysistrata Makes the Peace
After a while, the women grow weak with unsatisfied libido. Some claim they need to get home "to their chores," although one is caught trying to escape to a brothel. Lysistrata assures the other women it won't be long; their husbands are in worse shape than they are.
Soon men start showing up, trying everything to persuade their women to release them from their pointedly visible torments, but to no avail.
Then a Spartan herald arrives to make a treaty. He, too, is very plainly suffering the priapism rampant among Athenian men.
Lysistrata acts as go-between Sparta and Athens. After accusing both sides of dishonorable behavior, she persuades the men to agree to stop fighting.
Male Female Actors
The original comedy manipulated gender roles. Besides women acting like men (having political clout), there were men acting like women (all actors were male). The male characters wore large, erect leather phalluses like the one whose absence (see opening quote) Lysistrata laments.
"The convention of male actors playing female roles does appear to
intrude into the text, just as it may have intruded into the
performance. Femininity is represented by Aristophanes as the
site of the ultimate comic figure: completely deceptive because
'she' is not real at all. 'She' must be given shape by a man,
and everyone knows that."
- From BMCR Review of Taaffe's Aristophanes and Women
Gods and Goddesses A-Z
Famous Ancient People