Lysistrata: The Comedy Of A Sexual Revolutionary
Our vaunted generative organs, those parts of our bodies to which our minds are so powerless and subservient, have a tendency to dominate our lives. Indeed, at times, they prove themselves to be complete monopolists on our morals or tyrants over our thoughts. We can’t help but to be led to sin when dragged by their leash. And, as one so led, I ask: by whom could we be blamed? Aside from coition, no higher cogitation finds itself as having any mental space when it’s the loins that steer the wheel. Their focus is always singular—always sexual. Alas, we are but slaves to that which suspends itself between our legs—be it clitoral or testicular, feminine or male or something newly medically or socially conceived. And, lest you think this indecent infatuation unique to our own age, it’s a quite ancient phenomenon with a history that’s as lascivious as it is long.
Aristophanes, unrivaled producer of comedies of the old and, in my humble opinion, of the superior type, and prosecutor of the great gadfly Socrates for the crime of being brilliant, knew this more than any other artist when he wrote in the year 411 BC his famous play, Lysistrata. It is, among a few of his other beloved productions, a work at whose core the theme of peace is to be found. Starkly different from the gratuitous violence that dripped from the pages of every tragedian in sight, Aristophanes’ work was a refreshment if only for its lack of bloodshed. Not only novel for novelty’s sake, he had every reason for wanting to craft a uniquely irenic play. This is because he labored on this work in the midst of a seemingly endless civil war—a conflict that subsumed the better part of his adult life.
Having recently thwarted the Persians’ attempt to conquer their country, first by land and then by sea, the Greeks must’ve found the protracted state peace in which they lived unstimulating. Certainly, they failed to deem it conducive to the development of their bustlingly martial worldview. They were jealous of glory and ultimately desirous to drain their populations both of coin and of men. To accomplish this, a great battle emerged between the forces of Athens and those of the Peloponnese. We today know this nearly three-decade-long battle as the Peloponnesian War—a conflict that consumed the entire civilized part of the Mediterranean Sea. Being that the Athenians proved themselves better authors than soldiers, they ascribed to the war the name by which we know it today. As did the British in the eighteenth century and the Americans in the twentieth, the Athenians in fifth before Christ labeled the war by the name of the party against whom they were fighting. Hence, all of Greece (and much of Greek-owned Italy) fought in the Peloponnesian War.
Aristophanes, delicate artist as he was, understandably found himself disillusioned by the war. By this point in time, the Athenians’ efforts toward a quick victory were completely unavailing. Already, in fact much earlier, the great statesman and orator Pericles had died. If the war were to be conducted in an expeditious manner, it would’ve been done so under his administration. One can only assume as much, as the duration of his tenure over the city marked Greece’s only Golden Age of which we have any lasting knowledge. None like it had been encountered in Greece, nor was any like it soon to follow. He was as much a patron of the arts as he was a political savant. Like a latter-day Leo X or some other aesthetically-inclined sixteenth-century pope, Pericles was a staunch supporter of the arts. And the most eminent of the artists of his day was, of course, the unforgettable Phidias—the Grecian sculptor par excellence. Though none of the distinctly chryselephantine works wrought by his hand have been preserved, Phidias earns even to this day the distinction of having been the classical age’s best craftsman. Pericles promoted and commissioned him until the very end.
The timing of this immortal archon’s death was premature; the cause, painful but inscrutable.
At the outset of the war, indeed not long after the hostilities first leapt from embers into flames, the city of Athens was struck by a plague. It was, by all accounts, an epidemic to which the native population had no resistance. Thus, it became one to which the people succumbed en masse. This still-nameless plague became an ailment to which nearly the entire population of Athens quickly and devastatingly fell. Akin to the deadly Ebola of today, or the hemorrhagic fever or typhus of a recent yesteryear, this frightful plague of the ancient world with which the Athenian people were beleaguered escapes even the savviest of modern diagnosticians. Thucydides, the formidable historian of the war, describes in excruciating detail the symptoms and the moribund effects of the disease in his masterful work whose name, to avoid redundancy, need not be said here. As it hadn’t Pericles, nor a vast swath of the Athenian population, the contagion spared the great historian not. Yet unlike that ancient archon, by some miracle of fate Thucydides was able to survive the infection to which—for having done so—he was now made immune. Thus, the survivor became the chronicler of this virulent plague (not to mention the larger war at whose outset it played so injurious a part). Pericles, along with a vast swath of the urbanized and cramped Athenian people, weren’t so lucky.
Aristophanes would’ve been discouraged by the situation in which his city found itself for another reason. Aside from the domestic pestilence for which there seemed to be no cure, the war effort “abroad” was going horribly wrong. The Athenian government, assumedly bored with the tenuous peace that was achieved by and named for the great statesman Nicias, decided to sally forth on an expedition to invade the island of Sicily. This venture, ultimately the death knell in the Athenian war effort, proved wrong-headed and ill-fated in the extreme. Ostensibly, this attack on Sicily (an island, it might be added, that’s today considered the inviolable property of the Italians, but through much of history, was a playground and a passing possession of just about every European or Islamic regime) was meant to liberate a democratic people—not unlike their own—who’d been burdened with the yoke of oligarchic rule for far too long a time. It was, so the leading Athenians claimed, an effort at liberation—not of colonization done furtively as many historians probably rightly suspect it to have been.
Yet even back then, this “liberation” rationale was cogent, but only superficially so. The inhabitants of Sicily, of whom most called Syracuse—the largest and most prosperous of Sicilian cities located on the eastern coast near the Straits of Messina—their home, were ethnically Doric. The term meant more in the classical era than it does today, denoting merely, as it were, a certain styling of music that we now call the Dorian mode. But there was nothing gentle nor harmonious in that time as it pertained to the Dorian way of life. It was a rather rugged and austere existence, punctuated with hard-fought battles and laconic turns of phrase.
Standing athwart that peculiar culture was that of the Ionian or, as we might call it, the Attic. This was the ethnicity that permeated not only Athens, but the Cycladic islands (at whose center the famous island of Delos sat—whence arose the Delian League from which the Athenian Empire was born) and the western coast of present-day Turkey.
Indeed, it’s the Attic way of life with which we moderns are more familiar when we contemplate the personality and the antiquity of Greece. The Attic or Ionian culture was the soil from which such philosophical giants as Heraclitus, Parmenides, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle grew. So too was it the cultivated earth from use bedrock sprung such dramatists as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—not to mention the very Aristophanes to whom we’ll soon return. The geniuses begotten of the virile Dorians, certain though they are to have existed, largely evade the scrutiny of history. That said, it’s natural to see how these two ethnicities—the Ionian epicureanism of the east and the Spartan stoicism of the west—failed to mix. Perhaps when threatened by a common Persian foe they might find it expedient to stifle their differences and join as countrymen in arms, but amicability was not to be found in the absence of so grand an external and existential a threat.
What then, do we make of the ethnicity of the city of Syracuse? It was, to the Athenian people’s great frustration, stubbornly of Dorian stock. Rather athletic than aesthetic, militant than indulgent, Athenian culture had very little sway in that chief city of that fertile Sicilian land.
Ultimately, this proved an impediment over which the Athenian forces couldn’t leap. Though initially costive in its response to the arrival of the Athenian fleet and, for having been so slow, quite overwhelmed by the armada now swirling in its harbor, Syracuse eventually prevailed. But it wouldn’t do so before first having to reach out for support. Such a helping hand was to be found across the aptly-named Ionian Sea, where the Spartans—with unusual celerity—were quick to respond to the desperate cry. Both cities were peopled by citizens whose Doric blood ran deep and they combined to muster a redoubtable force. The Athenians, led by the man for whom the erstwhile peace was named, were defeated as no navy had been before. But before this final defeat, the Athenians would bleed themselves dry. Throwing good drachmas after bad, they persisted in their ill-conceived effort to take the island—be the costs (in lives or in coins) what they may. Even as the possibility of their success became increasingly bleak, they fought on. It was a two-year-long war of attrition that they lost.
And their loss was spectacular. And as for their morale, it appeared at this point unsalvageable. This was the moment at which Aristophanes produced his play. This zenith of comedy came as the military reached its nadir. A pacific fantasy set in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata was a brilliant and timely work at whose base such themes as femininity, sexuality, universal peace, strenuous concordance, lechery, and amity mingle as one.
The delicious bawdiness of this bard can’t be understated, and he was able to anticipate the sexual revolution of our age by imagining his own. In the Aristophanic version, Lysistrata—promulgator of peace and latent revolutionary in the midst of an endless civil war—went about developing a plan to end the hostilities that had ravaged her home. Commandeering the Acropolis, a lofty citadel once pregnant and now distressingly drained of its funds, she implored her countrywomen to refrain from intercourse with their mates. And by “intercourse” I mean the sexual rather than the verbal type (though the latter is often penetrating, it’s rarely ever as satisfying). Men were to be tempted only. Always were they to be left tumescent. With their amours unrequited, so Lysistrata thought, the men from whom even the smallest of sexual gratifications were revoked would surely be made to yield. Sex, as noted above and as Lysistrata doubtless agreed, never has known itself to be subservient to any force—be it human or divine. This it’ll never do, even when the issue at hand is death and war, Doric and Attic, civilization and state.
Continence, Lysistrata believed, was the only remaining answer. Indeed, it was the last and best hope for the continent as a whole. After three arduous decades of war, this was the only possible salvation for that seminal nation that is Greece. As authoress of this clever plan, she was expected to be abstemious. By this, we’re not in the least surprised; she was the sedulous rock, never the promiscuous sieve of the movement, but the intemperate women by whom she was surrounded found chastity an unhappy chore. More than that, they were beginning to consider it a sexual strain by which they’d rather not be burdened. They hoped soon to be liberated to become again libertine. The defection of a few (back to the all-knowing world of carnal knowledge) risked the unravelling of the entire plan.
But, as is so often the case, the men yielded first. Endowed with so many other fine and virile qualities, their endurance is wont to fail. And who among us could blame them? Biology doesn’t endow venery in equal proportion; men tend to receive the lion’s share of this insatiable gift. Indeed, one can’t help but smile at the thought of the man’s desire outlasting that of the object to whom his affections attend.
Laying down their arms, once and hopefully for all, the Spartan and Athenian men agreed to an armistice and a trade. They’d trade hostilities for revelries, the latter of which they’d hardly known. They’d renounce conquest in favor of coitus and assassinations for assignations. The martial spirit was to be let go and the sexual splendor retrieved again. Yet our final word must go to the woman by whom this success was conceived. The only person in all of Greece capable of grasping the potency of those vaunted generative parts, it was Lysistrata—the purest of sexual revolutionaries the world’s yet known—who ended so gruesome a war. We smile and thank dear Aristophanes for so peaceful, so sexual a thought.