Aristophanes' Depiction of Women in Lysistrata
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1658
The premise of Lysistrata is easy to understand: if men will not fix the mess they have made, then women must fix it for them. Aristophanes’ comedy provides women with a strong incentive to, and an even stronger means to, create peace. The men of Athens have waged war for twenty years, and there appears to be no end to the war, in the foreseeable future. One woman, Lysistrata, decides that if men cannot end the war, women must do so, and so, she calls the women of Athens and a representative of Sparta together to form an alliance. This alliance of women will use the one bit of power that they possess—their sexuality—to control men. This plotting on behalf of the women is inspired, since men and religion most often criticize women for using their sexuality as a way to maneuver men into abdicating control. In this play, Aristophanes takes this criticism of women and turns a traditionally negative view into a positive depiction of women. Or does he? It is worth considering this depiction of women in two ways. The first approach to evaluating Aristophanes’ portrayal of women is to examine the way in which men are depicted, but in this case, men have little to say about war. But the second, more illuminating examination is to compare the women of Lysistrata to fifth century Athenian women. It is this last inquiry that demonstrates how little strength Lysistrata and her cohorts really depict in this play.
On the surface, Lysistrata appears to endorse women as strong, decisive members of their society. After all, the Peloponnesian War is in its twentieth year, and men have not been able to bring the carnage to an end. Indeed, the war has brought unrelenting tragedy to Athens. In the previous twenty years, Athenians have endured a devastating plague, the depletion of their treasury, and a humiliating and tragic loss in the attempted invasion of Sicily. Their navy, once a source of great pride and strength, has been destroyed. To add to the overall feelings of despondency, the citizens of Athens are virtually prisoners in their city, forced to witness from within their walls how badly the war has been going. But Aristophanes’ play never attributes the exact blame for all this mess, just that nothing is being done to resolve it. The author never suggests that it is men who have failed to end the war. But in placing the potential for resolving the conflict in the hands of women, he does imply that it is men who are responsible for the general feeling of disappointment that all the people are feeling. The implication is clear: women will do what men have not—end the war. But although Aristophanes fails to condemn men, women are also left without any genuine endorsement. Moreover, men frequently attack the women, painting them as deceptive (lines 671-679), lustful (lines 130-137), and without merit (lines 369, 399-420). Actually, there is little said of women, either by women or by men, that is complimentary. Women do bring an end to the war, but in doing so, they reinforce traditional Greek constructs of women’s lives.
Virgina Woolf observed in 1929 that women in fiction have an authority and voice that they lacked in real life. This is especially true for Lysistrata, in which the title character appears strong and brave, or as Woolf suggests, ‘‘a person of the utmost importance . . . heroic and mean . . . as great as a man, some think even greater.’’ But this is only a fictional construct, and not the reality for women in ancient Greece. Thus as Woolf points out, women in literature exist in an imaginary, fictional world, where they are important, but in the real world, women are completely insignificant. In ancient Greece, women were not in control of their sexuality, and few men would have been willing to abdicate their desires to those of women. In the real Greek world, women were property, purchased through marriage or purchased through prostitution, but always, they were subordinate to men. In an examination of the sexual hierarchy present in 5thcentury B.C. Greek life, Brian Arkin suggests that the way people behave sexually in a culture, is determined by what society finds acceptable. To illustrate, he notes that in ancient Greek culture, society was ‘‘organized to meet the needs of the adult male citizen,’’ who dominated the way society functioned. This meant that males were in control of sexual expression, and as Arkin notes, ‘‘sex acts [were] not mutual,’’ since ‘‘in masculine discourse sex is something that you do to somebody.’’ To extrapolate from Arkin’s work an application to Aristophanes’ play, means that Lysistrata’s actions had no basis in reality. To put it briefly, women did not deny men sexual favors. Aristophanes’ audience would not see Lysistrata’s actions as anything but broad farce or entertaining slapstick. Since women were routinely excluded from Greek society, and men, in general, had a low opinion of women’s intelligence, there would have been no reason for Lysistrata to attempt reason; sex was the only weapon that Aristophanes could give her. But in giving her this weapon, he makes her choices, and those of the women who join her, laughable. Clearly that was his intention, but he might also have hoped to point out that men, who did have an authority denied to women, should be ashamed of their inaction, especially when faced by a fictional woman’s attempt to bring peace. Arkin is also concerned, as was Woolf, that women lacked an authentic voice on the stage:
Greek men effectively silenced women by speaking for them on those occasions when men chose to address significant words to each other in public, in the drama, and they required the silence of women in public in order to make themselves heard and impersonate without impediment.
Women lacked a forum to speak out against the war, but Aristophanes could give voice to his own outrage by appropriating a woman’s voice. Thus Greek women appeared to have an authority that they lacked in their own lives. In a sense, they were denied existence in their society twice, once by the cultural and societal rules that made males domi nant, and once by the theatre, that usurped their lives, so that the playwright might give voice to his own agenda. On stage, Lysistrata might enter the world of men and conquer that world, but this could not ever happen in reality, as Arkin mentions. Women might grow tired of the deaths of their men, but they would never publicly protest the war.
There was only one forum available to women, where they might publicly comment on the war, and that was at the graves of their husbands, sons, and brothers. Women were expected to grieve properly, both as a sign of love and obedience to the men in their lives, but also, as a signal that they supported their society, and by extension, their government. This determination of proper grieving was so important, that the Athenian general, Pericles, spoke of this obligation at the first of the public funerals held after the Peloponnesian War began in 431 B.C., in which he addressed his comments to the women who had come to mourn. The historian, Thucydides, reported that Pericles told the women:
If I must recall something about the excellence of those women who will now be widows, I will point out everything with brief advice. Great is the glory for you not to become worse than your innate nature, and hers is the great reputation whose fame, whether for excellence or blame, is spread among the males.
Thus, Pericles admonishes the women to grieve properly, but to remember that in their grief, they still must support their city’s efforts to win the war. In an analysis of these lines, William Blake Tyrrell suggests that Pericles ‘‘was trying to fashion in the context of a funeral and mourning the dead the kind of women he needed for success.’’ At the start of another long war, the women of Athens must have been worried about the effect war would have on their homes and marriages. Women in ancient Greece had a prescribed formula for mourning, which required that women give voice to their anguish. Women may be opposed to the war, but they could not voice that opposition, nor could they choose to protest silently. Tyrrell notes that ‘‘silence among women over the dead would be the worst of calamities.’’ Women would be criticized if they did not mourn properly, but Tyrrell suggests that Pericles’ words were not just intended for the widows who had come together to bury their husbands at this first funeral; instead, they were intended for the women, who would be called upon to repeat this ceremony over the course of many years of war. Mourning was women’s work, and so it was appropriate that Aristophanes should have a woman grow tired of this work. Lysistrata tells the audience that there have been too many deaths, too many young men lying dead from this war. Her lament at all this death is the only recourse open to her. In expressing her grief, Lysistrata does come closest to depicting the real Greek woman of 5th-century B.C. Athens. In contrast, the women’s lament at their sexual deprivation is little more than male fantasy. There is little in Lysistrata that tells the audience of women’s lives; but, then, Aristophanes’ audience would have little interest in listening to what women had to say. To get the audience’s attention, the playwright needed to make the audience laugh at the war, and there is little about twenty years of war that can elicit humor. The bawdiness of sexual humor entertains the male audience, even if it creates a fiction of women’s lives.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, in an essay for Drama For Students, Gale, 2001.
Sexuality in Lysistrata
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1630
Without argument, Lysistrata is a play about sex. However, the attitudes of the translators often get mixed up in how the play expresses the sexuality of the title character. As an image of a traditional Greek woman, Lysistrata would not have behaved in the manner that she did because, according to history and respectable male philosophers, respectable Greek women did not engage in sexual activity. More recent studies, like Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman, Pauline Schmitt’s A History of Women: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints,and Elaine Fantham’s Women in the Classical World suggest that women had more control and took more of an active part in their lives, especially their sex lives. The play, while written by a man, with all male actors (although the musicians and choruses included women), and performed for a mostly male audience, was written for the yearly festival of Demeter, the Greek Goddess of agriculture, whose rites and religious services, especially those performed by women, are under explored and rather hazy. What we have left is the play. However, how the play is translated affects the way the audience and the actors interact with the play’s title character. In five versions, the translator’s attitudes toward Lysistrata’s sexuality alter the way the audience sees the play’s message about power, sex, and war.
In the last twelve years, two major new translations of Lysistrata have reintroduced the comedy to college and community theaters as well as classrooms. Both claim that ‘‘new’’ translations are needed to cut through the prudery of the 19thcentury versions and the older American versions which seem to have problems with sex. Nicholas Rudall published his translation in 1991 and Alan Sommerstein published his in 1987. Both translators claim to be correcting a popular translation from the 1960s, the Donald Sutherland translation of 1961.
Sutherland’s depiction of Lysistrata is not so concerned with sex, but with how comedy works. Sutherland suggests that comedy is very immediate and does not translate well over cultures. The use of proper names and the overwhelming local references that made the play funny to its first audiences gets lost on modern audiences even with large numbers of footnotes. For this reason, Sutherland suggests that power, sex, and war become much more important as the carriers of the comedy. Power and war go hand in hand for Sutherland and he goes to great lengths to suggest that these elements are subordinated to men’s sexual desire when that desire goes unfulfilled by the women traditionally responsible for that fulfillment. Sutherland also tries to shift the focus of the comedy from the sexual to the social by giving the Spartans an American Southern accent and the Athenians a more Mid- Western speech pattern.
In terms of sex, Sutherland seems reluctant to mention the idea at all. Sex, sexual intercourse, reproduction, or screwing are not words used in Sutherland’s translation. Lysistrata could as easily be talking about cooking or cleaning house. In fact, Sutherland makes the Greek men more concerned about losing control over the money and having to do their own grocery shopping than whether or not they are getting sex. This treatment of sex in interesting, given that Sutherland was writing in the ‘‘sexually liberated’’ 1960s with a tone as repressed as a good Victorian.
It was this type of prudery that Alan Sommerstein and Nicholas Rudall argue against in their translations of Lysistrata. Sommerstein’s translation, for Penguin Books, is full of sexual puns, contemporary jokes, people, and places. His translation oozes sex and he comes right out and uses all of the common words for the male and female anatomy as well as ‘‘vulgar’’ names for the sex act. Sommerstein argues that Lysistrata and the Greek women represent all women in their desire to control their own bodies and influence the course of political and social events. He also suggests that Lysistrata was more egalitarian in her movement including respectable women, whores, temple women, and slaves so as to cut off the supply of sexual release altogether. The women are portrayed as active sex partners, desiring sex in ways not traditional thought possible for Greek women. Sommerstein also plays down the money and the idea of fighting to emphasize the sexual elements of the play and the women’s enjoyment of the men’s discomfort. His translation suggest a solidarity among women that is lacking in other translations of the play.
While Nicholas Rudall reacts against the sexlessness of Sutherland’s translation, he does not embrace the wholesale sexual freedom that Sommerstein suggests. Rudall is much more philosophical in his translation. He sees the play as much more about the fundamental biological differences in how the sexes see and use power. In his translation, peace, community and compromise are female attributes while war and destruction are ‘‘male phallic aberration[s].’’ He insists that the women withholding sex are respectable Greek married women. The idea that these women are married seems very important for Rudall and his interpretation of Aristophanes. Lysistrata and her comrades are not just refusing to have sex to stop a war; they are refusing to produce sons to be ground up as cannon fodder. Rudall removes sex from the physical realm and imbues it with spiritual and social power. However, Rudall’s actual words tend to undermine his high-mindedness. Lysistrata talks about wanting to ‘‘get laid’’ and the ‘‘hardness’’ of her man’s nights, while the men talk to their penises in stage directions.
Rudall may argue that the women are fighting on a philosophical plane and using sex (or lack there of) as a way to make a political point, but in modern performances, Lysistrata dwells much more with sexual politics than spiritual ones. Two recent college performances illustrate this point. The first, produced by Maureen McIntyre at Sam Houston State University in 1990, used a chorus of nude male student actors (over the objections of local ministers) with clothed female actors as a way to argue against the overwhelming display of female nudity in American media while men are covered. In fact, most of the male actors in that production were nude or relatively so. This production argued for the power of women through the use of sex in a feminist manner which many men find uncomfortable.
The 2000 production of Lysistrata by Karen Sheriden at Oakland University developed along similar lines. While none of the actors were naked, the sexual politics still took prescience over the philosophical ones. The production used modern rock music and portrayed Lysistrata and her comrades as the Spice Girls, thus arguing for ‘‘Girl Power’’ and the right of women to make their own decisions about their bodies, their lives, and their futures. The poster for the production had a young man lying on the ground, shielding his face with his hand while Lysistrata, in a pair of six inch open toed sandals, stood over him, her foot on his chest. Again, the sexual politics are obvious. The male body is to be viewed as an object rather than the female body, as tradition would have it. All the picture shows of the woman is a foot and a bit of calf. Under the picture are the words, ‘‘Give Peace a Chance,’’ yet the picture suggests that a different kind of war will be waged. Both of these productions, and most recent ones, as well, attempt to make men the ‘‘object of the gaze.’’ In other words, making men sexual objects for women in the same way men have made women into sexual objects. This ideology of sexuality differs greatly from the ideology expressed in most modern translations of the play.
Most translations of Lysistrata are still done by men as scholarly exercises to get tenure at some American college or university. Therefore, they must justify producing a new version of one of the most translated plays in the English language. Each translator argues for the idea of peace over war, the harmony of feminine community, and the noise of phallic power, yet they all ignore the power of Lysistrata’s character and her control of her sexuality. She is in control at all times. She is the first and the most steadfast of the women, going without sex for months, and forcing the peace treaty on all the delegations. Even without the shift in the gaze that modern, female directors give the play, Lysistrata’s use of sex shows that more is at stake than most readers realize at first glance. Aristophanes seems to be arguing for women’s control over their own bodies and lives in a way that fits into the religious festival of the play’s first performance. His striking characterization of Lysistrata as a woman who claims the right to control when and with whom she will sleep threatens the establishment in ways that any other subject simply cannot do. So while the translators argue over philosophical ideas, the directors who emphasize the sex seem to be getting closer to what Aristophanes actually intended.
Translators, directors, and playwrights can never truly free themselves from the cultures in which they live. Lysistrata attempts to address the unequal nature of sexual relationships in Greece through power politics because the idea of sexual politics had not been articulated yet. Modern translators, generally men, have tried to gloss over the problems of sexuality in the play, arguing about the higher motives of the playwright and his culture, while ignoring the glaring problems of sexual relationships between men and women in that culture and in their own. However, Lysistrata is still a play much more about sex and its politics than it is a play about power and peace.
Source: Michael Rex, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001.
The Funtion of the Chorus in Lysistrata
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1729
Perhaps the element of ancient Greek drama and comedy that is most difficult for the modern reader to visualize is the chorus. We know that the chorus sang and danced, but unfortunately the original music and dance movements have not survived. Comedic choruses usually consisted of twenty-four men wearing elaborate masks, costumes, and especially important in Lysistrata, exaggerated phalluses. There are two semi-choruses in Lysistrata, probably consisting of twelve performers each: a chorus of old war veterans and the other of old or middle-aged women. The choral members probably partnered up with a member of the opposing chorus and acted out the lines as they spoke or sang them. Each chorus would also have a leader who spoke or sang lines solo. At other times the whole chorus would perform lines in unison. Because so little is known of the actual movements of Greek choruses, modern directors of ancient Greek comedy are left a lot of room for individual interpretation.
The semi-choruses in Lysistrata play an essential role in the comedy. For one thing, they serve as a dramatic device that accelerates the time of the main action. While the choruses are bickering on stage, days pass for Lysistrata and the other women inside the Acropolis. But the choruses’ main function is to react to and expand on the themes established by the main actors. The three main interactions that the semi-choruses have with each other mirror Lysistrata’s plot as it moves from problem to con- flict to resolution.
The premise of Lysistrata is well known. An Athenian woman, Lysistrata, proposes a sex strike to force the men to stop waging war. The Spartan and Athenian women have no problem uniting for a common cause, which forces their men to unite in their commonality as men. Lysistrata’s plan shifts the conflict from Athenian versus Spartan to man versus woman. The chorus will dramatize this con- flict to comedic affect by depicting the relationship between men and women as a war. Lysistrata’s plan also redirects the human drive for death and destruction into the drive for birth and creativity. She calls on the power of Aphrodite to ‘‘breathe down over our breasts and thighs / an attraction both melting and mighty’’ so that men will only raise ‘‘their cudgels of passion.’’ The men will therefore exchange their spears and arrows for ‘‘weapons’’ of love, that is, their penises. The actions of the chorus will show that the human impulse to make war and the desire to make love actually come from the same urge. As Anna Lydia Motto and John R. Clark explain, in Lysistrata ‘‘[e]pic heroism is humbled in the dust, for the psychological implications of this dramatic fiction are that male aggressiveness, realized in its penchant for swordsmanship, is nothing more than the sexual urge run wild.’’
The chorus makes its first appearance after the problem of the play has been established and the main characters have left the stage. At this point, the Chorus of Old Men enters, joined a few moments later by the Chorus of Old Women. The old men labor to carry logs up to the Acropolis in order to start a fire to force the women out. In a play abounding with blatant phallic references, it is easy to suggest that the logs represent the phallus. The old men’s struggle with the logs is a humorous reminder of their waning virility. They try to light a fire but only produce smoke; they have difficulty igniting flames, just as they have difficulty igniting their sexual ability. The Chorus of Women sneaks up behind the old men, ambushing them at the top of the Acropolis with jugs of water. The women dump water on the feeble flames that the men have managed to kindle, dampening what little virility the old men were able to muster.
This sexual metaphor of engulfing female wetness (water) that smothers male virility (fire) is framed by the parody of war that the two choruses enact. After each chorus sings its introductory song, they exchange violent threats and insults. The men compare their defense of the Acropolis now to their defense of it in a military siege one hundred years ago. The Spartan enemy has been exchanged for a female one. Now, however, the old men are reduced to ordering around pots of coal: ‘‘These are your orders, Colonel Pot,’’ says one member of the male chorus. The women call on the warrior goddess, Athena, to help them carry water in their battle. The choruses exchange taunts like rival armies, the women daring the men to try physical violence on them. The women do not back off when the men reply in kind; instead they threaten that they will ‘‘chew your lungs out and your innards and your eyes.’’ The themes of war and sex also combine in the old men’s attempt to take back the Acropolis as a violent parody of sexual intercourse itself. They attempt to penetrate the citadel by force with logs and fire. But as Lysistrata said earlier, ‘‘they’ll never bring against us threats or fire enough to force open the gates, except upon our terms.’’ In the spirit the ‘‘gates’’ that she speaks of are the gates of the Acropolis as well as the entrance to the vagina.
The sight of the Chorus of Old Men laboring to carry logs and pots of coal also emphasizes the threat that war poses to the fertility and growth of the Athenian city-state. The Chorus of Old Women calls the men ‘‘tombs’’ and jokes that the men carry the fire for their own cremations. Then the women playfully call them ‘‘bridegrooms.’’ Death and marriage are combined in the war-torn state. The deathmaking impulse of war overrides the life-producing impulse, resulting in a waste of fertility. Thousands of young and healthy men have died in the Peloponnesian war, and women produce sons only to sacrifice them to the war machine. Furthermore, the war takes men away from their procreative duties. Lysistrata speaks of the cruelness of this absence to young women when she says that ‘‘the season of woman is very short,’’ and it is hard to find a husband for a woman once she is beyond childbearing years.
The second major exchange between the two semi-choruses occurs after the debate between Lysistrata and the Commissioner. The main characters again leave the stage to the chorus who continues the theme of the debate: whether women should be allowed a voice in governmental matters. The men express paranoid theories of conspiracy and treachery. Since the women seized the Acropolis and took over the male tools of power housed inside, money and the means of communicating with the gods, the normal possession of power has turned upside down. The women’s chorus argues that they should be allowed a voice in government: ‘‘I’ve a share in this economy, for I contribute men,’’ they say. The old men, on the other hand, contribute nothing. They simply receive their military pensions and drain the resources of the state.
The rational debate soon breaks down. The Chorus of Old Men throws off their cloaks so that the women can smell their masculinity. ‘‘Every man with both his balls must make ready-take our shirts off, for a man must reek of male outright,’’ they declare. The men, threatened by the women’s boast of fertility, must give physical evidence of their own virility. The women respond by throwing off their own cloaks to release the smells of their bodies. ‘‘No woman smells ranker!’’ they boast. The choruses challenge each other with their bodies’ smells, just as animals do to mark territory and signal aggression. Such a use of smell is also often a signal of sexual receptivity among mating animals. In this way, the themes of sex and territorial aggression (war) are again combined. Furthermore, the women threaten, ‘‘Say an unkind word, / I’ll pursue you till you drop, / as the beetle did the bird.’’ This line requires a footnote to reveal its full meaning. As Jeffery Henderson observes, ‘‘The old women allude to midwifery, a usual occupation of their agegroup, and to a fable in which the lowly beetle avenge the loss of its young by breaking the eagle’s eggs (here metaphorical for testicles).’’ Henderson’s translation of the line reads, ‘‘Just give us a chance / to pull down your pants/ and deliver your balls by caesarian,’’ which poses women’s birthgiving power as a threat to male virility.
The final choral dialogue occurs near the end of the play, after the comic scene between Myrrhina and Cinesias. This scene underscores what is taken for granted in Lysistrata’s plan: marriage and heterosexual relations therein are essential to the stability of the state. The chorus will pick up on the love exhibited by Myrrhina and Cinesias and carry this spirit of partnership to its happy conclusion. The men begin the choral exchange with now familiar invectives against women, but then the women begin to show nurturing by slipping the cloaks back on the men and dislodging painful bugs from their eyes. The men respond warmly and conclude that the old proverb is right: ‘‘There’s no living with the bitches and, without them, even less.’’ The chorus has introduced here the final theme of reconciliation, and in that spirit, it says it is not going to do what was traditional for Greek comedy. Usually at this point, the chorus would sing songs that made fun of prominent men in the audience. Instead, they sing an invitation to a banquet for the next night. The Chorus of Old Men regains their virility and is able to participate heartily in the dancing and singing that will follow. As Lois Spatz writes, ‘‘As is to be expected, the victory of Lysistrata’s plan will bring about the defeat of old age. When these choruses lay aside their enmity, they will gain youthful vigor and sexual desire as well as peace.’’
At Lysistrata’s conclusion, the fractured chorus has become a harmonious whole, just as Spartan and Athenian, and man and woman have reunited in partnership and love. The chorus plays an indispensable role in dramatizing this transition from enmity to friendship, while offering much comedic support along the way.
Source: Daniela Presley, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001.
Aristophanes, 'Lysistrata' 231
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 728
In his admirable commentary, Jeffrey Henderson notes the significance of posture and of physical setting. He does not remark that the statue of Leaina near to which Lysistrata and Kalonike are standing on the Akropolis was intimately tied to the obscure story of the later years in the Athenian tyranny. With minor variations of detail or colour the story was that Leaina, a hetaira beloved of Harmodios or Aristogeiton, had been tortured by Hippias after the murder of Hipparchos but, brave girl, had preferred to die than say yes, or indeed say anything. She bit out her tongue. The Athenians set up a bronze lioness, the work of Amphikrates, to commemorate her martyrdom. . . .
It is towards this crouching figure that Lysistrata raises her hand as she asks her sorority to swear ‘I shall not squat like a lioness [Greek text omitted!. . . .]’. On what would the audience have expected that particular lioness to squat? On a cheesegrater? Hardly. On a tyrant, surely, or even more precisely, on a tyrant-slayer. An able actor would have had no trouble with a minor clash of stress or tone. A very alert auditor might have picked up an earlier suggestion of sex and politics at vv.59/60. But even the dumbest would be alive to an issue that had been tickling his fancy and his fears for nearly four years now.
Thucydides’ petulant outburst at 6.53 owes much to his arrogance and something, no doubt, to his family tradition but the fact of popular panic was real enough and behind it lay two anxieties that were always lurking in Athenian minds, tyranny and Sparta; to give body to the former there was Alkibiades who, like another Olympic victor in the past, might have been thought to be ‘growing his hair long with a view to tyranny.’ By spring 411 the panic had subsided, Lysistrata is a confident play, but there was talk of Alkibiades’ return, of being ‘democrats with a difference,’ and the Spartans were at Dekeleia. Sensitivity was there to be rekindled.
The events of 514–510 offered a perfect maze from which to tease out vice or virtue according to taste and purpose. Who freed Athens? The blameless young heroes, Harmodios and Aristogeiton, or the Alkmeonidai with the Spartans? Were the young heroes blameless or just erotically miffed? Were the Alkmeonidai supported by Apollo’s will or Apollo’s venality? Thucydides is better evidence for the existence of the arguments than for the facts behind them. But whatever the facts there was something here for every taste, intrigue in high places, violence, sex in many shapes. Small wonder that with Spartan alliance as part of his plot and the Akropolis as his setting, Aristophanes should exploit what lay to hand. The hint at 59/60 and the firm allusion at 231 are followed by a stream of titbits about tyrants, tyrannicides, Alkmeonidai and Spartans not forgetting a makeweight in Athens’ aid to Sparta at 1137– 48. All natural enough.
There may, however, be more to it. Between Lysistrata and earlier plays I sense a shift, both qualitative and quantitative, in allusions to Athens’ past. Contrast the vagueness of the old men in Acharnians or Wasps with the precision, however unreliable, here. I renew a suggestion made in GRBS 10 (1969), that some work of ‘scholarship’ had come to Aristophanes’ attention and that that work might have been part of what later became- Hellanikos’ Atthis. For me, following Jacoby, Hellanikos was in the Athenian democratic tradition; Sparta always needed foreign aid; Athens could solve its own problems. Hence Kimon’s glorious mission to Messenia (1137ff.; contrast Thuc. 1.102), hence emphasis on the tyrannicides at the expense of Sparta and the Alkmeonids: 231 (I believe), 621, 630ff., 665ff. (perhaps); contrast Hdt. 5.55–65, Thuc. 6.53ff. Other Aristophanic oddities, notably the curious role of the old men at Leipsydrion, could be welded into a Hellanikan story, but it would scarcely be profitable to create it.
Better to conclude with a sort of parallel. The role of the monarchy in this country has been discussed for some time; recent activities of the royal family occasioned rumour and more debate; it was the appearance of Andrew Morton’s book which added a pretence of scholarly accuracy. Hellanikos could well have given a lecture or two on Hippias, Aristogeiton—and Leaina, the girl who kissed but would not tell.
Source: W.G. Forrest, ‘‘Aristophanes, ‘Lysistrata’ 231,’’ in The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 1, Jan–June, 1995, p. 240.