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Crystal Zhao (sz3273)

Paper 2.2

RHE 330D, Fall 2010

Professor Roberts-Miller


Anti-War or Pro-Deliberation?

It may seem that Lysistrata is a Greek comedy created with a political message in mind,

especially since it was about the Peloponnesian War and produced in the midst of Athenian

turmoil after their defeat in the Sicilian Expedition (Sommerstein 134). In addition to being

created for an audience’s entertainment, the play being full of vulgar absurdities, moronic

madmen, and hypersexualized women may also have been created to compel the public to

ridicule the concept of war itself. The play is a ludicrous satirical portrayal of the Peloponnesian

War, after all. The only reason why people nowadays who read Lysistrata find great difficulty in

claiming that it has affected their attitudes may be because the Peloponnesian War is so distant

from them. The content in this piece by Aristophanes can be said to have enough of an

intentionally persuasive anti-war sentiment to have a direct effect on the Athenian people who

watched it. In fact, this may very well have been the case – “Aristophanes takes care never to

express open opposition to the democratic system itself” (Sommerstein xix) so he used his plays

to express his opinions. Moreover, Aristophanes made being a playwright his career – and

through this, he was able to showcase his work to large festival crowds (Sommerstein xi). But

did he write Lysistrata plainly to advocate against war? Or was he trying to send another

message that is less readily perceived?

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A brief background to Aristophanes, plays, and Lysistrata1

Ancient Greek society placed quite an emphasis on theater and playwrights were able to

use this to their advantages. According to Sommerstein, there were two festivals in particular in

which Aristophanes featured his work – Lenaea and City Dionysia (xxiii). Lenaea, more

specifically, was where Lysistrata was produced (xiii). It was a festival that “gave [the comic

dramatists] perhaps the biggest citizen audience that any kind of public discourse could ever

hope to have in Athens“ (xix). This proved to be especially useful when playwrights wanted to

target a largely inclusive audience. Furthermore, Lenaea “was essentially a local Athenian

affair” (xxiii). The fact that Lysistrata was played for such a specific audience could mean that

Aristophanes was aiming to directly address the Athenians themselves and possibly to affect

their sentiments toward the Peloponnesian War (note that the play was written in 411 B.C., 20

years after Ancient Greece fully involved itself in the Peloponnesian War and a couple years

after the Athenians were defeated in the Sicilian Expedition (Thucydides xiii)). Another factor

that Aristophanes could have found extremely helpful was that comedic plays were believed to

have “had relatively greater prominence at the Lenaea” (xxiii) according to Sommerstein.

Comedies generally had a more significant presence at the Lenaea festival where Lysistrata was

performed, making them particularly infectious to the crowd.

As evident in the theatrical festivals of Dionysus, Ancient Greeks seem to have thought

highly of comedies as a form of entertainment to be enjoyed. They, especially the politically

advanced Athenians, were also interested in the concept of government, in the form of a

democracy (Kagan 27). At first, it may seem that these two topics hang together by a very thin

thread, that something as silly as comedy can scarcely be related to something as complex as

government. Sommerstein claims that “evidence clearly shows, however, that fifth- and fourth-
All information from Introduction of Sommerstein’s Lysistrata and Other Plays, unless otherwise noted.
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century Athenians themselves thought that comedy could exert an influence on public opinion

and even sometimes on public policy” (xviii). He then adds that “it must be presumed that comic

dramatists were aware of this” (xviii). Remember that Aristophanes was a comic dramatist.

Why use Aristotle’s criteria as an evaluative instrument for Lysistrata?

Despite the fact that Aristotle lived after Aristophanes’ time (born in 384 B.C.), his

central concepts of democracy, poetics, and the human soul can be used to evaluate the comedic

elements in Lysistrata because he lived in Ancient Greek times which would thus allow him to

have ample knowledge and understanding of how plays work in this particular moment in

history, of time and place.2 According to Enos, Aristotle’s perception of language “was based on

rhetoric as practiced in Athens, [and] his accounting of rhetoric would be based on observations

of civic functions at Athens” (186). Thus, he had an arguably well and thorough understanding

of the workings of communication in Ancient Athenian democracy.

The impulsive young men

The women boycotting sex also utilizes comedic ridicule of the men. The younger men

in the play are seduced by the women, submitting to their desires. There is one instance in

particular, involving Myrrhine and her husband, Cinesias. Myrrhine seems to agree to have sex

with Cinesias, seducing him while secretly not planning to go through with her promise. She

then continues to further stall the situation by repetitively going back for “necessities” such as a

bed, mattress, pillow, and blanket – all on separate occasions (Lysistrata 916, 920, 926, 934).

Cinesias finally responds with frustration by exclaiming, “By Zeus, I don’t need one! All I need

is a fuck!!” (Lysistrata 934). His shamelessly bold outcry is evidence that he is not able to
According to Life of Aristotle in the Introduction of Politics
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control himself from his bodily temptations. In De Anima, Aristotle refers to the submission to

temptations as an “appetite [in which] contains no deliberative element” that often is “the

condition of moral weakness” (III.xi). According to this perception of temptation, Cinesias is the

counterexample of a rationally deliberative and moral character. Aristotle also says in Politics

that despite being “born with the nature of a human being…some qualities in fact are made by

nature liable to be modified by the habits in either direction, for the worse or for the better”

(Politics VII.xii.1332b). He is asserting his belief that despite the fact that human beings are

prone to act for instant gratification, there should still exist the ability to hone in rationality,

regardless of good or bad intentions. Additionally, he states that “the other animals live chiefly

by nature…but man lives by reason also…for men often act contrary to their nature because of

their reason, if they are convinced that some other course of action is preferable” (Politics

VII.xii.1332b). Not only does Myrrhine’s husband make a vulnerable fool of himself, he also

seems to be an individual who is incapable of reasoning to take a more “preferable course of

action.” And because Cinesias is representative of all the younger men in the play, the husband

and wife scene translates into the younger men being too eager to act in their faculty of desirous


Further in regards to younger men, Athenian general, Nikias, urges his people to take

caution in their actions just as the Sicilian Expedition is launched. He says that, “if there is

anyone [too young but still] pleased at being chosen to command who advises you to sail,

thinking only of himself,…[and to] also get some benefit from the command, do not allow this

person to show off as an individual by endangering the city” (Thucydides 313). He actually

attempts to dissuade the older men from conceding to the younger men. He goes on to state

more explicitly “that the matter [of war] is important and not one to be deliberated or
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implemented hastily by younger men” (Thucydides 313). Aristophanes, having had portrayed

the younger men in Lysistrata as heedless, may have agreed with Nikias. He may have

disapproved of allowing the younger men of taking the lead in the deliberation of war.

The impetuousness of men with titles

The Akropolis was viewed to be as important as “the corner stone of the Classical Greek

era” (Yalouri 8), and the group of older women taking over it was even more important.

According to Aristotle’s views of Ancient Greek society, “the male is by nature superior and the

female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject” (Politics I.ii.1254b). The sudden shift of

the control of the Akropolis occurred against Ancient Greek cultural values of male dominance,

from the men to the women – essentially implying that the men were incapable of defending it.

Policeman after policeman, one by one, would come to the Magistrate’s command as they

repetitively hear threats from the women (Lysistrata 434-450). It appears that more and more

reinforcement men appear because they realize that the fewer of them there are, the less they are

able to withstand the women. Lysistrata herself then summons even more female reinforcement

to maintain their control of the Akropolis. She says, “Come on, daughters of the porridge and

vegetable market! Come on, innkeepers, bakers and garlic-vendors!” (Lysistrata 456). Notice

that she uses lower-status connotations to reference the women. But despite being lower in the

social hierarchy, they were still able to fight the policemen to the point where Lysistrata is forced

to stop them (Lysistrata 460). The Magistrate himself even admits, “My bowmen have been

utterly defeated!” (Lysistrata 462). This scenario, in which belligerent men initiate a takeover

involving fighting and are still defeated by a group of non-professional women, shows the

silliness in the men’s willing attitudes to take part in violence. Aristotle says that comedy is “an
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imitation of men worse than average…the Ridiculous, which is a species of the Ugly…may be

defined as a mistake or deformity…[and] something ugly and distorted” (Poetics IV.1449a).

The men belligerently attempting to seize back the Akropolis are portrayed in this light, as “the

Ridiculous.” Aristophanes makes them seem silly – to foolish to competently win back the


The above scenario is only one demonstration of foolhardiness of the men. This is

actually the behavior that Diodotos warns against before the Sicilian Expedition even occurs. In

the debate of how the Athenians should punish the Mytileneans, he cautions the Athenians by

telling them that he thinks “the greatest obstacles to good counsel to be haste and anger, the latter

usually involving folly, the other ignorance and deficient reasoning” (Thucydides 150). The

Magistrate, without any deliberation, summons the policemen to fight, all of them engaging in

haste, anger, folly, and ignorance. Aristophanes uses comedy to display his disapproval of the

men’s actions leading up to their confrontation.

Women in rational deliberation

Aristophanes also demonstrates another significant concept in the scene of the

Akropolis’s takeover. At one point in the play, Lysistrata asserts that the women want “to keep

the money safe and stop [the men] from waging war” (Lysistrata 488). The women seem to have

already thoughtfully deliberated that money spent on war was a bad idea. The Magistrate,

however, responds and argues that “the war has nothing to do with money” (Lysistrata 489).

Already, this may come off as an irrational statement according to Aristotle’s claim that money

is an important means to war (Rhetoric I.iv.1359b). How does one go to war without

expenditures, anyway? Lysistrata continues to reason with the men, “we’ll take charge of it…
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We’ve always been in charge of all your housekeeping finances” (Lysistrata 493-495). She tries

to explain her and the other women’s conventional wisdom in taking care of finances. The

Magistrate responds to her, ironically exclaiming, “Because the money here is needed for the

war!” (Lysistrata 497). He blatantly contradicts what he said previously about the money having

nothing to do with war. Aristophanes portrays the Magistrate’s insistent protest as wishy-washy

and unsure. In fact, Aristotle claims in Politics that the citizen’s soul needs to be rational, and

even when not, to at least be capable of obeying reason (VII.xiii.1332b). The ridicule factor

plays in favor of the women yet again – the Magistrate comes off as fickle or even ashamed to

admit to spending money on the war while Lysistrata reasonably makes her case in how to spend


Aristophanes could have meant for Lysistrata to communicate his critique of how the

Athenian politicians were using their treasury after a devastating defeat in the Sicilian

Expedition. The actual Athenian population at the time could have very well identified with the

women in the play. According to Kagan, Athens “mourned their lost countrymen and

desperately feared for their own safety when they calculated their losses and the enemy’s gains…

[they also] knew how poorly equipped the city was to face such dangers” (327). This attitude

accurately reflects Lysistrata’s purpose throughout Aristophanes’s entire play. The Athenian

public also worried that with the men dying, “Charitable concerns further strained the public

treasury, for the state had to support the needy widows and orphans created by the war” (Kagan

328). This also very closely resonates with the sentiment that Aristophanes gives the women

characters in Lysistrata.

So is Lysistrata really taking an anti-war stance?

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There is a taste of irony that is very evident in Lysistrata. Having the play’s plot revolve

around women who are in position of great power in a typically male-dominant society is a

rather humorous mockery. The men in the play are portrayed as “the Ridiculous” for how they

react to the women both taking over the Akropolis and boycotting sex from their husbands. In

fact, this strategy of flipping gender roles must have been significant if Aristophanes, having

written Lysistrata in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, was willing to do so even in the tense

political atmosphere of Athens at the time. The women in Lysistrata are now able to control

significant aspects of Greek society that had previously been vested within men’s authority – a

satirical portrayal of the men’s belligerent willingness to battle. And because of this significance

and how it plays into a comedy, Lysistrata can indeed be considered having an anti-war position

regarding the Peloponnesian War. The belligerent males are ridiculed and laughed at while the

women show more intelligence and rationality throughout the different encounters involving

both sexes.

But does any of this nonsense truly mean that Lysistrata is an anti-war Greek comedy? Is

it even anti-Peloponnesian War? Not necessarily. Sure, Aristophanes intended to poke fun at

the men that were deliberating (or not) the war in the play and critiquing all of actions. The play

itself, however, does not seem to have enough of an effect to be capable of swaying the

audience’s views or stances on participating in the Peloponnesian War. In fact, there is a bit of a

disconnection between Lysistrata and the actual occurrences in the Peloponnesian War following

the Sicilian Expedition. A satirical comedy may only have the potential to sway opinions if the

featured characters are identical representations of characters in the real political life. Lysistrata

did not have this element of duplication. The tensions in actual post-Sicilian Expedition Athens

were actually between the politicians and the public (Kagan 327-329). Instead of presenting a
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plot of politicians versus the public, Lysistrata presents the conflict of anti-war women versus

pro-war men. The audience, being unable to read the playwright’s thoughts, cannot readily

perceive Aristophanes’s anti-war message, if that was even his intent. Lysistrata, in fact, does

not impart an anti-war attitude. Instead, what is evident is Aristophanes’s disapproval of the

processes of Athenian democracy following the aftermath of the Sicilian Expedition.

As mentioned previously, “Aristophanes [took] care never to express open opposition to

the democratic system itself” (Sommerstein xix) because post-Sicilian Expedition Athens went

through a period of political instability, the government being prone to rebellions from the public

(Sommerstein xix, Kagan 327-329). However, this does not mean that Aristophanes did not

bother to make his disapproval of the democratic government (at the time) evident. He simply

went about it by showing his audience through the production of Lysistrata and other various

plays (Sommerstein xix). According to Kagan, the Athenians had to elect new political

leadership due to them losing all of their “best and most experienced generals” after the

expedition (328). Just like how Aristophanes made fun of the younger men giving into

temptation, he could have regarded the deliberation of going on the Sicilian Expedition as giving

into temptation (particularly the temptation of the ready-to-fight actual younger men). And

because of the loss of generals, the Athenians actually elected “a board of older men to serve as

probouloi, offering advice and proposing legislation, concerning current problems as the

situation may require” (Kagan 328). Their primary responsibility included the treasury,

including “the right to present bills to the assembly” and when “they judged any expenditure

useless they curtailed it in the interests of economy” (Kagan 328, 329). The probouloi

essentially reallocated money in the state’s budgetary process. Aristophanes did not appreciate

this. In fact, he “ridicule[d in his plays] a crucial feature of the system, the use of mass juries
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dominated by the elderly poor, and treats the daily payments made for jury service as a waste of

public money” (Sommerstein xix-xx). He viewed certain monetary collections and expenditures

as unnecessarily wasteful and thought that there were other ways of spending (as communicated

through the characters of the older women and Lysistrata). Aristophanes actually “most of the

time, [had] accepted democracy as the only system on offer or likely to be” (Sommerstein xx).

Thus, he was not completely against the products of the democratic process, such as the

Peloponnesian War. Instead, “evidence suggests that [he] had no great love for it [(it being

democracy)]” (Sommerstein xx). There were certain processes in the Athenian democratic

government that Aristophanes was probably not appreciative of. Thus, Lysistrata is not a play

with a purposive anti-war message (or any other message regarding a stance on war, for that

matter) – Aristophanes, instead, is critiquing certain democratic processes, including elements in

deliberating war.

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New York: Penguin Classics, 2002. 131-193. Print.

Aristotle. “On the Soul, Book III.” The Internet Classics Archive. Trans. J. A. Smith.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009. Web. 27 Oct. 2010.


Aristotle. Politics. Ed. T. E. Page, et al. Trans. H. Rackham, M.A. 1932. Great Britain: Harvard

University Press, 1959. N. pag. Rpt. in Politics. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.

Aristotle. The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts and Ingram

Bywater. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1954. Print.

Enos, Richard Leo “The Art of Rhetoric at Rhodes: An Eastern Rival to the Athenian

Representation of Classical Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. Ed. Carol

S. Lipson and Roberta A. Binkley. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

79-97. Print.

Kagan, Donald. On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. New York:

Doubleday, 1995. Print.

Yalouri, Eleana. The Acropolis: Global Fame, Local Claim. New York: Berg, 2001. Print.