Aristophanes’ great comedy Lysistrata was first performed in the Greek city-state of Classical Athens in 411 BC, when Athenian supremacy in Greece was collapsing. For two decades or so, Athens had been engaged in bloody, costly warfare against the Peloponnesian League (led by the Greek city-state of Sparta), in what is now known as the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). Moreover, as part of that conflict, Athens had also recently suffered a fatal disaster during the Sicilian Expedition (415-413 BC), a failed military intervention in which some two hundred ships and five thousand Athenian soldiers were destroyed in one fell swoop.
These events form the crucial historical backdrop of Lysistrata—indeed, the inciting action of the play, spearheaded by the titular heroine, is a resolution on the part of the women of Athens and Sparta to withhold sex from their men until they bring about a peaceful end to the Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata herself identifies the cause of the war to be nothing more than political corruption, greed, and ambition. The men of Athens, entangled in their folly and paranoia, disagree. “The War Effort needs [the Treasury’s] money!” a Commissioner of Public Safety insists—to which Lysistrata wittily retorts, “Who needs the War Effort?” After all, the Peloponnesian War brought with it not public safety but rather pain and suffering for Athens, from military disaster abroad to ruptures in the fabric of daily life at home, over which Lysistrata and her fellow women grieve: dead sons, a lack of marriageable men, and women growing out of their “prime” without the chance to marry.
So it is that Lysistrata and the women of both Athens and Sparta are willing to go to great extremes in suing for peace. This is not to say that Lysistrata is an anti-war play, however, as many readers like to think it is. Rather, the play takes a stand against war when it is waged for bad reasons, against “staggering incompetence” when it comes to the handling of affairs of state, and against specifically Greek-on-Greek warfare. Both the Athenians and Spartans were Greek, after all, and allies in the Greco-Persian Wars that ended only some twenty years before the Peloponnesian War began. (It should be added here, however, that Aristophanes, always playing for laughs, nonetheless does little to improve the Athenian perception of the Spartans in his play, as he represents them as unsophisticated, half-witted bumpkins who speak a degenerate dialect of Greek.) By the conclusion of the play, the women’s sex strike so hotly bothers their men that the Greeks do in fact make peace: “Dance to the gods’ glory, and thank them for the happy ending,” Lysistrata calls out in her final speech. Historical Athens, though, did not make such a happy ending for itself: driven to it by besiegement, starvation, and disease, the Athenians surrendered to the Spartans in 404 BC, and their supremacy in Greece was forever broken.
War and Peace ThemeTracker
War and Peace Quotes in Lysistrata
We can force our husbands to negotiate Peace,
Ladies, by exercising steadfast Self-Control—
By Total Abstinence…
By Total Abstinence…
Preserve me, Athene, from gazing on any
maiden or maid auto-da fé’d.
Cover with grace these redeemers of Greece
from battles, insanity, Man’s inhumanity.
Gold-browed goddess, hither to aid us!
Fight as our ally, join in our sally
against pyromaniac slaughter—
I DO NOT WANT TO BE SAVED, DAMMIT!
All the more reason.
It’s not only Sparta: now we’ll have to save you from
It’s rather like yarn. When a hank’s in a tangle,
we lift it—so—and work out the snarls by winding it up
on spindles, now this way, now that way.
That’s how we’ll wind up the War.
I admit to being a woman—
but don’t sell my contribution short on that account.
It’s better than the present panic. And my word is as
good as my bond, because I hold stock in Athens—
stock I paid for in sons.
I can’t dispute the truth or logic of the pithy old proverb:
Life with women is hell.
Life without women is hell, too.
And so we conclude a truce with you, on the following terms:
in future, a mutual moratorium on mischief in all its forms.
Now, dear, first get those Spartans and bring them to me…
Be a lady, be proper, do just what you’d do at home:
if hands are refused, conduct them by the handle…
And now a hand to the Athenians—it doesn’t matter
where; accept any offer—and bring them over.
Each man stand by his wife, each wife
by her husband. Dance to the gods’ glory, and thank
them for the happy ending. And, from now on, please be
careful. Let’s not make the same mistakes again.