gender roles in Ancient Greece, as portrayed in Lysistrata
Gender roles in Ancient Greece are at the core of Aristophanes' work of drama entitled Lysistrata. This play takes place during the critical time period in which the Peloponnesian War has devastated a significant part of Greece. It is largely satirical in its depiction of gender roles, and portrays men and women at odds with one another regarding a number of different matters, most notably the waging of the war itself. In many ways, the conventional roles ascribed to each gender are reversed within Lysistrata. The women, who were largely subservient to the needs and whims of the men, are more assertive and proactive, while the men are oftentimes foiled by and subjected to the volition of the women. Interestingly enough, the author manages to intersect this satirical portrayal of gender roles with an anti-war sentiment that animates the women and fuels their desires for most of the play. Nonetheless, by reversing the behaviors and characteristics ascribed to each gender, Aristophanes manages to allude to the fact that women actually played a more substantial role in Greek society and its culture than that for which they are frequently given credit.
The titular character perhaps best illustrates the thesis of this document and demonstrates that within this work of literature, the characteristics conventionally imputed to men are given to women. Although she has limited experience in politics and in social affairs, she manages to successfully organize large groups of women throughout Greece and achieve what many men failed to do during the course of the Peloponnesian War -- namely end it. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that Lysistrata is able to actually help negotiate the terms of the armistice which ends the fighting. Quite frequently, these responsibilities would require a man's judgment and decision-making skills, yet Lysistrata is able to take decisive action in a way befitting of the best of men. The subsequent quotation, which is her prelude to issuing the terms of the peace treaty, alludes to this fact. "I am a woman, but I have a mind/That wasn't so bad to start with, and I got / A first class education listening / To Father and the elders year on year. I shall now do what's right…" (Aristophanes 64-65). This passage definitely is suggestive of the degree of parity that exists between men and women. In this quotation, Lysistrata acknowledges the fact that despite her gender, she has the necessary tools (including her "mind" and a somewhat unconventional "education") to settle the war and delineate various territorial boundaries on the map. Her role in issuing out the terms of the peace is certainly that which is typically fulfilled by a man, yet the author alludes to the fact that an educated, intelligent woman can do the same job. Furthermore, this notion is sanctioned by the fact that Lysistrata's intellectual prowess was actually honed by men "Father" and "the elders." By having Lysistrata act as the leader between different warring factions of Greece, Aristophanes is suggesting that women are more intelligent and capable than they were generally perceived as within ancient Greek culture.
In virtually every conflict between a man and a woman (or between groups of men and women) portrayed within this play, the women emerge victorious. This fact is extremely significant because it illustrates the notion that women can not only assert themselves, but also enforce their own volitions -- even against men. Traditionally, of course, men are the ones who are assertive and force women to do their bidding. Yet there are a number of conflicts in this tale in which the opposite occurrence takes place, which is further proof that Aristophanes has switched the characteristics of the genders in this work. One of the most salient examples of the triumph and assertion of women occurs when the Chorus of Old Women storms the Akropolis, takes control of it, and succeeds in fending off a Chorus of Old Men. When threatened by the Chorus of Old Men which is armed with flaming torches, the women's chorus leader responds with:
"Help, River God!." (The women empty one set of pitchers over the men).
Men's Chorus Leader: Hell!
Women's Chorus Leader: Oh, was that too hot? (The women make use of auxiliary pitchers) (Aristophanes 24).
This passage shows that not only do the women assert their own demands and defy the men verbally, but they also are able to do so physically. Usually, men are able to physically force women to submit to their will. In the preceding passage, however, the women are able to make the men submit through the usage of physical force. This sort of physical domination alludes to the fact that even in a corporal sense, there are aspects of women that are equal to, if not superior to, those of men. The implication is that women can not only defy men, but they can actually get them to do what they want them to do physically by using their bodies.
In spite of the gender reversal at work within this piece of literature, it is necessary to understand that the chief way women are able to make men physically submit to them is through sexual acts -- or the lack thereof. The crux of this play and of Lysistrata's strategy for ending the war is to compel all the women not to have sex with the men of the warring factions. In this respect, the women in the play are asserting themselves physically and are actually able to master the men by not providing any sort of sexual favors to them. Even this aspect of physical defiance pertains to the reversal of attributes ascribed to each gender since frequently, men are able to dictate the sexual behavior of their partners. Yet in this work of Aristophanes, the women are able to dictate the fact that the men will not be able to engage in sex -- which some might argue is where their true power lies, in the bedroom. Lysistrata is certainly of this opinion, as the following quotation, in which she reveals her plan to a group of young women, shows. "If we / Sit in our quarters…as good as nude…/The men will swell right up and want to boink, / But we won't let them near us, we'll refuse -- Trust me, they'll make a treaty at a dash" (Aristophanes 11). This passage underscores the notion that women can utilize their feminine wiles to control the actions of men. It also implies that regardless of what takes place within the world of men -- in their schools and process of education, or on the battlefield in times of war -- they will eventually desire to come back to women. In this sort of relationship, one might argue that it is women who actually hold power over men -- despite what the men think of the women, or even how they treat them. It is also notable that this concept of female power is physical, yet not based on the sort of dominance and belligerence that the old women exercised over the old men in the battle for the Akropolis. Still, it is another instance in which women can control the ways of men, which alludes to the fact that women had more sway in Ancient Greece than people tend to realize.
By reversing the gender roles in this play, Aristophanes not only is able to empower the women physically, but he is also able to give them a degree of social power that is truly remarkable. In conventional ancient Greece men had all the power, and could lie with women at their leisure or, if they so pleased, ridicule and deride them for sport. Yet within Lysistrata, the women are able to make the men appear foolish and ridiculous. The best example of this notion is the interaction between Cinesias and Myrrhine, in which the latter shamelessly manipulates the former and makes him look silly in the process. After promising her husband that that she will sleep with him, and making him beg for it in the process, Myrrhine hastily takes leave of him. The following quotation demonstrates this fact.
Myrrhine:…I've only got
To get my shoes off. Honey, don't forget:
You're voting for a treaty.
Cinesias: I'll assess
(She dashes away and exits).
Shit! Shit! She's gone. She rubbed me out and ran (Aristophanes 56).
In this quotation, Myrrhine has left her husband desirous, virtually unclothed, and believing that she will sleep with him imminently -- only to leave him looking extremely silly in such a situation. Moreover, she was able to get him to consider enacting a treaty in the Peloponnesian War -- which is exactly what Lysistrata planned. In this scene the former was able to continually delay her husband's advances and take advantage of his desires by getting him to do something that she wanted him to do. Historically, this sort of treatment between…