Monday, September 28, 2015

A Non-Salacious Look at Lysistrata (Seriously!)

Peisander's coup would take place in the summer of 411 B.C.  Aristotle dates it specifically by the Greek calendar to the 14th day of the month of Thargelion, which is May 31 in our (Roman) calendar.  Thucydides dates Peisander's appeal to the Assembly to suspend the democracy in exchange for Persian assistance to the preceding winter.  And some time in between those two events, Aristotle came out with his great classic, Lysistrata.

It is not known exactly when.  Athens had two festivals with dramatic competitions, the Lenaia,  staged in January, when the seas were too rough to allow foreign visitors, and the City Dionysia, held around the vernal equinox, when foreign visitors could also attend.*  The difference is significant, because if the play was produced at the earlier date, Peisander's speech would have been a recent and dramatic memory, while the machinations of the oligarchic clubs would not yet have made themselves felt.  If it was produced at the later date, it should have been apparent by then that something sinister was afoot.

This is significant because, like all Aristophanes' plays, this one was highly topical.  It is best known today as the play in which the women go on sex strike to force the men to end the war.  It is a timeless anti-war play, with humor raunchy enough to make Monty Python blush.  But it is also clearly addressed to the events of its time.  Most significantly, the women in Lysistrata don't just go on sex strike.  They stage a coup!  What else can it be called when they seize the Acropolis, holding the city's treasury, and cut off all funding for the war, or for routine administrative functions?  And if anyone doubts that the women are staging a coup, the old men besieging the Acropolis expressly recognize it as such.  They compare the women's seizure of the Acropolis to Cleomenes, the Spartan king who seized the Acropolis some 97 years earlier in order to install an oligarchy led by his friend, Isagoras.

The women are confronted by the Magistrate, portrayed as a general, all-around pompous ass.  The Greek work used for magistrate is apparently proboulos.  This was apparently a new office created after the Sicilian catastrophe.  We know very little about this office.  Thucydides describes them as "a council of the elder men, who should advise together, and lay before the people the measures which from time to time might be required."  Aristophanes apparently does not think they were worth much. Be that as it may, the Proboulos demands to know why the women have seized the treasury.  To cut off funds for the war, Lysistrata says.  The Proboulos asks if money is the cause of war and Lysistrata answers:
Yes, gold caused it and miseries more, too many to be told.
'Twas for money, and money alone, that Pisander with all of the army of
Raised up revolutions.
So, the play specifically names Peisander as a trouble maker.  It is hard to tell, though, what his specific offense is.  We know of him in four contexts -- as a general populist, as the foremost leader of the moral panic following the vandalism of the herms, as a military commander, and as the leader of the oligarchic conspiracy that was to overthrow the democracy.  It is hard to tell in what capacity Aristophanes is criticizing him.  For being a general rabble-rouser?  For his role in the moral panic? For his speech calling for a suspension of the democracy?  Or for the early stages of oligarchic clubs' campaign of terror and intimidation?  And if for his call for a suspension of the democracy, Donald Kagan makes an interesting point.  He points out that Peisander's generally populist reputation would have given him extra credibility in calling for a suspension of the democracy.  Many who would otherwise have refused must have decided that if eventhepopulistPeisander supported suspending the democracy, then there must truly be no alternative.  (Nixon going to China and so forth).  What the general public did not know, of course, was that Peisander was simultaneously plotting with the oligarchic clubs to overthrow the democracy.  Were the Athenians beginning to get glimpses of this at the time Lysistrata was produced?  And even if the reign of terror had begun at that time, had anyone yet begun to suspect that Peisander and his cohorts had anything to do with it?

We get a faint hint when Lysistrata compares governing the state to women's work in wool:
Well, first as we wash dirty wool so's to cleanse it, so with a pitiless zeal we will scrub
Through the whole city for all greasy fellows; burrs too, the parasites, off we will rub.
That verminous plague of insensate place-seekers soon between thumb and forefinger we'll crack.
All who inside Athens' walls have their dwelling into one great common basket we'll pack.
Disenfranchised or citizens, allies or aliens, pell-mell the lot of them in we will squeeze.
Till they discover humanity's meaning.... As for disjointed and far colonies,
Them you must never from this time imagine as scattered about just like lost hanks of wool.
Each portion we'll take and wind in to this centre, inward to Athens each loyalty pull,
Till from the vast heap where all's piled together at last can be woven a strong Cloak of State.
 The "greasy fellows," "burrs," "parasites," and "place seekers" are clearly self-seeking politicians, no doubt primarily populist politicians of the Cleon or (formerly) Peisander type.  Some  translations  also mention "tight knots" or even "the knots and snarls of those nasty cliques."  Even leaving out the reference to cliques, references to knots and snarls implies politicians improperly clumping together and has been taken by some commentators to refer to the political "clubs" and maybe even the oligarchic conspiracy that was starting to take shape.

I suppose it is possible.  But it seems out of character.  Up till now, Aristophanes' targets had always been the rabble-rousers and populist, while he dismissed any fear of conspiracy as mere paranoia. Granted, such fears do seem to have been mere paranoia prior to Peisander's mission.  It is possible that Aristophanes, after regularly setting his sights on individual populist leaders, may have begun to see a danger from oligarchic clubs.  Or, put otherwise, maybe after guarding the city's left flank all these years, he looked over his right shoulder and took alarm.  But another interpretation is possible. Maybe rumors of a coup were rife, and Aristophanes wrote his play (in part) to mock them.  A coup by the oligarchs, he may have been saying.  Don't be ridiculous.  Next you'll be suspecting a coup by the women.

Another hint that Aristophanes is not taking any coup talk seriously is the old men's reaction.  They see a tyranny like Hippias afoot, when in fact the women only mean the public good and have no intent to be tyrants at all.**  The men also fear the loss of their stipends for jury service. Aristophanes generally disapproved of paying jurors (Wasps is entirely about this issue).  Besides, there was a general consensus on the need to cut deeply into all other expenses because of the wartime emergency, which Aristophanes presumably approved of, and which had the oligarchic side effect of limiting office holding to men rich enough to serve without pay.

Still, the comment about including metics, allies, and disenfranchised citizens in the social fabric shows that he was taking the "liberal" perspective, in the sense of seeking to broaden who should be taken into account.  It is not clear whether he favored giving any of these groups a direct voice in public affairs, or was merely making a plea to Athenian citizens to take their interests into account.***

Finally, it is generally agreed that Lysistrata is given that name because it means "disbander of armies," in the feminine form of course.  The masculine form is Lysistratus.  When the two sides are meeting to discuss peace, the Athenians call for Lysistrata and the Spartans say, "Callout Lysistratus too if ye don't mind."  I have not idea what that is supposed to mean.  Maybe they think a man would be better suited for disbanding armies.  But just for what it is worth, when our old friend Andocides named four more men as vandals of the herms, one of them was named Lysistratus.  Make of it what you will.

*Aristophanes was apparently prosecuted for a lost play shown at the City Dionysia for its extremely harsh treatment of his city (possibly showing other members of the empire as slaves, grinding at a mill) in the presence of foreign dignitaries.  From them on he saved his harshest criticisms for the Lenaia.
**It is clear from Aristophanes that Hippias was still a watchword for tyranny a hundred year after his overthrow.  Lysistrata chides her countrymen for forgetting that the Spartans saved them from Hippias.  Wasps contains jokes about Athenians' rampant paranoia about restoring the tyranny of Hippias.  But then again the "hip" in Hippias meant horse (commonly used in aristocratic names) and sex in which the woman straddles the man was called horseback, so the name lent itself to double entendres that are, of course, completely lost in the translation.  OK, so this post is mostly non-salacious, anyhow.
***If so, he as naive.  Any modern political scientist could tell you that the only way to protect any group's interest is to give it the power to defend them.  Needless to say, he includes neither slaves nor women.  Neither would have occurred to any Greek.

No comments:

Post a Comment