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Monday, December 12, 2011

Lysistrata: What is Tells Us About Women in Warfare

The Lysistrata by Aristophanes explored his opposition to the Peloponnesian War. It was performed in 411 B.C. at a time when Athens was in serious danger of losing the war. It had a comic but effective message. Essentially, the reigning message within the text is that women were highly involved during wars, albeit they haven’t received much credit, which is highly deserved. Women fulfilled valuable tasks in times of war, both at home and on foreign campaigns. However, most of what hat we know about Greek women's attitude towards war comes mostly through male writers.

Women in the Lysistrata wanted the war to be stopped. It wasn’t for humanitarian or ideological reasons, but because women honestly missed their husbands and wanted them to come back home. The women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata are worthy of a further note because of their transgressive nature. They break barriers by taking direct action in the male sphere of military politics. They even seize, and then hold the Acropolis by force. Although we are specking of fictional events and characters, there’s a distinct parallel with the storyline and women, and what they represent. Women are portrayed as strong and fearless defenders of their family in the Lysistrata, however, they are also portrayed as being cunning and devious, and able to abstain from sex in order to get what they ultimately want. Their husbands back from war. Lysistrata’s approach to this particular idea was vile and comedic in its execution, when she states, “Do you not miss your husband’s pricks? Your sons’ father? I mean while he’s away at war? I know very well that all of you have your husband away at the moment. Not one of them is here with you. Isn’t that so?”

Classical scholars such as Plutarch, Aristotle, and Xenophon have noted several strong relationships pertaining to women’s roles in warfare. In truth, the stereotypical idea of women at home, taking care of offspring, was the expectation of women in warfare during the classical period. However, there are several examples of women throughout history who have broken this idea down to its core. Spartan women were fiercely patriotic and admirers of bravery on the battlefield. According to Plutarch, the physical training that Spartan girls and women underwent was designed to prepare them to defend themselves, their children, and their country . Yet, it appears that they were not, in fact, trained to fight actual battles, nor are they indeed ever portrayed as taking part in military campaigns . Aristotle explains that when the Spartan men were absent from home for long periods of time, the whole country was in the hands of women, mostly because of the number of heiresses, and because large dowries are customary. This is quite complimentary to the Lysistrata, in that, the men were far from home and the ultimate goal of the women was to find a way to bring them back.

Xenophon explains women in both Sparta and Athens stating that God has made man to endure cold temperatures, outdoor tasks, journeys and campaigns. “To the women, since he has made her body less capable of such endurance; I take it that God has assigned her indoor tasks.” Essentially Xenophon is explaining the fact that women were expected to stay at home, bare children, send out servants whose work is outside, and delegate tasks to those servants who work inside. Food must always be fresh and ready for preparation and people that fall ill in the household will need caring for. This was the role of women during warfare. The fact that the Lysistrata was written in opposition to all expected norms and social roles, leads me to believe that either Aristophanes was poking fun at women, or essentially, he secretly supported a women’s right to fight.

As stated previously, the Lysistrata is based on fictional women and events, however one such myth, recognizable to almost every person you can speak to on the matter, brings myth to life. The myth of the Amazon woman. Most scholars are cautious about making any claims for the historicity of such warrior women. Plutarch lists a number of scholars who did not believe in the Amazons and Strabo claims that these stories are 'beyond belief’ . And the fact that Arrian felt the need to justify his belief that the Amazons had once existed, though no longer in his own time, also implies that some doubt concerning the existence of the Amazons was present already in Antiquity .

What, however, do the Amazon women have to do with the women of Lysistrata? Amazonian women were a tribe of warriors. They represent everything a Greek woman is not supposed to be. “The Amazons, who were beaten by Greek men, acted as 'negative role models'. So, among other things, the Amazon myth helped to reinforce the ideology that in a civilized Greek society women were expected to marry and let their men do the politics and the fighting.” This is essentially the reason why the men in the Lysistrata found it so odd and off kilter to see a women campaigning for political reasons, and outside her defined position in society.

In closing, the Lysistrata teaches us that women were not mere spectators of war. They had motivation to be involved, albeit not on the battlefield. They provided spiritual and emotional support to their men, and this was invaluable to their success. During the Hellenistic period, many soldiers took their wives and children with them on campaigns. Arguably, many campaigns would not have been fought unless the soldiers were given the right to bring their loved ones along. The Lysistrata, I believe, is a female’s perspective written from the voice of a male, in light of the fact that they were left behind, and they do in fact have value in warfare.

Related Content:


  1. Aristophanes. Lysistrata 100-115.
  2. Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. London: Harvard University Press, 1995.
  3. Dunstan, William E. Ancient Greece. Orlando: Harcourt College Publishers, 2000.
  4. Gabriel, Richard A. Philip II of Macedonia: Greater Than Alexander. Dulles: Potomac Books, Inc, 2010.
  5. Loman, Pasi. "No Woman No War: Women's Participation in Ancient Greek Warfare." Greece & Rome, Second Series. 51. No. 1 (2004): 34-54.
  6. Pomeroy, Sarah B. Spartan Women. New York: Oxford University Press, USA; First Edition, 2002.
  7. Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization. 7th Edition. Belmont: Thomson Higher Education, 2009.


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