Chapter 4. Forgive and Forget: Concordia discors in Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen and Lysistrata

In Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen, salvation—sôtêria—for Athens and its citizens dominates the agenda, not just of the political meeting whence the play’s title, but of the play as a whole. [1] To an Athenian audience, that will have suggested a city in crisis, [2] but what kind of crisis? We hear of a dêmos coddled by demagogues, of the city’s straitened finances, of a widening gulf between rich and poor, of Athenian selfishness generally. [3] But how does that, business as usual, some might call it, make for a crisis on the order of, say, the ravages of war, the precariousness of peace, the misrule of a grotesquely corrupt and corrupting leader, the plight of a poorly led city facing immanent defeat and possible destruction—the sort of crisis, in other words, the poet’s earlier plays would have led us to associate with measures as drastic as those enacted here? [4] For what could have been more drastic than for the city’s men first to surrender power to women, then to acquiesce to a generalized sharing of property, spouses, children, everything? [5]
This curiously overdetermined yet underwhelming crisis we can connect with an interpretive “enigma” the play has long posed: the question of what it is all about. [6] One recurrent observation, that material issues—“Demon Poverty” and wealth-disparity—are central to the play’s theme, receives ample justification within the text itself. [7] Yet the crux of the matter lies not with poverty per se but with its discontents. According to Isocrates, privation leads to a breakdown of inter-personal ties, indeed, to violent conflict: war or civil strife (4.174). Thus in a play produced in or about the year 391 BCE, [8] when Athens was still recovering from military defeat, loss of empire, and its own, rather traumatic encounter with civil strife, there can be no clean break between themes of socio-economic health and those of political health. And in that period, questions of political health lead almost inevitably back to civil strife and its avoidance.
So my question is whether issues of civic concord and discord do not figure in the crisis at hand, and if so, how. [9] My starting point for this investigation will be textual clues suggesting as much. Reading those clues against the cluelessness enacted onstage, I suggest resonances with the widely praised, yet problematic, amnesty ratified in association with the restoration of democracy in 403 BCE. [10] Civic harmony predicated on collective forgetting thus provides Aristophanes with a theme. For he “hears” in this harmony an ideologically charged point of contention between, on the one hand, a discourse of democratic consensus as antidote to civic unrest, on the other hand, a discourse of civic-phallic autonomy as bulwark against antidemocratic hubris.
To see how that works, it will help to consider Assemblywomen in relation to the playwright’s earlier drama of women taking charge: the Lysistrata of 412 BCE. Bringing to bear Bakhtinian ideas on the sociality of language, I shall explore how Praxagora in the later play harmonizes the city’s discourses, and in so doing, realizes Lysistrata’s dream of a close-knit civic order. Yet Praxagora, in order to form a more perfect union, must resist resistance and dissent with dissent. Hence concordia discors in Assemblywomen, whose crisis turns out to be nothing less than a clash of values: same-thinking, the city’s saving grace, versus the different-thinking implied by free speech, a value long central to the democratic franchise, yet sidelined under the new regime.

Stasis as Subtext?

To get at the root of the dilemma in Assemblywomen, we need to look not just to the text itself but beyond it for concerns in the air in the later 390s, the period of the play’s first production. Still recovering from catastrophic defeat at Spartan hands a decade earlier, Athens was coping as well with the aftermath of a brief but violent episode of oligarchy following that defeat (404). Not to be overlooked, then, are ways in which Assemblywomen’s action and dialogue suggest connections with issues of civic strife (stasis) and civic concord (homonoia), which contemporary sources often juxtapose with what is, clearly, Assemblywomen’s dominant preoccupation: sôtêria. [11]
But can stasis provide material suitable for comedy? Alan Sommerstein writes that, like the plague of 430 (never mentioned in comedy), the stasis of 404/3 would have triggered memories too painful for an early fourth-century audience to tolerate. [12] Still, we should not underestimate comedy’s capacity to treat difficult topics, including the nightmare of stasis, a theme central to Aristophanes’ Knights of 424. [13] In Assemblywomen, stasis plays just beneath the surface of Praxagora’s two assembly speeches: her rehearsal speech, performed on stage (171–240), and the actual speech, reported indirectly (427–453). Both speeches impute to men, and deny in women, qualities resonant with the dysfunctional state and civic discord. Thus women, as conservative as men are restlessly innovative, do not divulge state secrets, cheat, engage in judicial blackmail (sycophancy), or dissolve democracy, the clear implication being that men do. By contrast, women do—and, therefore, men do not—behave cooperatively and trustingly with one another, behavior reflecting the kind of philia that holds the city together and stasis at bay. [14]
Does that, though, allude to the revolutions of 411 or 404? Themes of constitutional subversion, and fear thereof, surface with some frequency in Aristophanes, for instance, in Wasps, which satirizes the habit of finding a subversive under every rock (345, 417, 463–507, 953). Sources from the period before 411, when addressing such matters, very often speak of “conspiracy” or the attempt to establish tyranny; after 411 and 403, when democracy really was dissolved, charges of oligarchy (i.e. of favoring one) or of aiming to dissolve the democracy (ton dêmon/tên dêmokratian kataluein, katalusis tou dêmou) come to the fore. [15] In surviving comedy, this last charge, that of dissolving democracy, crops up twice: once in each of Aristophanes’ surviving post-403 plays (Assemblywomen 452–453; Wealth 948–949). So the discourse would seem to have changed—oligarchy now, not tyranny, as scare-image—in response to recent events. But does Assemblywomen evoke a real-life dissolution from a decade before? We need to consider what an early fourth-century audience would have pictured while listening to Chremes’ reportage: an assembly speaker (Praxagora in disguise) no longer addressing an irrational fear (contrast Wasps), but insinuating that the dêmos does something that it in fact did, and twice, the last time barely a decade or so ago—an action whose memory would haunt the dêmos for years to come, namely, to vote itself out of existence. [16] And so, when this comedy plays women (cooperative, trusting, sharing, non-contentious, non-litigious) off against democracy-dissolvers like the city’s men, that likely would have touched a nerve, and would have resonated with a topic much in the air at the time: homonoia (concord) as an essential ingredient to civic well-being—as essential as stasis, its opposite, was felt to be detrimental. [17]
Yet Praxagora’s picture of women’s political quietism raises questions. [18] Hitherto, women may not have had either the opportunity or the inclination to intrigue against the political status quo, but what are they doing now if not just that? No surprise, then, that Praxagora’s scheme carries its own, stasiastic resonances. To begin with, she refers to herself and her co-conspirators as hetairai, “companions” or “comrades” (feminine gender):
Sun’s just about up, meeting’s about to begin. Time they snagged our tails (hedras)—I mean, time us professional girls (hetairas)—uh, time our “professed sisterhood” (hetairas) snagged some seats (hedras) and secretly settled into place, if you get my drift. And you would if you remembered Phyromachus’ slip-up.
Aristophanes Assemblywomen 20–23
The reference to Phyromachus’ famous slip-up, evidently, heteras “others,” mispronounced as hetairas “prostitutes,” flags what precedes as an elaborate pun on the noun hetaira (a) in the neutral sense of “companion,” (b) in the sexual-professional sense of “call girl” (cf. thêkas, “seats” or “derrieres”: LSJ s.v. ἕδρα III.), and (c) in the political-social sense of members of a hetaireia or sunômosia, a “club” leaning toward, or committed to, anti-democratic politics. [19] Whatever else, Praxagora playfully stumbles over resonances suggesting comparison between this revolution in the works and earlier conspiracies.
As to the tolmêma, the bold, even reckless deed these women feel driven to dare, Praxagora makes no bones: they shall seize control of the city, albeit to do the city good (105–109; cf. 287–288). At least part of the problem the women want remedied has to do with assembly pay introduced and then raised by Agyrrhius. So divisive has the measure been that the man who gets his pay “praises” Agyrrhius “to the skies,” while the man who gets none condemns payees to death; having thus cheapened the exercise of one’s civic right, these policies and their author provide the stated motivation for the women’s coup. [20]
Are we, then, dealing with yet another demagogue play, Knights reworked for the 390s? Critics rightly caution against reading Assemblywomen as little more than that. But William Hess has a point, even if he overstates it. [21] Ponêros (“bad,” 185), effeminate (102–103), demagogic, and stasiastic, Agyrrhius re-embodies qualities that, to an earlier generation of conservatives, defined the likes of Cleon and Hyperbolus. [22] Thus when the Chorus of Women, waxing nostalgic for a bygone age, deplores the mercenary civics of the here-and-now, it all begins to sound familiar:
But that was not the case when noble Myronides held sway. No one got paid to govern then. No, you’d come with your own bag-lunch: something to drink, some bread, two onions, three olives. But see how today’s lot lines up for its three obols just for doing a turn in office. Like a pack of ditch-diggers! (pêlophorountes, ‘clay-haulers’)
Aristophanes Assemblywomen 304a–310c
Contrasting the vulgar crassness of today’s democracy with the aristocratically inflected Athens of yesteryear (“noble Myronides,” active 470s–450s), these women hearken back to similar nostalgia in Knights, and to late fifth-century Athens’ preoccupation with what it called the “ancestral constitution” (patrioi nomoi, patrios politeia), the restoration of which provided a rallying cry for oligarchic “reformers” in 411 and 404. [23]
So we have reason to be confused. Speaking the language of democratic reform and moderation, the women institute one key reform, equal redistribution of property, that carries with it more than just a whiff of democratic extremism. As David Braund has shown, speakers in the courts could invoke material egalitarianism—the belief that luxury should be shared, not hoarded—as an ideological value, if not a constitutional imperative, under Athenian democracy. [24] Of course, the democracy never actually went so far as to impose the kind of equalization envisioned by Praxagora, whereas the oligarchs of 404, driven by both greed and need, did pursue confiscation, and with gusto (see further below). Still, in Euripides’ Suppliants, the Herald, a recognizably oligarchic reactionary (even if he is, for the purposes of the play, a monarchist), seems to take it for granted that confiscation and democratic hubris go hand in hand. [25] That association, we should note, will carry over into fourth-century sources. [26]
Praxagora’s program of confiscation and communalization will, then, have resonated with ideas of what radical democracy could be all about; it certainly takes Evaeon’s “extremely democratic idea”—free coats and lodging for everybody (408–426)—to the next level. Still, aspects of Praxagora’s program also run in a counter-democratic direction. Decreeing an end to lawsuits (655–671), and re-commissioning courtrooms and porticoes as public banqueting halls, and the assembly-speaker’s platform as a wine-bar and recital stage (675–680), Praxagora effectively dissolves the principal organs of democracy: the people’s assembly and courts (cf. Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 9.1 on courts). Adjusting for comic exaggeration, we hear in this echoes of the Oligarchy of the Thirty. [27]
Which is not to reduce Praxagorean gynaecocracy (women’s rule) to oligarchy plain and simple. Praxagora does not speak in terms of limiting the franchise to an elite whom she terms the “best” (khrêstoi, aristoi, etc.), as the “Old Oligarch” might have done. Nor do her policies target the lower orders; on the contrary, she sets out to insure that a wealth-elite will never again take shape. Yet she also applies certain Spartan touches to her overall design. In so doing, she reminds us a little of Critias, notorious oligarch and admirer of all things Spartan (Critias fr. 6, 32–37 D–K; Xenophon Hellenica 2.3.34). Athenians will, then, dine together at public banqueting halls dubbed sussitia, “common messes,” as at Sparta, where a military ethos will prevail (676–692, 714–717, 834–852), arguably in imitation of Spartan practice. Athenians, like their Spartiate counterparts, will have unfree laborers do all the farming (651–652), and will share possessions and spouses in ways that could have echoed popular views of Spartan customs (590–710). As for gynaecocracy itself, valuing, as it does, the political wisdom of women, it too could have savored more than a little of Laconism. [28]
The aforementioned resonances seem, however, to go right over the heads of most of Assemblywomen’s male characters. So, for instance, Praxagora’s Neighbor, completely sold on communalism’s perks, pronounces communalized sex “a downright democratic idea” (kai dêmôtikê g’ hê gnômê, 631), yet no one notices undemocratic policies like court- and assembly-closings. [29] Still, material egalitarianism on this scale, surely the answer to destitute Evaeon’s dreams, carries with it, as we have seen, undeniably democratic associations.
And yet it also represents a break with values enshrined in oaths rich with meaning under the restored democracy. Thus whenever a new “archon eponymous,” the chief official at Athens, entered office, he would, so we are told, proclaim his intention to respect private property (hosa tis eikhen) for the duration of his term (Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 5.2). So, too, would jurors swear, among other things, not to cancel debts, redistribute property, or dissolve democracy (“Heliastic oath”: Demosthenes 24.149–151). Why such oaths? Whatever their origin or original intent, under the post-403 democracy, they arguably would have been viewed as countermeasures to the kind of brutality and greed unleashed by democracy’s demise in 404 BCE. [30] Hence contradiction underlying Praxagora’s program. On the one hand, it aims at a democratically inflected equalization to foster civic concord. Yet it breaks with ideologies associating democratic stability with respect for the individual citizen’s person and effects.
To this last topic we shall presently return. But what about communalism as stasiastic on top of everything else? We gather from Aristotle that have-nots do not always take to the idea that their peers politically may have more than they materially, and that stasis may seem a way to remedy the situation. Note that Aristotle is, in a sense, speaking of a factionalized state of mind: warring cognitions to be harmonized through revolutionary wealth-redistribution. [31] Just so a factionalized state of mind propels the action in Assemblywomen. Only there, Praxagora’s revolution, though likewise intended to resolve dissonant cognitions produced by wealth-disparity in the face of political equality, triggers other dissonance, other stasis, as it enacts a wealth-equalization at once oligarchic and democratic, stabilizing and disruptive.
Of course, Praxagora intends just the opposite of stasis. As antidote to the selfish, divisive energies men display in the public sphere, she promotes traditionalism, cooperation, and sharing, values practiced by women in the home, [32] and values eminently adaptable to eliminating social discontent, as Isocrates shows:
…and when we have freed ourselves of material privation, which dissolves comradeship and drives kin to become enemies and incites all humanity to war and stasis, then there will be no avoiding concord among us (ouk estin hopôs oukh homonoêsomen) or genuine good will.
Isocrates 4.174
Isocrates is not, of course, in the passage just quoted addressing gynaecocracy. Still, his comments on the benefits of eliminating want will clarify for us the unstated goal of Praxagora’s revolution: concord and the avoidance of stasis.
But the point here is not whether Praxagora does or does not set out to fight stasis, nor whether stasis as means to an end is a compromise Praxagora is willing to make. It is, rather, that Aristophanes has dramatized a kind of cognitive dissonance illuminated by Michael Billig in his study of the often discrepant strands of thought shaping human consciousness. Billig calls these the “contrary topics of common sense,” by which he means the almost instinctively felt pros and cons with which people often react to perfectly commonplace situations or notions—how, for instance, one and the same discourse community can subscribe to “truths” as incompatible as “the best things in life are free” and “you get what you pay for.” [33] Of course that “how” will vary, instance to instance. But it typically involves social factors, the need to fit one’s own representations into the ebb and flow of the ambient discourse. Hence in our play discrepant evaluations of gynaecocratic communalism, a system variously radical and moderate, disruptive and stabilizing, depending on speaker, audience, situation, and so on.
We can, if we like, think of that as a kind of discursive stasis, spin, in other words, as an ideological investment automatically generating its own counterspin, its own counterdiscourse—so especially in the dissonant valuations Praxagora herself brings to the idea she has birthed. Thus in the speech she tries out on her friends, we hear much to recommend women’s rule, but we also hear of women’s bibulousness, lasciviousness, and infidelity (224–228), credentials seemingly at odds with the case Praxagora wants to make. [34] Reprising the misogynistic humor of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae, these vices seem to have been slipped in as a sop to men expecting that kind of joke from our play. But they also highlight ambivalence in the enunciation and reception of gynaecocracy, a system capitalizing on women as steady anchors of the home, yet worrying because of its reliance on women and power wielded by them. So, for instance, Chremes reports to a sympathetic Blepyrus the grumbling of Attic farmers when the latter first hear about Praxagora’s proposal (432–433; cf. 471–472), while Blepyrus himself worries lest politically empowered women impose excessive sexual demands on men (465–475). How, then, will Praxagora sell the city—the whole city, not just the women—on her idea? As we shall see, what matters are the cognitive filters through which men are made to take it all in.

Forgive and Forget

Still recovering from catastrophic defeat at Spartan hands a decade earlier, Athens in the late 390s was coping as well with the aftermath of a brief but violent episode of oligarchy following that defeat. [35] One coping mechanism, the Amnesty of 403, stipulated that all Athenians wishing to join the reconstituted democracy had to swear an oath whose central term was mê mnêsikakein, “not to remember wrong.” This verb, mnêsikakein, holds close affinities to the violence of factionalized politics (LSJ s.v. I.). Thus to forego mnêsikakein is to forego reprisal. Yet one hesitates to treat mnêsikakein simply as revenge. Within the context of reconciliation, the negation of mnêsikakein means not just the avoidance of violence, but the hope of freeing the mind of poisonous thoughts (ou mnêsikakêsô, ‘I shall be mindful of no evil’). [36]
That hope—that need—did not suddenly come about with the restoration of democracy in 403. Phrynichus, one of the city’s more important playwrights, in 493 produced a play, the Capture of Miletus, for which he was fined one thousand drachmas. Why that fine? Phrynichus had, so we are told, “reminded his audience of misfortune that hit home (anamnêsanta oikêia kaka)”; the play itself no one thenceforth was allowed to produce ever again. In Herodotus’ telling, it was collective memory embodied in the theêtron, the massed assemblage of spectators, that needed to be shielded from destructive grief. [37] For Plutarch, that measure carries political resonance. Along with the 403 Amnesty and other measures, it shows Athenian statecraft: the city taking steps to inoculate the collective consciousness against inauspicious news or memories. [38]
It is significant that salutary forgetting could resonate within Athenian myth and cult. According to Plutarch, Athenians maintained an altar to Lethe, “Goddess Oblivion,” in the Erechtheum, the temple shared by Athena and Poseidon, onetime rivals for lordship over the city. Now Athenians, as is well known, cherished the memory of the contest that gave them the horse and the olive. Why, then, the altar? It was because of Lethe’s role in keeping the peace in the aftermath of a contest so divisive even in its remembrance that Athenians subtracted its date from their calendar. Likewise should we consign to amnêstia, “non-remembrance,” the anniversary of any quarrel with family or friends. Or so advises Plutarch (Moralia 489b), who also draws attention to the parallel with the 403 Amnesty. [39] So remember Oblivion, remember to forget. Else suffer the consequences.
But what kind of forgetting is that? If, as George Lakoff points out, “negating a frame activates the frame,” then focused forgetting necessarily entails a paradoxical kind of remembering: “If you tell someone not to think of an elephant, he’ll think of an elephant.” [40] Still, in the tense atmosphere of the post-403 period, that “elephant,” citizens’ complicity in violence against citizens, needed desperately to be ignored. One approach, fear as aide-mémoire, earns praise from a source recounting how the Athenian Council executed a democrat who “had begun to remember past wrongs,” which is to say, was bent on revenge. The upshot: no one ever again “held a grudge,” no one forgot to forget. [41] But whatever that measure’s actual effect, it is certainly striking that so pacific an act of forgetting as the Amnesty, closely tied as it was to concord (homonoia) and the avoidance of renewed stasis, could be viewed as buttressed by that ultimate focuser of thoughts: the threat of death.
Even so, it was hard to forget, as narratives of ongoing recrimination and reprisal attest, [42] not to mention court cases where the issue at hand provided a thin veil for political revenge. [43] How, then, did this altogether equivocal forgetting, one effectively breached in the very observance, come to win the admiration it did? [44] To Andrew Wolpert, Athenians gathered around it as a kind of social construct upon which to rebuild a shared identity:
…since so many were either complicit in the atrocities of the Thirty or failed to rally behind the democratic exiles, it was actually easier for the Athenians to imagine the dêmos to have been united in its opposition to the Thirty than for them to acknowledge their own failings or to recognize the divisions that still existed in the community after the reconciliation, divisions that threatened the stability of the restored democracy. [45]
Further insights come from discourse analysis. According to John Shotter and Michael Billig, memory and remembering—how the past is constructed—can be understood in social-discursive terms. When we remember, we adopt a stance not just to the past itself, but to what it symbolizes for us and others. Memory thus represents a field within which we demarcate our ideological investments and social alignments. [46] That will, naturally, involve rejection as well as identification, social blindness as well as shared cognizance. And so it did in 403 BCE, when, if one wanted to take advantage of the chance to rejoin the Athenian dêmos, one had to jump through one very important hoop: to swear to ignore whole areas of active memory. That gained one entry into a community of individuals like-minded on at least one crucial point: that “we,” committed democrats (for such we are in swearing not to remember), refuse to acknowledge divisive thoughts within our midst.
But could the city think as one and still think? So Assemblywomen seems to ask. To be sure, the play nowhere refers explicitly to the stasis of 404, to the Amnesty of 403, [47] or to residual tension in the post-403 period. Yet it need not have. Remedying civic restiveness with distractive pleasures, and pulling the plug on dissent by “re-purposing” venues for same, Aristophanes’ play engages themes of salutary forgetting when it stages a revolution designed to erase all reminders of division within the city. Yet divisions persist—why? To understand why, it will help to consider an action directe staged by women in Assemblywomen’s similarly themed forerunner: the Lysistrata of 411.

Peithô on Trial: Lysistrata

Still reeling from the Sicilian disaster of 413, and harried year-round by enemy encampments within Attica, Athenian husbands in 411 BCE watched as their wives—or rather, male actors portraying their wives—joined forces with their enemies’ “wives” to end the decades-long war with Sparta. [48] Under the direction of Lysistrata, the heroine of Aristophanes’ like-named comedy, these women vow to withhold sex from their husbands until the latter cease fighting. In addition, Lysistrata dispatches a contingent of Athenian women to occupy the Acropolis, where the city’s financial reserves are kept. Starved for sex and cash, the men of Athens at last agree to lay down arms, as do their sex-starved foes. [49]
That fairly well sums up what has made Lysistrata famous as a “peace play,” but it tells only part of the story. Another part has to do with gendered politics and dialogics: how male and female transact power and influence within the city and within the city’s constituent households. Gender politics in the play are, of course, nothing new to critics. Thus M. Shaw some time ago discovered within Lysistrata a more or less Hegelian dialectic—a clash, that is, of values, female-domestic versus male-public, triggered when a “female intruder” ventures outside the house and into the life of the polis. [50] To Shaw’s rather starkly drawn opposition Helene Foley applies a corrective. In their bid to end the fighting, the women in Lysistrata have, to be sure, crossed a threshold. But in a larger sense, they affirm their rightful place in the public sphere: they restore the social order, thrown into disarray by men and their war, to the status quo ante. [51]
But what about those moments of destabilization and dramatic tension, transitional between a before-and-after normalcy? Let us start with spatial issues. Michèle Rosellini underscores the fact that, for a comedy, Lysistrata’s action exceptionally plays out in a public space, specifically, the Athenian Acropolis. [52] In seizing it, women have not simply cut off men’s access to Athens’ war chest. They have grounded their case, both argumentatively and topographically, upon this vitally important symbol of women’s contribution to public cult. But they have as well seized the rhetorical high ground, a symbolically appropriate platform from which to make their case. [53]
But how to get men to listen? Partly through physical peithô (‘persuasion’)—seduction, intimidation, humiliation, even extortion in the form of a dual embargo, sexual and financial. But women also deploy verbal argument, both to justify this new role they have taken on (588–590, 638–657), and to propose a scheme to transform polis and empire into a broad-based coalition of shared goodwill (567–586). Not just peace, then, with Sparta, but an ambitious program for reform rides on women’s success at getting their message across. To do that, women cannot simply use coercive means, their dual embargo. They must as well engage men in genuine dialogue. They must communicate.
This challenge, that of forging a discursive connection with men, goes to the very heart of what speech is all about. According to Vološinov, speech happens neither as pure expression of an individual soul, nor as something meaningful only because it obeys certain abstract rules. Rather, it happens as speech-acts transacted between persons. As such, it presumes and anticipates reception, evaluation, response. In its effort to forge what Vološinov calls an “ideological chain” between speakers, the speech-act is shaped by, and reshapes, not just lexicon and grammar, but also the common store of images, assumptions, and attitudes within which the discourse of the city happens. [54]
Speech represents, therefore, a fundamentally social phenomenon. But the sociality of speech will not be all of a piece and will depend in large measure on the central term in the transaction: evaluation. At its most basic, social evaluation of another’s utterance operates according to a binary code: positive/negative, acceptance/rejection, Us/Other. If the effort to forge an “ideological chain”—to open a channel to one’s discursive partner—meets with success, that in and of itself will betoken some level of social connection. But there’s the rub: if speakers sense no common ground between them, if they feel alienated before even saying a word, then they have little chance of initiating any real dialogue.
What can interfere? Let me try a computer analogy. Computers seeking to connect over a network will typically engage in what is known as “handshake,” through which they negotiate the communication protocol they will use for exchanging data. In human communication, that “handshake” can be analyzed into a pair of elements, the one termed “manifestation” by Deleuze, the other, “addressivity” by Vološinov and Holquist. Manifestation is the “I” in communication: it is my pushing myself and my message into your world. Deleuze illustrates by quoting Lewis Carrol’s Alice: “if only you spoke when you were spoken to, and the other person always waited for you to begin, you see nobody would ever say anything…”—manifestation, in other words, as a necessary precondition for communication. [55] But there is another element to the bargain: addressivity. If your computer is not in the “ready” state, it will “hear” no incoming message. Nor will you if your posture as listener, your “addressivity,” cannot be made to fit with my manifestation. [56] At its simplest, speaking is itself manifestation, and listening, addressivity: my speaking says to you “listen,” and your listening says to me “speak.” Operating outside of the purely semantic content of a message, those “metacommunicative messages” (“this is a joke,” “this is between friends,” “this is serious”) frame content. [57] We can, then, view handshake as that shared sense (entirely subjective, validated only by the dynamics of communication itself) that a connection has been made—the sense, in other words, that we can talk. Anything amiss within the metadiscursive frame, even the merest impression of an improper fit, say, between speaker and message or message and addressee, can cause one or both of us to lose the signal. [58]
Returning to Lysistrata, movement toward dialogue is both initiated and hampered by the women’s manifestation. Thus women in the play, to finesse a connection with their male interlocutors, “take on some male characteristics while outwardly emphasizing their inherent femininity.” [59] Decked out in all their seductive finery, they try to lure men away from war [60] even as they “man” the ramparts and speak and fight like their opposite numbers (e.g. parallel disrobing, 614–690). Of course, women, through their “manning,” speaking, and fighting, place themselves in a conflictive stance toward men. But in so doing, they also assimilate themselves to the opposite sex: they re-orient their dialogical outreach, their manifestation, to spaces where male-male dialogue, not just conflict, is transacted. Yet the sexual side to the women’s peithô runs at cross purposes with their efforts to reach out. Dolling themselves up to intensify their husbands’ lust, the women transform themselves into hyper-women, and their men into hyper-men, victims now of an exaggerated and painful Priapism. Eventually, men will have to give in. But until then, these transformations serve only to underscore and exacerbate discursive polarization. [61]
Exacerbating it further is male prejudice and intransigence. Thus the Commissioner (Proboulos), branding the women’s action directe “sheer hubris,” [62] remains adamantly unreceptive. So, too, do the men of the Chorus in condemning the women’s “unbridled vice” (toiaut’…akolastasmata, 398). Indeed, merely by speaking out, these women provoke male hostility, as calls for them to shut up attest (364, 590; cf. 515–516). Significantly, the Men’s Chorus Leader compares the women to Amazons and Artemisia, who for him exemplify the female Other at its most bellicose and threatening. [63] Significantly, too, the Old Men of the Chorus describe the firepots they carry as Lemnian (lêmnion to pur, 299), ostensibly because their eyes are “bleary” (lêmai) from all the smoke. Yet their choice of adjective speaks of deeper worries: that women might be planning a coup like that staged by the husband-slaying Lemnian women of myth. [64] For they clearly fear coup d’état, an assault on democracy by would-be tyrants seeking to “ride saddle” against the city (Hippias = “Horseman”), that is, come out on top, sexually and politically. [65]
Which is to say, the men are panicked. But more than that, they can form no coherent idea of what their women are up to. Reacting to this ostensible coup as if to attempted castration at the hands of a murderous band of Lemnian Amazons commanded by a latter day Artemisia bent on reinstating a dynasty of Athenian tyrants, [66] the men respond not to stasis before their eyes but stasis in their heads. Admittedly, these paranoid responses of theirs are spread out over the course of several scenes (254–681). But in the compressed span of some ten lines (671–681), it comes at us thick and furious: women turning from infantry assaults (grabbing a “handhold,” labên) to naval assaults to cavalry assaults; women trading an Artemisian persona for an Amazonian persona; women as literal warriors, as sexual “warriors.”
To that jumble of misconceptions we can add those of the Commissioner. Blaming men for failing to police their wives’ sexuality (403–420), he compares the present crisis to an assembly vote botched when an assembly speaker, effectively “channeling” his wife’s frenzied cries to Adonis, carried his motion, the ill-omened Sicilian Expedition of 415–413 (387–398). [67] But that is, of course, nothing like the present situation. Women in Lysistrata do not dole out sexual favors; they withhold them. Nor do men “channel” women; women speak for themselves. None of which speaks well of the men’s addressivity, their capacity to “get” the messages women are sending.
Still, at two points in the drama, Lysistrata is able to command the Commissioner’s attention: first, as he unsympathetically listens to her complain about being silenced by her husband (503–531), then, as she offers a suggestion at once visionary and self-defeating. Thus Lysistrata, using imagery derived from the world of women’s work, explains how men should “weave” together a single “garment” (khlaina) of shared goodwill (koinên eunoian) centered on the dêmos, but uniting various disparate “threads”: metics, xenoi, all who are friendly to Athens and capable of benefiting it (565–586).
That plan, inspired and breathtaking though it is, manages only to alienate the Commissioner. Assimilating male statecraft to women’s handicrafts, Lysistrata allows the Commissioner the leeway to read her plan as a feminization—men metaphorically carding, spinning, weaving—on a par with the legislative fiasco he decried some lines before. [68] So our Commissioner takes it quite amiss: “Terrible, terrible, how they batter and bobbin us!” For it speaks, so the Commissioner thinks, to women’s insensitivity to the war-burden men have shouldered (587). But when Lysistrata counters by noting her and her associates’ contribution of sons, the Commissioner will have none of it. “Silence!” he commands, “Don’t go there—bad memories!” (siga, mê mnêsikakêsêis, 587–590). Earlier, Lysistrata’s counsel merely alienated the Commissioner. Now, it hits home with truth too painful to bear: a war that has cost Athenians dearly in lives. In silencing Lysistrata, the Commissioner uses an expression, mnêsikakein, “to remember past wrongs,” “to hold grudge,” with, we have seen, affinities to the violence of factionalized politics. Memory and grief, powerful arguments against war, the Commissioner would suppress as stasiastic. [69] But so would he any effort by women to address policy recommendations to himself and his fellow men. Despite women’s efforts to reach out, and a limited effort on the Commissioner’s part to pay heed, no ideological chain is forged, nor any line of communication opened. There is, it would seem, nothing either side can say that will help.
Where discourse fails, other means must prevail. Thus the Commissioner, who says he would rather die than heed women, undergoes a literal dressing down, first as a woman, then as a corpse. [70] As for the Men’s Choristers, they positively collapse before the tender cajoleries of their women (1014–1042). Though the Men’s Chorus Leader cites Lysistrata’s iunx, her sexy persuasiveness, in connection with the rhetorical versatility the moment demands, Lysistrata herself knows all too well that it will take the mute but irresistible nakedness of Diallagê, feminine “Reconciliation” in the flesh, to get the two sides talking to each other (1108–1188).
But conciliatory forgetting, too, has a role to play, specifically, during the concluding love-feast, a lavish affair celebrating peace between states and rapprochement between the sexes. Thus when a guest launches into a war song (the Telamôn) when he should have been singing a peace song (the Kleitagora), that ill-timed reminder could have ruined the mood, and possibly even rekindled hostilities. Fortunately, the other guests, pleasantly inebriated, overlook the gaffe and applaud anyway, thereby demonstrating the benefits of wine as catalyst of a kind of social forgetting (1225–1240). Even the list of invited gods suggests the need to suppress unpleasant memories. Invoking Memory and her Muse, the Spartan Herald summons a divine cohort to which his Athenian counterpart adds the names of those “to serve as witnesses, constant reminders of the magnanimous tranquility that divine Aphrodite has fashioned for us” (1260–1290, 1296–1321). Yet we hear nothing about Athena Polias, the city’s spear-wielding, city-protecting patron, whose rocky crag, lately the scene of inter-gender strife, provides the setting for the present love-feast. Thus the local Athena, eclipsed for the moment by her Spartan counterpart (1299, 1320/1), will play no overt role in deflecting collective memory away from the recent war to an earlier one, when Spartan-Athenian friendship led the Greeks to victory against a foreign foe (cf. 1247–1272).
To sum-up, we seem to have in Lysistrata an essay not on the power of logos but on its limits: its inability to span too broad or too deep an ideological divide unassisted. Thus when women reach out to their male compatriots, or male Athenians to their enemies (cf. 1228–1238), the sober give-and-take of logos will need the boost it gets from judiciously dispensed, and withheld, doses of women’s soothing and sexy ministrations (thôpeia, iunx) combined with the tranquilizing effects of drink. Men do, to be sure, eventually find ideological common ground in memories of past cooperation, but not before Lysistrata puts non-verbal persuasion into play. Returning, then, to Assemblywomen, Praxagora, we shall see, adapts this recipe to a revolution far more ambitious than anything tried in Lysistrata. Can it be made to work? That will depend on whether a restive citizenry can be made to think it does.


In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the title character’s dual embargo works wonders, though we get no sense that Lysistrata herself succeeds in her larger aim: to talk Athenian men into “re-stitching” a broader coalition—we might call it an empire—coming apart at the seams. Praxagora perforce sets her sights more locally: there is no longer any empire to re-stitch. There are, though, citizens desperately needing to regain a sense of common purpose. In addressing that need, Praxagora also talks. But her plan to tear down divisions on both the concrete and symbolic plane speaks just as eloquently as any speech she could give:
For I intend to transform the town (astu) into a single domicile (mian oikêsin) by demolishing (surrêxas’) everything into a single entity, so everyone can walk into everyone else’s house.
Aristophanes Assemblywomen 673–675
By cutting passageways between houses to form one vast residence, Praxagora will extend the principle of commonality (koinê diaita, “shared life”) to all corners of the city (the astu). Given the centrality of this totalizing transformation, not just of residential architecture, but of a citizenry united as one, we can think of her achievement in Greek terms as sunoikein, “synoecism.” This term’s elements (sun- “together,” oikos “house”) can refer to the banding together of husband and wife to form a household, or of population units (households, villages, etc.) to form a civic community, a polis (LSJ s.v. συνοικέω I. 1., 2., II.). Thus Praxagora, mastermind of a politically transformative oikos-amalgamation, emerges as a latter-day Theseus, mythical king and orchestrator of Athens’ legendary synoecism. We are told that Theseus, in carrying out the original merger (sunôikise) of Attic populations, made astute use of persuasion (Plutarch Theseus 2.2, 24.1–25.1), whose part in the merger he commemorated with a temple to Aphrodite Pandemos partnered with Peitho, persuasion personified (Pausanias 1.22.3). Which is to say that he recognized the role of a quasi-erotic, integrative dynamic in forging this union of demes. Just so Praxagora, insofar as she spares no resource of persuasion to reinaugurate the Athenian state, embodies a feminine-gendered peithô prized as the antithesis of political chaos and violence. [71] Herself a cross between Theseus and Aphrodite, she has hit upon a plan to form that more perfect union Lysistrata could only dream of (Aristophanes Lysistrata 565–586): take over the state for real this time, and take responsibility out of the hands of men. In the earlier play, Lysistrata floated an optimistic view of the polis as an extension of the feminine-private sphere. [72] In Assemblywomen, that vision translates into action.
Comparison with Euripides’ Medea and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus sheds further light. In both plays, an extra-urban stream, the “fair-flowing,” ever-flowing Cephisus, fosters a pure, inviolate beauty friendly to Aphrodite—beauty in which Athens itself basks, whether explicitly (Medea) or by association (Oedipus). Part and parcel with that is the sophia, the genius for intellectual and artistic achievement, with which Aphrodite’s Loves are partnered, and on which a divinely begotten race feeds in Euripides’ play. But it is fundamentally harmonia, not simply “harmony,” but a shared existence of material blessings and aesthetic attractions, that renders Athens a refuge attractive, yet inhospitable, to a child-murdering foreigner like the same play’s title character (Euripides Medea 824–845; cf. Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 668–719).
So, too, in Assemblywomen, a shared existence (diaitan…koinên pasin, 673–674) of material blessings (cf. 1112–1133) will conduce to the goal of banishing politically divisive individualism and greed. [73] Synoecism becomes, then, the tangible corollary of homonoia, the ideal of civic unity underlying gynaecocratic communalism. Sexed-up as it is in our play (613–634), homonoia recalls Max Weber’s “communism of love,” under which an individual’s uniquely forceful charisma gathers around itself a community based on the sharing of goods. [74] At the same time, this totalizing communalization carries with it Pythagorean overtones. Prompted by the teaching of their master, who declared the things of friends to be in common, and friendship to be equality (koina ta philôn einai kai philian isotêta), Pythagoras’ disciples deposited all their property in a common store (Timaeus FGrH 566 F 13b = Diogenes Laertius). Just so do Praxagora’s policies seek to reinvent Athens as a city of love and equality based on sharing. We have, therefore, in this communism of love envisioned by Praxagora the Periclean ideal reawakened, though in the absence of an empire on which to focus acquisitive lusts. This is, then, communal erôs in a form even purer than we saw in the Periclean Funeral Oration. With women enfranchised, erôs focused inward (among other things, citizens and foreigners may no longer mingle sexually, 718–724), and spouses to be shared, this marriage of citizens exemplifies synoecism in every sense of the word.
And in so doing, it concretizes what could be called a “poetics” of same-thinking, one that Bakhtin would characterize as centripetal or “center-seeking” in its tendencies. Why a poetics, and why centripetal? Poetry for Bakhtin, lyric poetry especially, illustrates how certain types of discourse can privilege finality of expression achieved through close harmonization of word with thought and word with word; with that contrast the center-fleeing (“centrifugal”) interplay of discourses Bakhtin celebrates in the polyphonic novel. [75] Where discourses follow that single, guiding vision, they risk forgetting their “own history of contradictory acts of verbal recognition,” their grounding within historical currents and conflicting perspectives. [76] That scheme will help us understand Praxagora’s revolution, how it erects through discursive and non-discursive means an idyllic utopia designed not so much to deter divisive cognitions as to distract from them. Praxagora’s idyll, a poem of a city, promises a union more perfect than any known till now, one offering a restive and self-centered citizenry a chance to transform the erôs of greed, ambition, and stasis into an erôs for community and cooperation. But it must, as Praxagora well knows, suppress all logos with the power to divide. Free speech must henceforth yield to same-thinking, just as property rights must to sharing.
Which brings us back to all that Praxagora wants to knock down and clear away, literally and figuratively. Literally, of course, she proposes demolishing oikos demarcations, party walls separating house from house. What did the Greek house represent? If nothing else, something that enclosed space, specifically, for those who had business being inside, family and guests. But the house also excluded; it set off an outside where outsiders were, unless invited in, expected to stay. [77] And so it is for Praxagora’s “townhouse.” In contrast to the confederation envisioned by Lysistrata, a “weaving together” of citizens and others, this amalgamation of public and private will remake Athens into a dwelling (oikêsis) for Athenians and, it seems, no one else. Foreigners, both free and slave, who earlier had, often to their material gain, provided Athenian men with a sexual outlet, must henceforth cease and desist (718–724). Apart from that, Praxagora does not elaborate on a role for non-Athenians. Still, the Heraldress invites none but citizens to dine in state (834). Even Praxagora’s Maidservant, though a slave, seems to have entered the rolls and thus to have a place reserved for her (1115). Praxagora’s “townhouse” will, then, both exclude and include. No castle in the clouds as in Birds, it actualizes a utopian “there” within the here-and-now. [78]
To build it, though, Praxagora will “demolish completely” not just inter-house demarcations (party walls), but family and chattel demarcations as well. This word “demolish completely” (surrêxas’, 675; cf. LSJ s.v. συρρήγνυμι) vividly suggests the violence and finality with which Praxagora would carry out renovations seemingly intended to enact a kind of poetic justice. To demolish a man’s house symbolized the destruction of his family and place in the community. It was, as the relevant sources suggest, a punishment reserved for those viewed as guilty of egregious offenses—murder, tyranny, treason for profit. Thus in tragedy, the destruction of a royal household often represents payback for a family history of crime that has brought pollution upon the entire land. [79] Of course, Praxagora will not carry out a demolition quite on that scale: she does not intend to raze all domestic space to the ground, nor to expel Athenians from their homes. But she will erase all evidence of the Ancien Régime’s—of men’s—individual domains.
And in so doing, it would seem that she does away with some of their manhood. Ubiquitous and eloquent symbol of the house as an expression of manhood was the herm. Planted just outside street doors, these stone posts with their erect phalloi (cf. e.g. Thucydides 6.27.1) sent an unmistakable message: “Molest this house and I molest you.” [80] For to trespass upon an Athenian man’s house amounted to a personal violation, what the Greeks termed hubris. [81] Prosecuted by graphê, that is, by public writ, an act of hubris could be interpreted as a menace to the polis as a whole, so important was it to protect the dignity of individual citizens. [82] Thus Thucydides, though he does not specifically label as hubris the mutilation of the herms in 415 (Plutarch and Demosthenes do), conveys the impression that, at the time, Athenians associated that desecration with behavior of a hubristic cast, acts like the explicitly hubristic profaning of the Mysteries. [83]
That association suggests as well a political side to the mutilation of the herms. Symbolizing the castration of citizen-male householders, [84] it also could have presaged, at least in retrospect, plots to dissolve democracy. Thus scholars argue that under democracy, “the herm [expressed] the notional equality of each household, represented in the person of its patriarch and signified by a simplified image of a man.” [85] Remarks Halperin,
The erection of herms many be another symptom…of the growing sense of masculine self-assertion and the new pride in masculine egalitarianism that accompanied the consolidation of the democracy at Athens. [86]
Let me be clear: I am not claiming that Praxagora’s oikos amalgamation corresponds exactly to penetration of the house by would-be burglars, adulterers, or rapists, the sort of intrusion herms seem to have been envisaged as preventing. But it matters that she would tear down demarcations symbolizing an Athenian citizen’s autonomy and masculine integrity. Though meant in the service of a higher egalitarianism, these demolitions would tear down the old egalitarianism, the patriarchal democracy. And that is, of course, just what gynaecocratic communalism intends, namely, to “unman” Athenian government for its own good; to end, once and for all, the divisiveness of egocentric, pleonectic erôs; to unite Athenians in the spirit of koinônia, a broad-based sharing. Thus Praxagora faces the challenge not just of planning the city’s salvation, but of selling her plan to a citizenry with much to gain from it, though at a price all may not be willing to pay.

Peithô on Trial: Assemblywomen

In preparing for the assembly meeting that will make or break this revolution, it helps that Praxagora, its leader, has had the benefit of a rhetorical education, which she has got by living next to the Pnyx (the hill where the assembly met) and listening in on the proceedings there (241–244). In that and other respects, she stands apart from her co-conspirators, who, though disguised as men (Athenian politics being a men-only affair), cannot easily get the hang of swearing by male gods or otherwise signaling their membership in the appropriate discourse community: that of citizen men. [87]
But the women’s lack of education and experience is at least partly made up for by natural aptitude. Thus in a variation on a familiar conceit, women, like the feminized youths they resemble (youths “who’ve been banged the most”), as public speakers enjoy an edge by virtue of their sexual passivity. [88] Indeed, their male disguise, insofar as it obscures, but cannot wholly suppress, their femininity, does not lessen but enhances their allure and persuasiveness. [89]
We learn more from a riddle joke posed by one of Praxagora’s co-conspirators:
Woman 1:
(with mirror) Praxagora, my sweet. Come look at how ridiculous this getup is!
Why so ridiculous?
Woman 1:
It’s as if someone had tied a beard to a lightly braised cuttlefish!
Aristophanes Assemblywomen 124–127
Why, one wonders, would a bearded woman remind herself of a lightly braised cuttlefish? “Because,” explains the scholiast, “cuttlefish are white.” That is, women, indoor creatures that they are, cannot easily pass for deeply tanned men. But these women have, in fact, worked hard on their tans (63–65). Still, all they can show for it is the complexion of “pasty-faced cobblers,” which is to say, male effeminates. [90]
Yet this image of women, particularly bearded women, as cuttlefish, in context evokes associations extending well beyond coloration. Exemplars of guile, cuttlefish when threatened are described as using their ink to cloud not just the water around them but the wits of predators. [91] Breeding pairs entwine their prey-snaring tentacles—“tresses” (plokoi) extending from their mouths—in a kiss-like embrace confusing backwards and forwards, male and female, self and other. [92] Women disguised as men can, therefore, be regarded as cuttlefish as much for their fake beards as for their ambiguous coloration. Thus Woman 1, by comparing her bearded self to the tentacular, chameleon-like, deviously elusive, ambiguously gendered cuttlefish, [93] encapsulates all the visual and verbal cunning Praxagora and her cohorts will mobilize against the city’s men. [94] “Fish,” including cuttlefish, “seduces and conquers. It functions like the forces of persuasion, or the allure of a hetaera, or the magical power of charms.” [95]
But so, too, does Praxagora, whose peithô Aristophanes illustrates through a clever variation on the ship-of-state metaphor. Dead in the water (109), Athens is a ship ineptly manned by its citizen crew. That stands in contrastive proximity to Praxagora’s equation of femininity/effeminacy with eloquence, which is to say, with the ability to lead (111–114; see above). But this metaphor is also made to play off the image of women as sexually submissive “rowed ships.” Thus women will, as both skippers and steerage, embody for Athenian males a beguilingly passive-aggressive variety of leadership. [96] As for Praxagora herself, she shows a side more overtly feminine and sexual than does Lysistrata. [97] But her intention to “advance against” the men she would lead (proskinêsomai, 256) also suggests a take-charge approach to sexual congress (kinein = binein), as does her knowledge of strokes (kroumatôn, 257) and wrestling moves (exankôniô, “I’ll elbow them,” 259) effective against male “intrusions” of a simultaneously discursive and sexual character (hupokrouôsi, 256; cf. 588). Equating, therefore, sexual aggression with the unruly give-and-take of the assembly, [98] these strokes and counterstrokes highlight a male-aggressive element to Praxagora’s assembly rhetoric.
Men succumbing to her peithô will, then, have been worsted on their own turf. [99] Indeed, they will resemble the Commissioner, the politically and intellectually bankrupt official whom Lysistrata & Co. dress down as a woman and then a corpse (Lysistrata 530–538, 599–607). Or, closer to home, they will resemble Blepyrus, Praxagora’s husband. Needing to relieve himself, he goes outside in his wife’s gown and slippers while she, wearing his clothes, sneaks off to revolutionize Athenian politics (Assemblywomen 311–326). If, as Lauren Taaffe maintains, this or any instance of theatrical cross-dressing needs to be approached from the perspective of theater as “a system of signs and representations,” [100] then we must not overlook the ideological value of cross-dressing in a play as gendered and politicized as Assemblywomen. [101] Praxagora, by stealing her sleeping husband’s clothes and covering his sleeping self with her own wrap, has virtually laid him out like corpse (535–538), that is, drained him of his masculine effectiveness in the public sphere, while she, insinuating herself into his discursive community, co-opts his political prerogatives. [102]
So Praxagora speaks and men listen, but do we ever get a sense that she wins acceptance into their discourse community? To a limited degree, yes: her arguments make sense to Chremes and Blepyrus (436–453), ordinary folk with man-on-the-street attitudes. To that extent, she speaks their language, she is “one of the boys.” But gynaecocracy, the proposal she pushes in the assembly, does not go unopposed. Farmers, reports Chremes, grumbled and booed at it, to which Blepyrus responds that they, the farmers, were only using their brains. [103]
But Praxagora has not come to the Pnyx unprepared. In case her proposal falls flat, she packs the assembly with like-minded women ready to vote as required (cf. 434). At the same time, she understands that part of the challenge will be not to let the discourse take its own course. Thus her rehearsal speech culminates with the following, rather unusual, request:
And so, gentlemen, let’s just hand the city over to these women, and let’s not blather on about it. Let’s not even try to learn what they intend to do. Let’s just let them rule.
Aristophanes Assemblywomen 229–232 (my emphasis)
Praxagora does, to be sure, want voters to consider all the benefits women have to offer (232–238). But she discourages deliberation, disparaged as so much “blather” (mê perilalômen; cf. LSJ s.v. λαλέω), the same term already used twice to disparage women’s speech generally, and men’s pre-assembly chatter specifically, as inconsequential. [104] The alternative? “Let’s just let them rule” (all’ haplôi tropôi | eômen arkhein). This jussive formulation, one recalling Clytemnestra’s plea to a resistant Agamemnon,
Oh, do give in (pithou). You’re the winner if you willingly yield to me!
Aeschylus Agamemnon 943 [105]
coaxingly seeks to nudge Praxagora’s male audience into compliance. Heading off attempts to meet her arguments head on, Praxagora maneuvers men into accepting as leaders women whose aversion to change, and whose connection to past traditions (arkhaion nomon, ‘ancient custom,’ 215–229), suggest a matriarchal version of Bakhtin’s “word of the fathers.” [106]
On the other hand, if Praxagora really means for Athenians to forego debate on this or any issue, then her message contrasts sharply with the sort of advice the evidence would lead us to expect: that decision makers, including assemblymen, should resist being persuaded not to think for themselves. [107] Of course, Praxagora puts her peithô in the service of a noble cause: to curb the pleonectic, stasiastic tendencies of the dêmos. Still, under the circumstances, that entails curbs on isêgoria, not just the freedom to speak out on matters of state, but an expression of the individual citizen’s stake in the political order. [108]
And so gynaecocracy, a return to tradition that breaks with tradition, is duly enacted. Praxagora, though, continues to worry about male resistance, this time, to the novelty of the system—communalism—she will soon have to propound (583–585). But maybe she worries too much: “Our chief virtue? To ignore tradition!” announces a neighbor grandly (586–587; cf. 218–220). If male impulsiveness, their obsession with novelty and their cavalier disregard of “the old things,” proves fortuitous for Praxagora, later in the play, it rubs a pair of speakers the wrong way. Complains a Skeptic, Athenian men no sooner pass decrees than they rescind them. His interlocutor agrees, adding only that henceforth men will have no such opportunity (812–831). Fickleness like that seems to share something with the kind of short-term memory deficit worrying the Chorus Leader just before the final scene. Thus he urges judges not to behave like “confounded call girls” (kakais hetairais), who only remember—mnêmên ekhousi—their latest customers. When voting the winner, they must, rather, “keep it all in mind” (panta tauta…memnêmenous), that is, remember the Assemblywomen, though it was first on the bill. [109]
I cite that exhortation along with other evidence to suggest memory and cognitive connectedness—to past, present, and future—as themes operative in our play. Thus when Praxagora complains of the assembly’s fickleness (199–200) and the city’s passion for novelty (218–220), when she praises women’s constancy and traditionalism (214–218, 221–228), when various speakers address similar issues in relation to the decision making of the city’s men (139, 229–232, 586–587, 812–829, 1155–1162), it all sounds of a piece with an “old saw” alluded to by a Blepyrus remarking on the women’s legislative coup: “However mindless (anoêt’) or foolish (môra) our deliberations (bouleusômetha), everything always turns out for the best.” [110]
Further reflection on that old saw, specifically, its “backstory,” will further reveal its resonance with themes of gendered political memory in our play. According to one source, Blepyrus’ proverb derives from a myth telling of how Poseidon, embittered at losing out to Athena in the contest for the city, cursed the city’s citizens with poor deliberative skills (kakôs bouleuesthai), a curse canceled out when Athena blessed their deliberations, however bad, with favorable outcome (scholium to Assemblywomen 473; cf. scholia to Clouds 587–589). On one level, that myth seems to fly in the face of other accounts, not just those pertaining to the high value Athenians placed on deliberative logos, [111] but also the story, examined earlier, of how Poseidon and Athena, despite their quarrel, were able to let bygones be bygones with a little help from Lethe, “Lady Oblivion.” By contrast, the myth evoked by Blepyrus perpetuates that quarrel. Poseidon, god of disturbance on land and sea and ever the sore loser, unrelentingly undermines Athenian efforts to deliberate wisely, only to be foiled at every turn by Athena’s providential interventions. Yet we note, too, deeper connections. The quarrel that gave birth to Athens also gave birth to disruptive and constructive dynamics within the discourses of the city.
Thus I would suggest that Assemblywomen does not so much enact a parody of the Amnesty of 403 as it does explore issues lying at the Amnesty’s heart, specifically, the benefits and hidden costs of maneuvering around cognitions dissonant with the aim of solidifying civic bonds. We see this in persuasive strategies pursued by Praxagora: both those to control the discourse (229–232), and those of a distractive character. For in advertising communalism’s gastric and phallic attractions, she manages to draw attention away from dissonance between gynaecocracy’s democratic and counter-democratic sides. Acutely aware of context and atmosphere as a way to modulate and diffuse dispute, Praxagora therefore angles her pitch toward her interlocutors’ baser appetites, and reassures them that no one, not even women, though now the leadership elite, will enjoy special perks (627–629). Bonds are affirmed, dissonant cognitions glossed over. Democracy will henceforth equate with a big party. Praxagora does not, then, simply trust in logos, rational discourse, to make the case for communalizing property. As in Lysistrata, as in the Periclean Funeral Oration, so, too, in Assemblywomen, something extra seems needed to push through a plan that, though it offers tangible benefits, requires citizens to transcend differences and give something up.
We see now more clearly the overall design of the New Athens. A utopian dream within the here-and-now, its delights beckon like Sappho’s sacred grove—apple trees, gurgling stream, wafting incense, roses, “shimmering foliage” from which sleep descends (fr. 2). So, too, in the pleasure dome decreed by Praxagora, a kind of sleep descends. Is this a good thing? It depends on whom you ask.


In the first of two scenes putting Praxagora’s revolution to the test, we encounter a Neighbor lining up his things as if for a Panathenaic procession. That was the parade forming the highpoint of the Panathenaia, a festival bringing citizens and foreign residents together to honor Athena, the city’s protector (730–745). One gathers that this Neighbor’s “parade,” like its model, expresses civic unity: all Athenians, unless they wish to defy the new regime, will likewise be “marching” their belongings to the central collection point. Only now, these parades celebrate a city whose greatness derives not, as before, from empire but from sharing at home. [112] Note that this Neighbor’s parade, unlike its Panathenaic counterpart, is headed not for the Acropolis but for the Agora. Once a venue for contentious wheeling and dealing, it is where Praxagora plans to hold a feast to inaugurate her reforms.
Enter an unnamed man whom we, with Ober, shall dub the “Skeptic.” [113] This Skeptic, treating his Neighbor as mouthpiece for official policy, subjects Praxagora’s policies to a quasi-Socratic interrogation, what in Plato we would call an elenchus. Why, wonders the Skeptic, would any citizen surrender his property until he can be sure others will do likewise (769–772)? Well, it is the law (758–763). But, notes the Skeptic, Athenians cannot be relied upon to obey their own enactments (797–798) or even to leave them on the books for very long (812–829). Given the likely impermanence of this one, indeed, given the national preference for taking over giving (777–783), the Skeptic would rather not be caught looking stupid: “Me acquiesce to confiscation? An accursed wretch of a man (anêr) would I then be, and a sucker to boot” (746–747). From his blinkered perspective, the new order threatens more than his property; it threatens his manhood (cf. LSJ s.v. ἀνήρ IV.).
No surprise, then, that our Skeptic takes issue not just with communalism, but with the very notion of women’s rule. Told that men will no longer have the chance to rescind this or any policy,
Look, friend, times have changed. Then we ruled; now women do.
Aristophanes Assemblywomen 830–831
the Skeptic responds with the following, rather startling, outburst:
Rest assured I’ll keep an eye out for them. No, they’ll not piss on me (mê katourêsôsi mou), so help me Poseidon! (nê ton Poseidô)
Aristophanes Assemblywomen 831–832
Projecting, as he does, a deeply paranoid antisociality, this counter-revolutionary is probably not meant by the playwright to earn our sympathy. Yet his misogyny manifests what can only be described as bias deeply ingrained in Greek culture of the time. Democritus, the fifth-century BCE philosopher, is said to have written that “to be ruled by a woman would be extreme hubris for a man” (fr. 111 D-K). Aristophanes’ Skeptic seems to have something similar in mind. Sommerstein explains “piss on me” as “treat me (sc. and all men) with arrogant contempt, in revenge for the way men have so long treated them”—gynaecocracy, in other words, as a kind of hubris avenging the hubris of patriarchy (the Neighbor’s “Then we ruled”). [114] This Skeptic seems, then, to respond to women’s rule much as men do to a supposedly gynaecocratic coup in Lysistrata. Only here, it is specifically confiscation that the Skeptic feels threatened by (cf. 746–747).
We have seen that our Skeptic responds to gynaecocratic communalism with paranoid misogyny. That mindset extends, I would suggest, even to the oaths he swears. Having already sworn by Poseidon that he will never surrender his property (748), in the outburst just quoted, he swears as if naming Poseidon an ally in some war of the sexes. [115] He does not, of course, allude directly to any such war the god himself has waged, by which I mean Poseidon’s famous quarrel with Athena. Still, under the circumstances, the aggressiveness of the Skeptic’s oath mnêsikakei, it brings bad feelings into the cognitive foreground. That is, it projects precisely the sort of negativity gynaecocratic communalism needs to overcome if it is to work, indeed, was intended to address in the first place. Juxtaposed with Thucydides’ description of attitudes typical of stasis, this Skeptic’s overall attitude—his deep mistrust combined with his determination not to let others get the better of him—can be seen as stasiastic:
Factional splits took shape, ones driven mostly by mutual mistrust. For no spoken word was forceful enough, nor any oath fearful enough, to resolve differences. Counting on the hopelessness of a secure settlement, no one felt he could trust his enemy; everyone plotted how to come out on top by administering harm before falling victim to it.
Thucydides 3.83.1–2
I cite the passage from Thucydides to suggest affinities between, on the one hand, the attitudes and behavior of Aristophanes’ Skeptic, on the other hand, the hyper-proactive selfishness of stasis as described by the historian. But they are not exactly alike. What sets this Skeptic apart is the paradox that consensus and conformity, not factionalism, provoke his own hyper-proactive and contrarian conduct.
To get a better sense of that, we should look at the following exchange, in which the Skeptic doggedly refuses to be swayed either by the Neighbor’s assurances or by his threats:
I know these guys. No sooner do they pass a resolution than they turn around and renounce it.
They’ll bring their stuff, friend.
And if they don’t, then what?
Don’t worry, they will.
And if they don’t, then what?
We’ll fight them.
And if there are more of them, then what?
I’ll just go away and leave it be.
And if they sell your stuff, then what?
Blast you!
And if I do get blasted, then what?
You’ll be doing us a favor.
Aristophanes Assemblywomen 797–804
Pestered by the Skeptic with visions of non-compliance, the Neighbor invokes the coercive power of the state, the “We” to whom the Neighbor refers. But what if, as the Skeptic says, the noncompliant element will enjoy a numerical edge? Indeed, what if the whole operation goes awry, and an unspecified, unsupervised, unscrupulous “they” commandeer the goods? A silly question, perhaps, especially in view of the evident groundswell of compliance (805–806; cf. 771–774). Yet the question cannot simply be made to go away. If the point of communalization and related policy (amalgamation of housing, of families) is, ultimately, to bring Athenians together into a close-knit, harmonious whole, then what does it mean that implementation of that policy might, in however many cases, produce resistance, cheating, ill-will, fighting? Of course, to the Neighbor, the question is moot: all around them, team spirit prevails. But that spirit of cooperation, sine qua non for Praxagora’s plan to succeed, also represents her plan’s implicit goal. Yet if concord relies at every turn on concord, that necessarily implies a hurdle, discord, to be surmounted at every turn, too. Homonoia and stasis, diametrical opposites, would seem, then, to go hand in hand.
These problematics of communalism, though nowhere mentioned by the Skeptic, are nevertheless modeled by his behavior and attitudes. Utterly reckless of legislation, a freeloader (872–876) musing over the possibility that “they”—really, “skeptics” like himself—might commandeer and sell off communalized property for personal profit, [116] he encapsulates all that was wrong with the old Athens and all that threatens the new. But he also insists on subjecting communalism to a thorough cross-examination before he will acquiesce (746–755), a course the women earlier sought to head off (229–232, 433–434). That cross-examination, however unimpressive, nevertheless hearkens back to a right once a pillar of the democratic franchise: isêgoria, the right of free speech. That right will, though, have nowhere to go under a regime as reliant as this one on homonoia, the “same-thinking” manifested by the Neighbor and others compliant with communalism, though eschewed by nonconformists like the Skeptic. [117]
Which is not to say that we are supposed to cheer for the Skeptic or what he represents. But he does help us see the double-voiced character of a revolution providing for a “shared life” (koinê diaita) of peace and plenty, though at the expense of free speech and an individual citizen’s title to his own property, an “entitlement” cherished under the restored democracy, though an entitlement citizens must now forget. Our play, then, in no way presents an unambiguously pro or contra viewpoint vis-à-vis gynaecocratic communalism or its corollary, the privileging of consensus over debate. As things often do in the real world, it pulls at us from different directions.

Tug of War

That brings us to the second scene in which the play’s action seems to interrogate the New Athens. Praxagora, we recall, has, in addition to other communalistic reforms, decreed the sharing of sexual partners. No longer will individuals, men or women, wrangle for dates. All will have to wait their turn, seniors to the front of the line (613–634). What if some citizens, too impatient to cue up, look to the commercial sector? Too bad for them: Praxagora will, as she puts it, put all the “whores” (pornas) out of business (718–719).
Into the breach rush elderly citizen-women, who eagerly assume the trappings, as well as partners (cf. 719–724), of the pornai Praxagora sacks. Note that in classical Greek culture, porneia (from pornê/pornos, “whore”) emphasized commoditization, asymmetry, and above all, publicity, that in contrast to Hetärentum (hetaira, ‘companion,’ ‘courtesan’), a pricier, less impersonal type of prostitution. For the pornê’s sphere of operations included streets, doorways, windows, rooftops—the sort of place thought unsuitable for respectable women to occupy for very long. [118] It is, then, a sign of changing times for us to find elderly citizen-women playing, to all appearances, the pornê as they stand outdoors, decked-out and hoping to be noticed (877–937; 1072). And so they are, by a young man who, intent on sleeping with his young girlfriend, labels two of his elderly admirers kasalbades (1106), a synonym for pornê, though more contemptuous. [119]
As for the girlfriend, she, too, exploits newfound freedom. Showing herself to her lover from an upper window of her house, she joins him in the typical sort of lover’s lament sung “at the locked door” (a paraklausithuron; cf. 962–963). But that door belongs not to a hetaira, a pricy prostitute, as would have been typical for such a song at this time. It is the door of a respectable citizen Girl. And so in a duet rich in sexual reference, one emphasizing the Girl’s parity with her male lover, each begs the other to join her/him in her/his bed. [120]
Alas, it is not to be. Fought over by his elderly admirers, Epigenes falls victim to a sexual tug of war, [121] a curious variation on the hurly-burly normally associated with amorous young men. Two declarations summarize young Epigenes’ predicament, the first from the young man himself. Longing to sleep with his girlfriend, he exclaims that he, a “free man” (eleutherôi), cannot abide the thought of having to service the needs of old women first (938–941). He has not, it would seem, yet reconciled himself to what he still reads as untoward interference with his civic and sexual autonomy.
The second declaration comes from Old Woman 2. Parodying the sort of speech an aggrieved husband would make when inflicting licit revenge on his wife’s lover (cf. Lysias 1.26), she solemnly declares, “Not I but the law (ho nomos) drags you off!” [122] In so declaring, Woman 2, or rather, nomos—“law”—in effect rapes the young man. Thus she/it inflicts counter-hubris upon a youth hubristically refusing to submit to rules intended to level the sexual playing field, [123] rules sanctioning violence to prevent something worse: social chaos stemming from a strictly laissez-faire policy regarding sexuality. [124]
But law as rapist? That and more as citizen-women, failing to agree over legal points (1077–1078), instigate a miniature stasis and seem poised to subject Epigenes to a Pentheus-like dismemberment. [125] What if, though, this represents a kind of poetic justice for a youth who, like youths in other comedies, flouts the rules and fails to give his elders their due? [126] Perhaps, then, Epigenes will have come across no more sympathetically to audiences than the very unsympathetic Skeptic from earlier in the play. [127] Still, as in that earlier scene, so too here, the goings on suggest stress points within Praxagorean communalism. [128] Absent the “fair empire” (Aristophanes Knights 1111) Athens once possessed, the good life will come not from external acquisition but from redistribution. [129] Thus the “give” of communalism entails a “take” generating resistance from skeptics and dissensus among the amorous. Desire turns inward, the system feeds on itself.
Perhaps, though, we are over reacting, as unpleasantness gives way to festivity and fun in the play’s final scene. [130] That feast, to which the chorus and all the play’s admirers, whether audience or judges, have been invited (1141–1143), effectively collapses two victories into one: the victory of communalism and a nearly unanimous vote for Aristophanes’ play. [131] Of course, we do not actually know yet how the festival judges will vote, but no matter: “We shall dine…as if for victory” (deipnêsomen…hôs epi nikêi, 1181–1182). If we can think ourselves the victors, if we can somehow contrive not to hear dissenting voices, then victory, naturally, will be ours. [132]

Concordia discors

Assemblywomen, it seems safe to say, is about no one thing. But again and again, the play returns to the same, basic theme: how to regain prosperity and banish strife under the post-403 reality. One part of that reality, loss of empire, drastically altered the political climate. Once, empire and democracy existed in a tight nexus. But with the loss of empire came the loss of that external Other validating the power of the dêmos and deflecting its more aggressive energies. [133] Absent that, where could Athenians turn?
In 404, against themselves. Though it is hard to know if Thucydides’ description of stasis as a Panhellenic phenomenon reflects the historian’s experience of the Athenian stasis of 404, [134] narratives of the latter do at least echo key elements of the historian’s overall scheme, especially in the matter of a polis devouring itself from the inside. [135] But with the restoration of democracy came the need to think the city whole again. Hence a reconciliation bolstered by a willed act of forgetting. That remedy haunts Assemblywomen like an idée fixe. As the city struggled to quell divisive thoughts, Aristophanes could not help but notice struggle internal to same-thinking, the city’s saving grace, taken to the extreme: how it must forever resist resistance and dissent with dissent. In so doing, Assemblywomen does not stand alone. Other narratives, those dealing with the Sicilian Debate and the rush to judgment of the generals at Arginusae, likewise focus on the capacity for democratic deliberation to give way to a tyranny of consensus. [136] But apart from tyranny itself, no system of governing was immune. So, for instance, Xenophon reveals how the oligarchs of 404, perpetrators of outrage upon outrage, dealt with the mounting opposition. Finding strength in unity, they felt safe enough until one of their own, fed up with the indiscriminate killing, broke ranks. Branding Theramenes a traitor, Critias and his cronies dealt with him accordingly (Hellenica 2.3.14–51).
Of course, that is not Praxagora’s style. Rather, she devises, as we have seen, a “poetics” of same-thinking, a concretized reification of discourse dubbed “centripetal” by Bakhtin. Yet Assemblywomen dramatizes no totalizing victory for the pleasure dome Praxagora decrees. Rather, it dramatizes concordia discors, that plane along which same- and different-thinking forever grapple and world-views collide. In our play, those world-views correspond, roughly speaking, to male and female, though scenes like the one where elderly women man-handle a youth mix it up. Still, in Assemblywomen, the playwright “sees” gender from a vantage point squarely within the mindsets of his time and place. But his seeing also reflects an ambivalence, a double-voicedness, informing the play’s every scene, especially where women are concerned. Finding themselves the butt of the usual misogyny, these women, in remaking Athens after their own image, create as many problems as they solve. In so doing, they play to the prejudices of Aristophanes’ audience. But Assemblywomen nowhere spells out the failure of Praxagora’s revolution. On the contrary, it poses a question itself revolutionary for 390s Athens: whether human nature committed the dêmos, the play’s notional audience and dramatic subject, to an immutable destiny of patriarchal politics. [137]
But what about prospects for same-thinking and free speech under the restored democracy? What does Assemblywomen have to say about that? Surely not that freedom equates with anarchy, or consensus with tyranny; that kind of paranoia we find modeled by the likes of Aristophanes’ Commissioner and Skeptic. So if Assemblywomen does send a message, perhaps it is this: that dialogue cannot happen outside of community, but efforts to impose community must always undercut dialogue. For the values we share will not always harmonize. But to value harmony above all else may not always be the best idea.


[ back ] 1. Sôtêria ‘safety, deliverance from danger’ on the agenda: Aristophanes Assemblywomen 396–397; cf. 202, 209, 233–234, 401–402, 412, 414. Oaths sworn by Zeus sôtêr, “Zeus the Savior”: 79, 761, 1045, 1103.
[ back ] 2. Emergency meetings with sôtêria at stake: Aeschines 2.72; Demosthenes 18.248; 19.123; Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 29.2; Sommerstein 1998:176; Hansen 1987:28–30; Rhodes 1985:233–235.
[ back ] 3. Demagogues and the dêmos’ preference for them: Aristophanes Assemblywomen 176–182. Selfishness, cynicism, greed, inconstancy, (reckless) innovation, poverty, insensitivity to same, class tensions: passim. General corruption: Saïd 1996:284–286.
[ back ] 4. Chronic-endemic character of troubles in Assemblywomen: Foxhall 2002; Henderson 2002:415; Reinders 2001:1249. Sense of crisis in Aristophanes’ Knights: Anderson 1995:10–13. In Frogs: 687–688, 736–737, 1418–1423, 1435–1436, 1446–1450.
[ back ] 5. Women’s rule in Assemblywomen as reversal: Sommerstein 1998:8 citing Aristotle Politics 1259b1–3, 1260a8–13.
[ back ] 6. Since at least 1836, the year of Zastra’s dissertation. For the interpretive “enigma” (Sommerstein’s term): Reinders 2001:243–251; Ober 1998:150; Sommerstein 1998:18; Sommerstein 1984:314–316; Hess 1963:i–xiii.
[ back ] 7. Socio-economic themes in Assemblywomen: Sommerstein 1998:18–22; Saïd 1996:299–301; Taaffe 1993:103, 130–131; David 1984; Sommerstein 1984 (whence the phrase “Demon Poverty”); Foley 1982:14; Ussher 1973:xxix–xx. “Relative unity and moderate (if not universal) economic recovery” in the post-403 period: Rothwell 1990:2; cf. Reinders 2001:247–251; Funke 1980.
[ back ] 8. Date: McGlew 2002:191; Sommerstein 1998:1–8.
[ back ] 9. Cf. Ober 1998:133: “They (Athenian women) seek a new ground for Athenian homonoia in a radical homogenization of material and familial benefits.”
[ back ] 10. For which, Ober 2002; Quillin 2002; Tieman 2002; Wolpert 2002a; Wolpert 2002b.
[ back ] 11. Sôtêria, homonoia, amnesty: Andocides 1.73, 76, 81, 106–9, 140; Lysias 18.18–19; 25.23, 27. Sôtêria, civic affection (philia), homonoia versus hatred, stasis, disagreement (dikhonoia): Plato First Alcibiades 126a–c.
[ back ] 12. Sommerstein 1998:154.
[ back ] 13. See “Stasis,” chapter 3 above.
[ back ] 14. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 214–228, 435–453; cf. the Chorus, 300–310.
[ back ] 15. Sartori 1999:148–149; MacDowell 1971:180.
[ back ] 16. In 411 and 404, the dêmos was forced into complicity with processes leading to its dissolution: Wolpert 2002b:16–20, 35–36, 41–42; Price 2001:304–312. Cf. Aristophanes Wealth 947–950 (democracy-dissolution assumed to require legislative approval); Xenophon Hellenica 2.3.45 (dêmos persuaded to dissolve democracy to appease Sparta); Aeschines 3.234 (dêmos “flattered” into complicity).
[ back ] 17. 17 Andocides 1.140; Lysias 18.17–18; 25; Isocrates 4.174; 18.44; Xenophon Memorabilia 4.4.16, 4.6.14; Archytas fr. 3 D–K; Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1155a24–26; Ephorus 70 F 148.7, 149.6–7 FGrH; Loraux 2002:109, 256–257, 262; Ludwig 2002:19, 193–194, 342–343; Ober 1989:295–299; Funke 1980. Cf. Loraux 2002:116–119 on harmonia.
[ back ] 18. Cf. Sommerstein 1998:180.
[ back ] 19. Hetaira here as feminine of hetairos, “club-member,” “conspirator.” In Aristophanes Assemblywomen 110, the women form a xunousia, an organized association. Revolutionary sunousiai in Lysias 8: Todd 2000:88. Hetairoi, hetaireiai (political clubs or “action committees”), sunômosia (“conspiracy”), oligarchy: Thucydides 8.54.4, 65.2, 81.2, 92.4; Lysias 12.43; Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 34.3; McGlew 2002:112–138; Hall 1993:269–270. The pun in Assemblywomen: Sommerstein 1998:139–140; Ussher 1973:75–76.
[ back ] 20. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 184–188; Hess 1963:17–18, 87. Ecclesiastic pay: Sommerstein 1998:154, 167 with references. Unpaid were non-attendees and late arrivals (beyond the six-thousand quorum).
[ back ] 21. Hess 1963 takes Assemblywomen as a post-imperial Knights, and Agyrrhius as its Cleon, but see Rothwell 1990:5–7; Ussher 1973:101.
[ back ] 22. Agyrrhius’ career: Sommerstein 1998:147–148; Hess 1963:18–29. Pay for political-judicial service ran counter to oligarchy: Ostwald 2000:27. On ponêroi, Rosenbloom 2004a.
[ back ] 23. Xenophon Hellenica 2.3.2; Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 29.3, 34.3, 35.2; Wolpert 2002b:35–42; Ostwald 1986:337–411. Myronides as exemplar of manliness and ferocity in battle: Aristophanes Lysistrata 801–803; commands held by him, Sommerstein 1998:167.
[ back ] 24. Braund 1994.
[ back ] 25. Have-nots motivated by envy and deceived by democratic leaders (prostatai) to apply the “savage lash” to haves: Euripides Suppliants 240–243. Hubris-resonances in the preceding: Michelini 1994:224–225; Fisher 1992:418–424.
[ back ] 26. Redistribution (anadasmos tês gês) and cancellation of debts (apokopê khreôn) in connection with democratic coups and the like: Plato Republic 565e–566b; Aristotle Politics 1305a2–7; Constitution of the Athenians 40.3 (Athens the exception); Isocrates 12.259 (stasis, redistribution unknown in Sparta); Gehrke 1985:323 and n76 with passages cited there. Saïd 1996:303 notes in Assemblywomen resonance with the system of requiring the rich to fund public projects. Wealth-inequality as itself a cause of stasis: Isocrates 4.174; Archytas fr. 3 D-K.
[ back ] 27. Krentz 1982:62–68 with sources cited. Restriction of the franchise and oligarchy: Ostwald 2000:27–28.
[ back ] 28. Pomeroy 2002:75–82, 92–93; Dettenhofer 1999:102–103. Spartan resonances generally: Sommerstein 1998:16; Rothwell 1990:10. Marriage arrangements at Sparta: Pomeroy 2002:37–45 and see index s.v. “marriage.” Praxagorean spouse sharing does not replicate Spartan customs exactly.
[ back ] 29. I cannot fully agree with Ober 1998:149 that this line is “funny, but not crazy in an Athenian context.” If, as is likely, the Neighbor (not Praxagora) speaks (Sommerstein 1998:194), it is at least deeply ironic that the speaker will have had to pay for wealth-equalization with virtual disfranchisement.
[ back ] 30. Lysias 12.36, 83, 95–98; 13.43–48; 18.17; Xenophon Hellenica 2.3.21, 38–42, 2.4.1; Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 35.4; Diodorus 14.5.5–7; Wolpert 2002b:15–24; Gehrke 1985:210–214, 325.
[ back ] 31. Aristotle Politics 1302a24–26 (“Those who seek equality take part in faction (stasiazousin) if they think that they have less, yet feel themselves on a par with those whose with more”); see Kalimtzis 2000:112–115.
[ back ] 32. Foley 1981a:1–6, 16–21; cf. Rothwell 1990:20–21.
[ back ] 33. Billig 1996:232–238.
[ back ] 34. For these dissonant resonances of gynaecocracy: Rosellini 1979.
[ back ] 35. Upwards of 1,500 Athenians, perhaps as much as five percent of the citizenry, killed, not to mention non-citizens: Wolpert 2002b:22nn67–68; Krentz 1982:79.
[ back ] 36. Andocides 1.90; Xenophon Hellenica 2.4.43; Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 39.6; Dionysius Lysias 32; Loraux 2002:246–248; Ober 2002; Quillin 2002; Tieman 2002; Wolpert 2002a; Wolpert 2002b; Dorjahn 1946:1–6. Members of the regime’s inner circle were additionally required to submit to an audit.
[ back ] 37. Herodotus 6.21.2, for which, Loraux 2002:146–154, 181, 295n58, 311n51.
[ back ] 38. Plutarch Moralia 814b–c, for which Loraux 2002:148, 300n11.
[ back ] 39. Plutarch Moralia 741a–b; Loraux 2002:43–44, 171–190. The historicity of the subtraction remains vexed.
[ back ] 40. Lakoff 2006.
[ back ] 41. Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 40.2; Wolpert 2002a:115–116.
[ back ] 42. Xenophon Hellenica 3.1.4; Nepos Thrasybulus 3.3; Krentz 1982:114–122.
[ back ] 43. Assorted speeches of Lysias and early Isocrates; Andocides 2; Quillin 2002:72–73; Wolpert 2002a; Wolpert 2002b:48–71; Krentz 1982:114–117. Stone 1988 and Dover 1975 suggest political motivation for Socrates’ impiety trial.
[ back ] 44. Andocides 1.140; Lysias 2.64; Xenophon Hellenica 2.5.43; Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 40.2; Wolpert 2002b:48, 159n2.
[ back ] 45. Wolpert 2002a:111.
[ back ] 46. Shotter and Billig 1998:17–18.
[ back ] 47. Though cf. Aristophanes Wealth 1146, an explicit reference to the Amnesty of 403.
[ back ] 48. Metatheatrical resonances of female impersonation by male actors on the ancient Attic stage: Bassi 1998; Taaffe 1993.
[ back ] 49. Presumably, husbands with sufficient means could have found extramarital outlets, though the play glosses over that. Still, for ordinary Athenians, conjugal sex probably represented, among other things, a genuine erotic outlet: Fowler 1996. Cf. the recent “crossed legs” strike staged by Colombian women fed up with gang violence: NPR Morning Edition 15 September 2006.
[ back ] 50. Shaw 1975.
[ back ] 51. Foley 1982:7. Women’s roles outside the house (e.g. public cult), men’s with respect to the house (e.g. maintaining material wellbeing): Cohen 1991:70–83, 150–154; Foley 1982:1–5.
[ back ] 52. Rosellini 1979:13.
[ back ] 53. Cf. Rosellini 1979:12–15. This is, of course, a staging ground less politicized, or masculinized, than the Pnyx, the regular venue for assembly meetings.
[ back ] 54. See “Dialogical Reading,” chapter 1 above.
[ back ] 55. Deleuze 1990:17; also 13–18. Cf. Vološinov 1986:83–90 on “expression” and “orientation.”
[ back ] 56. Addressivity: Holquist 1990:27, 48; Vološinov 1986:85–87.
[ back ] 57. Bateson’s metacommunicative messages (gestural, facial, intonational, verbal): Neuman 2003:68; cf. Vološinov 1986:87, 103–104. “Content” and “meta-” are relative terms: content can frame; frame always involves some sort of content.
[ back ] 58. Cf. Neuman et al. 2002:95–96, which see generally on the orator’s need to enter into his audience’s “collective self—their group membership or identity” (94).
[ back ] 59. Taaffe 1993:59.
[ back ] 60. For this tactic, especially Bassi 1998:107–108.
[ back ] 61. A return to normal levels of gender-polarization accompanies the eventual resolution of tensions: Taaffe 1993:51–52.
[ back ] 62. Hubris . . . pollê, Aristophanes Lysistrata 658–659; cf. 400. See Fisher 1992:118 and n231.
[ back ] 63. Aristophanes Lysistrata 671–679. Artemisia commanded pro-Persian forces at Salamis (480 BCE); the Amazons, barbarian warrior-women of myth, attacked Athens: Bremer 2000; Dorati 1998:46–48; Henderson 1987:160.
[ back ] 64. Dorati 1999; Taaffe 1993:53; Henderson 1991:98; Henderson 1987:105; Martin 1987.
[ back ] 65. Aristophanes Lysistrata 616–679. Cf. PMG frr. 893–896; see Henderson 2000:355n57; Loraux 1993:154–157.
[ back ] 66. Castration: Henderson 1987:161. Women “dousing” men’s sexual-military encroachments: Aristophanes Lysistrata 254–386; Dorati 1999:84; Henderson 1991:98.
[ back ] 67. The Commissioner probably means that the women cast a funereal pall over the expedition with their lamentations; cf. Plutarch Alcibiades 18.2–3.
[ back ] 68. Cf. barbaric gender reversal: Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 337–343; Herodotus 2.35.2; Hippocrates Airs Waters Places 22; Dorati 1998:43–44; Cohen 1991:79–80.
[ back ] 69. “To allow Lys. to complete her statement (‘never to see them again’) would indeed have evoked spectator resentments and in addition would have been ill-omened”: Henderson 1987:145.
[ back ] 70. Aristophanes Lysistrata 530–538, 599–607; Dorati 1998:50–53; Taaffe 1993:64–66.
[ back ] 71. Praxagora’s peithô: Rothwell 1990:26–43 et passim.
[ back ] 72. Foley 1982:7; cf. Konstan 1995:51–54; Rothwell 1990:21; Vaio 1973:372.
[ back ] 73. Cf. Möllendorff 1995:121–122: Praxagora will reorganize the polis, the male, external world (identified with the here-and-now) on the model of the oikos, the female, internal world (identified with the past).
[ back ] 74. Weber 1978:1119–1120.
[ back ] 75. Bakhtin 1981:275–288.
[ back ] 76. Morson and Emerson 1990:319–325; Bakhtin 1981, 278. This scheme undeniably reveals critical bias on Bakhtin’s part and ignores a great deal of poetry. Buts its usefulness emerges if we understand “centrifugal” as referring to the ways that discourse engages other discourses, “centripetal” to the ways that it engages its own production. Both dynamics surely operate all the time.
[ back ] 77. See Cohen 1991:70–97 for the house as “a physical embodiment of claims of privacy associated with the family” (84).
[ back ] 78. Cf. Reinders 2001:277–279; Zimmermann 1983:74–75.
[ back ] 79. See Connor 1985. This punishment might be visited upon the powerful, as in the case of certain oligarchs of 411. Cf. the destruction of Socrates’ “Thinkery” in Aristophanes’ Clouds.
[ back ] 80. Thucydides speaks of the abundance of herms as a local idiosyncrasy at Athens, where they could be found at the entrance to both private and sacred space (6.27.1). The archaeological evidence for their presence in public spaces is excellent, less than excellent for them in front of private doors. Aristophanes Wealth 1153 illustrates the latter; some of these could have been of perishable wood. Their presence at house doors likely will have been commonplace if not inevitable. William Furley notes that the phallic potency of herms functioned in a triple capacity: to keep intruders out, to protect those within, to protect the latter when venturing forth from within (Furley 1996:19–20). See further McGlew 2002:132–138; Wohl 2002:21–25 and index; Furley 1996:13–30; Fehling 1988.
[ back ] 81. Cf. Lysias 3.7. Integrity of the house and personal honor: Cohen 1991:147. Fisher (1992:1) defines hubris as “the serious assault on the honour of another, which is likely to cause shame, and lead to anger and attempts at revenge.”
[ back ] 82. Graphê hubreôs: Isocrates 20.2; Demosthenes 21; Fisher 1992:36–85. In Isocrates 20.1 (402–400 BCE), political freedom and democracy are there to protect the citizen’s physical body against assault, a crime the speaker associates with the outrages of the Thirty (4, 10–11).
[ back ] 83. Eph’ hubrei, Thucydides 6.28.1. For the mutilation as hubristic, Demosthenes 21.143–147; Plutarch Alcibiades 18.4; Fisher 1992:145.
[ back ] 84. So Wohl 2002:20. Thucydides 6.27.1 refers to damage to the faces of herms. Whether or not vandals also damaged the phalloi (as Lysistrata 1093–1094 may imply) makes little difference: “either way, the citizen body is mutilated” (Wohl 2002:154n79). Cf. Wohl 23–24 on the civic-emasculatory dimension of the mutilation of 415 BCE.
[ back ] 85. Halperin quoting Winkler from the latter’s unpublished Martin Classical Lectures; see Halperin 1990:104–105 and 188n112.
[ back ] 86. Halperin 1990:104. Cf. Wolpert 2002b:90 on a herm erected beside the Piraeus walls rebuilt in 395/4 (Philochorus FGrH 328 F 40). The proliferation of herms in the city (versus the countryside) seems to accompany the introduction of democracy; see Furley 1996:17–21 with references.
[ back ] 87. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 88–165, 189–191, 285–299. Women (not Praxagora) as masters only of “gossip” (lalein): 119–120; Beta 1999:61.
[ back ] 88. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 111–114; cf. 102–104, 427–432. For the young, male effeminate as the future “manly man” of Athenian politics, Aristophanes Knights 417–426, 483–485, 878–880; Plato Symposium 192a; Saïd 1996:286–289.
[ back ] 89. Rothwell 1990:89. Feminine/effeminate sexual allure equals peithô-power: Rothwell 1990:88–89, 98–100.
[ back ] 90. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 385–387, 432; Sommerstein 1998:143, 175.
[ back ] 91. Hiding in its ink, as opposed to emitting ink merely out of fear, like the octopus or squid, the cuttlefish is the “most mischievous” (panourgotaton) of soft sea creatures: Aristotle Historia animalium 621b28–622a1. The cuttlefish as dolomêtis: Oppian 2.120; cf. 1.312–313, 3.156. See further Detienne and Vernant 1978:159–161 with notes.
[ back ] 92. Mating: Detienne and Vernant 1978:160. Hair-like tentacles to snare prey: Oppian Haleutica 2.121–3 (hôste plokoi); Detienne and Vernant 1978:159 and 173n173.
[ back ] 93. Ability to take on background coloring: Aristotle Historia animalium 622a11–13. Play on “cuttlefish” as prostitute’s name: Antiphanes 27.1–4 PCG with notes; Davidson 1997:10. According to certain older traditions, the cuttlefish was the last of Thetis’ magical transformations before Peleus was able to pin her down and win her hand: Detienne and Vernant 1978:158–159.
[ back ] 94. Byl 1982:35.
[ back ] 95. Davidson 1997:10.
[ back ] 96. Woman 1 had to spend the night being “rowed” (sexually) by her Salaminian husband (37–39); see Sommerstein 1998:141. Ship-of-state imagery in Assemblywomen: Rothwell 1990:48–49. Erotics of gynaecocratic peithô: Rothwell 1990:46–60 et passim.
[ back ] 97. Lysistrata’s iunx (her “sex appeal,” Lysistrata 1110) resides in the first instance in her leadership qualities. Praxagora, by contrast, is overtly sexual: Rothwell 1990:88–90.
[ back ] 98. Hupokrouein can mean “to interrupt” a speaker (cf. Aristophanes Acharnians 38; Pseudo-Plato Eryxias 395e). Krouein and compounds figure prominently as sexual double-entendres (hetero- and homoerotic) at various points in Aristophanes Assemblywomen: Taaffe 1993; Rothwell 1990:49–51, 88–89.
[ back ] 99. If men come “knocking,” Praxagora will “thrust back” (proskinêsomai, trans. Sommerstein): Aristophanes Assemblywomen 256. Issues of vocabulary: Henderson 1991:153, 171.
[ back ] 100. Taaffe 1991:92.
[ back ] 101. Cross-dressing in Assemblywomen: Taaffe 1991; Rothwell 1990:97–99
[ back ] 102. See Dorati 1998:51; Taaffe 1993:113. McGlew and Rothwell point out that Blepyrus has been, Demos-like, revived when he reappears onstage with a girl on either arm. Cf. Aristophanes Knights finale; see McGlew 2002:198–199; Rothwell 1990:57–59. But this is still a virtually disfranchised Blepyrus.
[ back ] 103. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 432–433. Farmers are conventionally regarded as upholders of tradition: Sommerstein 1998:178; Carter 1986:76–98. Farmer-hoplites as civic symbols: Hanson 1995. As masculine symbols: Winkler 1990:45–70.
[ back ] 104. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 120, 129; Taaffe 1993:116.
[ back ] 105. A damaged line, but I translate the standard reconstruction. Clytemnestra seeks, of course, to induce Agamemnon to seal his fate by hubristically stepping upon the luxurious carpet she has laid out for him. Here and elsewhere in Agamemnon, Clytemnestra’s rhetoric targets male “resistance motivated by suspicion”; see Bers 1994a:184.
[ back ] 106. Bakhtin 1981:342.
[ back ] 107. Cf. Thucydides 3.38.4, 7 (deliberative logos as spectator sport); 2.40.2–3. See also p. 51 above.
[ back ] 108. Cf. Herodotus 5.78.
[ back ] 109. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 1155–1162, on which Sommerstein 1998:237; Ussher 1973:233–234, 1158–1159.
[ back ] 110. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 473–475; cf. Clouds 587–589; Eupolis 219 PCG; see Wankel 1976:1111.
[ back ] 111. See n93 above.
[ back ] 112. For the neighbor’s “parade” as quasi-Panathenaic: Sommerstein 1998:203–205; Ussher 1973:178–180. The Panathenaic procession as an expression of the “the united power and glory of Athens”: Parke 1977:37. Panathenaea: Parker 1996:89–92; Parke 1977:33–50.
[ back ] 113. Ober 1998:122–155. Sommerstein calls him “Dissident”; in the transmitted text, he has no name: Sommerstein 1998:206; Sommerstein 1984:316 and n21.
[ back ] 114. See Sommerstein 1998:210. Hubristic excretion: Demosthenes 54.4; Sommerstein 1998:195; Fisher 1992:50 and n45.
[ back ] 115. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 832. Swearing by Poseidon can carry a contextually relevant point: Aristophanes Clouds 83 (in relation to horses, Poseidon’s gift); Aristophanes Birds 1614 (Poseidon speaking); Assemblywomen 339; Lysistrata 403; Thesmophoriazusae 86 (tension between the sexes). Oaths in Aristophanes: Dillon 1995.
[ back ] 116. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 802. Sommerstein 1998:208 points out likely resonances with the sale of exiled democrats’ goods in 404/3.
[ back ] 117. Sommerstein’s points against the Skeptic (1984:319–320) are well taken, but the Skeptic’s distrust of having to surrender his property could well have resonated with Athenians who had experience or knowledge of confiscation under the Thirty.
[ back ] 118. Porneia generally: Kurke 1997; Halperin 1990:88–112. Publicity: Theophrastus Characters 28.3; Graham 1998; Davidson 1997:78–83; Cohen 1991:148. Cf. Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusae 798–799 on the embarrassment of respectable women caught peeking out their windows; Lycurgus 40. For this scene (Assemblywomen 877–1111): Sommerstein 1998:214.
[ back ] 119. Kasalbas = pornê: Pollux 7.202; Sommerstein 1998:232; Henderson 1991:212–213.
[ back ] 120. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 952–975. See Sommerstein 1998:221; Taaffe 1993:125, 189n43; Olson 1988. Paraclausithyron seems to have been an established genre by Aristophanes’ time. Alcaeus fr. 374 Lobel-Page may come from such a song; cf. Euripides Cyclops 502.
[ back ] 121. I borrow Sommerstein’s term: 1998:214. Cf. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 1017–1020, 1074–1088.
[ back ] 122. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 1055–1056. The citing/quoting of law(s)/decree(s) in Assemblywomen: 944–945, 1015–1020, 1049–1051; Ober 1998:122–155; Sens 1991:32–37. Legal self-help combined with declarations like the Old Woman’s: Lysias 1.26; Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 57.3; Fisher 1998:78–80; Sens 1991:30–106.
[ back ] 123. Epigenes as hubristic, the Old-Comic stereotype of the hubristic young man, youth as hubristic generally: Fisher 1992:97–99; Rothwell 1990:71–72; Sommerstein 1984:320–321.
[ back ] 124. In Aristophanes Assemblywomen, rape and hubris are suggested by use of the verb helkein, “drag off”: 1020, 1037, 1050, etc. Likewise the youth’s cry for help: 1053–1054. See generally Fisher 1998:79, 95n39; Fisher 1992:96, 104–109, 267–268; Cohen 1991:177–179; Sens 1991:78–81.
[ back ] 125. “You’ll pull me apart!” Aristophanes Assemblywomen 1076; cf. Euripides Bacchae 1125–1136. I thank Gerald Kadish for pointing out the parallel.
[ back ] 126. The natural comparison is to sophistically-educated, parent-beating Pheidippides in Aristophanes Clouds and to the father-beater in Birds.
[ back ] 127. Rothwell 1990:71–72; Sommerstein 1984:320–321.
[ back ] 128. Critics tend not to take this dismemberment overly seriously, nor should we. Still, the fact that it represents visual-verbal horsing around does not preclude its symbolic value.
[ back ] 129. Cf. Saïd 1996:296–299.
[ back ] 130. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 1112–1183; cf. 834–852. For the question of whether this is a mirage-feast, Sommerstein 1998:236, 239; Sommerstein 1984:322–323. Real or mirage, this feast celebrates what is, at best, an equivocal salvation for Athens.
[ back ] 131. Cf. Aristophanes Assemblywomen 1157. Sommerstein 1998:239 distinguishes Praxagora’s feast from the producer’s cast party. I am not, however, so sure such a distinction is clearly made; cf. Assemblywomen 581–587 (the audience’s response to Praxagora’s plan matters); 1141–1142 (invitation of audience and judges favorable to the play).
[ back ] 132. Cf. the performative future in curse formulas: Faraone 1995. This sort of wishful speaking-thinking is typical for the closing lines of comedy: Sommerstein 1998:239–240.
[ back ] 133. Cf. Rosen 1997 on the personification of empire as love-object.
[ back ] 134. See Wolpert 2002b:145n1 with references.
[ back ] 135. Cf. Loraux 2002; Loraux 1995:37 on stasis as figurative cannibalism.
[ back ] 136. Sicilian debate (415 BCE): p. 18 above. Condemnation of the generals (406): Xenophon Hellenica 1.7.8–35; Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 34.1; Plato Apology 32b.
[ back ] 137. Ober 1998:122–155.