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Lysistrata | Context

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Athens's Golden Age and the Peloponnesian War

During the first part of Aristophanes's lifetime, Athens operated under an innovative system of democracy. All male citizens participated in the Assembly, which made policy decisions. Citizens also drew lots to serve in the Council, which handled routine government functions. The system flourished under the leadership of Pericles, who held power from about 460 BCE until his death in 429 BCE—a period often called the Golden Age of Athens.

Pericles was a brilliant statesman and military strategist. Not only did he conceive Athens's democratic system, but he also beautified the city with projects such as the Parthenon. He enriched Athens by expanding Athenian power throughout the islands and coastal areas of the Aegean Sea. Before Pericles's time, the Aegean states—along with nearby Sparta—were allied against Persia. Under Pericles the Aegean allies, called the Delian League, became subordinate to Athens, which required them to pay tribute in exchange for protection. Sparta grew suspicious of Athens's expanding power and declared war on its old ally. Thus in 431 BCE began the Peloponnesian War, named for the region of southern Greece where Sparta was located.

Pericles died two years after the war began, but the fighting continued for eight more years under Cleon, a much less decisive leader. The war abated for several years, but the peace didn't last. In 413 BCE Athens suffered a serious defeat when its navy, the cornerstone of Athenian power, was destroyed. This dark period is the backdrop for Lysistrata. At this time Athens had lost control of its subject states, and one of its most valuable generals, Alcibiades, defected to Sparta. In 405 BCE Sparta allied with its old enemy Persia to defeat Athens once and for all. Athens's democratic system of government was swept away, replaced by oligarchs. Though democracy would return, Athens would never again hold the monopolistic power in the Aegean it enjoyed during its Golden Age.

Old Comedy

Lysistrata belongs to the ancient Greek dramatic genre of Old Comedy. Old Comedy was performed at the two festivals honoring the god Dionysus. The larger of these, City Dionysia, drew huge audiences from throughout the Athenian empire each spring. January's Leneian festival, where Lysistrata was staged, drew mainly a local audience since travel was difficult in winter. At both festivals comedies were performed along with tragedies and satyr plays (bawdy tragicomedies).

These festivals were both religious and civic affairs. Civic leaders were deeply involved in producing the festivals, which were funded through public funds and private donations. Plays were selected by members of the Council. A prize was awarded to the best performance by the chorus in each genre as well as the best actor in a comedy.

Old Comedy followed certain conventions. All roles were played by men, with female parts played by male actors in drag. Each comedy followed a similar structure, beginning with the dialogue in the prologos, followed by an alternating pattern of choral songs and dialogue, and ending with a celebratory scene. Actors wore masks with exaggerated expressions that could be seen from a distance. Often they also wore large phalluses; in Lysistrata all the male characters wear phalluses throughout the play. No more than four actors, three of whom were funded by the public, could be employed (not counting the chorus). As a result some actors played multiple roles.

At the Dionysian festivals, comedies and tragedies served very different social purposes. Both types of performance were intended to reflect Athenian society, but tragedy dealt with the Greek society's founding myths, reinforcing Athenians' social and religious norms—the status quo, while Old Comedy tended to deal with contemporary issues—sometimes through myth but also through domestic and political satire. Comedies turned the status quo upside down.

The word comedy comes from komos—in pre-democratic Greece, a band of revelers who entertained commoners, especially during festivals honoring the gods of fertility (such as Dionysus). These festivals, like carnivals to this day, allowed people to turn normal rules on their heads. They were raunchy, rowdy, authority-flouting, gender-bending affairs. Old Comedy had its roots in these ancient revels; its protagonists were often everyday people who poked fun at politicians and other officials. In this way Old Comedy allowed the public to blow off steam. In addition Old Comedy's political satire encouraged Athenians to take a hard look at their institutions and at those charged with safeguarding democracy.

The Chorus

As in Greek tragedy, Old Comedy featured a large chorus. The four-actor restriction didn't apply to the chorus, which was sponsored by prominent citizens. The chorus generally remained onstage from the moment of its first appearance until a play's end, and traditionally the chorus members were expected to intervene in any action onstage with which they, as representatives of the citizenry, disagreed. In Lysistrata Aristophanes uses this convention to dramatic effect by splitting his chorus in two, with a male and female leader (both played by men, of course) each heading a dozen chorus members. Rather than presenting a united front under one leader, his male and female choruses fight about whether what's happening onstage is right or wrong.

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