Now that we’re well into the second month of the new year, I thought I’d get started with my Classics Club list. I decided to start with something Greek-themed, since I was heading to Athens before I began reading. So I chose to tackle two titles: Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 330 BC) and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (411 BC). The Poetics is on my Classics Club list; Lysistrata is on both my Classics Club list and my Back to the Classics list.
I’ll begin with the Poetics, and not just because I read it first. It is one of the first surviving texts which can be labelled as ‘literary criticism’. In it, Aristotle discusses the writing of poetry in ancient Greece. He defines the different types of poetry (Tragedy, Comedy, and Epic) and the elements which make a successful poem. The Poetics is fairly short, mostly because the second half (which scholars generally agree probably dealt with Comedy) has been lost. The Poetics was very influential in the ancient and medieval world. It’s definitely interesting to see the practice of literary criticism in its earliest incarnation, but if you’re not interested in ancient Greek drama and poetry it can be pretty hard going. Luckily the ideas themselves are expressed concisely, so quite a lot is covered in a short amount of time.
Lysistrata is a different story altogether. Aristophanes’ play is set during the middle of the Peloponnesian War. The women of Athens, tired of the long war and its disastrous consequences, hatch a plot to end it for good. By refusing to sleep with their husbands, they decide they can turn the balance of power around and force the men to end the war. Naturally, this plot sounds far too good to be true. Women ending a disastrous war and saving the lives of countless soldiers? Definitely something I wanted to read.
Of course, I was prepared for the rampant sexism and the ironic plotline (women in Ancient Greece were worse off even than their Roman counterparts, who had a lot more freedom both in the home and in public), but I hadn’t prepared myself for all the bawdy jokes. I’ve never read Greek Comedy before, although a lifetime of reading Shakespeare should probably have given me a hint as to what it was going to be like. Take this crude passage from the beginning of the play:
What is it all about, dear Lysistrata,
That you’ve called the women hither in a troop?
What kind of an object is it?
A tremendous thing!
Indeed, it may be very lengthy.
Then why aren’t they here?
No man’s connected with it;
If that was the case, they’d soon come fluttering along.
No, no. It concerns an object I’ve felt over
And turned this way and that for sleepless nights.
It must be fine to stand such long attention.
So fine it comes to this–Greece saved by Woman!
Of course, some of this may be the translation, but somehow I think that it more or less captures the mood of the original. The play was written and performed at a time when Athens had begun to lose dramatically in the Peloponnesian War, so I suppose many Athenians felt the need to laugh even more than usual. But it also makes a very strong comment on the state of the country; the Athenians have entangled themselves in an endless and devastating conflict, and they do not have the means to end the war they are fighting.
Perhaps it wasn’t the intention of the original, but I liked (most) of the female characters; one or two parroted misogynistic ideas, but Lysistrata was funny and interesting. I can definitely imagine her being played as a clever, amusing woman in a modern stage production. The play itself is easy and quick to read. It’s definitely something I’d be interested to see performed on the stage; there’s a lot of material here for a talented modern director to use.
Coming soon: my trip to Turkey and Greece (complete with photographic evidence).