War, it seems, is man’s chief preoccupation. Throughout history, as one regards how civilizations thrived and crumbled and flourished and collapsed, how cities rose up, fell, cultures subsumed and assimilated in the process, one notices that before language and art, customs and traditions, in man dwelled conflict, combat, and the pervasive propensity for hostility.
On this basis, one may argue the consistency of battle in man’s nature; the ever-present presence of this desire to dominate and destroy, for one reason or another: an instinct, it seems, stemming from the savage past where survival meant killing or being killed. But the advent of civilization tempered and somewhat refined man’s attitude toward war. Though ever-present still, even to this day, as all base instincts are, many responses to warfare have been devised: often, alongside those who preach in favor of battle, the voices of those opposed to slaughter and bloodshed speak too, through various avenues and paths.
And throughout history, no mouthpiece has been used more often than art: paintings and plays, poems and sculptures and displays of oratory: all depict what man feels, what he dwells on: that which batters and bombards his mind and soul, driving him to action. And as war remains a constant in life, so remains the presence of war in many works of art. From 431-399 BC in Ancient Greece the Peloponnesian War was fought.
The thirty year conflict changed the entire social structure and landscape of Greece, inciting skirmishes and civil wars aplenty, causing much bloodshed and sorrow and suffering. The cessation of this war is the main theme of the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata. To achieve this end, the playwright, Aristophanes, pits another base instinct against man’s propensity for conflict: sexual intercourse. Aristophanes has the namesake of the play, a strong-willed woman, convince all the women of Greece to withhold all sexual favors from their husbands in order to cease the Peloponnesian War.
A bloodless battle ensues between the forces of man and woman; in the end, fueled by an urgent desire to copulate, the men of the warring states of Sparta and Athens — as well as their allies — establish peace; this sets all aright, and celebration follows. In order to probe more deeply into the nature of the play and the concepts found therein, one must investigate the actual war Aristophanes alluded to and used as backdrop for his play, as well as the Mythology and Religion surrounding its conception.
Both are integral to understanding and analyzing the social relevance of Lysistrata in the culture that produced it. When evaluated alongside current western religious inclinations and cultural leanings, one can discern the similarities and differences in the perception of war and its presence in art. The Peloponnesian War was a conflict waged between the forces of Athens and Sparta (and the people of the surrounding areas, either allied to one of the two mentioned states) over a period of approximately 30 years.
The aftermath of the war completely transformed ancient Greece, restructuring the distribution of power and inflicting untold horrors upon a multitude of people and cities, in the process wreaking havoc and devastation comparable to the atrocities and mass destruction observed in many contemporary accounts of modern warfare. Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata in 411 BC, at the height of the war, which was brought to a close in 399 BC; thus the comedy was in part a piece of wishful thinking, a satirical look at the atrocity-filled events currently occurring at the time.
Greek mythology, comprised of a plethora of gods and goddesses, played a large role in ancient Greek life; this is reflected in the play when Lysistrata and the throng of females, in vowing to halt any sexual activities with their husbands, seal their oath by sacrificing wine to the gods, pledging their resolve to follow through on their self-appointed task. This example portrays religion as a component and constituent of culture and history, a cultural artefact contributing to the social make-up of Greek civilization.
Thus does the play begin: the women, bolstered and enforced by religion-as-culture, driven to cease a cultural event — in this case, war and bloodshed. Thus do we see Aristophanes affixing a cultural context into his play, assimilating the religious and cultural practices of his time into his art, assigning it an integral role as a driving factor in the action of the play. Culture informs all pieces of art. All works can be seen as offshoots of a particular culture at a particular point in time.
Lysistrata can be construed as being the product of Aristophanes, himself a product of Athenian culture and religion, compelled to create the work by the cultural events preoccupying his mind at the time, namely the Peloponnesian War. This action – a cultural creation (in this case, Aristophanes) creating Art (a cultural artefact) in response to cultural Events – such as war – mirrors the countless acts of creation found in the myriad number of books and sculptures, plays, films, poems, and pieces of music man has produced in reaction to cultural entities and events.
The brutality provoked by war and the ensuing cultural creations were prevalent in much of twentieth century history. Two world wars and countless civil wars and armed conflicts worldwide have instigated the construction of hundreds of Lysistratas, engendered by countless cultures, comprised of and informed by a multitude of sociopolitical, religious, and cultural activities.
The many acts of barbarity and bloodshed have as driving forces sociopolitical and cultural Epistemes: take the Communist-driven Spanish Civil War, or the Cold War waged in the latter part of the twentieth century; take the Nazi-Ideology driven battles fought in World War 2, or the armed campaigns resulting in colonization and appropriation of land and resources and people in various parts of the world, as reflected in the subjugation of Greece by Sparta at the end of the Peloponnesian War, replayed time and time again when Western nations colonized much of Asia and Africa in the name of King, God, or Country.
Razed lands and lives led many to create works of art immortalizing the history, outcomes, and consequences of the aforementioned events, contributing to the cultural and historical landscape of their own times. These cultural artefacts allow us to examine how cultural events propagate themselves, and perceive the subtle links between past and present culture and history .