Aristophanes: 'Ecclesiazusae' (Assemblywomen): An Extract |
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Ancient Greece

Aristophanes: ‘Ecclesiazusae’ (Assemblywomen): An Extract


‘Ecclesiazusae’, produced probably in 392 B.C. is one of the last plays Aristophanes wrote. In style and content it represents a transitional phase between the Old Comedy of the Fifth Century and the New Comedy associated with Menander: there is still a political theme, still a comic hero (here female); but the sustained attacks on individual politicians have gone, the chorus has a reduced role, and a new style of quiet, witty dialogue has emerged.

Power to women?

The women of Athens, led by Praxagora, have decided to seize political control from the men, convinced that they can deal better with the problems of the City. Having dressed in their husbands’ clothes and having left their homes surreptitiously, they are holding a rehearsal for their takeover of the Assembly. It has not been going well, as the women constantly give themselves away by unconsidered words. Praxagora is here in conversation with two unnamed women, A and B. In the extract translated below, it is asserted by her that the city will be in safer hands under women than men because the latter are disinclined towards the constant innovations which she associates with the Assembly as dominated by men. Particularly amusing is the list of matters in which women maintain their habitual practices.

Lines 163-244.

Woman B. Give (me) the garland! For I shall speak in turn again. For I think that I have now practised well. (She mounts the platform and puts on the garland) For you women sitting (listening) to me, –

Praxagora. ‘Women’ again, you wretched (creature)! Are you not speaking to men?

Woman B. (Pointing to the audience) That (is) because of Epigonus (viz. an effeminate Athenian). For, having looked in that direction, I thought I was speaking to women.

Pra. Be off with you, and sit over there! (Woman B sits down) Taking this (garland) myself, I consider myself (right) to speak on your account. I pray to the gods that I succeed in managing my plans well. (She addresses the theatre audience as well as the women) I have (lit. There is to me) a share in this country as much as you have (lit. there is to you), and I am vexed and I am grieved at (lit. I bear heavily) the affairs of the city. For I see a woman giving good advice to perpetually wicked leaders. And if anyone decent comes forward (lit. happens) on one day, ten come forward (who are) evil. Did you entrust (things) to another? He will do bad things still. And so it is difficult to advise men (who are) hard-to-please, among whom you fear those wanting to befriend (you), and at all times you entreat those not wishing (to do so). There was (a time) when we did not make any use of assemblies at all; but we thought Agyrrhius (viz. the political leader who was responsible for the introduction of pay for attending assemblies) someone dishonest. Now (with us) making use of (assemblies), the man taking money praises (this) to excess, but the man not taking (it) declares that those seeking to receive wages in the assembly to be worthy of death.

Woman A. By Aphrodite, you say these things well.

Pra. Wretched woman, have you sworn by Aphrodite? You would have done something welcome if you had said this in the assembly.

Wo. A. But I would not have said (it then).

Pra. Now don’t get into the habit of speaking. Again that alliance, when we were considering (it), I declared that it would destroy the city if it did not happen. But in fact, as soon as it did happen, they were vexed and the man among the orators who had recommended it departed at once in flight (lit. running away). (Now) it is necessary to launch ships; it seems (good) to the poor man but it does not seem (good) to rich men and farmers. You are angry with the Corinthians, and they with you; now they are decent – (you’re told) ‘You now be decent too’. The Argive (representative) (is) stupid, but Hieronymus (is) wise. (The prospect) of salvation appeared briefly, but Thrasybulus (viz. a prominent politician and naval commander) himself, not having been called upon (to help), is growing angry.

Wo. A. What a brilliant man!

Pra. Now you have praised well! For, O people, you are responsible for this. For, paying yourselves from public funds, each one of you considers privately what one will gain, and the common (good) gets kicked around like Aesimus. But if you obey me, you will still be saved. For I assert that it is necessary for us to hand over the city to the women. For we use (them) as managers and stewards in out households.

Wo. A. Very good! Very good, by Zeus! Very good!

Wo. B. Speak, speak, O (you) good (person)!

Pra. I shall prove that they are better than you in their habits. . For, firstly, they wash their wool in hot water all together according to the ancient practice, and you would not see them trying a different method. And the city of the Athenians, if this were satisfactory, would not keep safe, if it were employed unnecessarily with some other new thing. They cook sitting down, just as (they did) also before this; they carry (things) upon their heads, just as (they did) also before this; they keep the Thesmophoria (viz. the women-only festival of Demeter), just as (they did) also before this; they bake their flatcakes, just as (they did) also before this; they harass their husbands, just as (they did) also before this; they have lovers inside (their houses), just as (they did) also before this; they buy extra food for themselves, just as (they did) also before this; they love their wine undiluted, just as (they did) also before this; they rejoice (in) being screwed, just as (they did) also before this. Let us not chatter too much, nor ascertain what they then intend to do, but in a simple way let us allow them to rule, considering this alone, that being mothers first they will be eager to save our soldiers; then who would send provisions in addition more quickly than a mother? A woman provides (herself with) money (as) a most resourceful thing, and is not likely ever to be thoroughly deceived, for they themselves are accustomed to thoroughly deceive. I shall pass over other things. If you follow my advice in this matter you will spend your life in happiness (lit. being happy).

Wo. A. You have spoken very well and cleverly, O dearest Praxagora. From where, O wretched woman, did you learn these things so well?

Pra. In the refugee time (lit. in the flights), I lived with my husband on the Pnyx. Then, (by) listening to the orators, I learned thoroughly.


Despite this unpromising start and other obstacles, the women succeed in their plans, introducing communism of property and (to considerable comic effect) of sexual partners.

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