Stories from the Greek Comedians - Alfred J. Church

The Parliament of Women

This is one of the poet's later plays, having been produced in 392 B.C. The satire is, for the most part, social rather than political. There is, indeed, a sarcasm on the passion for change and for novel experiments in government, when the proposal for placing power in the hands of the women is approved as being the only scheme which had not yet been tried in Athens. But the general object of the satire is woman, while there is doubtless a special reference to the fashion for imitating Spartan manners. The Spartan women, it must be remembered, lived in a sort of comradeship, so to speak, with the men, which was wholly unlike Athenian ways.

[Illustration] from Stories from Greek Comedians by Alfred J. Church


Once upon a time it happened in Athens that every form of government having been tried to no good purpose, and things getting worse and worse instead of better, the women thought it would be well to take affairs into their own hands. How they managed this will be told; but first it should be said that their leader in this revolution was a certain Praxagora.

On the appointed day, while it was still dark, Praxagora made her way to the place in the suburbs where she had arranged to meet her fellow-conspirators, and began by hanging up the lamp with which she had lighted her way from home, and paying it her respects. She said:—

"Eye of the potter-moulded lamp, with whom

Are shared the kindred honours of the sun,

Let thus the splendour of thy faithful flame

The sign concerted show. Faithful thou art,

Knowing, yet not betraying; to thine eye

Our toilet's secrets are revealed; thy help

Is given, yet given in silence, when we take

Toll from the treasuries of food and wine;

Share, then, O lamp, the counsels of to-day."

"But how is this?" she went on, looking round about, "I don't see one of the friends whom I expected, although it is almost dawn, and the Assembly will soon be meeting. We must fill up the places first. Have they not been able to get the beards, or have they found it too hard to steal the men's clothes? But stay—I see a lamp approaching. I will just step out of the way in case it should be a man."

And now a number of women appeared. One declared that the cock did but crow the second time as she left her house; another said that her husband had been ill all night from having eaten too many pilchards, and that he had only just fallen asleep; a third had stood in the sun all the day before to give herself a manly brown; a fourth showed a formidable club which she had secured. A thrifty dame, who thought it would be well to save time by spinning while the place of Assembly was filling, incurred a severe rebuke, though she pleaded that she could listen just as well while she was at work, and that her poor children had nothing to put on. To spin would be fatally certain to betray them; whereas, if they would only sit in front, keep well muffled up, and show their beards, no one but would think that they were men. "A number of old women," said Praxagora, "have passed themselves off as men in the Assembly before now." The conspirators now proceeded to have a rehearsal of what they would have to do in the Assembly. For a time there was a doubt whether any one would be able to make a speech; but they comforted themselves by remembering that speech was the special gift of woman. One of the meeting began by proposing that vintners who kept a tank of water on their premises for weakening their wines should be severely punished. She made, however, the sad blunder of swearing by the two goddesses, an oath which women only were accustomed to use; and, when allowed to address the audience again, actually styled them "Ladies." Praxagora, hopeless of getting anything done by helpers so inefficient, resolved to carry the affair through by herself, and, having assumed the chaplet, addressed the meeting:—

"Gentlemen," she said, "the weal of this city is dear to me as it is to all of you, and it grieves me to see how ill its affairs prosper. Why do they prosper ill? Because you have no leaders. If a man behaves honestly for one day, he will be a scoundrel for ten. Make a change, some will say. Well, your new man will only do more mischief."

"By Aphrodite! you speak well," cried one of the audience.

"By Aphrodite indeed!" cried Praxagora, turning on the speaker.

"What a thing to say! Supposing that you had said it in the Assembly itself!"

"Oh! but there I should have been more careful."

"Well, be careful now. Then you are always blowing hot and cold. The allies of one day are the enemies of the next. Then you are not agreed. 'Man a fleet,' says the poor man, who is looking out for pay. 'No, no,' say the rich men, who don't want the taxes increased."

"That's a clever man," said the woman who had spoken before.

"Ah," cried Praxagora, "now that is the right sort of compliment. Well, gentlemen, the fault is in yourselves. The public wealth goes into private pockets. No man cares for the state; every man looks out for himself; and the country goes to ruin. What, then, is the remedy? Why, put the, government into the hands of the women. They manage your houses; why not let them manage the state? Do you want to know why they are likely to do it well? I'll tell you. Because they keep to old ways, and do as their mothers used to do. They wash wool in hot water, for instance, after the old fashion. You won't see them trying new-fangled ways of doing things. And an excellent thing it would be for Athens if it did the same. They bake bread sitting, as their mothers did; they bear loads on their heads, as their mothers did; they make cheesecakes, as their mothers did; they beat their husbands, as their mothers did; they keep titbits for themselves, as their mothers did; they like good liquor, as their mothers did. I say, then, hand over the state to them; ask no idle questions as to what line of policy they will follow; think only of this: they are the mothers of our soldiers and they won't see them killed or starved; they are admirable providers; they are themselves so good at deceiving that no one will ever be able to deceive them. I need say no more: take my advice, and you will live happily ever after."

"But, my dear creature," cried one of the women who had been listening, "how did you learn to speak so well?"

"Oh!" replied Praxagora, "once when we had to leave the country I lodged with my good man close by the place of Assembly, and I learnt the trick of speaking by listening to the politicians."

Woman.   "Very good! and you shall be our first prime minister. But how shall we manage to elect you? Tell us that."

Praxagora.   "It won't be an easy matter, but still it can be done. Tuck up your tunics; tie on your sandals, just as you see the men do when they are going out. When this is done, fasten on your beards; put your husbands' cloaks, which I hope you have stolen, over all; take your staves, and march to the place of Assembly. You can sing, as you go, some old-fashioned ditty, and people will take you for voters from the country. And make haste. Mind, we must be there before dawn. Now let us be off, and sing a stave as we go."

The women accordingly marched away singing:—

"Let us hasten away;

There's no time for delay,

For the Archon has sworn

That who wishes to-day

To be sure of his pay

Must be there before morn

With our vouchers in hand,

An unanimous band.

We will lift up our voice,

Making excellent choice

Of the women—nay, nay,

Of the men, I should say;

We are all men to-day.

We must vote for, and mind

That the gain-hunting crowd

From the town be allowed

Not a sitting to find.

Ah! but once on a time,

In our fair golden prime,

Men had thought it a crime

To serve country for pelf;

But each brought for himself

Just a bottle of wine and a morsel to eat,

Bread with onions and olives may be for a treat;

But these fellows are patriots only for pay,

Like scavengers working for so much a day."

Meanwhile there was much perplexity and confusion in the houses which the women had left. "Where in the world is my wife?" said one poor man, who was Praxagora's husband. "I can't find my shoes or my cloak; so I have had to put on her mantle, and make shift to get my feet as far as they would go into her Persian slippers. Fool that I was to marry a wife at my age! However, I must be going, if I am to get to the Assembly in time."

Just as he was outside the door, a friend met him. "Can this be Blepyrus?" he cried. "Why have you got that scarlet thing on?"

Blepyrus.   "'Tis my wife's. I had to put it on."

Friend.   "But where is your own cloak?"

Blep.   "That I can't say. I have been looking for it everywhere."

Fr.   "But your wife—why did you not ask her?"

Blep.   "She's not at home. She's gone somewhere on the sly."

Fr.   "Why, my dear sir, that is exactly what has happened to me. My wife has taken off my cloak; yes, and that is not the worst, but my shoes, too."

Blep.   "My shoes are gone, too."

Fr.   "Perhaps a friend has invited her to breakfast."

Blep.   "Very likely; she is not a bad sort, after all."

Fr.   "Well, I must be off to the Assembly; that is, if I can find my cloak, for I haven't got another."

Very soon afterwards another friend came in, Chremes by name. He had come, he said, from the Assembly. "What," asked Blepyrus, "is it dismissed already?

Chremes.   "Yes, and almost before it was light."

Blep.   "You got your pay, I suppose?"

Chr.   "I wish that I had; as it was, I came too late."

Blep.   "How was that?"

Chr.   "A whole crowd of people, more than I ever saw together, came into the Pnyx; we thought, to look at them, they were a set of indoor artisans, they had such pale faces. However, they filled the place, and I could not get my money, and a good many more were in the same plight."

Blep.   "Then I could not get it if I went now?"

Chr.   "No, indeed; nor would you have got it, even if you had gone at second cock-crowing."

Blep.   "Well, what, pray, was the business that brought all this crowd together?"

Chr.   "The public safety. That was the question which the magistrates had prepared. One said one thing, and one another. The gentleman who seemed to have nothing over his tunic, though he declared himself that he had a cloak, proposed that the clothiers should be compelled to furnish cloaks to all persons in need. We should escape cold and pleurisy in that way. Any one who should refuse, and shut his door in the winter against an applicant, was to be fined three blankets."

Blep.   "An excellent proposition; and if he had added that the corn-chandlers were to supply every poor man with three pecks of barley, under pain of death, he would not have found any one to vote against it."

Chr.   "After that a good-looking young fellow, rather pale in the face, stood up and proposed that the management of affairs should be handed over to the women. At this all the artisans cried out, 'Hear! hear!' while the country-folk shouted 'No! no!'"

Blep.   "And right they were, by Zeus!"

Chr.   "Yes; but they were beaten. The young fellow said all kinds of good things about the women. They were choke-full of good sense; they made money; they could keep a secret; they could lend each other clothes, gold, silver, plate, and not cheat each other—no, not though there were no witnesses: whereas we were always defrauding each other."

Blep.   "Yes, indeed, witnesses or no witnesses."

Chr.   "They didn't inform against each other, nor prosecute, nor plot against the people: all this and other things too he said about the women."

Blep.   "Well, what was the end of it all?"

Chr.   "It was determined to hand over the management of affairs to them. You see, this is the only thing that has never been tried in Athens."

Blep.   "You mean that the law passed?"

Chr.   "Yes."

Blep.   "That the women are to discharge all our duties?"

Chr.   "Exactly so."

Blep.   "That my wife and not I is to try causes?"

Chr.   "Yes; and your wife, not you, is to keep the house."

Blep.   "This is all very alarming."

Chr.   "Nay, nay; don't vex yourself. What says the old proverb?

'Though weak and vain our counsels, yet the gods

Still overrule them to some happy end.'

But I must be going. Take care of yourself."

The women who had been passing this revolutionary vote now came hurrying in, looking about them as if they feared pursuit, and singing as they went:—

"Is a man on our track? Look in front and look back,

Keep a watch all around, and tramp hard on the ground;

'Twould be sad if a man should discover our plan.

Now we're near to the spot which first witnessed our plot;

Let us go one and all to the shade of a wall,

And away from all eyes doff our manly disguise."

They had scarcely finished when Praxagora appeared, calmly walking up to her house. Her husband naturally wanted to know where she had come from.

Prax.   "A dear friend who had been taken ill sent for me in the night."

Blep.   "But why not tell me that you were going?"

Prax.   "Ought not I to have gone, then?"

Blep.   "Gone—yes; but why did you take my cloak?"

Prax.   "It was so cold, and I am not very strong, and I left you snugly wrapped in your blankets."

Blep.   "But why my sandals and staff?"

Prax.   "I was afraid, so I did my best to make myself look like you. I stamped with my feet, and knocked the stones with the staff."

Blep.   "Well, you've made me lose a peck of wheat which I should have brought home from the Assembly."

Prax.   "Never you mind about that; it was a very fine boy."

Blep.   "Whose boy? the Assembly's?"

Prax.   "No; my friend's. But has there been an Assembly?"

Blep.   "Of course. Don't you remember that I told you yesterday it was to be?"

Prax.   "So you did."

Blep.   "And don't you know what they have done?"

Prax.   "Not I."

Blep.   "They have handed over to you women the government of affairs."

Prax.   "Spinning, do you mean?"

Blep.   "No—ruling."

Prax.   "Ruling? Ruling what?"

Blep.   "Ruling everything."

Prax.   "By Aphrodite, a very lucky thing for the country!"

Blep.   "Why a lucky thing?"

Prax.   "For many reasons; she won't be the prey of bad men any more. There will be no more perjuries, no more informers."

Blep.   "Woman, what do you mean? Why, these are the things I live by."

Prax.   "Silence, my good man, and let your wife speak. There'll be no stealing, no arguing, no nakedness, no poverty, no slander, no distraint for debt."

Blep.   "That's all very fine if true."

Prax.   "True! I'll warrant every word is true."

The women, who had assembled round their leader while this conversation was going on, now encouraged her to develop her plan for the better government of the city. They put their thoughts into verse:—

"Now befits thee to unfold

Skilful plan and counsel bold;

Now for friends and commonweal

Show how great and wise thy zeal.

Hope of better days impart,

Cheering weary mind and heart.

Time it is some skilful hand

Healed the sorrows of our land;

Only let thy wise intent

Some judicious scheme invent,

Such as ne'er before has been

Either thought of, heard, or seen;

Old things please not here, I ween."

Prax.   "The first thing in my plan is that all should share and share alike. I won't have some rich and some poor; one man with a broad domain, and another with not ground enough for a grave; one man with many slaves, and another with not even one poor page. No. All the citizens shall fare alike. How shall I do it, do you ask? I shall make the land common property, and the money, and all that every man possesses. These things we women will wisely manage, apportioning to each what he wants."

Blep.   "But what will you do with those who don't own land, but have a secret store of gold and silver?"

Prax.   "We must bring them into the common stock."

Blep.   "But suppose that the man swears that he hasn't got them?"

Prax.   "Why should he? 'Tis only poverty that makes men forswear themselves, and there will be no poverty here. Every man will have whatever he wants for the asking."

Blep.   "But who is to cultivate the land?"

Prax.   "The slaves, of course. All that you will have to do will be to go nicely dressed to dinner when the dial shows the hour."

Blep.   "And how shall we get new clothes?"

Prax.   "What there are now will serve for the present, and then we women will spin you new ones."

Blep.   "Suppose there is a judgment against a man for a sum of money, how is he to pay it? Not out of the common stock, I suppose?"

Prax.   "But there will be no suits or judgments."

Blep.   "No suits! If any man owes money and denies the debt, how then?"

Prax.   "How did the creditor get the money to lend when everything is common?"

Blep.   "Good! But tell me this: If a man is fined for assault, how then? This will puzzle you, I take it."

Prax.   "Not at all. He'll pay in pudding. Starve him a bit, and he'll learn not to be insolent."

Blep.   "Then no one will steal?"

Prax.   "Why should he? He'll be stealing his own property."

Blep.   "Then there'll be no footpads?"

Prax.   "No; for all will have enough. And if a man should stop you with, 'Your coat or your life!' you'll only have to give it to him and go to the public store and get another."

Blep.   "Will there be any gambling?"

Prax.   "What should they gamble for?"

Blep.   "And what is our fare to be?"

Prax.   "The same for all. The city will in fact be one house."

Blep.   "Where shall we dine?"

Prax.   "We shall make the courts and the colonnades into dining-rooms. We sha'n't want them for purposes of law any more."

Blep.   "And the speakers' platform,—what will you do with that?"

Prax.   "We shall stand our mixing-bowls and water-pitchers on it. And the singing-boys shall stand on it and celebrate the deeds of the valiant, so that if by chance there should be any cowards they may slink away ashamed. Does this please you?"

Blep.   "Excellently well."

Prax.  "Now I betake me to the market-place,

Some shrill-voiced dame before me, who shall play

The herald's part, for there must I receive

The moneys flowing to the common purse;

For that same public voice that bade me rule

Hath laid these duties on me, and commands

That I should order well the sumptuous feasts,

Which with this day begin. And so farewell."

"Excellent, my dear," said Blepyrus. "I will come with you. How the people will stare at me, and say to each other, 'Look there! Do you know who that is? That is the husband of the lady in command.'"