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Monday, February 27, 2023

The Assemblywomen: The Ancient Greek Play That Mercilessly (and Hilariously) Mocked Socialism and Democracy

Aristophanes had seen enough of collectivism to recognize that it was destructive and often nonsensical, even when it was done “democratically.”

Image Credit: Pixnio (image of Zeus)

Trey Parker and Matt Stone for years have made a living out of mocking the absurdities in society.

The South Park creators have been deemed “too offensive to be canceled,” which has given the writers free rein to tackle not just the absurdity of Royal family members demanding privacy during a global press tour, but to explore hot button issues like immigration, Covid-19, race tokenism, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, abortion, depictions of the prophet Muhammad, and transgenderism—in some cases in the same episode.

Twenty-five hundred years before Parker and Stone were offending audiences, the Greek playwright Aristophanes was using similar tactics to expose the absurdity of life and politics in Ancient Athens.

Aristophanes wrote dozens of plays, eleven of which survived, including “The Frogs,” “The Clouds,” and “Peace.” Though I recall reading and discussing some of Aristophanes’ works as an undergraduate, one play I was not introduced to (some would say exposed to) was “The Assemblywomen,” one of the last works the playwright produced.

To say that “The Assemblywomen” is funny is an understatement. The play is brilliant and laugh-out-loud hilarious, depicting the absurdities of life in Ancient Athens in language that just might make Parker and Stone blush. Yet the play is also instructive.

Aristophanes takes aim not just at a political class that had grown corrupt, neurotic, and drunk on its own power, but also at collectivism and democracy itself.

(Author’s note: Here are three different translations to the play: One by George Theodoridis, the second by Eugene O’Neill, Jr., and the third from MIT. I relied on each translation, but used Theodoridis’ the most. It contains the most crude language, but is also the most accessible.

Warning: I’ve done my best to avoid highly profane language, but there is plenty of crude humor, so readers uncomfortable with such jokes may wish to turn back.)

‘The Assemblywomen’

When the play begins, we see that things are so bad in Athens the women have had enough. Men have screwed things up so bad, their leader Praxagora says, that women must step in and take control. Her plan is to have the women go to parliament dressed like men, where they will demand that women are given control of the government.

To this end, the women meet secretly as the play beings, carrying with them their husbands’ shoes and cloaks, and carrying fake beards they wear on their faces. But things don’t immediately go as planned.

To the frustration of Praxagora, the women keep invoking the names of goddesses (“by Demeter and Persephone!”) instead of gods (“by Apollo!”), a sure giveaway. Some women are late, explaining that they could barely escape the clutches of their amorous husbands. Others bring knitting equipment, and promptly are scolded.

Praxagora: While the place fills up, you idiot? Knitting?

Second Woman: Absolutely, by Artemis! Why not? Don’t you think I can knit and listen at the same time? My kids are totally naked!

Praxagora: Listen to you, woman! Here we are trying to hide our body and you’re talking about knitting! We’ve got to get in there early, girls! We’d deserve what we’d get if, suddenly, when all the people are there, one of us has to climb over them to get herself a seat but her cloak gets stuck somewhere and off she goes, showing her ____ to everyone!

After realizing knitting would blow their cover, the women decide to try on their beards and “act like men”—swinging their members about, yelling “hoho,” and flexing their muscles.

Then they decide to practice their speeches. But a woman interrupts, saying she couldn’t possibly give a speech on a dry throat.

Praxagora: What do you mean? You want a drink? Now?

First Woman: Of course! Isn’t that why men put on the garland? I’d like some wine, please!

Praxagora: Get out of there! Is that what you’d be doing in the real Parliament?

First Woman: Whaaaat? Don’t they drink in the real Parliament?

Praxagora: Don’t be silly, girl!

First Woman: Of course they do, by Artemis! Absolutely! And it’s the totally unadulterated strong stuff! Who else but drunks would come up with laws like those they do?

The Men

After witnessing the women plotting their takeover, we meet Praxagora’s husband, Blepyrus, who comically emerges on stage wearing his wife’s shift and slippers. Having woke with a strong urge to defecate, Blepyrus had searched in vain for his cloak and shoes (which we know Praxagora has absconded with).

Wearing his wife’s shawl and Persian slippers, Blepyrus scrambles about on stage looking for a place to evacuate his bowels, farting and bemoaning his decision to get married. As he finally begins to go, a neighbor emerges and sees him.

In the act of defecating, Blepyrus is interrupted by his neighbor, who notices that Blepyrus has soiled himself in his haste. He then inquires about Blepyrus’ strange garb.

Neighbour: Where’s your cloak?

Blepyrus: I wish I could tell you. I’ve looked for it among the sheets and blankets but just couldn’t find it.

Neighbor: Why didn’t you ask your wife to tell you where it is?

Blepyrus: (uncomfortably) No, by Zeus, I couldn’t ask her. She sneaked out on me. I’m afraid I’m about to cop some new worry from her.

Neighbor: (awkwardly) Eh… Same damned thing happened to me, by Zeus! Same thing exactly! My woman took off with my vest. I love that vest! Not only that but she’s taken my boots as well! Couldn’t find them anywhere!

Blepyrus: Me too! My Spartan boots have also gone. Nowhere to be found, nowhere to be seen! But I just had to have a bog, so I slipped into these little high heels and rushed out here. I couldn’t very well ___ in our blanket, I’ve just had it washed.

Both men consider the prospect that their wives are off having affairs with other men, and some more scatalogical humor ensues. Then the man leaves and Blepyrus prepares to finish his bowel movement, but another man emerges catching him in the act.

Chremes: What do you think you’re doing down there! (shocked) You’re NOT dropping a bog, are you?

Blepyrus: Who, me? O, nonononono!

Chremes: (Still suspicious) Why are you wearing your wife’s shawl?

Blepyrus: This little ol’ thing? Just grabbed it in the dark by mistake. (changes the subject) Tell me, where are you coming from?

Chremes, we learn, has just come from parliament. He explains to Blepyrus that a bunch of newcomers showed up at the assembly, and as a result he was late gaining entry. Blepyrus asked if he was able to receive his payment for participating, and Chremes sadly answers no.

Chremes: I wish! No, I was too late! Shame! Shame! I’ve got to explain to my purse now why it’s empty!

Blepyrus: So… you got absolutely nothing then?

Chremes: Absolutely nothing… except my shopping bag.

Blepyrus: But why were you late?

Chremes: A huge crowd of men turned up. Like never before. They just all turned up at the Parliament. Just like that, the whole throng together, and at the same time. I took one look at them and thought they must have all been cobblers. Pale. As if the sun never saw their faces. The whole place was pale… so neither I nor a whole lot of others near me got any money.

Blepyrus then learns that these newcomers passed a motion that government power should be handed over to the women of Athens, but they were opposed by farmers who “began whispering and whining.”

Blepyrus: Because, by Zeus, they’ve got brains!

Chremes: But they were fewer in number so the speaker told them to shut up.

Chremes then informs Blepyrus that the motion actually passed, since the farmers lacked the numbers to defeat it.

Blepyrus: And these women are now in charge of everything that we were in charge of?

Chremes: Yep. Exactly right. They’re in charge.

Blepyrus: So… instead of me going to court, from now on it’ll be my wife?

Chremes: Nor will you be raising your children any more. Your missus will be in charge of that.

Blepyrus: So… I won’t need to moan and groan every morning, worrying about our daily bread?

Chremes: By Zeus, no! Oh, no, mate! From now on, it’s the wife who’ll be doing all the worrying. No need to moan, groan or worry about a thing. Just stay home and…

Blepyrus farts.

…fart all day!

‘All Things Be Owned By Everyone’

After her successful takeover of the assembly, Praxagora returns home where she is confronted by her husband. Blepyrus is clueless of his wife’s successful political coup, but he wants to know why she stole away with his cloak and shoes. Praxagora assures her husband that she hurried off that morning to assist a woman giving birth, not to meet a lover.

Blepyrus then shares with his wife the big news, and his wife wisely plays coy.

Blepyrus: They want you to govern!

Praxagora: Govern? Govern who?

Blepyrus: Every bit of the city’s business.

Praxagora: By Aphrodite! What a blessed future this city will have!

Blepyrus expresses some doubts about this, but a neighbor enters their home and says he should hear his wife out. She then explains her vision.

I suggest that all things be owned by everyone in common and everyone should be able to draw a pay and have an equal standard of living. They should all draw pay from the same funds. Let’s have no more of this rich man-poor man stuff. None of this, one man farming huge paddocks and the other owning less land than what he needs for his grave. None of this one man owning a crowd of slaves and another not even a single servant. My law says, one law for everyone, one standard for all.

After detailing her vision, Praxagora explains how she’ll create a more peaceful and prosperous society, one in which there is no envy.

Praxagora: The first thing I’ll do is to put common ownership to all the land. The same with the money and every other thing which is, at the moment, owned by individuals. And it is this common wealth that we women will harvest with prudent saving and a careful intelligence.

Neighbor: What about those among us who possess no land but who have loads of silver and gold coins, like the Persian Darics for example?

Praxagora: Well, they’ll just have to deposit it to the central fund.

Blepyrus: And if they don’t deposit it then they’ll have to lie and commit perjury… which is the way they’ve got it in the first place! Hahaha!

Praxagora: In any case, what use will it be to them? None!

Blepyrus: Why not?

Praxagora: Because there will be no one working because he’s forced by poverty. None of us will be lacking in anything. We’ll have bread, salt, fish filets, cloaks to wear, wine to drink, garlands, chick peas, the lot. So what’s the point in not depositing their coins? Let me know if you can see it.

Blepyrus: But those men who have all this stuff do so because they’re the biggest thieves around!

Praxagora: That’s right, darling! That’s all due to the laws we have now, under the current system but when this new system is established and everything is deposited in a common fund and everyone would be living from it, how would it profit anyone to keep from depositing his stuff?

Blepyrus isn’t quite convinced. Who will till the soil, he asks his wife?

“The farming will be done by the slaves,” she blithely replies. “Your only concern will be to get all dressed up and oiled up around ten in the evening and go off to your dinner party.”

The Selfish Man

The holes in Praxagora’s proposals to create a collectivist utopia are self-evident, and they are hilariously explored in a dialogue between two neighbors who hear about the new law.

One man is preparing to take all his goods to the city, where they’ll be turned over to the common fund. Another man, sometimes referred to as The Selfish Man, is incredulous when he learns his neighbor is complying with the new law.

Selfish Man: You’re giving all your wares to the city?

Neighbor: But of course!

Selfish Man: What an idiot! By Zeus the savior, what an idiot you are!

Neighbor: What do you mean?

Selfish Man: What do you mean, “what do I mean?” Look at you!

Neighbor: What do you mean, “look at me?” Aren’t I supposed to obey the laws of the city?

Selfish Man: What do you mean “the laws of the city,” stupid?

Neighbor: What do you mean, “what laws?” The laws that have just been enacted!

Selfish Man: What do you mean, “enacted?” How can you be so stupid?

Selfish Man: What do you mean, “stupid?”

Selfish Man: What do you mean, “what do I mean by stupid?” I mean “stupid!” I mean you’re the stupidest man of all!

Neighbor: You mean… because I’m obeying orders?

Selfish Man: I mean…Do smart men obey orders?

Neighbour: But of course they do! Always!

Selfish Man: No, that’s not what the smart man does. That’s the act of an idiot.

The neighbor asks the Selfish Man what he intends to do, if not give his property to the city. The Selfish Man replies that he’s going to wait and see what everyone else does first.

Neighbor: They’re all getting their stuff ready to deposit them in the city’s coffers, that’s what they’re all doing.

Selfish Man: Sure, sure. I’ll be convinced of that when I see it with my own two eyes.

Neighbor: But the whole town is talking about it.

Selfish Man: That’s right, they’re “talking” about it! Doesn’t mean they’ll be doing it.

There’s some more dialogue between the men, neither of which can understand what the other is thinking. At one point, the neighbor expresses apprehension that if he doesn’t hurry, there will be “no more room for me to deposit these things!”

Selfish Man: You’re being totally stupid. What a moron you are, not waiting to see what the rest of the people do about this. At least then and only then –

Neighbor: (Interrupts) And then do what, then!

Selfish Man: Then, you wait even a little longer, and then a little longer, and then a little longer and then you forget it!

As the two men proceed to the depot, the neighbor asks the Selfish Man how he intends to eat dinner if he doesn’t deposit his things. The Selfish Man replies that he intends to eat dinner regardless of whether he deposits his property.

Neighbor: You’re going to dinner before you deliver!

Selfish Man: Of course. What choice do I have? Right-minded people must obey the call of their city and run to help as best they can.

Neighbor: What if they stop you?

Selfish Man: I’ll lower my head and walk through.

Neighbor: They’ll whip you.

Selfish Man: If they dare do that, I’ll sue them.

Neighbor: Ha! They’ll laugh at you.

Selfish Man: Well, if they do that, I’ll just stand in the doorway and…

Neighbor: And what? Tell me what you would do?

Selfish Man: I’d stand there, wait for the food to arrive and pinch it as it goes into the dining hall.

As they arrive at the depot, the neighbor still believes the Selfish Man is crazy for not turning his property over to the city.

He then tells him perhaps it would be better if the Selfish Man enters behind him, instructing his two slaves to take his property inside.

Neighbor: Sicon, Parmenon, pick up my goods!

Selfish Man: Hang on! Let me help you with all that.

Neighbor: Oh, nononono! It’s all right. I can see it now. I’ll be taking MY stuff in and you’ll be pretending that my stuff is YOUR’S! No thanks! Come on boys!

‘Equity’ in Sexual Intercourse

“The Assemblywomen” ends as absurdly and hilariously as it begins.

Praxagora’s new system doesn’t just involve the expropriation of private property. Equity, we see, extends beyond mere possessions.

Earlier in the play, Blepyrus asks what would stop him from drawing on the common fund “if a man sees a lovely girl and he would just love to buy her for a night of…of games.”

Praxagora responds that there’s no need. Sex, too, is free.

“No charge, no price. These girls will also become part of the common property law. Men will be able to sleep with them whenever they want and, if they want, make babies with them.”

Blepyrus says that’s all well and good, but he points out that every man will be running to the prettiest girl for his ____.”

Not at all, Praxagora responds. Under the new law, men must service the ugly women first if they wish to enjoy a beautiful woman. This distresses Blepyrus, who wonders how a man his age could be expected to have such stamina (“by the time we get back to the cuties, our parts would be useless. There’ll be nothing left in them”).

We see how this sexual equity plays out. Near the end of play, a young man named Epigenes goes to sleep with his beautiful young girlfriend, but he is accosted by an old, ugly woman. She demands that Epigenes pleasures her first. Epigenes refuses, but soon another woman emerges, who is older and uglier than the first. Soon a third woman enters, ugliest of all. They begin to fight over Epigenes, pawing at him and demanding service.

Epigenes: (To the audience) What a poor bastard I am, ey? Here I am, having to pleasure a rotting hag all day and night, then, I’ll have to jump off her and onto this old toad and start all over again! And this old toad is so old that I can see the funeral urn already standing by her cheeks.

The scene ends with two old women dragging Epigenes into a house and closing the door behind them.

‘When We Knew Nothing about Democracy’

This isn’t quite the final scene of the play, but it drives home the playwright’s final lesson on the absurdity of enforcing equality, and the dangers of majoritarianism.

Aristophanes, like the Founding Fathers, was hardly a fan of democracy. He understood that democracy could threaten individual rights just as much as any tyrant, and we see this over and over again in “The Assemblywomen.”

“These aren’t the days…when we knew nothing about Democracy!” the first old chrome tells Epigenes as she attempts to ravage him against his consent. “Nowdays, we’ve got to do things according to democratic and just laws, by Zeus, by Zeus!”

Ancient Greece is often remembered as a triumph of self-government, particularly Athens, where democracy began to flourish around the 6th century BC. We often forget it also serves as a cautionary tale on the excesses of democracy. Some context here is in order.

“The Assemblywomen” likely was written in 392 B.C., more than a decade after the official end of the three-decade Peloponnesian War and during the height of the Corinthian War (395–387 BC). Both of these conflicts saw Athens pitted against its rival Sparta, and both saw Athens increasingly rely on confiscation, price controls, and general force to assert its will. During this period of war Athens, relatively speaking, grew from a vibrant liberal democracy into a corrupt and authoritarian one.

As I’ve previously written, by 388 B.C. the Athenian government had a labyrinth of regulations on the production and sale of grain, which included “an army of grain inspectors appointed for the purpose of setting the price of grain at a level the Athenian government thought to be just.”

The penalty for evading these price controls? Death. Many traders found themselves facing trials for no other reason than keeping their grain in storage instead of selling it at an artificially low price.

Aristophanes could see the madness of such laws, including monetary schemes that dictated citizens use certain types of money. We see this in “The Assemblywomen” when the Selfish Man attempts to tell his neighbor that turning over his property is stupid.

Selfish Man: What about when we all voted to bring in those stupid, useless copper coins. Remember that, too? In one day out the next! Remember?

Neighbor: Damn it, do I! I’ve lost so much money with that rubbish! I had just gathered all my grapes, sold them, got paid in those coppers and then went off to the market to buy barley. No sooner I open my bag to pay for it and the herald shouts, “no more coppers! No more coppers! We’re only using silver now!” Bastard of a vote that one!

Aristophanes had seen enough of collectivism to recognize that it was destructive and often nonsensical, even when it was done “democratically.” Indeed, throughout the play we see there’s nothing intrinsically special about democracy.

The people making decrees don’t possess some special knowledge or intelligence that renders them fit to organize society. Indeed, most of the participants are (comically) stupid, lazy, and self-serving, showing up to parliament only because they are paid “three obols a day” to do so.

That citizens are paid to participate in democracy clearly rubs Aristophanes the wrong way. We learn that one reformer attempted to do away with this kind of civic bribery, refusing to draw a salary and chiding those who did take payment; but he was put to death and the payment was raised. This action drew the disapproval of the Chorus.

“Now that the pay is a bit more they come and they jostle and shove for a seat! Ah, bring back the days of our generous General Myronides! When he ruled no one dared ask for a handful of silver to serve our city. People would come with lunch sack, a crust of bread a drink, a pair of onions and three olives!”

We hear a lot of talk these days about “late stage capitalism,” but reading Aristophanes one gets the sense that we have much more to fear from Late Stage Democracy, a state in which individuals see it as perfectly proper to separate people from their property and natural rights so long as enough people approve of the measure.

Fortunately, unlike the Ancient Athenians, we have the benefit of teachings from individuals like John Locke, Adam Smith, and Ayn Rand that show the folly of such thinking. Whether we choose to heed them is up to us.

Either way, Aristophanes shows us that humor can be found even during the collapse of civilization and common sense.


  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of FEE.org at the Foundation for Economic Education.