Aristophanes, usually outspoken in his opposition to war, made no mention of the ongoing expedition in Sicily (advanced by the Greek general Alchibiades who often changed sides) that Athenians at first seemed to think was such a good idea. Meanwhile the siege in Syracuse was dragging and the tension was great in Athens. He didn’t want to jeopardize a possible peace process and chose instead to entertain by making fun of religious superstions and a society set in its ways.
Two Athenians, Pisthéstratos (Faithful-friend) and Evelpides (Good-hope), tired of living the dissolute life of the city, have decided to expatriate. Guided each by a bird they travel to the “domain of the birds” to create a city that would fit their ideals.
A hoopoe, who used to be a man called Terée but is now a bird, receives them cordially and at their request calls for an assembly. At first the birds are suspicious of the men but Pisthéstratos uses all his eloquence as a former sophist to convince them they were once masters of the world, usurped by the gods. He asks if he and his friend can help them restore their authority.
The plan was to build an aerial city that would act as a barrier between the earth and the sky so gods and men could no longer communicate. Men would no longer give offerings to the gods, but to the birds. Pisthéstratos’ plan is received with enthusiasm. The chorus retraces the birds’ genealogy and expounds the advantages of living in a world where everyone has wings.
Pisthéstratos calls the new city “Néphélococcygie,” meaning; The City of Clouds and Coucou Birds. They’re busy organizing the inaugural ceremony when a group appears looking for some free wings: a soothsayer, a sophist, a mathematician, a public officer and, lastly, a hungry poet who puts to verse the wonders of the future city “Coucouland in the Clouds.” They’re chased away.
A flustered messenger sounds the alarm that someone has passed the guards and the bird population panics until the infiltrator is captured. It’s the goddess Iris, who lost her way as she headed to earth with a message from Olympia. The gods were complaining that they no longer received the good food and drink men usually offered up to them.
Pisthéstratos has her released and as soon as she’s gone another messenger arrives with a gold crown from the citizens of Athens, a testimony of their admiration. More people file in to become citizens and receive a free set of wings. One man wants a pair to travel more easily from island to island on business, another wants to get at his father’s money. They’re chased away.
The Titan Prometheus, renowned for his wisdom, requests and is granted a meeting. He tells Pisthéstratos that the starving gods are sending a delegation including Poseidon, Heracles and an older god, Triballus. With Prometheus as mediator, Pisthéstratos sets his conditions. Zeus will have to give him Royalty in marriage. The story ends in a huge wedding.
The expedition in Sicily ended in disaster (in 413 BC) with grave consequences for Athens. Abandoned by its allies to Sparta the city was at the end of its resources and the territory was exposed to enemy attacks. Aristophanes was profoundly sensitive to the misery of the soldiers’ wives and mothers, and wrote this comedy in an appeal for peace.
Lysistrata, the wife of a prominent citizen of Athens, asks the women of Greece to meet with her for an urgent matter, and that is find a way to stop their husbands from continuously going off to battle. They answer her call and she presents her plan to take over the Citadel (incidentally where the public treasury iss located) until their husbands promised to stop warring with each other, forever.
It took some convincing - the women hadn’t seen their husbands in many months - but they finally agree to the idea. Firmly barricaded behind the Citadel walls they’re victorious against a first assault by a group of old fogies who will try to set fire to the building.
When the husbands return from the war and find their homes empty they first think it’s a joke, but quickly see the women will not waiver. After months of abstinence the men will do anything to attract their wives. There are a few encounters but, after exciting the men to distraction, the women keep their pledge.
An ambassador arrives from Sparta, with full powers to negotiate a peace accord. Leaders from both Sparta and Athens are obliged to listen while Lysistrata tells them what the women want. A peace agreement is signed followed by a feast with singing and dancing.