You are here

42.3.Brunet

When the Spartan Lampito appears on stage for the first time in the Lysistrata, she attributes her fine physique to jumping up and kicking her buttocks with her heels in a dance we elsewhere learn was termed the bibasis. Commentators on the Lysistrata regularly treat the bibasis as a dance practiced solely or chiefly by Spartan girls and thus a quaint feature of Spartan culture much like Lampito's Doric accent. However, Aristophanes' audience would not have associated the bibasis primarily with Spartan women and would have classed Lampito's boast as another of the transgressive acts for which Spartan women were noted. As a review of the archaeological evidence makes clear, Athenian males regularly practiced the bibasis and its popularity among this group was likely due to the usefulness of jumping exercises in training for the pentathlon. The natural association then would have been with boys and men, not Spartan women. So when Lampito played up her skill in performing this highly athletic dance, Aristophanes' audience would have viewed this as an inversion of the natural roles of men and women.

Literary sources do provide some useful background information about the dance itself but are not as helpful as often supposed for understanding the Athenian reaction to Lampito. Without the ancient commentators' help (e.g. Suda π 3110.1-3), we admittedly would not know what Lampito meant when she said “she jumped to her buttocks" (ποτὶ πυγá½°ν á¼…λλομαι). Likewise, Pollux (4.102.5-10) is essential for providing the dance’s name. Yet while Pollux’s oft-cited statement that Spartan boys and girls used the bibasis for exercise and held jumping contests may well be true, it does not tell us what we need to know, whether the Athenians connected this dance with the Spartans. The fact that Xenophon does not mention it in his discussion of female physical training at Sparta might actually suggest the opposite (Lac. 1.4). Moreover, we cannot extract much from the other sources sometimes cited in connection with the bibasis (Hippoc. Nat. puer. 13.4-13; Antyll. ap. Orib. 6.31; Sor. 1.60). Among other considerations, all of them refer to the bibasis with Aristophanes’ distinctive “jump to one’s buttocks,” making it likely that they were heavily influenced by the portrait of Lampito in the Lysistrata.

The Athenians clearly understood what Lampito meant, and the archaeological evidence explains why. In all, we have seven depictions of individuals doing the bibasis, five of which derive from Attic black or red-figure vases. Only one of the seven representations shows a woman doing the bibasis. Nude boys or young men dominate although a previously unrecognized example depicts nude men performing it as part of a mock pyrrhic dance. When identifiable, the dance takes place in a komos or other typically male environment, and the artists regularly focused on how much physical energy the boys or men were expending. Moreover, a vase in Basel (ARV2 430 no. 31; sometimes wrongly cited as being the bibasis) makes it clear why the bibasis would have been a favorite among athletes training for the pentathlon: ancient jumpers brought their heels to the back of their buttocks at the top of their jump in a way indistinguishable from the bibasis.

Scholars have occasionally suspected that the visual evidence might be useful for understanding Aristophanes' portrait of Lampito but it has never been analyzed in depth. Looked at closely, it reveals that Athenian men regularly practiced the bibasis, often in conjunction with male dominated activities like athletics. The skill of Spartan women at the bibasis therefore would not have been the first thing that came to the mind when the audience heard Lampito bragging about building up her physique by jumping. Instead they would have viewed her as they did other Spartan women, as set on pursuing an athleticism that was the natural preserve of men.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy