Cleon Ridiculed in the Knights

Aristophanes’s Knights is his fourth play, and his second surviving play in the modern era. It won first prize at the Lenaia in 424 BC.

Earlier in his career, Aristophanes is rumored to have been brought to trial by Cleon for his brutal satire in the Babylonians. After the charges were laughed out of court, Aristophanes vowed revenge on Cleon, a vow he kept in the Knights.

In the Knights, it begins with two slaves, ironically named Demosthenes and Nicias, as they run from the house of Demos (an also ironically named older man representing the people of Athens). They have just received a beating and they complain of the preferential treatment Demos gives to Paphlagonian, who clearly represents Cleon. Aristophanes calls him a “villain” and an “arrant rogue” and a “perfect glutton for beans” with a “pig’s education.” They steal his treasured oracles, in which they find out that it is Paphlagonian’s destiny to rule Demos but he will be upstaged by a sausage-seller. Just then, a sausage-seller, Agoracritus, comes walking by and the slaves convince him of his destiny. Suddenly, Paphlagonian appears and accuses them of theft while the slaves call upon the old Knights of Athens to protect them, and a chorus of Knights appear and attack Paphlagonian (Cleon). They accuse him of manipulating the system for his own personal gain. The Knights defend Agoracritus, the sausage-seller, over Aphlagonian (Cleon).

In the end, Paphlagonian (Cleon) is forced to resign from his privileged position with Demos, and the sausage-seller is celebrated with a banquet, while Paphlagonian becomes the new sausage-seller. Demos is adorned in the garb of the old Marathon fighters and the Knights defend ridiculing dishonorable people (like Cleon).

The play ends happily for all, except for Cleon’s character who is reduced to selling sausages. In all, the comedy is another brutal satire of the war-mongering imperialism of Cleon (perhaps also by proxy of Pericles’s prior leadership, as well). Cleon is lambasted in the writings of both Thucydides and Aristophanes, as well as later writers including Plutarch and Lucian.

Who Was Cleon?

He was a 5th century Athenian general and a speaker on behalf of the commercial interests of Athens, though he was also a member of the aristocracy. He came to attention in opposition to Pericles when he refused to do battle against the invading Peloponnesian League. He was the lead voice against Pericles in the 5th century, especially after the failed expedition to the Peloponnesus (as detailed by Thucydides). Shortly thereafter, Pericles dies of the plague in 429 BC and Cleon is brought to power. He was a demagogue, claiming to speak for the demos. He was able to whip up the emotions of the people, and he instilled a culture of suspicion and a network of spies in Athens (a kind of ancient McCarthysim). He raised taxes on Athenians allies so that Athenian juries could be paid more, allowing for poor Athenians to have a livelihood by participating on juries. Plutarch describes Cleon as coming to power during a mad and desperate time for Athens, and he was ultimately killed in battle against Sparta.

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