Cleon in "Wasps" and "Knights"

"Wasps was produced in 422, the year of Cleon's death; "Knights" was two years earlier. In 424, the mission to Pylos and the capture of the Spartans by Cleon was probably uppermost in most Athenians' minds as heralding a new and favourable phase of the war; it certainly was in Aristophanes' mind, if "Knights" is any evidence. After this date, the war became more remote from Attica, so there is not the same immediacy about it and this is reflected in the predominantly "civil" aspect of the references to Cleon in "Wasps". Overall, the picture of Cleon is consistent in the two plays, the arrogant behaviour of the victor of Pylos is inseperable from the patronising purchaser of votes in the assembly: we can say that Aristophanes can detect no false modesty in the man!

Pylos runs through "Knights". Aristophanes' major justification for critcising Cleon is that he did not acknowledge the preliminary roles of Demosthenes and Nicias (54-7), Aristophanes keeps returning to it and claiming that the rewards accruing are out of proportion to the gains (free dining rights (176 and 531), illicit "take-aways" (271ff) and front seat at public events (529 and 702 etc) until Cleon must have cringed at the very mention of Pylos - assuming him to have been present. But, what is more, an opportunity for peace was lost. Cleon had a vested interest in the war continuing; so long as it continued no one would know what he was doing - even though he was filling his coffers (1218) at the expense of the people of Athens - as a moment's reflection would have revealed. Cleon attempts (successfully, suggests Aristophanes) to avert suspicion by his "gifts", but these are small slices (1220) of big cakes (1219). He is relying on this policy - again with success- to remain in a position where he will wield influence and receive reward. He has forgotten the veterans, believing that if a real enemy, that is a non-Greek one, comes along then the aristos will again be needed - the knights - but that, in buying the "great unwashed", Cleon will destroy the whole class.

The main point of contact between the two plays is the demonstration that jurors receive a small share of the wealth of the empire (653ff) - and Anticleon proves that it is a very real wealth. The whole agon demonstrates how Cleon's mind works as he manipulates the citizen body and, in this context of the drama, how easily it is duped. Just as he is dismissive of Nicias and Demosthenes, his attitude to the old men is to ignore their value, and use them for his own glory. Aristophanes lodges the blame eith the whole army of demagogues (701), but it is unlikely that he is spreading the blame; more likely that he is branding Cleon as the worst of a thoroughly disreputable bunch! The trial of the dogs is pointed at Cleon, and he suggests that he is fiercely protective of his reputation as a general, inferring that the failure of Laches/Labes to produce a military victory was evidence of bribery by the enemy (236 and 895) and that he has bought the verdict beforehand. This very willingness to pursue litigation (of which Aristophanes has had first hand experience) contrasted with the "gentlemanly" behaviour of a Pericles, beneath whose dignity such a thing would have been. It was fair play for "Jack's as good as his master" when the "master" was only a tanner, but it took Aristophanes (Anticleon) to pont out that he was indeed the master!

The main point of consistency in the references, veiled or overt, to Cleon is that if he has any redeeming features, then they are incapable of detection.

P. Shand

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