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  • "Everybody Wants to Make a Speech":Cleon and Aristophanes on Politics and Fantasy
  • James F. McGlew
Cleon at Thucydides 3.38.6
Aristophanes Acharnians 45

In Thucydides' account of the debate concerning the Mytileneans in the summer of 427 B.C. (3.37-40), Cleon undertakes to convince the Athenians to stick by their decision to kill all male citizens of Mytilene and sell their families into slavery, which he represents as a fully warranted punishment for the Mytileneans' attempt to revolt from the Athenian alliance. He prefaces his arguments by stating his disappointment that the Athenians would consider changing their minds, and gives a wholly unflattering characterization of the Athenian democracy and its indecisiveness. This attack on the democracy, which Thucydides uses to introduce Cleon to his audience, reads very much like a counter piece to the ideal vision of Athens that Thucydides records in Pericles' Funeral Oration. Where Pericles had praised the Athenians for their innate courage, intelligence, and generosity-virtues that made them uniquely able to combine thought and action-Cleon, in his rhetorical debut, makes the very freedom of the Athenians' domestic relations an impediment to their successful management of an empire: this freedom, Cleon insists, keeps them from understanding and [End Page 339] controlling their allies. Cleon, moreover, finds in the Athenian democracy nothing like the marriage of words and deeds for which Pericles had celebrated Athens. Preferring political speeches to real action, Cleon insists, the Athenians run to the assembly, where they are too stupid to understand the rhetorical tricks of the speakers and too perverse even to attempt to distinguish rhetorical style and substance.

The author of this remarkable diatribe is the Athenian figure whom we now, much like the Athenians of Cleon's own generation, associate closely with the distinctive qualities of Athenian political culture in and after the 420s. Cleon's language and thinking, his political techniques, his social status, his political following, his evil reputation, and, perhaps most importantly, the way that reputation played into, rather than detracted from, his political prominence-all of these strike us, as they did his contemporaries, as signs of the great divide separating his and earlier generations of leaders. And, again like the Athenians, we find it tempting to construct the difference in simple moralistic terms. Cleon seems more violent and radical, less independent and scrupulous in his political alliances and techniques than his predecessors, and he seems unconcerned about the consequences of his actions.1 Modern scholars urge us to resist such one-sided judgments. Robert Connor, for example, attempts to balance "a sense of disappointment" in the changing of Athens' political guard with an appreciation of "something fresh and exciting" in the politics of the political leaders who rose to power after Pericles' death.2 What makes them "fresh and exciting," on this more generous reading, is the fact that they did not owe their political prominence to ties of family and philia; instead, they were bound to the Athenian body politic in more immediate ways, by their presence in the Athenian political assembly and by their relations with the courts.

However we judge it, Cleon's rise very certainly reflected a seam in the political and cultural structure of Athenian society in the final [End Page 340] decades of the fifth century, a seam that is the product of, and itself produced, perceptible change in that structure. Thucydides deserves much credit for recognizing this seam-for sensing the importance of Cleon and his kind for Athenian political history. But the same can be maintained for Aristophanes. Aristophanes obviously made much of Cleon, and went to great lengths to expose the threat to Athens that he saw in Cleon. In fact, his encounter with the demagogue seems to have changed his art: in fighting Cleon, Aristophanes went beyond onomastikomodein (verbal abuse of prominent individuals), the traditional form of invective available to comedy. Cleon is not only mentioned in Aristophanes, he is brought to the dramatic center of his comedy, most obviously in the Knights, the burlesque of Cleon that won Aristophanes his first victory as producer of his own plays at the Lenaia in 424.3

This dramatic focus on Cleon in...


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