Aristophanes' Political Vision in The Knights
In The Knights Aristophanes mocks his adversary Cleon and comments on the phenomenon of demagoguery in democratic Athens. The play, first produced in 424 B.C., entrusts a sausage-seller to rival the Paphlagonian, a thinly veiled Cleon, in flattering and gaining the approval of the demos.1 A thorough examination of the comedy serves to demonstrate that Aristophanes attacks not democracy itself but unscrupulous demagogues like Cleon and Hyperbolus as well as the tendency of the Athenian demos to intellectual laziness, which allows the practitioners of flattery to bribe the people with their own money.
The depiction of Cleon is the most obvious and central theme in The Knights and must have been particularly penetrating to a contemporary Athenian audience. In fact, Aristophanes had had legal disputes with the popular leader Cleon, who got the playwright convicted in 426 on the charge of ''slandering the City in the presence of foreigners'' in his play The Babylonians 2 Therefore it would seem that Aristophanes' motive for staging The Knights, the first play he produced in his own name, was not purely political but personal as well.3 In any event, it was not particularly difficult to feel an aversion to the extreme demagoguery of Cleon, whom Thucydides in his history introduces as ''the most violent man at Athens, and at that time [in 427] by far the most powerful with The People.''4 According to Plutarch, it was primarily rich Athenians who wanted to establish the general Nicias—who along with Demosthenes appears as a slave abused by the Paphlagonian in The Knights—as a political counterweight to Cleon, whose ''brutal insolence'' they feared.5 Cleon, by the same account, was also responsible for breaking down ''all the conventions of decent behaviour in the Assembly'' by introducing shouting and abuse into his speeches, which ''produced among the politicians an irresponsibility and a disregard for propriety which before long were to throw the affairs of Athens into chaos.''6 His highly successful military campaign to capture the Spartiates on the island of Sphacteria, and thereby gain for the city a valuable bargaining chip during the Archidemian War, only increased his arrogance.7
It is therefore not surprising to see Cleon depicted in The Knights as a rash brute of intolerable temper, who misses no opportunity to abuse his fellow slaves and flatter their master, aptly named Demos. It is also quite natural that his rival, the sausage-seller, should enter into alliance with the knights against Cleon, since the latter likely had argued in the assembly that the state subsidies for the cavalrymen—able to finance the upkeep of horses and therefore often of an aristocratic bent— should be reduced or abolished. As Mark Munn notes, Cleon must have argued that ''the demos was paying to support the pride and self-esteem of horse-riding pretty-boys who did little or nothing to benefit the state.''8 Thus, when the sausage-seller in The Knights remarks that both rich and poor are afraid of Paphlagon/Cleon, his fellow slave Demosthenes replies: ''Have no fear, the Knights will be here, a thousand strong, all hating his [Cleon's] guts.''9 Consequently, the play is named after Cleon's natural adversaries in domestic Athenian politics, whose assistance is required to bring on his downfall.
On the policy level, there are other ways in which Aristophanes criticizes Cleon, for instance with respect to his action at Pylos, capturing the Spartiates on Sphacteria. The success of this campaign is not denied; rather, it is ascribed to the general Demosthenes, who had laid the military groundwork before Cleon assumed the role of leader. Demosthenes' namesake in The Knights thus complains of Paphlagon/Cleon: ''Why, only the other day I'd baked a lovely Spartan cake down in Pylos, and round he sneaks and grabs it and serves up my cake as if it was all his work.''10 Furthermore, Cleon's public advocacy of raising financial compensation for public and jury service —a source of income for poorer Athenians—is attacked in the play. The sausage-seller laments that Paphlagon/Cleon has been ''fobbing you [Demos] off with that three obols of jury pay;'' while his rival later vows: ''[Demos], I promise to provide you with a whole bowlful of jury pay to guzzle every day, and you needn't do anything for it at all.''11
These attacks might suggest an oligarchic stance of Aristophanes. However, it should first of all be noted that the Athenian democracy granted the poet great liberties and a tremendous potential for propaganda; moreover, had he disapproved in principle of democracy he would not have been admitted to the theater competitions.12 In The Knights, Aristophanes' own political vision becomes clearer towards the end, when the sausage-seller boils Demos young again. The purified Demos inquires into his past behavior and is told by the sausage-seller that he used to be swayed by the demagogues, who then ''pulled the wool over yer eyes and left you in the lurch.''13 Upon being told about his past affinity for demagoguery, Demos is deeply ashamed and surprised that he was ''as stupid and as senile as that.''14 Significantly, the sausage-seller concludes that it wasn't the fault of Demos, but that ''it was them [the demagogues] that deceived you.''15 From this it can be inferred that Aristophanes did not lament that the demos was in charge but rather that it behaved in a way to allow demagogues like his nemesis Cleon to influence policy-making and flatter and bribe the people with jury pay. Were the people to refine their judgment—as Demos is able to as a result of the boiling treatment—demagoguery would not stand a chance in Athens. Thus, Aristophanes does not disapprove of democracy but rather of foolish decisions made by the demos. As Spielvogel concludes: ''The political credo of the playwright Aristophanes combines the aristocratic code of behavior with the constitutional frame of democracy, so that the citizens conscientiously exercise their duties toward the polity and guarantee that the law is abided by. Aristophanes stands on democratic ground, but his unmistakable use of oligarchic criticism places him near that part of Athenian society which is unhappy with the evolution of the democracy.''16 This group of people to which Aristophanes belonged were in favor of a democracy that promoted aristocratic leadership and were willing to tolerate a redistribution of the resources of the polis only to a certain, limited extent.17
All in all, Aristophanes in The Knights presents a political vision which is informed mostly by contemporary Athenian politics, infiltrated by sophistry and demagoguery. This political current at the time was embodied chiefly by Cleon, who additionally had brought upon him a personal feud with Aristophanes, which the playwright would continue to pick out as a theme in his plays until Cleon's death in 422. Aristophanes' broader political view emphasized the necessity of aristocratic prudence in democratic politics, which he did not oppose in principle. He disliked the extreme tendencies to which the demos was pushed by the demagogues and envisioned a democracy of sound minds.
1 Munn, Mark, The School of History. Athens in the Age of Socrates, (Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press, 2000), 64.
2 Sommerstein, Alan H., introductory note to The Knights, in David Barrett and Alan H. Sommerstein, eds., Aristophanes. The Birds and Other Plays (London: Penguin Classics, 1978), 32f. All translations and quotes are taken from this edition.
4 3.36.6. Translation from Robert B. Strassler, ed., The Landmark Thucydides (New York: Free Press 2008).
5 Plut. Nicias, 2. Translation from Ian Scott-Kilvert, The Rise and Fall of Athens. Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch, (Penguin Classics, 1960).
6 Ibid., 8.
8 Munn, 77. Italics in the original.
9 Barrett/Sommerstein, 44, lines 211-254.
10 Ibid., 38, lines 41-107. Italics in the original. Cf. also pg. 51 and 68.
11 Ibid., 66, lines 789-845, and 70, lines 904-48, respectively.
12 Spielvogel, Jörg, ''Die Politische Position des athenischen Komödiendichters Aristophanes,'' in Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Vol. 52:1 (2003), 3-22, here 5. All translations from the German are my own.
13 Barrett/Sommerstein, 87, lines 1325-1373.
16 Spielvogel, 21.
17 Cf. ibid., 22.