The Athens of Cleon



Thucydides had a narrow view of what should be included in a history of the PeloponnesianWar: he makes clear his approval of Pericles and disapproval of Pericles’ successors, but except in his extended treatment of the plague (cf. pp. 118–19) he gives only glimpses of the internal affairs of Athens. We therefore have to turn to other literature of the late fifth century.

One fascinating text is the pamphlet of the so-called Old Oligarch, the Athenian Constitution preserved with the works of Xenophon but almost certainly not written by him. It is a perverse defence of Athens’ democracy: the democracy serves the interests of the ‘bad’ men, not of the ‘good’, but is appropriate to Athens, where the lower-class men are important because they row the navy’s ships, and it would not easily be overthrown. It begins with the ethos of the democracy, the claim that metics and slaves are scarcely inferior to citizens, Athens’ support for democrats in the allied states and the transfer of lawsuits from there to Athens (ch. i). Next come an exposition of the advantages which Athens enjoys as a sea power rather than a land power and comments on comedy and the linking of democracy with lower-class interests (ch. ii). The pamphlet ends with the busy-ness of Athens, support for democrats elsewhere (occasional support for the upper classes has turned out unsuccessfully) and the fact that Athens has few political exiles to form the basis for an attack on the democracy (ch. iii).

When was this written, and in what circumstances? Suggestions have ranged over the second half of the fifth century, or even (to explain some resemblances to Thucydides) a fourth-century writer producing a fifth-century tract as a rhetorical exercise. However, there are strong arguments for locating the pamphlet in the early years of the Peloponnesian War: references to Athens’ behaviour when the enemy invades ‘now’ (ii. 14–16), and to a sea power’s corresponding ability to raid the enemy’s land (ii. 4), look as if they were written during the Archidamian War, when these things were happening. Since a reference to headlands or islands from which the mainland can be raided (ii. 13) fits Pylos and Cythera in 425–424, but a comment on a land army’s inability to travel far from home (ii. 5) was refuted by Brasidas’ journey to the north-east in 424, 425/4 is the best guess if we are looking for a precise date.

The sophists, the travelling teachers of the late fifth century, were happy to challenge all conventional wisdom, and the pamphlet should probably be seen as an academic exercise from their circle rather than a manifesto written for would-be revolutionaries. It offers a picture of an Athens where the democracy can be criticised by men of the upper class but is not in serious danger - whereas in 415 religious scandals were thought to be a sign of a plot against the democracy, and in 411 the democracy actually was overthrown (cf. pp. 165–7, 168–75). The claim that the rich suffer from the enemy invasions but the poor do not (ii. 14) is in conflict with Thucydides (II. 65. ii), and is likely to be wrong or at any rate exaggerated, since by no means all of the poor were landless people living in the city.

Of the tragedians (cf. pp. 44–6), Aeschylus died in the middle of the century, but Sophocles was still active and had been joined by Euripides. Sophocles played some part in public life, as a hellenotamias in 443/2, a general in 441/0 and later, and one of the older citizens made probouloi in 413–411 to serve as an emergency committee to put proposals to the assembly (cf. p. 168). His plays belong, inevitably, to the intellectual climate of the time, as in the exploration of the clashes between state and family, and divine law and human law, in Antigone; but there is hardly any passage where we can detect an allusion or response to contemporary events {Oedipus at Colonus 616–23 is the most likely instance). Euripides did not have a public career; his plays seem to reflect the thinking of a younger generation, with a more questioning attitude to the gods and their justice, and a greater prominence given to ordinary people (in his Electra, Electra has been married to an ordinary peasant, who treats his distinguished wife well). His plays can more easily be located in a particular context: plays of the Archidamian War, such as Children of Heracles (430) andSuppliant Women (c.422), show both hostility to Sparta and awareness of the horrors of war, with the latter theme becoming more prominent over time; and the refusal of the Thebans to return the bodies of the Argive dead in Suppliant Women is likely to have been inspired by the refusal of the Boeotians to return the Athenian dead after the battle of Delium in 424/3 (cf. p. 116). A lost play of Euripides, the Cresphontes, contained a passage longing for peace which was quoted in the version of Hermocrates’ speech at the congress of Gela by the historian Timaeus (FGrH 566 F 22 ap.Polyb. XII. 26. v) and was parodied in Aristophanes’ Farmers of 425–421 (fr. Ill Kassel & Austin).Suppliant Women also contains a remarkable passage (399-466) in which a Theban herald attacks and the Athenian king Theseus defends the principle of democracy. Both tragedians give their characters speeches which employ the same kind of argument as speeches inThucydides: he and the men whose speeches he reported or reconstructed were also products of the intellectual climate of the time.

By the 420’s we also have Athenian Old Comedy, which was very much concerned with current personalities, politics, literature and philosophy, but in ways which make historical interpretation difficult and have led to considerable disagreement among scholars. From Aristophanes we know of a play called Babylonians (426), in which ‘he comedied allotted and elected officials and Cleon’, as a result of which he was attacked, and perhaps formally prosecuted, by Cleon (Ar. Ach. 377–82 with schol.). We then have a series of surviving plays. In Acharnians (425) the hero makes a private peace treaty with Sparta, while the war continues to rage around him. In Knights (424) Cleon, Nicias and Demosthenes are slaves of Demos, and Demos is dominated by Cleon; but Cleon the vulgar leather-seller is supplanted by an even more vulgar sausage-seller, who liberates Demos from his thraldom. Clouds (423) represents or misrepresents Socrates as a typical sophist, who is interested in celestial phenomena and teaches the rhetorical skill of winning arguments by making the worse cause appear the better. Wasps (422) focuses on the Athenians’ fondness for litigation, with the young Hate-Cleon trying to cure his father Love-Cleon of his addiction. In Peace (421, produced about the time when the Peace of Nicias was ratified, so written before then) the hero rescues Peace from her long imprisonment.

To see Aristophanes as a pacifist, or as an opponent of democracy or of fashionable cleverness, is too simple-minded; but at the other extreme A. W. Gomme was surely wrong to claim that he aimed only to amuse and ‘there can be no wrong side in a play’. ‘Even comedy knows about justice’ (Ar. Ach. 500). Longing for peace when one is suffering from war is perfectly natural: Aristophanes was certainly not unpatriotic (Dicaeopolis begins the defence of his treaty with ‘I hate the Spartans enormously’: Ach. 509), but it is possible to see him as suggesting that better policies could have prevented the war and could now end the war (Cleon’s rejection of peace is featured in Eq. 794–6, cf. 1331–2, 1387–95, written when Athens was doing well). On the causes of the war he tells two different stories, in Ach. 514–38 and Peace 605–18, each focusing on Megara and the personal involvement of Pericles: the stories are probably invented, but the concentration on Megara and Pericles may well reflect public opinion in Athens, and the starving Megarian of Ach. 729–835 supports the view of the decree against Megara as imposing economic sanctions (cf. pp. 91, 187–8). The empire Aristophanes accepted, as all Athenians seem to have accepted it: his only complaints are that nattering speakers from the cities can fool the Athenian demos and that the income finds its way into the pockets of men like Cleon rather than those of the ordinary citizens (Vesp.655–712: cf. below).

The Athenian demos has a heart of gold, but is capable of being led astray by clever and flattering speakers - a weakness against which Aristophanes claims to protect it (Ach. 633–42) and from which the sausage-seller cures it at the end of Knights (1316-1408). If Cleon had prosecuted him, Aristophanes will have had a particular reason to dislike Cleon; but there is enough consistency between the plays to suggest that Aristophanes generally disliked upstart demagogues like Cleon and was gentler in his treatment of leaders from an upper-class background, and we can see the same kind of man behind his portrayal of Cleon and that byThucydides (cf. pp. 126–7). It should not worry us that in the 420’s Cleon was the most popular politician and Aristophanes was the most popular comedian: good jokes can be enjoyed by the victims’ supporters as well as by their opponents. And surely many Athenians would laugh at Love-Cleon but still turn up to earn their stipend for jury service. It is not always clear how we should take comments on particular events: in Eq. 52–7 Demosthenes complains that Cleon had taken over, and taken the credit for, his own achievement at Pylos - but is that how Demosthenes perceived it? or how others perceived it? or a serious or not so serious suggestion of Aristophanes?

Aristophanes is interesting to the historian also for his background depictions: of festivals, for instance in Ach. 237–79 and 1000–1234; and various passages allow us to put together a picture of proceedings in the assembly, from the arrival of the citizens (Ach.40–4) and the prayer and curse which began the meeting (Thesm. 295–311, 331–51) to the formal closure of the meeting (Ach. 172–3). Clouds shows us how the sophists could be seen by their opponents, whether or not Aristophanes actually was an opponent, and whether or not Socrates in the 420’s actually was that kind of man; from the treatment of Euripides in various plays, and of Aeschylus in Frogs, we can see what features of their plays were thought worthy of caricature.

Athens in the 420’s

Thucydides in his final assessment of Pericles regards him as a sole leader who controlled the people but his successors as men who competed in gratifying the people (see box).

Since he was strong in both repute and intellect and was conspicuously incorruptible, [Pericles] held the masses on a light rein and led them rather than let them lead him. … The result was in theory democracy but in fact rule by the first man. The leaders who followed Pericles were more on a level with one another, and as each strove to become first they tended to abandon affairs to the people to gratify their whims. (Thucydides, II. 65. viii-x)

The Aristotelian Athenian Constitution has an over-schematic list of paired aristocratic and democratic leaders, in which Thucydides son of Melesias and Pericles are followed by Nicias and Cleon. After Pericles’ death (in 429: cf. p. 119) things became much worse (see box).

It was then that the people first took a champion who was not of good repute among the better sort, whereas previously it was always men of the better sort who were popular leaders. … Cleon, it seems, more than anyone else corrupted the people by his wild impulses, and was the first man who, when on the platform, shouted, uttered abuse and made speeches with his clothes hitched up [to make wild gesticulation easier], while everyone else spoke in an orderly manner. {Athenian Constitution, 28. i, iii)

Thucydides’ contrast between the era of Pericles and what followed is at best exaggerated, since Pericles was not an unchallenged leader, and Athens’ mechanisms did not allow any man to enjoy as much power as Thucydides attributes to him (cf. pp. 61–7, 70–2). What was different about the era of Cleon?

After the generation of Pericles, nearly all political leaders were men not from the old aristocracy (the most striking exception in the late fifth century is Alcibiades: cf. p. 128). For Aristophanes Cleon is a leather-seller, the latest in a series of’s ellers’ (NB Eq.125–43), and the truth behind that appears to be that his father owned a successful tanning business, on the proceeds of which he himself was able to enter public life. He was born probably in the 470’s , and may already have challenged Pericles in the 430’s (cf. p. 72). As well as coming from a new kind of background, he adopted a new kind of political style. He is not known to have held any office until he took over Nicias’ generalship in 425 (cf. p. Ill), and he is not known to have performed any liturgies, as rich men commonly did to demonstrate their public-spiritedness and gain supporters (cf. pp. 369–71): his ascendancy was due to his success in making persuasive speeches in the assembly and lawcourts. While Pericles’ manner seems to have been aloof (Plut. Per. 5, 7), Aristophanes represents Cleon as given to making wild promises, and wild accusations against his opponents; this matches Thucydides’ description of him as ‘most violent’ and ‘most persuasive’ (III. 36. vi, IV. 21. iii) and his account of his denunciation of Nicias and his twenty-day promise over Pylos (IV. 27. iii-v, 28. iv), and Ath. Pol.’s account of his manner of speaking. He is the first man in connection with whom we meet the concept of the dema-gogos, ‘people-leader’ (Thuc. IV. 21. iii, cf. Ar. Eq. 191), and probably the term was coined with reference to him and men like him. ForThucydides’ complaint that leaders after Pericles gratified the whims of the people, cf., e.g., Ar. Eq. 868–911 (and, in the fourth century, Demosthenes’ complaints against his opponents, e.g. III. Ol. iii. 22, 30–1). Leading politicians had always had to be able to make speeches; but the rise of the demagogues is paralleled by the rise of sophists claiming to teach the art of argument as the key to success in public life (cf. p. 123). If he prosecuted Aristophanes and was responsible for the exile of Thucydides (cf. pp. 117, 124), they will both have had personal reasons for disliking him.

In the generations of Cimon and Pericles the same men had dominated the assembly and had held office as generals, and the Athenians’ political leaders were thus men who had been elected to office. Now we begin to find a distinction between politicians active in Athens and generals active abroad, and sometimes particular politicians cooperated with particular generals: Demosthenes, with whom Cleon cooperated over Pylos and perhaps on other occasions, is not known to have been active in politics. Politicians who held offices could be called to account in connection with those offices, as Pericles was deposed in 430 (cf. p. 119), but politicians who merely made speeches, proposing courses of action for which the assembly voted, were harder to control. This helps to explain the use of such charges as deceiving the people (often accompanied by a charge of taking bribes, since there was no concept of ‘loyal opposition’ and it was believed that nobody would want to mislead his fellow citizens unless a foreign enemy had paid him to do so), and the blurring of the line between political misjudgment and illegality.

Nicias, about the same age as Cleon and paired with him in Ath. Pol.’s list, came from a similar background: his wealth was derived from the silver mines (Plut. Nic. 4. ii), and it is again likely that his father founded the family fortune. But Nicias, although he was not one of the aristocrats, behaved like them and tried to make himself acceptable to them. He was a religious and indeed a scrupulous man (cf. pp. 145, 147). He frequently performed liturgies (cf. p. 164). He may have been general every year from 427/6 until his death in Sicily in 413: he seems to have been a competent commander, but more anxious to avoid failure than eager to achieve success.

Asking which of the two was closer to Pericles is not very profitable. Cleon had more adventurous ideas on how to fight the war, while Pericles would probably have approved of Nicias’ peace in 421 and his opposition to the Sicilian expedition in 413. Cleon agreed with Pericles on the need for firm control of the empire (Athens’ rule is called a tyranny by Pericles in Thuc. II. 63. ii, by Cleon in III. 37. ii; Pericles is not known to have proposed killing all the men of a rebellious city, but he might have done if he had lived longer), and he sought to dominate the assembly in his way as Pericles had in his.

Xenophon has Theramenes say that Nicias and his son, though the son was a victim of the Thirty in 404, ‘never did anything populist (demotikon)’ (Hell. II. iii. 39); but while Nicias’ brothers were both to be involved in oligarchy at the end of the century, there is no evidence that he himself ever opposed the democracy.

Other politicians whom we encounter in the 420’s include Cleonymus, a proposer of decrees including that to improve the collection of tribute in 426 (cf. p. 99): he is represented by Aristophanes as a glutton and a coward, and justified the latter charge by running away after the battle of Delium in 424/3. Thudippus, proposer of the decree for reassessment of the tribute in 425, probably married Cleon’s daughter. Hyperbolus, who aspired to take Cleon’s place after his death (cf. Ar. Peace 679–87), is represented both byThucydides (VIII. 73. iii) and by Aristophanes (Nub. 549–52) as particularly contemptible, we do not know why: he is described as a lamp-maker, and as early as 424 credited with ambitions extending to Carthage (both in Eq. 1302–15). Alcibiades (born at the end of the 450’s) is not mentioned byThucydides until V. 43. ii, but we are told there that because of a family connection with Sparta (his grandfather had been Spartan proxenos but had renounced the position, probably when Athens turned against Sparta at the end of the 460’s : cf. pp. 41, 47) he had looked after the Spartan prisoners from Sphacteria, and felt insulted when his Spartan connection was not used in the making of peace in 421. He was an aristocrat; Alcibiades was a name taken from Sparta by his family (Thuc. VIII. 6. iii); when his father Cleinias died at Coronea in 447/6 (cf. p. 57), he was brought up by Pericles, to whom he was related through the Alcmaeonids. He was flamboyant, ambitious and selfish; we happen now to have an inscription showing him as proposer of a decree in 422/1 (IG i3 [Add.] 227 bis, published in full SEG 1 45, with IG p. 945 on nos. 91–2).

The plague of the early 420’s (cf. pp. 118–19) was devastating in the number of people who died from it and in its effect on the morale of all the Athenians. There was a growing tendency in the second half of the fifth century for educated men to look for natural rather than supernatural explanations of natural phenomena (exemplified almost always in Thucydides’ writing, but I. 23. iii is exceptional; for Pericles see Plut. Per. 6). Thucydides says that the plague afflicted the pious as badly as the impious (II. 47. iv, 53. iv); but some people were prompted to wonder whether Athens had offended the gods. A sanctuary of Heracles Alexikakos, ‘averter of evil’, was established in the city (schol. Ar. Ran. 501), and in 420/19, when the Peace of Nicias had made Epidaurus accessible, the cult of the healing god Asclepius was brought from there to Athens (cf. below). The ‘purification’ of Delos (cf. p. 115) in winter 426/5, when the plague finally ended, may well have been another response to the plague (claimed not byThucydides but by Diod. Sic. XII. 56. vi-vii).

The building programme on the acropolis had been wound up in 434/3 (cf. p. 90), but it now appears that the war had little effect on building elsewhere in Athens and Attica (cf. p. 70). On the acropolis, the temple of Athena Nike outside the Propylaea was perhaps planned in the 440’s but built or at any rate completed in the 420’s (cf. pp. 68–9); the statue was dedicated in 425 (IG ii2 403). In the agora, the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios (‘of Freedom’) and South Stoa I are dated to the 420’s , the Hephaesteum was completed then, and some smaller sanctuaries were refurbished. The cult of Asclepius was brought from Epidaurus in 420/19 (cf. above) - by a rich citizen, Telemachus, who had a sanctuary built below the south cliff of the acropolis, west of the theatre of Dionysus, and commemorated his foundation in a monument set up c. 400 (IG ii2 4960/1/3, cf. 4325). Among buildings elsewhere in Attica, the temple of Nemesis at Rhamnus is also dated to the 420’s . For the temple of Athena Nike (and after it the Erechtheum: cf. pp. 168, 179–81) the Ionic order was used, and it has been suggested that the change from Doric to Ionic was a political statement - but the other major buildings of the 420’s are still Doric, and there is no evidence earlier than the fourth century for the use of these names for the orders.

One field in which Athens is not unique but participated in a trend to be seen across Greece is that for the first three quarters of the fifth century lavish private burials had been avoided except by a few families, but from c.425 such burials came back into fashion.

In spite of the war, in spite of the plague, Athens was a city which was able to find the money and labour for public buildings, and in which the democracy was not seriously challenged. Leaders like Cleon inserted a frenetic note, which had been absent in the time of Pericles and of which Thucydides and Aristophanes disapproved; until 424 the war brought more successes than failures. Athens was still a confident city.


The Athenian Constitution of the Old Oligarch is included in the Loeb and other editions of Xenophon’s Minor Works; the LACTOR translation has been revised by R. Osborne; there is an edition with translation and commentary by J. L. Marr and P. J. Rhodes. The Loeb editor, G. W. Bowersock, dates the pamphlet to the late 440’s on account of the examples of Athens’ tolerating oligarchies given in iii. 11; among those arguing from ch. ii for a date between 431 and 424 is W. G. Forrest, ‘The Date of the Pseudo-Xenophontic Athenaion Politeia’, Klio lii 1970, 107–16, cf. ‘An Athenian Generation Gap’, YCSxxiv 1975, 37–52 at 43–7; a fourth-century rhetorical work, acquainted with Thucydides, is the suggestion of S. Hornblower, ‘The Old Oligarch (Pseudo-Xenophon’s Athenaion Politeia) and Thucydides: A Fourth-Century Date for the Old Oligarch?’ inPolis and Politics … M. H. Hansen, 363–84.

Murray, Aristophanes, was typical of older studies in its straightforward willingness to see political attitudes and messages in Aristophanes’ plays. For extreme opposition to political interpretation see A. W. Gomme, ‘Aristophanes and Polities’, CR Hi 1938, 97–109 = his More Essays in Greek History and Literature, 70–91; for a return to political interpretation see de Ste. Croix, TTie Origins of the Peloponnesian War, app. 29; for justification of the view that Aristophanes dealt more kindly with upper-class politicians see A. H. Sommerstein, ‘How to Avoid Being a Komodoumenos’, CQ2 xlvi 1996, 327–56. There is a study of Aristophanes in his context by MacDowell, Aristophanes and Athens; carefully nuanced interpretations are offered by Pelling, Literary Texts and the Greek Historian, chs. 7, 8, 10; in favour of a formal prosecution after Babylonians see A. H. Sommerstein, ‘Comedy and the Unspeakable’, in Law, Rhetoric and Comedy in Classical Athens…D. M. MacDowell, ch. 13.

Demagogues were presented positively, as structurally necessary in a democracy in which decisions were taken by mass meetings, by M. I. Finley, ‘Athenian Demagogues’, P&P xxi April 1962, 3–24; reprinted in various collections; revised in his Democracy Ancient and Modern2, ch. 2. The change in Athenian politics in the late fifth century is studied by Connor, The New Politicians of Fifth-Century Athens; P. Frolich, ‘Les Magistrats militaires des cites grecques au IV siecle a.C REA ex 2008, 39–56 and 423–41, warns against exaggerating the withdrawal of generals from politics.

On burial practices in Athens and in Greece generally see I. Morris, ‘Everyman’s Grave’, in Boegehold and Scafuro (eds.), Athenian Identity and Civic Ideology, 67–101.

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