previous next


Κλέων), the son of Cleaenetus, shortly after the death of Pericles, succeeding, it is said (Aristoph. Kn. 130, and Schol.), Eucrates the flaxseller, and Lysicles the sheep-dealer, became the most trusted and popular of the people's favourites, and for about six years of the Peloponnesian war (B. C. 428-422) may be regarded as the head of the party opposed to peace.

He belonged by birth to the middling classes, and was brought up to the trade of a tanner; how long however he followed it may be doubtful; he seems early to have betaken himself to a more lucrative profession in politics. He became known at the very beginning of the war. The latter days of Pericles were annoyed by his impertinence. Hermippus, in a fragment of a comedy probably represented in the winter after the first invasion of Attica, speaks of the home-keeping general as tortured by the sting of the fierce Cleon (δηχθεὶς αἴθωνι Κλέωνι, ap. Plut. Per. 33). And according to Idomeneus (ibid. 35) Cleon's name was attached to the accusation, to which in the miseries of the second year Pericles was obliged to give way. Cleon at this time was, we must suppose, a violent opponent of the policy which declined risking a battle; nay, it is possible he may also have indulged freely in invectives against the war in general.

In 427 the submission of the Mytileneans brings him more prominently before us. He was now established fairly as demagogue. (τψ̂ δήμψ παρὰ πολν̀ ἐν τψ̂ τότε πιθανώτατος, Thuc. 3.36.) The deliberations on the use to be made of the unconditional surrender of these revolted allies ended in the adoption of his motion,--that the adult males should be put to death, the women and children sold for slaves. The morrow, however, brought a cooler mind; and in the assembly held for reconsideration it was, after a long debate, rescinded. The speeches which on this second occasion Thucydides ascribes to Cleon and his opponent give us doubtless no grounds for any opinion on either as a speaker, but at the same time considerable acquaintance with his own view of Cleon's position and character. We see plainly the effort to keep up a reputation as the straightforward energetic counsellor; the attempt by rude bullying to hide from the people his slavery to them; the unscrupulous use of calumny to excite prejudice against all rival advisers. " The people were only showing (what he himself had long seen) their incapacity for governing, by giving way to a sentimental unbusinesslike compassion : as for the orators who excited it, they were, likely enough, paid for their trouble." (Thuc. 3.36-49.)

The following winter unmasked his boldest enemy. At the city Dionysia, B. C. 426, in the presence of the numerous visitors from the subject states, Aristophanes represented his " Babylonians." It attacked the plan of election by lot, and contained no doubt the first sketch of his subsequent portrait of the Athenian democracy. Cleon, it would appear, if not actually named, at any rate felt himself reflected upon; and he rejoined by a legal suit against the author or his representative. The Scholiasts speak of it as directed against his title to the franchise (ξενίας γραφή), but it certainly also assailed him for insulting the government in the presence of its subjects. (Aristoph. Ach. 377, 502.) About the same time, however, before the next winter's Lenaea, Cleon himself, by means of a combination among the nobler and wealthier (the Ἱππεῖς), was brought to trial and condemned to disgorge five talents, which he had extracted on false pretences from some of the islanders. (Aristoph. Ach. 6, comp. Schol., who refers to Theopompus.) Thirlwall, surely by an oversight, places this trial after the representation of the Knights. (Hist. of Greece, iii. p. 300.)

In 425 Cleon reappears in general history, still as before the potent favourite. The occasion is the embassy sent by Sparta with proposals for peace, after the commencement of the blockade of her citizens in the island of Sphacteria. There was considerable elevation at their success prevalent among the Athenians; yet numbers were truly anxious for peace. Cleon, however, well aware that peace would greatly curtail, if not annihilate, his power and his emoluments, contrived to work on his countrymen's presumption, and insisted to the ambassadors on the surrender, first of all, of the blockaded party with their arms, and then the restoration in exchange for them of the losses of B. C. 445, Nisaea, Pegae, Troezen, and Achaia. Such concessions it was beyond Sparta's power to make good; it was even dangerous for her to be known to have so much as admitted a thought of them; and when the ambassadors begged in any case to have commissioners appointed them for private discussion, he availed himself of this to break off the negotiation by loud outcries against what he professed to regard as evidence of double-dealing and oligarchical caballing. (Thuc. 4.21, 22.)

A short time however shewed the unsoundness of his policy. Winter was approaching, the blockade daily growing more difficult, and escape daily easier; and there seemed no prospect of securing the prize. Popular feeling now began to run strongly against him, who had induced the rejection of those safe offers. Cleon, with the true demagogue's tact of catching the feeling of the people, talked of the false reports with which a democracy let people deceive it, and when appointed himself to a board of commissioners for inquiry on the spot, shifted his ground and began to urge the expediency rather of sending a force to decide it at once, adding, that if he had been general, he would have done it before. Nicias, at whom the scoff was directed, took advantage of a rising feeling in that direction among the people, and replied by begging him to be under no restraint, but to take any forces he pleased and make the attempt. What follows is highly characteristic. Cleon, not having a thought that the timid Nicias was really venturing so unprecedented a step, professed his acquiescence, but on finding the matter treated as serious, began to be disconcerted and back out. But it was intolerable to spoil the joke by letting him off, and the people insisted that he should abide by his word. And he at last recovered his self-possession and coolly replied, that if they wished it then, he would go, and would take merely the Lemnians and Imbrians then in the city, and bring them back the Spartans dead or alive within twenty days. And indeed, says Thucydides, wild as the proceeding appeared, soberer minds were ready to pay the price of a considerable failure abroad for the ruin of the demagogue at home.

Fortune, however, brought Cleon to Pylos at the moment when he could appropriate for his needs the merit of an enterprise already devised, and no doubt entirely executed, by Demosthenes. [DEMOSTHENES.] He appears, however, not to have been without shrewdness either in the selection of his troops or his coadjutor, and it is at least some small credit that he did not mar his good luck. In any case he brought back his prisoners within his time, among them 120 Spartans of the highest blood. (Thuc. 4.27-39.) At this, the crowning point of his fortunes, Aristophanes dealt him his severest blow. In the next winter's Lenaea, B. C. 424, appeared " The Knights," in which Cleon figures as an actual dramatis persona, and, in default of an artificer bold enough to make the mask, was represented by the poet himself with his face smeared with winelees. The play is simply one satire on his venality, rapacity, ignorance, violence, and cowardice; and was at least successful so far as to receive the first prize. It treats of hin, however, chiefly as the leader in the Ecclesia; the Wasps, in B. C. 422, similarly displays him as the grand patron of the abuses of the courts of justice. He is said to have originated the increase of the dicast's stipend from one to three obols (See Böckh, Publ. Econ. of Athens, bk. 2.15), and in general he professed to be the unhired advocate of the poor, and their protector and enricher by his judicial attacks on the rich.

The same year (422) saw, however, the close of his career. Late in the summer, he went out, after the expiration of the year's truce, to act against Brasidas in Chalcidice. He seems to have persuaded both himself and the people of his consummate ability as a general, and he took with him a magnificent army of the lest troops. He effected with ease the capture of Torone, and then moved towards Amphipolis, which Brasidas also hastened to protect. Utterly ignorant of the art of war, he advanced with no fixed purpose, but rather to look about him, up to the walls of the city; and on finding the enemy preparing to sally, directed so unskilfully a precipitate retreat, that the soldiers of one wing presented their unprotected right side to the attack. The issue of the combat is related under BRASIDAS. Cleon himself fell, in an early flight, by the hand of a Myrcinian targeteer. (Thuc. 5.2, 3, 6-10.)

Cleon may be regarded as the representative of the worst faults of the Athenian democracy, such as it came from the hands of Pericles. While Pericles lived, his intellectual and moral power was a sufficient check, nor had the assembly as yet become conscious of its own sovereignty. In later times the evil found itself certain alleviations; the coarse and illiterate demagogues were succeeded by the line of orators, and the throne of Pericles was at last worthily filled by Demosthenes. How far we must call Cleon the creature and how far the cause of the vices and evils of his time of course is hard to say; no doubt he was partly both. He is said (Plut. Nicias, 8) to have first broken through the gravity and seemliness of the Athenian assembly by a loud and violent tone and coarse gesticulation, tearing open his dress, slapping his thigh, and running about while speaking. It is to this probably, and not to any want of pure Athenian blood, that the title Paphlagonian (Παφλαγών, from παφλάζω), given him in the Knights, refers. His power and familiarity with the assembly are shewn in a story (Plut. Nicias, 7), that on one occasion the people waited for him, perhaps to propose some motion, for a long time, and that he at last appeared with a garland on, and begged that they would put off the meeting till the morrow, " for," said he, " today I have no time: I am entertaining some guests, and have just sacrificed,"--a request which the assembly took as a good joke, and were good-humoured enough to accede to.

Compare ARISTOPHANES. The passages in the other plays, besides the Knights and Wasps, and those quoted from the Acharnians, are, Nubes, 549, 580; Ranae, 569-577.


hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
422 BC (2)
445 BC (1)
428 BC (1)
426 BC (1)
424 BC (1)
hide References (15 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (15):
    • Aristophanes, Knights, 130
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.10
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.2
    • Thucydides, Histories, 3.36
    • Thucydides, Histories, 4.21
    • Thucydides, Histories, 4.22
    • Thucydides, Histories, 4.27
    • Thucydides, Histories, 4.39
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.3
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.6
    • Aristophanes, Acharnians, 377
    • Aristophanes, Acharnians, 502
    • Aristophanes, Acharnians, 6
    • Thucydides, Histories, 3.49
    • Plutarch, Pericles, 33
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: