Aristophanes’ Knights and Fifth-Century Political Rhetoric

  Apostolakis, Costas. 2023. “Aristophanes’ Knights and Fifth-Century Political Rhetoric.” In “Γέρα: Studies in honor of Professor Menelaos Christopoulos,” ed. Athina Papachrysostomou, Andreas P. Antonopoulos, Alexandros-Fotios Mitsis, Fay Papadimitriou, and Panagiota Taktikou, special issue, Classics@ 25.


In contrast to the fourth century BCE, a period from which pieces of contemporary political rhetoric survive in Isocrates’ pamphlets and Demosthenes’ and Aeschines’ speeches, the shortage of original oratorical sources makes the full reconstruction of late fifth-century political rhetoric difficult. Given, in particular, that Athenian policy was mainly decided and officially expressed in the debates which took place in the Assembly, the speeches delivered by Pericles, Cleon, Nicias, and Alcibiades in the second half of the fifth century are of crucial importance. It is, therefore, a pity that we do not have these original speeches at our disposal. [1]
Thucydides does indeed include in his work speeches delivered by those politicians, but, as he himself confesses, since it was hard to reproduce the exact words used by the speakers, he attempted to keep as closely as possible to the overall intent of what was actually said (1.22.1). As a result, the authoritative Athenian ideology is expressed in his work in a rather abstract wording, and particular aspects of contemporary political rhetoric may have been omitted. [2] On the other hand, political and, more importantly, personal satire tends to focus on specific persons and incidents.
Aristophanic political satire, in particular, transfers the current political debates onto the comic stage, and represents them through exaggeration, parody, wordplay and even distortion of the original discussions. It is a common assumption that, in order to appreciate comic inventiveness, the spectators should recognize arguments, slogans and even rhetorical peculiarities from current political controversies. The appearance, therefore, of such elements in Aristophanes’ comedy makes it plausible that they were also used by Athenian politicians in the Assembly at this time. Moreover, if these arguments, techniques, and topoi also occur in fourth-century oratory, they might have had precedents in fifth-century oratory.
The focus of my interest is Aristophanes’ Knights (produced in 424 BCE) and the satire of Athenian domestic and imperialist policy. In this comedy, Aristophanes satirizes the Athenian deme and its demagogues. He very inventively transforms the weak aspects of the Athenian democracy into an Athenian house, whose master Demos is not represented by the chorus, but instead participates in person in the action as a difficult old master of the house, susceptible to the flattery of his slaves. The arch-slave Paphlagon is a character representing the demagogue Cleon, whose demagogic and imperialistic rhetoric is echoed onstage throughout the plot. In the present study, this comedy is considered along with other political comedies of the time, Thucydides’ Histories and fourth-century deliberative rhetoric, in order to reveal—and, if possible, to reconstruct—various aspects of fifth-century political rhetoric.

1. The rhetoric of demagoguery and invective

At the very beginning of his speech before the Assembly, Demos’ slave Paphlagon delivers a prayer to Athena, which includes a wish to continue to dine in the Prytaneion, if he has been the best man in service to the Athenian demos, after the notorious courtesans Cynna and Salabaccho (Knights 764–768). Surprisingly enough, an almost identical pattern of this comically distorted prayer appears one century later at the beginning of the speech On the Crown [3] delivered by Demosthenes in 330 BCE, and it seems that such prayers were sometimes used in political speeches in both the fifth and the fourth century, [4] in order to affect the audience’s religious sentiments. [5]
In another scene in the Knights (1014–1034), Paphlagon and the Sausage-Seller contest before Demos about which one possesses better oracles concerning every aspect of Athenian politics. Paphlagon first reads the supposed oracles of Bakis, where Demos is exhorted to keep safe “the holy saw-toothed watchdog,” who barks terribly on his behalf and provides him with pay (1017–1019). The Sausage-Seller, in turn, reads the oracles of Glanis (an invented prophet), where the opposite is suggested: that Demos should beware of the dog Cerberus, the kidnapper, who invades the kitchen and eats up the food when his master happens to look away (1030–1034). Given that Cleon is also called a dog (κύων) both in Wasps (in the Trial of the Dogs) and in Peace (313), [6] it is highly probable that the historical Cleon used to describe himself as a “dog of the people” (κύων τοῦ δήμου), and, accordingly, his opponents mocked him as such. [7] It is also possible that Cleon’s loud voice and fierce rhetoric were considered similar to a dog’s. If this suggestion is true, then the controversy between Paphlagon and the Sausage-Seller echoes the debates of the Assembly of the time. It is telling that in the fourth-century speech Against Aristogeiton, the speaker reverses Aristogeiton’s claim to be a dog of the people, and argues that he is actually incapable of biting those whom he accuses of being wolves, but capable of gobbling down the sheep he claims to protect (Demosthenes 25.40). [8] The slogan, therefore, “dog of the people” seems to be used in the fourth century, and it is quite possible that it originates from the oratorical podium and the comic stage of the fifth.
Moreover, demagogues are often associated with Athenian imperialist policy, which included both the preservation of the empire and its extension through further conquests. [9] The Athenians maintained control over the domestic and foreign policies of their allies and coerced them to finance the fleet of their empire. Apart from Thucydides, we may also trace aspects of Athenian imperialist rhetoric in Aristophanes. In his Knights, he makes Paphlagon/Cleon admit to the Sausage-Seller’s accusation that he tore in pieces the peace proposal brought by Archeptolemos and drove the Spartan embassies from the city. Such a violent dismissal of an offer of peace during the Peloponnesian War is attested in a speech from fourth-century oratory, which might offer the opportunity for a more immediate glimpse of fifth-century political rhetoric. More specifically, it is Aeschines, the pro-Macedonian orator, who describes his anti-Macedonian opponent, Demosthenes, in terms of bellicose rhetoric, extravagant delivery, and selfish motives and compares him with Cleophon, the fifth-century demagogue:

Κλεοφῶν δὲ ὁ λυροποιός, ὃν πολλοὶ δεδεμένον ἐν πέδαις ἐμνημόνευον, παρεγγραφεὶς αἰσχρῶς πολίτης καὶ διεφθαρκὼς νομῇ χρημάτων τὸν δῆμον, ἀποκόψειν ἠπείλει μαχαίρᾳ τὸν τράχηλον, εἴ τις εἰρήνης μνησθήσεται.
And Cleophon the lyre-maker, a man many remembered seeing in chains, who had got himself falsely enrolled as a citizen to our shame and corrupted the people with distributions of money, was threatening to take a dagger and cut the throat of anyone who mentioned peace. [10]
Aeschines 2.76

In this passage it is possible to trace segments of the original fifth-century warlike rhetoric, mixed with the typical invective, concerning the assertion that Cleophon was once in chains, apparently an exaggeration of the common slander in comedy about the foreign origin of certain demagogues. [11] Besides, the historical Cleon’s imperialist rhetoric might be echoed in 74–79, where Paphlagon is said to keep an eye on everything (ἐφορᾷ γὰρ οὗτος πάντ’), and have one foot in Pylos and the other in the Assembly. [12] Moreover, he plans to enable the Athenian demos to rule over all Greeks (Knights 797 ἵνα γ’ Ἑλλήνων ἄρξῃ πάντων), and even dreams of a day when the Demos shall draw five obols to hear cases in Arcadia (Knights 798 ὡς τοῦτον δεῖ ποτ’ ἐν Ἀρκαδίᾳ πεντωβόλου ἠλιάσασθαι). It is indeed difficult to know whether this position was really taken by the historical Cleon, or is a comic exaggeration. [13] But it may be indicative that in Thucydides’ report of the Mytilenean debate Cleon claims that the Athenian empire is a tyranny, exercised over unwilling and scheming subjects (3.37.2 τυραννίδα ἔχετε τὴν ἀρχὴν καὶ πρὸς ἐπιβουλεύοντας αὐτοὺς καὶ ἄκοντας ἀρχομένους). Such imperialist rhetoric is also attested in the debate for the Sicilian Expedition, where Alcibiades argues that “if the people there come over to our side, we shall have a good chance of mastering the whole of Greece” (Thucydides 6.18.4 καὶ ἅμα ἢ τῆς Ἑλλάδος, τῶν ἐκεῖ προσγενομένων, πάσης τῷ εἰκότι ἄρξωμεν …). [14] And, more importantly, the equally straightforward κρατεῖν is attested in the inscriptions of that period. [15]

However, although Cleon and the demagogues delivered warlike speeches and dismissed any proposal for peace, in Aristophanes’ Knights an inversion of the expected reaction occurs, when Paphlagon begs the Athenians to wait until the Spartan herald arrives and offer a peace treaty, but the people in the Assembly refuse: οὐ δεόμεθα σπονδῶν· ὁ πόλεμος ἑρπέτω (Knights 673). Here the selfish motives of the Athenian demagogues are stressed, along with the current catchphrase “let the war drag on,” probably a wartime slogan, which might have been heard in the political debates of the time in the Assembly. [16]
Moreover, it seems that a change in the deliberative rhetoric of the fifth century was associated with the appearance of Cleon and his aggressive and abusive rhetoric. In Thucydides he is described as the most violent but also the most persuasive politician of his time (3.36.6 ἐς τὰ ἄλλα βιαιότατος τῶν πολιτῶν τῷ τε δήμῳ παρὰ πολὺ ἐν τῷ τότε πιθανώτατος). It is worth noting that in Aristophanes’ Knights this combination of violence and persuasion is typical of Paphlagon throughout the play, the most representative passage being 626–629:

ὁ δ’ ἄρ’ ἔνδον ἐλασίβροντ’ ἀναρρηγνὺς ἔπη
τερατευόμενος ἤρειδε κατὰ τῶν ἱππέων,
κρημνοὺς ἐρείπων καὶ ξυνωμότας λέγων
And there he was in the Council chamber, breaking out thunderous phrases and assaulting the Knights with his bombast, launching mountainous tirades and calling them conspirators, most persuasively. [17]

Besides, there is much personal comic invective in the epirrhematic agon in the Knights. The chorus’ comment (384–385) that the speeches between Paphlagon and the Sausage-Seller were the most brazen ever heard in the city (λόγων ἐν πόλει τῶν ἀναιδῶν ἀναιδέστεροι) clearly suggests that invective was an established practice in the Assembly, and in fact the comic invective is compared by the chorus to the rhetorical invective of the time. In Aristophanic comedy Cleon is described as a κεκραξιδάμας “he who conquers all in bawling” and is made to threaten his opponents. [18] As has often been remarked, Aristophanes’ Paphlagon is a very recognizable caricature of the Cleon whom we find in Thucydides. Αnd though the comedian exaggerates when describing Cleon’s rhetorical tactics, it is plausible that there is a core of truth in it, otherwise the parody would not work. [19]

Cleon was actually believed to have launched a new style of aggressive performance, and “was the first person to use bawling and abuse on the platform, and to gird up his cloak before making a public speech, all other persons speaking in orderly fashion.” [20] Cleon’s abusive rhetoric may well have been launched quite early, even during Pericles’ lifetime. In a comedy by Hermippus, probably with the title Fates (430 BCE), the speaking character mocks Pericles as a King of satyrs who only offers bold speeches about war, but is unwilling to take a spear in his hand (fr. 47 K-A). It is plausible that Hermippus was inspired by actual attacks against Pericles’ restrained policy in the first years of the War; the last line of the fragment implies that the attacks were made by Cleon (δηχθεὶς αἴθωνι Κλέωνι, “bitten by the flashing fire of Cleon”). Indeed Plutarch (Pericles 33.7) openly refers to Cleon harassing Pericles and taking advantage of the wrath with which the citizens regarded him to make his own way toward the leadership of the people. Therefore, it would seem that invectives and personal attacks against his opponents were part of Cleon’s rhetoric both in court and in the Assembly.

2. The rhetoric of conspiracy and sycophancy

Α crucial issue in the political debates in the fifth-century Athenian Assembly was the attempts of the allies to revolt and defect from Athens. In Thucydides this subject dominates the political agenda in the 420s, the most prominent case being the revolt of the Mytileneans in 427 BCE. As was only to be expected, the demagogue Cleon, one of the fiercest representatives of imperialistic rhetoric, proposed the cruellest punishment of the rebels. However, in the relevant debate between him and Diodotus (Thucydides 3.36–48), the preserved speeches of the two opponents mainly focus ad rem, and we miss the personal hints of their rhetoric. Therefore, it might be interesting to trace some of them in other sources. There is indeed an allusion to the Mytilenean Debate in the Knights, where the Sausage-Seller argues that he will prove Paphlagon to have taken a bribe from Mytilene of over forty minas worth (834–835 δωροδοκήσαντ’ ἐκ Μυτιλήνης πλεῖν ἢ μνᾶς τετταράκοντα). A similar accusation was actually made by Cleon against Diodotus in the Mytilenean Debate. [21] In this case we might suppose that rhetorical slanders in the Assembly sometimes boomerang, at least for the comic characters onstage.
Besides, discussions, negotiations, and commitments between Athenian officials and the allies were often exploited by the orators of the time to calumniate their rivals as conspirators. In the Knights Paphlagon attacks the two slaves of Demos and the Sausage-Seller for inciting the Chalcidians to revolt, because they are holding a Chalcidian cup (235–238):

οὔτοι μὰ τοὺς δώδεκα θεοὺς χαιρήσετον,
ὁτιὴ ᾿πὶ τῷ δήμῳ ξυνόμνυτον πάλαι.
τουτὶ τί δρᾷ τὸ Χαλκιδικὸν ποτήριον;
οὐκ ἔσθ᾿ ὅπως οὐ Χαλκιδέας ἀφίστατον.

By the Twelve Gods, you two won’t get away
with your unending plots against the people!
What’s that Chalcidian cup doing here?
It can only mean you’re inciting the Chalcidians to revolt!

This passage is one of our earliest pieces of evidence for the rhetoric of political conspiracy in fifth-century Athens. Here Aristophanes ascribes to Paphlagon the verbs ξυνόμνυμι “conspire” and ἀφίστημι “defect,” interpreting secret discussions with enemies as bribe-taking and anti-democratic activities. This vocabulary clearly recalls the subversive activities of the oligarchic clubs (ἑταιρεῖαι) of the time. [22] Besides, this was a period when the Athenians were greatly concerned about Euboea, an area which was crucial for corn supplies. The establishment of the Spartan colony of Heraclea-in-Trachis in 426 BCE (cf. Thucydides 3.92–93) encouraged a possible invasion of the island. [23] It is interesting that a marble stele from the Acropolis mentions Athenian relations with Chalcis, with reference to defection (Meiggs-Lewis 52.21–25):

οὐκ ἀποσ̣[τήσομαι ἀπὸ τῷ δήμ]-
[ῳ τ]ῷ Ἀθηναίων οὔτε τέ[χνῃ οὔτε μηχανῇ οὐδ]-
[ε]μ̣ιᾷ οὐδ’ ἔπει οὐδὲ [ἔργῳ οὐδὲ τῷ ἀφισταμ]-
[έν]ῳ πείσομαι, καὶ ἐὰ̣[ν ἀφιστῇ τις κατερῶ]
[Ἀθ]η̣[να]ίοις [24]

I will not defect from the Athenian demos
neither by means of a ploy nor of a scheme,
neither in act nor in word; besides,
I will never be persuaded by anyone defecting,
and, if somebody defects, I will denounce him to the Athenians.

In fact, Aristophanes Knights 236–238 has been interpreted as an indication that in early 424 BCE the Chalcidians were preparing to revolt, and an Athenian intervention followed in 424/3, resulting in the decree cited above. This view, suggested in the 19th century, seems to find some support in Philochorus (FGH 328F 130), and is defended by Mattingly, [25] who, however, does not mention the Aristophanic passage. On the other hand, Lambert rejects this explanation, on the grounds that Thucydides does not mention such a revolt, and argues that the situation suggested in the decrees better fits the facts mentioned by Thucydides in 446. [26] I think that, although determining the precise date of the inscription is a difficult task, the mention of the Chalcidians conspiring to revolt in Aristophanes’ Knights would be almost meaningless if it referred to facts that had taken place some twenty years earlier. Moreover, it is worth noting that the historical Cleon is reported by Thucydides as describing the Athenian empire as a tyranny, and the allies, the Mytileneans in particular, as conspirators (3.37.2; cf. 3.39.1–2). It seems, therefore, quite possible that Paphlagon’s reference to Chalcis in this passage echoes the current rhetoric of conspiracy and defection of allies on the podium of the Athenian Assembly.

Furthermore, the rhetoric of conspiracy is often associated with sycophancy. Paphlagon is again described in the Knights as the sycophant par excellence. He attacks his opponents on the grounds that they are conspiring both with the Persians and with Greek enemies, such as the Boeotians (475–479):

ΠΑ. Ἐγὼ μὲν οὖν αὐτίκα μάλ’ εἰς βουλὴν ἰὼν
ὑμῶν ἁπάντων τὰς ξυνωμοσίας ἐρῶ,
καὶ τὰς ξυνόδους τὰς νυκτερινὰς ἐν τῇ πόλει,
καὶ πάνθ’ ἃ Μήδοις καὶ βασιλεῖ ξυνόμνυτε,
καὶ τἀκ Βοιωτῶν ταῦτα συντυρούμενα.

I’m off to the Council this very minute
to inform on all of you for your conspiracies,
your nocturnal meetings within the city,
all your plots with the Medes and their King,
and that cheesy business with the Boeotians.

The comic poet aptly employs the metaphor for the Boeotians, who produced a famous type of cheese. Indeed, we learn from Thucydides (4.76.1–3) that in 424 BCE Demosthenes the general, along with Hippocrates, was in communication with some men in the Boeotian cities, in order to change the existing regime and turn it to democracy. The instigator was an exile from Thespiae called Ptoiodorus. Such connections may have been interpreted by Demosthenes’ opponents as conspiracy and treasonable behaviour. [27] Strangely enough, another Ptoiodorus is associated with a conspiracy in the second half of the fourth century. More specifically, in Demosthenes’ speech On the False Embassy (343 BCE) the notorious Megarian traitor Ptoiodorus, in collaboration with Perilas, is said to be concocting a plot against his city, in order to facilitate Philip’s intervention (Demosthenes 19.295). Demosthenes also describes Ptoiodorus’ conspiratorial activity with the striking metaphor ἐτύρευε “was making cheese.” The cheese metaphor is therefore used in two distant episodes of conspiracy, both involving a Ptoiodorus. Should we suppose that the Megarian Ptoiodorus, bearing a typical Boeotian name (derived from Apollo Ptoios), was considered by Demosthenes the orator an apt person to be associated with cheesemaking, as Aristophanes described in the Knights the negotiations of the Athenians with the Boeotians as “cheesy business”? In any case, this metaphor might well have invaded political rhetoric from everyday language at some point, and we should not exclude the possibility that this had already happened in Aristophanes’ time.

Sycophantic accusations of thievery and bribery are quite common in the Knights. In 435–440 Paphlagon accuses the Sausage-Seller of getting away with a lot of talents he has filched from the Athenians. In his turn the Sausage-Seller hits back at Paphlagon, saying that he knows all about the ten talents he has got from Poteidea. This is also a typical accusation in fourth-century oratory, [28] where Demosthenes is accused of having accepted twenty talents in the Harpalus Affair. It is intriguing that such accusations also appear in the political satire of the time. [29] We might suppose that, as fourth-century comic theatre reproduces these slanders on stage, so the exchanges between Paphlagon and the Sausage-Seller echo similar exchanges on the fifth-century oratorical podium.
It seems that prosecuting political opponents was already a common practice in the fifth century. Procedures such as endeixis and phasis, in particular, are often likely to be used in the frame of a political controversy. In Knights 278–279 Paphlagon denounces (ἐνδείκνυμι) the Sausage-Seller and accuses him of smuggling plank steaks for Spartan triremes. Phasis, a procedure often associated with sycophancy, is also ascribed to Paphlagon: 300–302 καὶ φανῶ σε τοῖς πρυτάνεσιν ἀδεκατεύτους τῶν θεῶν ἱερὰς ἔχοντα κοιλίας (“and I will expose you to the police for possession of sacred tripe belonging to the gods”). The association of phasis with sycophantic activity also occurs in fourth-century oratory (cf. [Demosthenes] 58.13).
Moreover, sycophantic activity in Athens was often associated, both explicitly and implicitly, with the defection of the allies. More specifically, it is clearly stated in fourth-century speeches that under the “previous democracy” (i.e. before 404 BCE), there were people who provoked the allies into revolt by being sycophants (e.g. Lysias 25.19). Isocrates in his Antidosis (15.318) also describes retrospectively the disastrous activity of the sycophants in fifth-century Athens. Among other evils, they abused the Athenian allies and brought false accusations against them, depriving the best citizens of their wealth and consequently inciting them to revolt from Athens and seek an alliance with Sparta. It appears that such debates were often the focus of the Assembly and the courts, and when the chorus in Knights (838–840) addresses the Sausage-Seller and praises him, he stresses that he will rule over the allies, holding a trident for shaking and quaking them (σείων τε καὶ ταράττων) and making lots of money. The verb σείειν is used of the activities of sycophants and/or blackmailers. Besides, in the speech On the Choreutes, most probably delivered in 419 BCE, [30] the speaker accuses his opponent of being a sycophant and uses the same verb (Antiphon 6.43): Φιλοκράτης γὰρ οὑτοσὶ ἑτέρους τῶν ὑπευθύνων ἔσειε καὶ ἐσυκοφάντει (“Philocrates brought charges against other officials during their accounting and shook down them”). It is, therefore, interesting that around the same period the same wording is used to describe sycophantic practices both on the platform of the courts and on the comic stage. Sycophants are also accused of maltreating the allies and causing defections in the fourth century BCE. In the speech Against Theocrines, delivered around 340, a period when the Athenian allies were divided between Philip and Athens, the speaker attacks Theocrines, whom he describes throughout as a sycophant, and argues that the men of Aenus found it preferable to revolt (ἀποστάντας) from Athens because they were suffering at the hands of Theocrines and his equals, who were drawing up indictments and displayed sycophantic behavior (συκοφαντούμενοι) ([Demosthenes] 58. 37–38). [31] Therefore, the rhetoric of conspiracy and sycophancy, which is ascribed by Aristophanes to both Paphlagon and the Sausage-Seller, finds some support both in Thucydides’ accounts and in fourth-century rhetoric, and it does not seem improbable to have appeared in the debates of the 420s and 410s of the Peloponnesian War.

3. Figurative rhetoric: Polis tyrannos and political erotics

The rhetoric of Athenian imperialism, at least concerning speeches preserved in Thucydides’ historical work, includes metaphors and figurative language. And, whereas Thucydides’ speeches may or may not reproduce the exact wording of the speakers, comparison with contemporary comedy seems to support the assumption that such figurative rhetoric was in fashion in late fifth-century debates in the Athenian Assembly. Aristophanes, in particular, in the Babylonians, produced in 426 BCE, criticizes the self-interested administration of the Athenian empire by Cleon and other officials, and in the Knights makes the chorus describe Demos as a tyrant, a monarch, and a king of all the Greeks, whom all mankind fears (Knights 1113–1114: Ὦ Δῆμε, καλήν γ’ ἔχεις / ἀρχήν, ὅτε πάντες ἄν- / θρωποι δεδίασί σ’ ὥσ- / περ ἄνδρα τύραννον). [32]
It is especially interesting that, although tyranny was perceived as a permanent threat to Athenian domestic politics throughout the fifth century, at the same time the image of Athens as a tyrant city seems to have been prevalent among the Greeks. The verbal dichotomy of tyranny/slavery, prevalent in political rhetoric, underlines the unpopularity of imperial Athens, especially during the Peloponnesian War. The Athenian empire is described by its opponents as tyrannical, on the grounds that this city exercises power over other cities in a way which is comparable to the tyrants’ mode, i.e. by imposing taxes and contributions, by interfering in domestic matters and by suppressing any diverging view. At the meeting of the Peloponnesian League which preceded the outbreak of the War, the Corinthians invite the Peloponnesians to realize that Athens is a tyrant city which has been established in Greece, and exhort the Lacedaemonians and the other members of the league to liberate the enslaved Greeks (Thucydides 1.124.3 … πόλιν τύραννον ἡγησάμενοι).
The description of Athens as a “tyrant city” is a personification which actually assimilates the state with the individual. [33] It has been noted that the Corinthians try to exploit the traditional (at least in the Archaic era) Spartan hostility to tyrants. [34] Surprisingly enough, this rhetoric is sometimes reproduced by the Athenians themselves. In Thucydides both Pericles and Cleon appear fully conscious of the tyrannical nature of their city’s rule. Pericles warns his fellow citizens that the empire they possess resembles a tyranny, and though it is perhaps wrong to acquire it, it is also dangerous to let it go. [35] In Pericles’ view, the Athenians themselves are victims of their own imperial tyranny. Similarly, Cleon in the Mytilenean Debate blames the Athenians for failing to reflect that their empire is a tyranny exercised over unwilling subjects, who are planning to conspire against their ruler. [36] Both Pericles and Cleon seem to agree that the Athenians are forced either to behave in a tyrannical way or to be subjugated to others. [37] Like a tyrant, they have to confront the enmity of their subjects. It is worth noting, however, that Pericles’ rhetoric seems to be less cynical than Cleon’s, since Pericles says that the Athenian empire is like a tyranny, whereas Cleon stresses that it is a tyranny.
It is also striking that in the fourth century it is Philip who is presented as the imperialist tyrant who threatens the Greeks, and the Athenians in particular (Demosthenes 18.66–69). However, we should not exclude the existence of another stream of rhetoric, probably more official, which dismissed such a tyrannical image of Athens. This mainly appears in epideictic rhetoric. Pericles, in his famous display speech, the Funeral Oration, asserts that the Athenians give the subjects of their empire no cause to complain of undeserving rulers (2.41.3 οὔτε τῷ ὑπηκόῳ κατάμεμψιν ὡς οὐχ ὑπ’ ἀξίων ἄρχεται). This rhetoric continues throughout the fourth century. [38]
On the other hand, it seems that a type of erotic vocabulary had invaded the political discourse of the late fifth century, and the rhetoric of imperialism in particular. [39] In his Funeral Oration, Pericles uses a strong metaphor and exhorts the Athenians to look day after day on the manifest power of their city and become its lovers: 2.43.1 ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον τὴν τῆς πόλεως δύναμιν καθ’ ἡμέραν ἔργῳ θεωμένους καὶ ἐραστὰς γιγνομένους αὐτῆς. In Aristophanes’ Knights, however, this erotic vocabulary is even more vivid in the context of personification, when Paphlagon addresses Demos as follows: 732 Ὁτιὴ φιλῶ σ’, ὦ Δῆμ’, ἐραστής τ’ εἰμὶ σός (“I love you, Demos, and I’m your erastes”). Moreover, in 1340–1344 the Sausage-Seller criticizes Demos for being gullible whenever somebody says in the Assembly “Demos I’m your lover and I cherish you, and I alone care for you and think of you.” In fact, such metaphors were compatible both with Pericles’ inclination towards metaphorical language and catchwords, and with Cleon’s flamboyant rhetoric. [40] Such metaphorical expressions are likely to have been picked up by Aristophanes, and it has actually been suggested that Paphlagon’s words may allude to something similar said by the historical Cleon at some point in the Assembly. [41]
Moreover, unlike the Funeral Oration, where Pericles is exhorting the Athenians to view themselves as erastai of their city, which is implicitly described as a beloved wife or a courtesan, in the Knights Paphlagon’s declaration of love (eros) towards Demos has a homosexual tone and is actually a perversion of pederastic love, the old Demos being in the place of the young and attractive eromenos. This pederastic vocabulary in the Knights is all the more worth noting, given that pederastic love in the fifth century was mainly pursued by the Athenian upper class, as an aristocratic privilege. It is even more ironic that Cleon, who elsewhere appears to condemn pederastic affairs (Knights 875–878), is here made through Paphlagon to express his love for the demos. Aristophanes seems to take an expression from the oratorical rostrum and exploit it aptly on the comic stage. [42]
The same erotic connotation may be traced in Knights 779, where there is a strange combination of political vocabulary and emotional language: ὡς δ᾿ οὐχὶ φιλεῖ σ᾿ οὐδ᾿ ἔστ᾿ εὔνους, τοῦτ᾿ αὐτό σε πρῶτα διδάξω (“the first thing I’ll prove to you is that he isn’t your friend or your partisan”). The word φιλόδημος (which first appears in Greek literature in Knights 787; cf. Clouds 1187) and its opposite μισόδημος are also apparently used in the debates of the time. [43]
In any case, it would be far-fetched to assume that Thucydides or Aristophanes invented this rhetoric of tyranny and eros themselves and independently of each other. It is more likely that they are reproducing an already established metaphorical vocabulary, containing poetic influences, which was used in contemporary political debates. [44] Besides, concerning the use of terms denoting relationships, especially friendship, a transfer from the private to the public sphere is obvious. In such a context, erotic vocabulary seems to invade the area of political discourse. [45] It is also worth noting that, unlike the “tyranny rhetoric” which survives in the fourth century, erotic vocabulary does not occur in the oratory of this period. It has obviously fallen out of fashion. [46]

4. Speakers and audience

Criticism of the Athenian demos is typical of both Aristophanic comedy and Thucydides, and it is also common in fourth-century deliberative rhetoric, in Demosthenes in particular. It is not uncommon for those making public speeches to criticize the people for being naive and easily deceived. In Knights 1115–1120 the chorus addresses the Demos with these words:

ἀλλ’ εὐπαράγωγος εἶ,
θωπευόμενός τε χαί-
ρεις κἀξαπατώμενος,
πρὸς τόν τε λέγοντ’ ἀεὶ
κέχηνας· ὁ νοῦς δέ σου
παρὼν ἀποδημεῖ

But you’re easily led astray:
you enjoy being flattered
and thoroughly deceived,
and every speechmaker has you gaping.
You’ve got a mind, but it’s out to lunch.

The naivety of the Athenian demos is strikingly expressed in Knights 1262 by the phrase Κεχηναίων πόλις “the city of Open-Mouthenians,” [47] in a passage which ironically alludes both to flattery and to the Athenians as simple-minded. [48]

That the Athenian people often become victims of deceitful orators is an assumption that also occurs in fourth-century oratory and comedy. In Antiphanes fr.194 K-A the speaking character argues that the orators in the Assembly pretend to abuse each other, while the people sit nearby, hearing and seeing nothing. The same complaint, in an adapted form, occurs in forensic situations of the time. [49] The Athenians’ simplicity (euetheia) is also frequently mentioned in Demosthenes’ deliberative speeches. [50]
In the Knights the naivety of the Athenian public is mostly associated with deception through flattery and with volatility. In 870–910 Paphlagon and the Sausage-Seller compete in flattering Demos. The Sausage-Seller offers him a pair of shoes to wear, a tunic, ointment and a bunny tail, while Paphlagon in his turn, among other promises, offers his jacket. This scene contains many references to flattering the people in the Assembly, and it is interesting that it was a common practice for fourth-century orators to criticize their opponents for flattering the demos. In the Third Olynthiac Demosthenes argues that the affairs of the city have been pledged in exchange for immediate gratification, since politicians always ask the people: “What do you want? What shall I propose? What favour can I do you?” [51]
The volatility of the Athenians concerning political decisions is depicted in the Knights, especially in the contest between Paphlagon and the Sausage-Seller before the Council, narrated by Paphlagon in 624–682. In this scene the members of the Council are pushed around successively by the contestants’ demagogic rhetoric. It is significant that this section includes expressions denoting the influence of such rhetoric on the spectators: the Council was quickly won over by Paphlagon’s lies (τοῖς φενακισμοῖσιν ἐξαπατωμένην, 632–633); after a while, the Sausage-Seller announced good news about the price of sprats, and right away the Councillors’ expressions turned sunny (ἡ δ’ εὐθέως τὰ πρόσωπα διεγαλήνισεν, 646), and they applauded loudly and gaped at him in admiration (οἱ δ’ ἀνεκρότησαν καὶ πρὸς ἔμ’ ἐκεχήνεσαν, 651); but then, again, the Council switched its allegiance to Paphlagon (ἐπένευσεν εἰς ἐκεῖνον ἡ βουλὴ πάλιν, 657) when he promised to sacrifice one hundred cows to the Goddess; and once again, the Council swung back to the Sausage-Seller (ἐκαραδόκησεν εἰς ἔμ’ ἡ βουλὴ πάλιν, v. 663), when he recommended that they vow a thousand goats to Artemis Agrotera.
The volatility of the Athenians in their foreign policy already occurs in the Acharnians (630–633): “But since he has been accused by his enemies before Athenians quick to make up their minds (ταχυβούλοις), as one who makes comedy of our city and outrages the people, he now asks to defend himself before Athenians just as quick to change their minds (μεταβούλους).” In fact, both making quick decisions and easily changing mind are characteristics associated with simplicity and susceptibility to flattery. The epithets tachybouloi and metabouloi, used by Aristophanes as hapax eiremena, seem to denote in a new fashion concepts and criticisms about the Athenian people used in everyday political discussions in the Boule and the Ecclesia. [52]


It seems ironic that, while according to Aristotle (1451a36–b11) poetry is concerned with general truths and history treats specific incidents, the opposite is true of Thucydides and Aristophanes: the historian, although reporting on specific historical events, concentrates on general principles that underlie human behaviour, while the poet Aristophanes focuses on contemporary topicality, particular persons and incidents of his city. From this point of view, the historian seems to focus on the general (καθόλου), whereas the poet specializes in the particular (καθέκαστα).
It appears that, concerning fifth century political rhetoric, under comic distortion and exaggeration hidden remnants of contemporary debates may be traced. The Knights offer a very opportune field for this aim. We can test these samples using Thucydides’ rhetorical constructions—however artificial—on the one hand, and fourth-century oratory, where such arguments seem to survive, on the other. Inscriptional evidence can occasionally be used. Iconic metaphors, like the imperial tyranny and the erotic vocabulary of Athenian imperialism, occur in both Aristophanes and Thucydides, and it is possible that the two authors independently echo contemporary political rhetoric. Moreover, the Knights seem to preserve some of the more personal parameters of the political debates, in that it focuses on personal features of corrupt politicians and sycophants, especially concerning the foreign policy, which are understated in Thucydides.
Finally, the impression that invective and abuse are mainly associated with fourth-century rhetoric, Demosthenes’ and Aeschines’ political speeches in particular, might be different, if we had at our disposal the original speeches which were delivered in the late fifth century, especially in the demagogic period. It seems highly probable that Cleon, at least, employed this type of rhetoric in debates in the Assembly. Taking all this into account, we might claim that Aristophanic comedy can contribute to a fuller picture of the political rhetoric of the late fifth century BCE.


Apostolakis, K. 2019. Timokles. Translation and Commentary. Fragmenta Comica 21. Göttingen.
———. 2021. “Comic Invective and Public Speech in Fourth-Century Athens.” In Papaioannou and Serafim 2021:43–63.
Burckhardt, A. 1924. Spuren der athenischen Volksrede in der alten Komoedie. Basel.
Connor, W. R. 1971. The New Politicians of Fifth-Century Athens. Princeton.
———. 1977. “Tyrannis Polis” In Ancient and Modern: Essays in honor of G.F. Else, ed. J. A. D’ Arms, and J. W. Eadie, 95–109. Michigan.
Edmunds, L. 1987. Cleon, Knights and Aristophanes’ Politics. New York.
Ehrenberg, V. 1951. The People of Aristophanes: A Sociology of Old Attic Comedy. 2nd edition. Oxford.
Gagarin, M. and D. M. MacDowell. 1998. Antiphon and Andocides. Texas.
Heath, M. 1998. “Aristophanes and the Discourse of Politics.” In The City as Comedy. Society and Representation in Athenian Drama, ed. G. Dobrov, 230–249. Chapel Hill.
Henderson, J. 1987. Aristophanes. Lysistrata. Oxford.
Hesk, J. 2006. Deception and Democracy in Classical Athens. Cambridge.
Kagan, D. 1974. The Archidamian War. Ithaca.
Konstantakos, I. M. 2021. “Political Rhetoric and Comic Invective in Fifth-Century Athens: The Trial of the Dogs in Aristophanes’ Wasps.” In Papaioannou and Serafim 2021:235–255.
Lambert, S. D. 2017. “Two Inscribed Documents of the Athenian Empire: The Chalkis Decree and the Tribute Reassessment Decree.” Attic Inscriptions Online 8:1–43.
Low, P. 2005. “Looking for the Language of Athenian Imperialism.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 125:93–111.
Ludwig, P. 2002. Eros and Polis. Desire and Community in Greek Political Theory. Cambridge.
Mattingly, H. B. 1961. “Athens and Euboea.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 81:124–132.
———. 1996. The Athenian Empire Restored: Epigraphic and Historical Studies. Ann Arbor.
———. 2002. “The Athenian decree for Chalkis.” Classical Quarterly 52:377–379.
McGlew, F. 1996. “Everybody Wants to Make a Speech”: Cleon and Aristophanes on Politics and Fantasy.” Arethusa 29:339–361.
Meiggs, R. 1949. “A Note on Athenian Imperialism.” The Classical Review 63:9–12.
Meiggs, R. and D. Lewis, eds. 1969. A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the end of the Fifth Century B.C. Oxford.
Neil, R. A. 1901. The Knights of Aristophanes. Hildesheim.
Olson, D. S. 2002. Aristophanes. Acharnians. Oxford.
———. 2016. Eupolis frr. 326-497: Translation and Commentary. Fragmenta Comica 8.2. Heidelberg.
Papaioannou, S., and A. Serafim, eds. 2021. Comic Invective in Ancient Greek and Roman Oratory. Berlin.
Raaflaub, K. 2004. The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece. Chicago.
Rogers, B. B. 1910. Aristophanes. The Knights. London.
Roisman, J. 2006. The Rhetoric of Conspiracy in Ancient Athens. California.
Romilly, J. de. 1947. Thucydide et l’imperialisme athénien. Paris.
Sommerstein, A. H. 1981. The Comedies of Aristophanes. Vol. 2, Knights. Warminster.
Ste. Croix., de G. E. M. 1954. “The Character of the Athenian Empire.” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 3:1–41.
Tamiolaki, M. 2010. Liberté et esclavage chez les historiens grecs classiques. PhD diss., Sorbonne University.
Tsakmakis, A. 2017. “Speeches” In The Oxford Handbook of Thucydides, ed. R. K. Balot, S. Forsdyke and E. Foster, 267–281. Oxford.
Tsakmakis, A. 2018. “Laughing at Cleon—Defending Pericles. Athenian Demagogues, Thucydides’ Audience, and Comedy.” In À l’Assemblée comme au théâtre. Pratìques délibérative des Anciens, perceptions and résonances modernes, ed. N. Villaceque, 75–90. Rennes.
Tuplin, C. 1985. “Imperial Tyranny: Some Reflections on a Greek Political Metaphor.” History of Political Thought 6:348–375.
Welsh, D. 1978. The Development of Relationship between Aristophanes and Cleon to 424 BC. Phd diss., King’s College London.
Wohl, V. 2002. Love among the Ruins. The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens. Princeton.
Yunis, H. 2001. Demosthenes. On the Crown. Cambridge.


[ back ] 1. I would like to thank Athina Papachrysostomou and Andreas Antonopoulos for their comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.
[ back ] 2. Ιt is telling that the Athenian speakers sometimes remain anonymous, e.g. those participating in the embassy at Sparta (Thucydides 1.73–78), and the participants in the Melian Debate (Thucydides 5.84–116). For the speeches in Thucydides, see Tsakmakis 2017.
[ back ] 3. Demosthenes 18.1–2; cf. 18.141, 324.
[ back ] 4. E.g. Lycurgus In Leocratem 1–2.
[ back ] 5. See Yunis 2001, 105.
[ back ] 6. Cf. Plato Comicus fr. 236 K-A.
[ back ] 7. Cf. Konstantakos 2021:240–241.
[ back ] 8. Being described as a dog, he is expected to attack his fellow-citizens, who are presented as innocent lambs (Knights 264–265): καὶ σκοπεῖς γε τῶν πολιτῶν ὅστις ἐστὶν ἀμνοκῶν, / πλούσιος καὶ μὴ πονηρὸς καὶ τρέμων τὰ πράγματα (“yes, and what’s more, you scan the citizenry for anyone who’s an innocent lamb, rich and innocuous and afraid of litigation”). Cf. Xenophon Memorabilia 2.9, where Crito is described as a sheep and attacked by wolfish sycophants.
[ back ] 9. For Athenian imperialism and its rhetoric, see Romilly 1947. For the language of Athenian imperialism in inscriptions, see Mattingly 1996; Low 2005.
[ back ] 10. Cf. Aeschines 2.79 τῶν δ’ ἐν τῇ πόλει ητόρων χορηγὸν ταῖς καθ’ ἡμέραν δαπάναις τὸν πόλεμον ποιουμένων (“while the public speakers in Athens were looking to the war to underwrite their daily living costs”).
[ back ] 11. Cf. Plato Comicus fr. 61 K-A, where Cleophon’s mother is satirically portrayed as a Thracian swallow. Cf. the association of Cleon with slave origin in the Knights, through Paphlagon/Paphlagonia; Apostolakis 2021:56.
[ back ] 12. Cf. Eupolis fr. 316 Κ-Α ὦ καλλίστη πόλι πασῶν, ὅσας Κλέων ἐφορᾷ. Cleon is probably compared to the Sun-god in Odyssey 11.109; 12.323 ὃς πάντ’ ἐφορᾷ καὶ πάντ’ ἐπακούει, or to Zeus (Odyssey 13.214; Sophocles Electra 175); Olson 2016:501 (on Eupolis fr. 316 K-A).
[ back ] 13. Cf. Kagan 1974:238; Edmunds 1987:72.
[ back ] 14. Dover (in Gomme/Andrews/Dover 1970:254) notes that, unlike the Spartans, who use the verb ἡγεῖσθαι (Thucydides 6.92.5; 8.2.4) to express their ambition to “lead,” the Athenians prefer the verb ἄρχειν.
[ back ] 15. Cf. IG i2 56.14–17 ἐκ τῶν πόλεων ὧν Ἀθηναῖοι κρατοῦσι. Cf. IG i2 28.7–13; Meiggs 1949:9–12.
[ back ] 16. Cf. Lysistrata 129 and Henderson 1987 ad loc.
[ back ] 17. The verb τερατεύεσθαι is often used in fourth century by Aeschines, with reference to Demosthenes’ bombastic rhetoric; cf. 1.94; 2.49, 98; Neil 1901:94.
[ back ] 18. Aristophanes Wasps 596 (Philocleon) αὐτὸς δὲ Κλέων ὁ κεκραξιδάμας μόνον ἡμᾶς οὐ περιτρώγει (“then there’s Cleon, the great bellower himself, he loves us, we’re the only people he doesn’t bite chunks out of”); [ back ] cf. Knights 358 (Sausage-Seller) λαρυγγιῶ τοὺς ήτορας καὶ Νικίαν ταράξω.
[ back ] 19. Cf. 2.161; Heath 1998:232.
[ back ] 20. Aristotle Athenian Constitution 28.3 καὶ πρῶτος ἐπὶ τοῦ βήματος ἀνέκραγε καὶ ἐλοιδορήσατο καὶ περιζωσάμενος ἐδημηγόρησε, τῶν ἄλλων ἐν κόσμῳ λεγόντων.
[ back ] 21. Thucydides 3.38.2 κέρδει ἐπαιρόμενος τὸ εὐπρεπὲς τοῦ λόγου ἐκπονήσας παράγειν πειράσεται.
[ back ] 22. Cf. Neil 1901:37; Roisman 2006:66–67.
[ back ] 23. Cf. Sommerstein 1981:155.
[ back ] 25. Cf. Mattingly 1961:124–132 and 2002: 377–379.
[ back ] 26. Lambert 2017:30–31.
[ back ] 27. Cf. Sommerstein on Aristophanes Knights 479, who compares the misrepresentation of Cleon’s Argive policy by the Sausage-Seller in lines 465–471.
[ back ] 28. E.g. Hyperides In Demosthenem fr.1.2, 7, 10; Dinarchus 1.6 and passim.
[ back ] 29. Cf. Timocles fr. 4 K-A, where the speaking character reports that Demosthenes was bribed with fifty talents (Δημοσθένης τάλαντα πεντήκοντ’ ἔχει); see Apostolakis 2019:36–44.
[ back ] 30. Cf. Gagarin, in Gagarin and MacDowell 1998:73, 88.
[ back ] 31. Cf. Aves 1450–1460, where the Informer, “the Sycophant,” admits that he prosecutes the allies and systematically snatches their properties.
[ back ] 32. Cf. 1329–1330 (chorus) Ὦ ταὶ λιπαραὶ καὶ ἰοστέφανοι καὶ ἀριζήλωτοι Ἀθῆναι, / δείξατε τὸν τῆς Ἑλλάδος ἡμῖν καὶ τῆς γῆς τῆσδε μόναρχον. See Ehrenberg 1951:157.
[ back ] 33. Cf. Thucydides 6.85.1 (said by Euphemus) ἀνδρὶ δὲ τυράννῳ ἢ πόλει.
[ back ] 34. Tuplin 1985:352–354.
[ back ] 35. 2.63.1–2 ὡς τυραννίδα γὰρ ἤδη ἔχετε αὐτήν, ἣν λαβεῖν μὲν ἄδικον δοκεῖ εἶναι, ἀφεῖναι δὲ ἐπικίνδυνον.
[ back ] 36. 3.37.2 οὐ σκοποῦντες ὅτι τυραννίδα ἔχετε τὴν ἀρχὴν καὶ πρὸς ἐπιβουλεύοντας αὐτοὺς καὶ ἄκοντας ἀρχομένους.
[ back ] 37. For the Athenian conception of freedom as associated with the necessity to rule over the other Greeks, see Raaflaub 2004:187–193; Tamiolaki 2010:99–137.
[ back ] 38. Cf. Isocrates 4.80–81 Τὸν αὐτὸν δὲ τρόπον καὶ τὰ τῶν ἄλλων διῴκουν, θεραπεύοντες, ἀλλ’ οὐχ ὑβρίζοντες τοὺς Ἕλληνας, καὶ στρατηγεῖν οἰόμενοι δεῖν, ἀλλὰ μὴ τυραννεῖν αὐτῶν, καὶ μᾶλλον ἐπιθυμοῦντες ἡγεμόνες ἢ δεσπόται προσαγορεύεσθαι καὶ σωτῆρες, ἀλλὰ μὴ λυμεῶνες ἀποκαλεῖσθαι, τῷ ποιεῖν εὖ προσαγόμενοι τὰς πόλεις, ἀλλ’ οὐ βίᾳ καταστρεφόμενοι (“They behaved in the same way toward other (city-states), being of service to the Greeks but not indulging in acts of hybris toward them. Thinking to command them militarily, but not to tyrannize them, they strove to be addressed as hegemon rather than despot, and to be regarded as saviors than destroyers, winning over the cities by doing good instead of subjecting them by force”).
[ back ] 39. On the “erotics of empire,” see Wohl 2002:171–214.
[ back ] 40. See Rogers 1910, on Knights 1341: “flowers culled from the oratory of Cleon”; cf. Burckhardt 1924:40. Also cf. Acharnians 143 ὑμῶν τ’ ἐραστὴς ὡς ἀληθῶς (“and truly your lover”), said of Sitalces, the Thracian King. It is interesting that the phrase is spoken by Theoros, an associate of Cleon (cf. Vespae 42–45).
[ back ] 41. Connor 1971:97n14.
[ back ] 42. For Pericles and Cleon in Thucydides and Comedy, see Tsakmakis 2018.
[ back ] 43. Cf. the inscription (IG II 69, line 47 = Meiggs-Lewis 47) φιλήσω τὸ[ν δῆμον τῶν Ἀθηναίων] of the Athenian treaty with Colophon (ca 447/6 BCE).
[ back ] 44. For erotic metaphors as a fashionable topic in fifth-century rhetoric, see Ludwig 2002:141–152.
[ back ] 45. See Connor 1977:103–105.
[ back ] 46. Cf. Wohl 2002:188.
[ back ] 47. Sommerstein’s translation.
[ back ] 48. Cf. Acharnians 635–636: “since he has stopped you from being deceived overmuch by foreigners’ speeches, from being cajoled by flattery, from being citizens of Simpletonia (χαυνοπολίτας).”
[ back ] 49. [Demosthenes] 58.40; Dinarchus 1.99. See Hesk 2000:219–241; Apostolakis 2021:53–54.
[ back ] 50. Demosthenes 9.10; 19.103.
[ back ] 51. Demosthenes 3.22 τί βούλεσθε; τί γράψω; τί ὑμῖν χαρίσωμαι; Cf. 8.34 δημαγωγοῦντες ὑμᾶς καὶ χαριζόμενοι καθ’ ὑπερβολήν. See also Isocrates 8.3–5, 9–10; 12.140; 15.133; Aeschines 3.127; de Ste. Croix 1954:34; Welsh 1978:307–308.
[ back ] 52. Cf. also (in a poetic context) Knights 518 ὑμᾶς τε πάλαι διαγιγνώσκων ἐπετείους τὴν φύσιν ὄντας (“and he was long aware that your tastes change every year”).