Another day, another classical Trump analogy – or rather, a reiteration of one that’s already somewhat familiar, Trump as Cleon, put forward this time by G.W. Bowersock in the New York Review of Books. I have to say that, the more I see this comparison, the more I think it’s deeply unfair to Cleon, and reproduces an old-fashioned view of Athenian democracy that is based largely on sources hostile to the whole thing. Of course we don’t expect classical analogies to be based on detailed historical insight – I don’t have much to add on this point to Donna Zuckerberg’s ‘Make Comparison Great Again’ – but there are definitely bad and worse cases, evocations of the ancient world for present political and polemical purposes that are deeply dodgy rather than just moderately dubious.
At best, what this offers us is the pantomime villain whom we can boo and hiss with a sense of smugness that we have a superior idea of how bad he really is. But this one seems riskier than normal, if it slides easily into the belief that the emergence of such a figure is also a judgement against the system that has allowed him to rise to prominence. That’s precisely how Thucydides and Aristophanes (the lying MainsSteam Media) present Cleon, as evidence of the negative tendencies of Athenian democracy that headed downhill from there; is there a sense that Trump, even as he denounces American institutions, is also fuelling a suspicion of those institutions among some of his fiercest critics? Yes, there may be a case for that – but it shouldn’t be a case based on this arguable interpretation of the relationship between Cleon and Athens.
I may return to this theme in more detail – currently supposed to be working on a paper on a completely different topic for tomorrow evening – but for the moment, it suddenly occurred to me that I’ve already developed these ideas nearly twenty years ago in a piece for Omnibus called ‘Cleon the Misunderstood’ (can’t remember whether I put a question mark after that in the original). I’d certainly update this today with more discussion of how Cleon gets read in relation to Thucydides’ trustworthiness – George Grote’s criticism of the portrayal, and the academic row that ensued – but I think this stands up well enough as a summary to be worth reproducing here:
Cleon the Misunderstood
In the mid-fourth century B.C., an Athenian citizen called Mantitheus sued his half-brother for the return of his mother’s dowry. At one point in the speech, he tells the jury that his mother had once been married to a man called Cleomedon,
Whose father Cleon, we are told, commanded troops among whom were your ancestors, and captured alive a large number of Spartans, and won greater renown than any other man in the state; so it was not fitting that the son of that famous man should wed my mother without a dowry. (Demosthenes, 40.25)
Juries in Athens were made up of at least a hundred and one dikastai, chosen by lot from volunteers who had to be Athenian citizens over thirty years old. The speaker had to try to persuade the majority of these jurors to vote in his favour, whether because of the strength of his case or by appealing to their sentiments. Certainly he would not want to alienate too many people by expressing unpopular views; Mantitheus must therefore have assumed that his description of Cleon as a famous Athenian leader would be accepted by many among his audience. Yet such a positive assessment is likely to come as a surprise to most students of Athenian history, especially those familiar with Thucydides’ account of the part played by Cleon in the course of the Peloponnesian War.
Thucydides on Cleon
As far as Thucydides was concerned, Cleon was typical of the unscrupulous, rabble-rousing politicians who rose to power in Athens after the death of Pericles in 429:
His successors, who were more on a level with one another and each of whom aimed at occupying the first place, ended by surrendering the conduct of affairs to the pleasure of the multitude. (2.65)
Cleon featured prominently in the debate in the assembly in 427 over whether the Athenians should reverse their decision to massacre the people of Mytilene for revolting against them. Thucydides gives an account of the speech, in which Cleon argues that the Athenians are justified in taking any action to preserve their power. Cleon is seen to call on every trick of oratory — including warning the assembly against being misled by clever speaking and unscrupulous politicians!
In 425, the Athenians won a victory at Pylos, on the west coast of the Peloponnese, and besieged a force of Spartans on the nearby island of Sphacteria. The Spartans offered to make peace, but Cleon persuaded the Athenians to reject the proposals. He was then outmanoeuvred by his opponents and forced to assume command himself, since he had so fiercely criticised the way in which his opponent Nicias was conducting the siege; but through sheer luck (according to Thucydides) and the skilful generalship of others he was wholly successful, achieving the surrender of the Spartans with minimal Athenian casualties.
Finally in 422 Cleon led an expedition into Thrace, and was killed during the battle of Amphipolis, as was the Spartan commander Brasidas. Thucydides’ account is highly uncomplimentary; Cleon placed his troops in danger in the first place because they were starting to lose confidence in him, and he was killed while trying to escape the battlefield, although the army as a whole was still putting up some resistance. Thucydides remarks that this created the opportunity for peace between Athens and Sparta, which Cleon had opposed ‘because he thought that in a time of peace and quiet people would be more likely to notice his evil doings and less likely to believe his slander of others.’ (5.16)
The archetypal demagogue
Thucydides is not the only writer to offer a negative view of Cleon. The comic playwright Aristophanes caricatures him in the Knights as the corrupt and unscrupulous Paphlagonian, favourite slave of Demos, who maintains his position through flattery and takes advantage of his power to collect bribes and blackmail his fellow slaves. He is finally ousted by a sausage-seller, even more vulgar, uneducated and unscrupulous. Aristophanes’ view of Athenian politics is rather cynical — Demos (‘The People’) is a short-tempered, cantankerous, indolent old man — but his greatest contempt is reserved for the politicians (like Cleon) who profess love for the people but are really concerned with feathering their own nests.
Other sources emphasise Cleon’s vulgar style of oratory as much as his populist political methods or his alleged corruption:
It was he who first introduced shouting and abuse into his speeches, as well as the habit of slapping his thigh, throwing open his dress and striding up and down the platform as he spoke, and his habits produced among the politicians an irresponsibility and a disregard for propriety which before long were to throw the affairs of Athens into chaos. (Plutarch, Life of Nicias 8)
Upper class prejudices
How far should we take this negative picture at face value, since it’s clear that Thucydides and Aristophanes are thoroughly prejudiced against Cleon? Thucydides’ account of the battle of Amphipolis in particular is designed to show Cleon in the worst possible light, even at the risk of inconsistency; he is said to have been forced into an attack because of his soldiers’ impatience, and yet his decision to fight is also offered as evidence of his arrogance. There’s no independent evidence that Cleon was at all corrupt: these are the sort of accusations that were levelled against all politicians in Athens on a regular basis. Certainly he was popular with the Athenians during his brief political career, and trusted by them, since they adopted many of the policies he advocated (such as rejecting the Spartan peace proposals). Although the majority in the assembly eventually rejected his arguments over Mytilene and voted to cancel the massacre, the vote was very nearly even; his was not a lone and unpopular view. A later generation of Athenians saw Cleon simply as one of their few successful leaders in a war which had ended disastrously for Athens.
How, then, do we explain the enormous hostility towards Cleon shown by most of our sources? Their two main objections to Cleon seem to be, firstly, his policy of aggression towards Sparta and, secondly, his populist, rabble-rousing style. Thucydides and Aristophanes, like most other ancient writers, came from the Athenian upper classes (the only people who could afford a high level of education), and therefore shared a particular set of prejudices. Such men were often pro-Spartan; more importantly, they considered themselves the natural leaders of Athens and resented the fact that under the democracy they no longer enjoyed automatic power and authority. An aristocrat who wished to become an important figure in the state had to submit to the judgement of the masses, in elections and in the assembly, competing with men like Cleon.
Cleon was the son of a wealthy tanner: not a member of the lower classes himself, whatever Aristophanes might suggest, but probably not a member of an old aristocratic family either. Whatever his background, he was certainly a populist, who won support by appealing (in both his message and his style) to the lower classes. Nothing could be further from the upper class ideal; and it also made a striking contrast with the behaviour of Cleon’s great predecessor, Pericles.
Pericles, because of his position, his intelligence and his known integrity, could respect the liberty of the people and at the same time hold them in check. It was he who led them, rather than they who led him, and, since he never sought power in any improper way, he was under no necessity of flattering them . . . So, in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen. (Thuc 2.65)
In Thucydides’ view, this is the ideal form of government for Athens, in which the excesses of democracy are held in check by a wise ruler. Pericles commands the Athenians; Cleon, in contrast, flatters and cajoles them and allows them to have influence over policy. It is Cleon and his like who are to blame for Athens’ defeat, not Pericles, although he had started the war. Thucydides tries to emphasise the contrast between the two men as far as possible, even at the expense of strict fairness. For example, both Pericles and Cleon were accused of making war because of their personal interests, but Thucydides mentions only the latter accusations, ignoring the ones levelled against his hero.
Above all, Thucydides conceals the extent to which the political positions of Pericles and Cleon were more or less identical. Neither held power because of their official position, for there was no Athenian equivalent to Prime Minister or President (Pericles was elected strategos almost every year, but that gave him military, not political, authority). Instead, their power rested on their popularity and their ability to persuade the assembly to follow their proposals. Both men dedicated themselves to the service of the state, repudiating their old friends (or claiming to, anyway) so as to avoid any conflict of interest. Both put forward populist legislation, such as Pericles’ introduction of pay for jury service, to win the support of the people. The philosopher Plato, for one, considered that it was Pericles who first corrupted the Athenian masses by making concessions to them.
Politicians and democracy
Modern historians have often wondered whether the ability of orators like Pericles and Cleon to persuade the assembly to follow their proposals meant that Athens was not really ruled by the Demos. Aristophanes’ Knights suggests that, however powerful a politician like Cleon might appear, he was always at risk of losing the favour of Demos, and hence losing all power and influence in the state. The citizens of Athens were not completely gullible; they were probably fine judges of the art of public speaking. As a later politician, Demosthenes, argued:
I notice that in general an audience controls the ability of a speaker, and that his reputation for cleverness depends upon your acceptance and discriminating favour. (On the Crown 277)
In the same speech, Demosthenes offers an idealised picture of the job of a politician (rhetor, orator) in Athens:
For what is he responsible? For discerning the trend of events at the outset, for anticipating results and forecasting them to others. That I have always done. Further, he ought to reduce to a minimum those delays and hesitations, those fits of ignorance and quarrelsomeness, which are the natural and inevitable failings of all free states, and on the other hand to promote unanimity and friendship, and whatever impels a man to do his duty. (On the Crown 246)
All decisions in Athens were taken by the assembly, the Ekklesia. All citizens had the right to speak as well as to vote, but it was hardly practical for each of several thousand men to have their say. The orators played an important role in providing leadership and direction, setting out the issues at stake and arguing for a particular course of action. They were men who had the necessary training in public speaking and the leisure to dedicate themselves to public business. They gained honour through doing service to Athens, and also other rewards — Cleon was awarded maintenance at public expense — but they always had to strive to retain the support of the assembly.
The reputation of Pericles as one of Athens’ finest leaders is based in part on Thucydides’ savaging of his successor. In fact, Cleon was equally popular with the Athenians, and quite as successful. There is no evidence to say that he was definitely wrong to reject the peace proposals in 425; he provided the impetus for the victory at Sphacteria, and had the sense to rely on the greater experience of his fellow general. Cleon’s oratorical style may even have come as a relief after the cool aloofness of Pericles. We should not be misled by aristocratic contempt for the Athenian masses and their leaders; Cleon served Athens as well as any of his rivals, the interminably eulogised Pericles included.
[originally published in Omnibus 35 (1997) pp.4-6]