In Balladeer’s Blog’s 6th installment on ancient Greek comedies I will examine The Knights by Aristophanes. For background info on ancient Greek comedies see my original post on the topic: https://glitternight.com/2011/09/22/at-long-last-my-ancient-greek-comedy-posts-begin/
In The Knights Aristophanes pioneered a new sub-genre of Attic Old Comedy: the Demagogue Comedy. The villain of this masterpiece of political satire was a figure called the Paphlagonian, who was patterned on Cleon, a notorious Athenian politician of the time period. I’ll have more on the long political feud between Aristophanes and Cleon in the commentary after my synopsis of the play. The “Knights” of the title were the comedy’s chorus and were the landed, wealthy “chevalier” class of Athens and their role will be explained in the commentary as well.
In the time of the Athenian Democracy elected figures, as they do today, liked to depict themselves as “servants of the people”. Taking his cue from this less-than- sincere (yet enduring) claim, Aristophanes metaphorically depicted the Paphlagonian/Cleon and his rival politicians as literal servants of a kindly and naive estate owner named Demos or, in other words, “The People”. Though technically in a subordinate position, the Paphlagonian and the other servants constantly con and deceive Demos, robbing the household blind and otherwise attending to their own interests to the detriment of the figure they supposedly serve. Once again we see how 2,400 years later the political situation in the Athenian forerunner of modern democracies is very similar to our own and their political satires still resonate.
The Paphlagonian, like Cleon in real life at the time, is proving so masterful at the arts of deception and self-aggrandizement that he is developing a monopolistic hold over the benighted Demos, who mistakenly thinks the Paphlagonian is his most devoted servant. The other servants realize their own selfish interests are threatened by the continuing success of the Paphlagonian. Since they have proven incapable of outdoing their rival at his own dishonest games they begin a desperate search for a sufficiently nefarious and unscrupulous figure who might be able to bring him down.
The defeated servants decide the best place to find a worthy opponent for the Paphlagonian is in the section of Athens proper called the Agora, the marketplace where hucksters get sufficient “basic training” in the art of lying for self-advancement. An outrageous liar called the Sausage Seller catches their attention, and after watching him shamelessly rip off some of his customers they know they’ve found their man.
Pretending that they want the Paphlagonian taken down for the good of Demos instead of for their own benefit, they enlist the Sausage Seller in their cause and take him home with them. A battle royal between the Sausage Seller and the Paphlagonian takes place, with each one trying to outdo the other at convincing the addled Demos that they can run his household well by running it into the ground. The “dueling campaign promises” of the two ripoff artists are expressed with the kind of wonderfully absurd wordplay that can be found in Ionesco or Lear or early Marx Brothers movies.
At length, the Sausage Seller’s shameless lies and outrageous promises leave him triumphant. Demos fires the Paphlagonian and installs the Sausage Seller as the new head of the household. The Paphlagonian winds up as a small-time merchant peddling his wares in the same area of Athens that prostitutes operate out of.
Because a comedy needs a happy ending, the Sausage Seller, rather than defraud poor Demos even more ruthlessly than the Paphlagonian did, reveals that he is not the lying, selfish knave he has been presenting himself as being. He is instead an honest and civic-minded man who shrewdly realized the only way to succeed in the political arena (or rather, in the comedy’s metaphor for same) was to lie and cheat more successfully than his competition could. Now that he is safely ensconced in office he reveals his plans to save Athens by implementing a series of bold solutions to the city-state’s problems of the time. He even “boils” Demos in a cauldron to put him in better shape, transforming him into a rejuvenated, healthy and happy figure instead of the infirm, addle-brained man from the beginning of the play.
Modern readers have no problem relating to the central idea of The Knights; the notion that it takes people who are dangerously ambitious and fundamentally dishonest to get elected, leaving “honest” candidates with virtually no hope of winning. Put another way, people who do the underhanded things necessary to win elections have as good as proven they are too untrustworthy to hold public office simply by virtue of their victories.
A right-wing staging of this comedy could depict the Paphlagonian/Cleon as a sleazy Obamaesque demagogue, while a left-wing staging could depict him as a sleazy Reaganesque demagogue.
Modern readers will also have no problem appreciating the jokes about candidates who promise the proverbial moon and all the stars for the voters, but who are really just feathering their own nests and the nests of their cronies (Haliburton, Solyndra, etc).
When the Sausage Seller succeeds in his duel of dishonesty with the Paphlagonian he was said to have “out- Cleoned Cleon” in another example of breaking the fourth wall.
A modern audience would probably relate to the Sausage Seller figure better if he was a used car salesman instead, since we equate those sales reps with the kind of oily, dishonest character intended in the comedy.
Cleon was at the height of his power and popularity when Aristophanes targeted him in this, his fourth comedy. I’ll address the personal reasons Aristophanes had for railing against Cleon later, but first, here are some quick reasons why Cleon’s political dealings were seen as unethical:
1. Cleon was seen as having stolen credit away from General Demosthenes for winning the siege of Sphacteria in the Peloponnesian War (Full details would take too long, but back then a politician like Cleon who criticized the way the generals were conducting the war could find themselves elected as a general themselves and sent off to the war to see if they could do better. This happened with Cleon, who, when he returned to his civilian office right after winning the siege was accused of just enacting plans that had been lain by Demosthenes before his arrival)
2. Cleon is sometimes considered the archetype of the modern demagogue, playing voters against each other for his own purposes, making outrageous promises, then blaming his political opponents when those promises could not be kept. He was also accused of lying and of proposing legislation to benefit himself and his cronies.
3. Cleon was also guilty of the Athenian political practice of using his supporters as “professional accusers” against his political opponents. These figures are often termed “informers” in many translations of Greek comedies but I feel the word accuser is more accurate. These “professional accusers” would hurl scandalous accusations at their secret patron’s political foes, blackening their name in the public’s eyes and often causing them to face court costs, etc.
If sufficient malfeasance was involved, the accused person could face fines or confiscation of their property with the professional accusers slipped some of the proceeds under the table. To once again use modern equivalents from both sides of the aisle, Anita Hill would have been suspected of being a professional accuser when she came forward against Clarence Thomas and the Swiftboat Veterans would have been suspected of the same when they came forward against John Kerry.
To explain this comedy’s title: Like many politicians Cleon was often accused of misappropriation of public funds through various dishonest means. One such occassion was a few years before the performance of The Knights. The Athenian equivalent of knights were the young, wealthy cavalry leaders of the city-state’s armed forces. Since these knights or cavalrymen were required to provide their own horses, grooms, stables and equipment, that is why that branch of the service was strictly for the well-to-do. (It’s also why my preferred title would be The Gentry instead)
At any rate, several of the cavalry class were influential enough to hand Cleon one of his few defeats. The details have been lost to history but what sources remain make it clear that the cavalry class were instrumental in exposing one of Cleon’s misdeeds and in the wily demagogue having to pay a very hefty fine. This endeared them to Cleon’s political opponents like Aristophanes, who gave them a public shoutout by making those “Knights” the chorus of this comedy, in which role they offered wry commentary on the Paphlagonian/ Cleon’s antics in the story. (Think of the Che Guevara character in the musical Evita )
Aristophanes and his like-minded fellow Athenians blamed Cleon for spoiling generous peace terms offered by the Spartans to end the Peloponnesian War after Athenian victories in 425 B.C.E. Cleon, who was now the dominant figure in the Assembly, as Pericles had been before his death, rallied his fellow citizens into adding severe conditions to the terms that he knew the Spartans would reject. This prolonged the war for years.
So much for the political reasons behind Aristophanes’ hostility toward Cleon. On a personal level, Cleon had led the public prosecution of Aristophanes in 426 B.C.E., accusing the young comic poet of “slandering Athens before outsiders” with his second comedy, The Babylonians. That comedy (which I’ll deal with in detail in the future) was a satire critical of what Aristophanes saw as Athenian Imperialism in their dealings with their allied city-states, implying that they treated them as subject- states instead of allies. The Babylonians was performed at the public festival called the Dionysia, with representatives from all over the known western world in attendance, hence the accusation of slandering Athens before outsiders.
The Knights was performed at the other main festival for tragedies and comedies, the Lenaea. This festival was attended mostly by a domestic audience, and the chorus leader of the Knights broke the fourth wall by telling the audience that nobody could claim this comedy slandered Athens before outsiders since none were in attendance.
Cleon’s prosecution of Aristophanes is the only recorded instance of an ancient Athenian politician prosecuting a comic poet for one of their satires. In general, the Athenians’ respect for free speech (at least in the “anything goes” arena of the Theater of Dionysus ) was such that actions like that were frowned upon. Everyone, even the gods, were considered fair game in Attic Old Comedy and public backlash against Cleon’s action against Aristophanes is considered to have warned other politicians away from taking similar action.
As part of the repeated instances of breaking the fourth wall in Attic Old Comedy, the comic poets often had the characters in their comedies take potshots at rival comedians as well. These jokes usually implied that the author’s competitors copied all of their material, or used too much low-brow humor or food porn or even that they lacked talent. Often, however, they took the form of sexual innuendo, coming from low backgrounds, heavy drinking or any other form of gossip.
In The Knights, one of Aristophanes’ competitors that he targeted was Cratinus, the eldest member of Attic Old Comedy’s Big Three with Eupolis and Aristophanes himself being the other two. In this comedy Aristophanes joked that Cratinus was well past his prime, living off his past laurels and had drunk away all his remaining talent. Cratinus, galvanized by this public poke from one of the younger generation of comic poets, would use Aristophanes’ caricature of him to his advantage the following year, coming in first place with his final comedy, Pytine (AKA The Bottle, AKA The Wineflask, etc).
In adaptations of The Knights staged during the 1960s Demos, the embodiment of the people, was depicted as Uncle Sam, Cleon/The Paphlagonian was depicted as Lyndon “Lies As Big As Texas” Johnson, the Knights were depicted as the Vietnam Veterans Against The War and any references to Cleon’s late predecessor Pericles were changed to references to John F Kennedy instead.
The Knights won first prize at the Lenaea of 424 B.C.E. and its success inspired production of the many Demagogue Comedies that would follow. I’ll examine those other works in the future.
For other ancient Greek comedies and all my source books click here: https://glitternight.com/ancient-greek-comedies/
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