The Knights satirizes Athenian politics in the form of an allegory. Although not named in the play, the two slaves in the opening scene are recognizable as representing the Athenian generals Demosthenes and Nicias. These were prominent figures in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.) between Athens and Sparta. The two generals were upstaged and humiliated by the demagogue Cleon. A particular incident that is mentioned frequently in the play is Cleon’s intervention at a late stage in the battle for Spartan-controlled Sphacteria. Later, Cleon arrogantly took full credit for the Athenian victory. Aristophanes depicts these three political figures as slaves of a fickle and gullible master Demus (from the Greek world demos, “people”). The political rivalries among these figures from Athenian history are thus depicted—in a comic reduction—as a kind of domestic squabble with which most Athenians could identify.
Cleon dominated Athenian politics after Pericles died of the plague in 429 b.c.e. Although there is evidence that he was a capable leader, Aristophanes and many contemporaries saw Cleon as little more than a political manipulator who directed the will of the people in the assembly, which decided on all matters of policy, by appealing to the people’s basest instincts. Accordingly, to secure the favor of his master Demus, the Paphlagonian tanner (Cleon operated a leather industry) uses bribes and shamelessly manipulates oracles. Not surprisingly, in late fifth century Athens there were countless charges among leaders of bribery and of abuse of authority, including the fabrication of forged oracles to support one political program or another.
The Peloponnesian War and the proposals for winning or ending the conflict form the dramatic backdrop for The Knights, but the play is not simply a critique of contemporary politics. The focus is on the personality of Cleon, who is represented as a foreign-born slave. In fact, the name of Cleon is used only once in the play, in a remark by the chorus, but from various clues the audience certainly knew who was the object of Aristophanes’ ridicule. Two years before The Knights was produced, Cleon was offended by Aristophanes’ unrelenting criticism (in his Babylonians, a play...
(The entire section is 961 words.)