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Cleon (died 422 BCE) was an Athenian
Athens , is the capital and largest city of Greece. Athens dominates the Attica region and is one of the world's oldest cities, as its recorded history spans around 3,400 years. Classical Athens was a powerful city-state...

 statesman and a Strategos
Strategos, plural strategoi, is used in Greek to mean "general". In the Hellenistic and Byzantine Empires the term was also used to describe a military governor...

 during the Peloponnesian War
Peloponnesian War
The Peloponnesian War, 431 to 404 BC, was an ancient Greek war fought by Athens and its empire against the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. Historians have traditionally divided the war into three phases...

. He was the first prominent representative of the commercial class in Athenian politics, although he was an aristocrat
Aristocracy (class)
The aristocracy are people considered to be in the highest social class in a society which has or once had a political system of Aristocracy. Aristocrats possess hereditary titles granted by a monarch, which once granted them feudal or legal privileges, or deriving, as in Ancient Greece and India,...

 himself. Contemporaries Thucydides
Thucydides was a Greek historian and author from Alimos. His History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the 5th century BC war between Sparta and Athens to the year 411 BC...

 and Aristophanes
Aristophanes , son of Philippus, of the deme Cydathenaus, was a comic playwright of ancient Athens. Eleven of his forty plays survive virtually complete...

 represented him as a warmonger and a demagogue; modern historians provide a more balanced view.

Opposition to Pericles

Cleon first came to notice as an opponent of Pericles
Pericles was a prominent and influential statesman, orator, and general of Athens during the city's Golden Age—specifically, the time between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars...

 in the late 430s through his opposition to Pericles' strategy of refusing battle against the Peloponnesian League invaders in 431 BC. As a result, he found himself acting in concert with the Athenian aristocratic parties, who also had no liking for Pericles. During 430 BC, after the unsuccessful expedition by Pericles to the Peloponnesus
The Peloponnese, Peloponnesos or Peloponnesus , is a large peninsula , located in a region of southern Greece, forming the part of the country south of the Gulf of Corinth...

, and when the city was devastated by the plague
Plague of Athens
The Plague of Athens was a devastating epidemic which hit the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece during the second year of the Peloponnesian War , when an Athenian victory still seemed within reach. It is believed to have entered Athens through Piraeus, the city's port and sole source of food...

, Cleon headed the opposition to Pericles' rule. At this time, Pericles was accused by Cleon of maladministration of public money, with the result that Pericles was found guilty and removed from office (see Grote
George Grote
George Grote was an English classical historian, best known in the field for a major work, the voluminous History of Greece, still read.-Early life:He was born at Clay Hill near Beckenham in Kent...

's History of Greece, abridged ed., 1907, p. 406, note 1). However, Pericles' setback was temporary and he was soon reinstated.

Rise in popularity

The death of Pericles from the plague in 429 BC left the field clear for new leadership in Athens. Hitherto Cleon had only been a vigorous opposition speaker, a trenchant critic and accuser of state officials, but he now came forward as the professed champion and leader of the democracy
Democracy is generally defined as a form of government in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law...

 and, as a result, dominated Athenian politics. Although rough and unpolished, he was charismatic, being gifted with natural eloquence and a powerful voice, and he knew how to work upon the emotions of the Athenian populace. He strengthened his support amongst the poorer citizens of Athens by increasing the pay of the jurymen, which provided many of the poorer Athenians with a means of livelihood.

The fondness of the Athenians for litigation increased his power; and the practice of "sycophancy
Sycophancy means:# Obsequious flattery; servility.# The character or characteristic of a sycophant.Alternative phrases are often used such as:-Etymology:...

" (raking up material for false charges), enabled him to remove those who were likely to endanger his ascendancy. In 426 BC, Cleon brought an unsuccessful prosecution against Laches
Laches (person)
Laches was an Athenian aristocrat and general during the Peloponnesian War. His date of birth is unknown, but Plato asserts, not implausibly, that he was distinctly older than Socrates, who was born around 470 BC.In 427 BCE, Laches and Charoeades were sent to Sicily with a fleet of 20 ships in...

 based on his generalship
Strategos, plural strategoi, is used in Greek to mean "general". In the Hellenistic and Byzantine Empires the term was also used to describe a military governor...

 in the unsuccessful first Sicilian expedition. This is one of the very few times that an Athenian general escaped civil punishment for a defeat. Having no further use for his former aristocratic associates, he broke off all connection with them, and thus felt at liberty to attack the secret combinations for political purposes, the oligarchical clubs to which they mostly belonged. Whether he also introduced a property-tax for military purposes, and even held a high position in connection with the treasury, is uncertain.

War against Sparta, subsequent death

Cleon's ruling principles were an inveterate hatred of the nobility, and an equal hatred of Sparta. It was mainly through him that the opportunity of concluding an honourable peace (in 425) was lost, and in his determination to see Sparta
Sparta or Lacedaemon, was a prominent city-state in ancient Greece, situated on the banks of the River Eurotas in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese. It emerged as a political entity around the 10th century BC, when the invading Dorians subjugated the local, non-Dorian population. From c...

 humbled he misled the people as to the extent of the resources of the state, and dazzled them by promises of future benefits.

In 427 Cleon gained an evil notoriety by his proposal to put to death the whole male population of Mytilene
Mytilene is a town and a former municipality on the island of Lesbos, North Aegean, Greece. Since the 2011 local government reform it is part of the municipality Lesbos, of which it is a municipal unit. It is the capital of the island of Lesbos. Mytilene, whose name is pre-Greek, is built on the...

, which had put itself at the head of a revolt. His proposal, though at first accepted, was soon rescinded, largely because of the clever oratory of Diodotus
Diodotus (son of Eucrates)
Diodotus, son of Eucrateswas an opponent to the proposal of Cleon - leader of the aggressive faction in Athens - in 427 BC to kill all adult Mytilenean males and to enslave their women and children after the defeat of Mytilene...

. Nonetheless about 1000 chief leaders and prominent men of Mytilene were executed. In 425, he reached the summit of his fame by capturing and transporting to Athens the Spartans who had been blockaded at the Battle of Sphacteria
Battle of Sphacteria
The Battle of Sphacteria was a land battle of the Peloponnesian War, fought in 425 BC between Athens and Sparta. Following the Battle of Pylos and subsequent peace negotiations, which failed, a number of Spartans were stranded on the island of Sphacteria...

. Much of the credit was probably due to the military skill of his colleague Demosthenes
Demosthenes (general)
Demosthenes , son of Alcisthenes, was an Athenian general during the Peloponnesian War.-Early Military Actions:The military activities of Demosthenes are first recorded from 426 BC when he led an Athenian invasion of Aetolia. This was a failure. Demosthenes lost about 120 Athenians along with his...

 (not the orator); but it must be admitted that it was due to Cleon's determination that the Ecclesia
Ecclesia (ancient Athens)
The ecclesia or ekklesia was the principal assembly of the democracy of ancient Athens during its "Golden Age" . It was the popular assembly, opened to all male citizens over the age of 30 with 2 years of military service by Solon in 594 BC meaning that all classes of citizens in Athens were able...

 sent out the additional force which was needed.

It was almost certainly due to Cleon that the tribute of the "allies" was doubled in 425. In 422 he was sent to recapture Amphipolis
Amphipolis was an ancient Greek city in the region once inhabited by the Edoni people in the present-day region of Central Macedonia. It was built on a raised plateau overlooking the east bank of the river Strymon where it emerged from Lake Cercinitis, about 3 m. from the Aegean Sea. Founded in...

, but was out maneuvered by the Spartan general Brasidas
Brasidas was a Spartan officer during the first decade of the Peloponnesian War.He was the son of Tellis and Argileonis, and won his first laurels by the relief of Methone, which was besieged by the Athenians . During the following year he seems to have been eponymous ephor Brasidas (died 422...

. However, both Brasidas and Cleon were killed at Amphipolis and their deaths removed the chief obstacle to peace. Thus, in 421 the peace of Nicias
Peace of Nicias
The Peace of Nicias was a peace treaty signed between the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta in the March of 421 BC, ending the first half of the Peloponnesian War....

 was signed.

Aristophanes and Thucydides on Cleon

The character of Cleon is represented by Aristophanes
Aristophanes , son of Philippus, of the deme Cydathenaus, was a comic playwright of ancient Athens. Eleven of his forty plays survive virtually complete...

 and Thucydides
Thucydides was a Greek historian and author from Alimos. His History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the 5th century BC war between Sparta and Athens to the year 411 BC...

 in a very unfavourable light, justifiable considering he instilled a feeling of mistrust within Athens through a kind of Athenian "McCarthyism" caused by the excessive number of informants he employed to keep a watchful eye on the city. But both have been suspected of being prejudiced witnesses: The poet had a grudge against Cleon, who may have accused him before the Council of having ridiculed (in his lost play Babylonians) the policy and institutions of his city in the presence of foreigners and at the time of a great national danger. Thucydides, a man of strong oligarchical
Oligarchy is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with an elite class distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, commercial, and/or military legitimacy...

 inclinations, had also been prosecuted for military incapacity and exiled by a decree proposed by Cleon. It is therefore possible that Cleon has had injustice done to him in the portraits handed down by these two writers.


For the literature on Cleon see Karl Friedrich Hermann
Karl Friedrich Hermann
Karl Friedrich Hermann was a German classical scholar and antiquary.-Biography:He was born at Frankfurt-am-Main. Having studied philosophy at the universities of Heidelberg and Leipzig , he went on a tour of Italy, on his return from which he lectured as Privatdozent in Heidelberg...

, Lehrbuch der griechischen Antiquitäten, i. pt. 2 (6th ed. by V. Thumser, 1892), p. 709, and Georg Busolt, Griechische Geschichte, iii. pt. 2 (1904), p. 988, note 3.

The following are the chief authorities:
  • Favourable to Cleon
    • C. F. Ranke, Commentatio de Vita Aristoprianis (Leipzig, 1845)
    • JG Droysen
      Johann Gustav Droysen
      Johann Gustav Droysen was a German historian. His history of Alexander the Great was the first work representing a new school of German historical thought that idealized power held by so-called "great" men...

      , Aristophanes, ii., Introd. to the Knights (Berlin, 1837)
    • G. Grote, History of Greece. chs. 50, 54
    • W. Oncken, Athen und Hellas, ii. p. 204 (Leipzig, 1866)
    • H. Muller Strubing, Aristophanes und die historisehe Kritik (Leipzig, 1873)
    • J. B. Bury
      J. B. Bury
      John Bagnell Bury , known as J. B. Bury, was an Irish historian, classical scholar, Byzantinist and philologist.-Biography:...

      , Hist, of Greece, i. (1902)
  • Unfavourable
    • J. F. Kortüm, Geschichtliche Forschungen (Leipzig, 1863), and Zur Geschichte hellenichen Statsverfassungen (Heidelberg, 1821)
    • F. Passow, Vermischte Schriften (Leipzig, 1843)
    • C Thirlwall
      Connop Thirlwall
      Connop Thirlwall was an English bishop and historian.-Early life:Thirlwall was born at Stepney, London, of a Northumbrian family. He was a prodigy, learning Latin at three, Greek at four, and writing sermons at seven.He went to Charterhouse School, where George Grote and Julius Hare were among...

      , History of Greece, ch. 21
    • E Curtius
      Ernst Curtius
      You may be looking for Ernst Robert Curtius .Ernst Curtius was a German archaeologist and historian.-Biography:...

      , History of Greece (Eng. tr. iii. p. 112)
    • J. Schwartz, Die Demokratie (Leipzig, 1882)
    • H Delbrück
      Hans Delbrück
      Hans Delbrück was a German historian. Delbrück was one of the first modern military historians, basing his method of research on the critical examination of ancient sources, the use of auxiliary disciplines, like demography and economics, to complete the analysis and the comparison between...

      , Die Strategie des Perikles (Berlin, 1890)
    • E. Meyer, Forschungen zur alten Geschichte, ii. p. 333 (Halle, 1899)
  • Balance between the two extreme views:
    • Karl Julius Beloch
      Karl Julius Beloch
      Karl Julius Beloch was a German classical and economic historian.In 1870 he moved to Italy for health reasons, where he subsequently studied in Palermo and Rome. In 1875 he received his doctorate from the University of Heidelberg...

      , Die attische Politik seit Perikles (Leipzig, 1884), and Griechische Geschichte, i. p. 537
    • A. Holm, History of Greece, ii. (Eng. tr.), ch. 23, with the notes.
    • H. Bengston, History of Greece: From the Beginnings to the Byzantine Era, Cleon p. 140

External links