1902 Encyclopedia > Cleon

Athenian statesman and general during the Peloponnesian War
(died 422 BC)

CLEON (_____), one of those popular leaders who rose to great temporary influence at Athens during the Pelopon-nesian War, and especially after the death of Pericles. He was emphatically a man of the people, sprung from their own ranks, his father Cleaenetus having been a tanner or leather-dresser. He possessed considerable ability and was a powerful public speaker, though coarse and violent in manner and language. At first he seems to have formed one of the large party at Athens who protested against the policy of the war, and on that ground became a bitter op-ponent of Pericles. But his views must afterwards have changed, since we find him repeatedly urging active warlike measures in opposition to the peace party of which Nicias and others were the representatives. He was at the height of his political influence when in 427 B.C. the revolted citizens of Mitylene, after a long siege, submitted to the Athenian forces, and the question of their punishment was discussed in a public assembly. Cleon proposed and carried, though against strong opposition, the terrible decree that all the males who were able to bear arms (Grote estimates them at as many as 6000) should be put to death, and the women and children sold for slaves. However, in a second assembly held next day, the decree was rescinded in spite of Cleon's remonstrances. A vessel hastily despatched was barely in time to stay its execution. Even as it was, a thousand of those who were considered the ringleaders of the revolt were put to death. But it was perhaps fortunate for Cleon's future influence with the Athenian commons that he had not to bear the odium of a cruelty which they might have bitterly repented. He was hated at all times by the aristocracy of Athens, and on one occasion they succeeded in convicting him of something like extortion of money from certain of the islanders who were subject to the Athenian rule. In 425, the seventh year of the war, he achieved his greatest military and political triumph. The Athenians had succeeded in cutting off from their ships and supplies a strong detach-ment of Lacedaemonian infantry, and blockading them in the small island of Sphacteria, off Pylos (the modern Navarino). At first it seemed that they must speedily surrender; Cleon persuaded the Athenians to dictate, as the price of their release, hard conditions of peace, which the Lacedaemonians rejected. Time wore on, and the Lacedaemonians still held out, while the blockade was maintained with great difficulty and hardship. Then Cleon came forward, and publicly declared that if he were-general, he would undertake to bring the men who were on the island prisoners to Athens, dead or alive, within twenty days. Nicias, who at that time held the command-in-chief, anxious probably to discredit a political opponent, offered to take him at his word, and make over to him the command at Pylos. Cleon's own party were loud in their encourage-ments ; and willingly or unwillingly, after obtaining a strong reinforcement of troops, and getting Demosthenes, an able general then employed on the station, joined with him in the command, he set out for the scene of operations. The historian Thucydides calls his boast " insane," but admits that he fulfilled it. Within the days named he landed on the island of Sphacteria, compelled the Lacedaemonian force there, after great loss, to surrender at discretion, and brought 300 prisoners to Athens. It is very probable that much of the credit was due to the skilful dispositions of Demosthenes, his colleague in command of the forces; but nevertheless, the man who dared and succeeded where others had so long failed must have had a well-grounded confidence in his own energy and resources. He did not long enjoy his new glories. Two years after-wards he was sent to act against Brasidas, the Lacedaemonian commander in Thrace, and to attempt the reconquest of Amphipolis. At first he was successful; he took Torone, and made an advance upon Amphipolis; but a sudden sally of Brasidas from the town utterly routed the Athenian forces, and Cleon fell there with half his men. Brasidas was at the same time mortally wounded.
We have to judge of the character and conduct of Cleon almost entirely from the history of Thucydides and the satiric comedies of Aristophanes. But the historian, even if his judgment were not warped by the fact asserted by some writers, that Cleon had been instrumental in procuring his disgrace and banishment whilst holding a military command, had at any rate strong oligarchical prejudices, and regarded him as a restless and dangerous agitator. If we might trust the picture given of him by Aristophanes

in his comedy of The Knights, he is the unscrupulous and shifty demagogue, always by lies and cajolery pandering to the worst passions of his master, the populace, filching from other men their glory, and resisting all the efforts of the peace party for his own selfish ends. But, besides the general mark which all public characters presented to the licence of the satirist, he had in this case his own private grudge against Cleon, who had laid a complaint before the Athenian senate that in his comedy called The Babylonians he had held up to ridicule the policy and institutions of his country before the eyes of foreigners, and this in the midst of a great national war. With all his real faults, it is likely that Cleon has had less than justice done to him in such portraits of him as have come down to us. (w. L. c.)

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