Knights was produced at the Lenaea of 424, placing first; Cratinus placed second with Satyrs and Aristomenes third with Porters. Knights, the first play that Aristophanes produced in his own name (cf. 512–45), made good his promise at the previous year’s Lenaea to “cut Cleon up into shoeleather for the Knights” (Acharnians 299–302), even though Cleon in the meantime had become more powerful than ever.
In the preceding summer, Athenian troops under the command of the general Demosthenes had stranded a force of Spartan infantrymen on an island off Pylos in the western Peloponnese. Cleon broke the subsequent strategic and diplomatic impasse by rising in the Assembly and challenging the generals to attack the Spartans; when Nicias, spokesman for the generals, demurred, the Assembly invited Cleon to assume Nicias’ authority over the Pylos campaign. Cleon accepted, vowing to kill or capture the Spartans within three weeks, and then fulfilled his vow, returning to Athens with 292 Spartan hostages (Thucydides 4.1–41). This was a key victory for Athens: it diminished the legend of Spartan invincibility on land, and the hostages could be used to force an end to the annual invasions of Attica. It also made a hero of Cleon, who was honored with a civic crown, lifetime meals in the Prytaneum,
and front-row seating at festivals and in the theater. And it seemed to vindicate Cleon’s warlike policies, so that the Athenians now rejected out of hand all proposals to negotiate a peace treaty and instead embarked on an ambitious and aggressive series of campaigns. One of these, which involved Nicias and the Knights, is even invoked in the play as a counterbalance to Cleon’s victory at Pylos (595–610).
Knights is a remarkably savage indictment, both personal and political, of Cleon, of the other popular politicians who had succeeded Pericles upon his death in 429, and of the complacency of the demos (sovereign people) in following their advice. In Aristophanes’ eyes, Cleon and his ilk were crude but cunning tradesmen of questionable ancestry who had made their way into politics as blackmailers and malicious prosecutors; who deceived the people into authorizing the sort of reckless military and imperialistic adventures that would enable them to enrich themselves by embezzlement, extortion, and bribe-taking; who impoverished both rich and poor by their rapacity; who corrupted the morals of the young; and who tarnished the glory, and were threatening the future, of Athens. The play resounds with the noise, the vulgarity, the violence, and the selfish cynicism that for Aristophanes typified the new style of Athenian leadership. As for the victory at Pylos, Cleon had simply stolen the credit from the real generals. No doubt there were other Athenians, though apparently not a majority, who shared these opinions. 1