To dramatize these spacious themes Aristophanes devised, with brilliant economy of means, an allegorical plot as simple as a folk tale. The house (Athens) of Mr. Demos, a decrepit old man, has been taken over by a newly bought slave, a barbaric tanner from Paphlagonia (Cleon, in real life a tanner). This Paphlagon has entranced Mr. Demos with lies, petty gifts, and flattery, while hoarding Mr. Demos’ wealth to himself and violently alienating the homebred slaves (political competitors) from Mr. Demos, whom they would serve. Two of these Slaves 2 hit on the idea of stealing Paphlagon’s oracles, where they discover that he is but the latest in a succession of demagogues, each worse than the last. The oracles predict that Paphlagon is to be overthrown by someone even worse, a sausage seller. Such a Sausage Seller appears, is recruited by the Slaves and backed by a Chorus representing the aristocratic Knights, who, like Aristophanes, were (for reasons now obscure) enemies of Cleon. There follows a series of contests in which the Sausage Seller outdoes Paphlagon at his own demagogic techniques and, as predicted, succeeds him as Mr. Demos’s steward. At the end of the play, the Sausage Seller magically restores Mr. Demos to his youthful prime, revealing him as he was in the days of Marathon and Salamis
- 2The two were interpreted in antiquity, as by many scholars today, as representing the generals Demosthenes and Nicias. But their characterization suggests rather that they represent the political “outs” more generally: only line 55 has a particular referent, Demosthenes, but other details in the passage do not suit him, and nowhere do the slaves’ words and actions depend for intelligibility on personal caricature. In this edition the slaves are simply called (as in the text) First Slave and Second Slave.
when he, and the Athenians, were at the pinnacle of their greatness. Guided by the now-honest Sausage Seller, Mr. Demos promises never to repeat his recent mistakes, and in traditional comic fashion is sent back to his farm with a “well hung boy” and two girls, who represent peace treaties.
In subsequent years Aristophanes expressed greater pride in Knights than in any other of his plays, claiming that it inaugurated a new genre of “demagogue comedy” and boasting of his own personal courage, and success, in attacking the most dangerous of the demagogues (see esp. Clouds 549–62). Despite Eupolis’ counterclaim that he had shared in the composition of Knights (fr. 89), Aristophanes’ pride seems justified on both counts. Although the play’s allegorical mode of attack has its own artistic advantages, the fact that no character is explicitly identified with an actual person—Cleon is named only once in the play (976) in a choral song not explicitly associated with the character Paphlagon—suggests fear of retaliation. In the event, Cleon did retaliate, indicting Aristophanes a second time (see Acharnians, Introductory Note), this time settling out of court (Wasps 1284–91). That Cleon was elected general in his own right shortly after the success of Knights is not incompatible with Aristophanes’ claim that the play indeed damaged Cleon: after Pylos Cleon could hardly be denied a command, and in any case Knights concentrates its fire not on Cleon’s military ability but on his persuasiveness in the Assembly, and in that respect the poet’s attack may well have struck home.