Who Is To Blame? Political Leaders and Demos in Aristophanes' Knights

Analyses of Aristophanes’ Knights often focus on the play’s harsh criticism of Cleon and his policy of demagoguery, but in an alternative view, the play may be more of a critique of the people than Cleon.


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Who is to Blame? Political Leaders and Demos in Aristophanes’ Knights

Scholarship on Aristophanes’ Knights has largely focused on the political invective of Aristophanes against Cleon; in fact the play has been often perceived as an attack on Cleon and his policy of demagoguery. Whitman (1964:80) has argued that in the Knights Aristophanes “unleashed one of the most savage attacks to be found anywhere in the history of literature.” Likewise, Henderson (1975:67) holds that “the real purpose of Knights is to attack and degrade Cleon in the most violent possible ways,” and that “it is essentially a vindictive work that grew out of the standing feud between the poet and the politician.” More recently, Macdowell (1995:107) asserts that “Cleon was indeed the target, of that there can be no doubt.… Cleon alone is pilloried from the beginning to the end of the play.” The theme of demagoguery is closely linked with the ambiguous role of the Sausage-seller in the play and the “metamorphosis” of Demos that he accomplishes in the end. A number of interpretations have been advanced in favour of reading the play’s ending as the restoration and establishment of Demos’ power over demagogues like Cleon, thanks to his trustworthy political advisor Agorakritos. I cite some of the most representative views on the matter:
The character of the Sausage seller before his transformation is typical of the real demagogues whom Aristophanes detested in his own society, whereas the subsequently transformed Agoracritus symbolizes an ideal reformer devoted to the best interests of the people (Ford 1965:108–109).
The audience is led to expect only punishment for the defeated villain [i.e. Paphlagon] and perhaps the installation of Agoracritus in his place, but in fact gets more and better than this in the rehabilitation of Demos (Brock 1986:23).
[Demos’] honesty and common sense will win through in the end. Despite the inconsistencies in the plot, that portrayal of Demos is consistently implied throughout the play (Macdowell 1995:106).
and finally:
Unlike Aristophanes’ other heroes, Agoracritus exploits his victory not for his own pleasure but for that of Demos, who leaves the stage wiser, happier, and younger (McGlew 1996:357).

My view of the play is essentially different. In my paper I want to stress the criticism which Aristophanes aims mostly against the people and not exclusively against Cleon, thereby suggesting that it is the people who are shown to have the biggest share of the responsibility for the political situation in Athens.[1] On these grounds, I set out to argue that Demos displays consistent behaviour throughout the play, which reveals his dependence on his political protectors and his failure to free himself from them in the end. Then, I move on to show that Agorakritos is not a saviour, but just another demagogue, a successor to Cleon (the Paphlagonian slave in the play), who like Cleon before him gains control over Demos in the end. Thus, the message of the ending is essentially pessimistic: people like Cleon still hold and will always hold sway over the people. The circle of manipulation cannot be broken, because of Demos’ behaviour towards his leaders.

Demos Powerful but Easy to Fool

To begin with, many passages in the play suggest that it is the dēmos that has the power over the politicians. First of all, Demos is presented as the master of the house, νῷν γάρ ἐστι δεσπότης (40), even if a “peevish, hard of hearing old man” (42–43). His power is further confirmed by the fact that the final contest for the political leadership between Paphlagon and the Sausage-seller has to be conducted before him.The readiness of the two rivals to serve Demos in order to win his favour is conveyed in linguistic terms by the vocabulary they use when addressing Demos: they use erotic language to establish their bond with him: [2] φιλῶ , ἐραστής (732), ἀντεραστὴς (733), ἐρῶν (734), φιλῶ , στέργω (769), φιλῶν (773), φιλεῖ (779), φιλῶν (791), φιλῶ (821), φιλεῖς (849), φιλεῖν (870).

So, insofar as the two leaders-to-be understand that their status is determined by Demos’ decisions and act according to his caprices, they acknowledge his power. However, as the chorus remarks (1110ff.), there is an inconsistency in the character of Demos: powerful as he may be, he is easily led astray. This gullibility and stupidity of Demos goes alongside the acknowledgement of his power in the play.

Our first impression about Demos is formed on the basis of the slaves’ comments about him. They describe him as a credulous man, susceptible to flattery and toadying, who is easily tricked by Paphlagon (46–47). To confirm this impression, Demos appears on stage much later, after being called, completely unaware of the current situation in the house. Even his suggestion to move to the Pnyx for the decisive agon comes from Paphlagon (746–788); the Sausage-seller objects to it because Demos becomes an imbecile there: οἴκοι μὲν ἀνδρῶν ἐστι δεξιώτατος / ὅταν δ’ ἐπὶ ταυτησὶ καθῆται τῆς πέτρας, / κέχηνεν ὥσπερ ἐμποδίζων ἰσχάδας (753–755). Indeed, Demos throughout the agon shows persistent stupidity: he is too quick to move his favour from Paphlagon to the Sausage-seller and appoint him as his new steward by giving him his ring. This may have further consequences for Demos. The original seal of Demos’ ring was the fat of a bull ( δημός βόειος ) covered with a fig leaf ( θρῖον ).If συκῆ and θρῖον have sexual implications and indicate the male genitals, [3] the bull on the ring stands for Demos’ masculinity and fertility.Now, Paphlagon warns Demos that if he gives the ring to the Sausage-seller he will end up as a skin bottle ( μολγός ), that is he will become someone “well-worn anally.” [4] Thus, by losing his ring, Demos may be also deprived of his masculinity and become a soft and effeminate man (a Σμικύθης ), just as the Sausage-seller’s oracle promises: [5] οὑμοὶ δέ γ’ αὖ λέγουσιν ὡς ἁλουργίδα / ἔχων κατάπαστον καὶ στεφάνην ἐφ’ ἅρματος / χρυσοῦ διώξεις Σμικύθην καὶ κύριον (967–969); but we will come back to this in the end of the play.

So a quick review of Demos’ characteristics in the play has shown that although he is powerful, he cannot use this power to his advantage because he is credulous and unable to judge. However, just in the middle of the contest Demos surprisingly shows us a completely different face from the one just described. In his reply to the chorus’s accusations, which have been mentioned above, he states that he is pretending to be an imbecile, while he has known all along what is happening (1123–1124). He keeps watch on the politicians at all times and, when they are “full up,” he strikes them down (1125–1130). Thus, while they think they deceive him, he is the one who deceives them (1141–1150).

Judging from what we have seen so far, it is hard to take this statement at face value; quite the opposite: immediately after that, Demos expresses his weariness of the politicians’ services (1156–1157), but remains in his inertia and indolence without taking any action to dispose of them. Moreover, although he is aware of acts of stealing on the part of the politicians (he sees the Sausage-seller snatching the hare’s meat from Paphlagon: εἴπ’, ἀντιβολῶ, πῶς ἐπενόησας ἁρπάσαι; (1202) he does not discourage such an act nor does he punish the Sausage-seller in the end; on the contrary, he rewards him.

Demos’ supposed transformation in the end of the play further complicates his personality.Many scholars have read this “metamorphosis” of Demos in accordance with his words to the chorus: as his complete restoration to power and his vengeance on the leaders who abuse his trust [6] . However, this is very doubtful; we will see that Demos does not break free from his political helpers, nor does he become any wiser than he was in the beginning.

The Ending: The “Transformation” of Demos

After the second parabasis the Sausage-seller appears on stage and exclaims that he has boiled Demos down and made him handsome instead of ugly: καλὸν ἐξ αἰσχροῦ πεποίηκα (1321). It is remarkable that the first thing said about Demos’ metamorphosis concerns the change in his appearance, which is a superficial change, and not a change in character or attitude, which would be more substantial. A similar promise had also been made earlier by the Paphlagonian slave: ἐγὼ δὲ τὰς πολιάς γέ σου ‘κλέγων νέον ποιήσω (908). So things have not really advanced beyond the shallow promises of the “pre-election” period.Moreover, after καλὸς we expect to hear ἀγαθός , but again we are disappointed [7] ; the traditional virtue of καλὸς κἀγαθὸς is gone.

Let us examine now in more detail what exactly forms Demos’ transformation. When he appears on stage he is described by the Sausage-seller as τεττιγοφόρας, ὄζων … σπονδῶν and σμύρνη κατάλειπτος . As for τεττιγοφόρας , Thucydides suggests that the fastening of hair with a tie of golden grasshoppers was a fashion among the rich Athenians which spread to Ionia.[8] Thus, the suggestion here may be that Demos has become an Ionian.[9] Moreover, considering that σπονδαί apart from peace treaties also denote libations, [10] the image of a symposium may be conveyed. As the Sausage-seller remarks, Demos remains the same person who dined with Aristides and Militiades (1325). This image of the symposiast is further accentuated by the myrrh with which Demos is anointed.[11]

Hence Demos looks more like a rich Ionian ready to join a symposium [12] —and we are now reminded of the oracle’s promise to make him a soft and effeminate man (967ff.)—than a “monarch of Greece” as he is hailed by the chorus (1330). This addressing of Demos as a monarch becomes even more ironic since he appears to have but a dim memory of his past actions, and is confused “as if emerging from an alcoholic binge.” [13] It is the Sausage-seller again who reminds Demos of the stupid things he used to do, asks for his future measures, and finally rewards him with a “ παῖδ’ ἐνόρχην ” and some girls embodying the “ σπονδαί .” Now these two have been often thought of as Demos’ recovery of sexual potency, which symbolizes his rejuvenation.[14] However, the situation here is rather ironic: Demos, whom we knew as a δύσκολον γερόντιον ὑπόκωφον , now has two (or more) young female lovers. He reminds us more of the old Philokleon of the Wasps , who stole a female pipe-singer from the symposium he attended: the image is equally unflattering.[15]

We may reasonably wonder whether Demos has been benefited at all, even though he is rejuvenated. He has gained free sex, food, and drink in the Prytaneum, but all these are simply a lure to make him give up his exercise of political power. In that sense, his sexual activity is not a restoration of his potency, but rather a degradation to a life which will involve more manipulation or ἀπραγμοσύνη . We may well wonder: while Demos is busy with his sexual activities, who will deal with the serious political business?

Sausage-seller: The Saviour?

The Sausage-seller has been often regarded as a hero, who either conceals his true nature and reveals himself only in the end [16] or unexpectedly transforms himself into a trustworthy political advisor, Agorakritos.[17] All these suggestions, however, take for granted that the Sausage-seller, despite his behaviour throughout the play, in the end turns into to Demos’ saviour and works in his interest from then on. Yet this is highly improbable. From the time the Sausage-seller is picked as a rival of Paphlagon, we watch him trying to overpower him by using the very weapons Paphlagon used: πανουργία and ἀναίδεια . When he finally wins and takes his rival’s place, the promise he gives to Demos speaks for his character: καὶ μὴν ἐγώ σ’, ὦ Δῆμε, θεραπεύσω καλῶς, / ὥσθ’ ὁμολογεῖν σε μηδέν’ ἀνθρώπων ἐμοῦ / ἰδεῖν ἀμείνω τῇ Κεχηναίων πόλει ( 1261–1263). He will treat Demos as a gaping fool ( Κεχηναίων , with a pun on Ἀθηναίων , cf. 752–754 ὁ γὰρ γέρων … κέχηνεν , 1120 κέχηνας ) the same as he and his likes have always done.[18]

So far none of the Sausage-seller’s actions argue for his change to a “hero.” But even after the supposed transformation of Demos there are no signs that he has changed somehow.He still adopts the same flattery, when he reassures Demos that he was not to blame for his former errors, [19] and even gives him a reward to keep him satisfied. Finally, it is he who decides Paphlagon’s punishment and triumphantly takes his place in the Prytaneum, where he had accused Paphlagon of enjoying himself improperly (280–281). Such a presentation provokes the suspicion that Agorakritos has exploited the political climate for his own ends.[20] He can now go on with his manipulation without complaints on the part of Demos, since Demos is content with what he is given (i.e. the girls, whom Agorakritos says that Paphlagon kept locked away). However, insofar as this sudden generosity of Agorakritos cannot be justified by his good intentions towards Demos, we might suppose that all he intends is to keep him quiet and absent from the political scene.

In sum, Agorakritos does not differ at all from Paphlagon or every other man who will act as the political advisor of Demos; he has perhaps done nothing more than inherit and deepen the process of manipulation from Cleon.[21] Yet he is smarter. Not only does he succeed in convincing Demos that he has mended him, he also claims credit for the transformation.However, this transformation is not substantial: [22] the action of boiling symbolizes the promises of change and rejuvenation every politician will always give to Demos—and almost never keep. Moreover, boiling to rejuvenate also has mythical parallels.[23] Bowie (1993:52ff.) has shown that the Sausage-seller can be compared with ephebic heroes of mythology. However, insofar as the Sausage-seller’s qualities do not match these of a mythical hero, Aristophanes may have well wanted his audience to make a clear and sharp distinction between mythology and reality, so as to produce an ironic effect. I agree with Bowie that the final boiling of Demos takes us away from the world of achievable realities, but I think more emphasis has to be laid on the pessimistic side. After all, as Bowie himself remarks (1993:76), “boiling to rejuvenate is fine in mythology … but mortals are not so susceptible.”

Who is Finally to Blame?

As a matter of fact, the Knights should not be seen only as Aristophanes’ personal revenge against Cleon, but mostly as a satire on Demos’ political practice with his advisors. Evidently, the only thing Demos controls is the alteration of his leaders. Of course, prominent political leaders had always been a target for Old Comedy. As Sommerstein remarks (1996:331), “the only reliable advice for someone who wanted to avoid being a komodoumenos was the advice of Epicurus, ‘live unnoticed.’” However, Aristophanes’ comedies do not allow for a single interpretation; and if the audience could make out of the Knights that their leaders were not gentlemen, they could all the same feel that Aristophanes criticised them about their attitude to politics.


Bennett, L. J., and W. M. B. Tyrell. 1990. “Making sense of Aristophanes’ Knights.” Arethusa 23:235–254.

Boedeker, D., and K. Raaflaub, eds. 2003. Democracy, Empire, and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens. Cambridge, MA.

Bowie, A. M. 1993. Aristophanes: Myth, ritual and comedy. Cambridge.

Brock, R. W. 1986. “The Double Plot in Aristophanes’ Knights.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 27:15–27.

Burkert, W. 1983. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. Transl. by P. Bing. Berkeley.

Dover, K. J. 1972. Aristophanic Comedy. Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Edmunds, L. 1987. Cleon, Knights, and Aristophanes’ Politics. Lanham, MD.

Ehrenberg, V. 1951 (first ed. 1943). The People of Aristophanes: A Sociology of Old Attic Comedy. Oxford.

Ford, G. B. 1965. “The Knights as a source of Aristophanes’ attitude toward the demagogues and the demos.” Athenaeum n.s. 43:106–110.

Gomme, A. J., A. Andrewes, and K. J. Dover. 1956 (first ed. 1945). Historical commentary on Thucydides, Vol. I. Oxford

Henderson, J. 1975. The Maculate Muse: Obscene Language in Attic Comedy. New Haven.

———. 1990. “The Demos and the Comic Competition.” In Winkler and Zeitlin 1990:271–313.

———. 1998. “Attic Comedy, Frank Speech, and Democracy.” In Boedeker and Raaflaub 1998:255–273.

———. 2003. “Demos, Demagogue, Tyrant in Attic Old Comedy.” In Morgan 2003:155–179.

Hesk, J. 2000. Deception and Democracy in Classical Athens. Cambridge.

Kallet, L. 2003. “Dēmos Tyrannos: Wealth, Power, and Economic Patronage.” In Morgan 2003:117–153.

Landfester, M. 1967. Die Ritter des Aristophanes. Amsterdam.

Littlefield, D. J. 1968. “Metaphor and Myth: The Unity of Aristophanes’ Knights.” Studies in Philology 65:1–22.

Macdowell, D. M. 1995. Aristophanes and Athens. Oxford.

McGlew, J. 1996. “‘Everybody Wants to Make a Speech’: Cleon and Aristophanes on Politics and Fantasy.” Arethusa 29:339–361.

Morgan, K. A., ed. 2003. Popular Tyranny: Sovereignty and its Discontents in Ancient Greece. Austin.

Olson, S. D. 1990. “The New Demos of Aristophanes’ Knights.” Eranos 88:60–63.

Sommerstein, A. H. 1981. Aristophanes: Knights. The Comedies of Aristophanes: Vol. 2. Warminster.

———. 1996. “How to Avoid Being a Komodoumenos.” Classical Quarterly n.s. 46:327–356.

Whitman, C. N. 1964. Aristophanes and the Comic Hero. Cambridge, MA.

Winkler, J. J., and F. I. Zeitlin, eds. 1990. Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in its Social Context. Princeton.

Wohl, V. 2002. Love Among the Ruins: The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens. Princeton.

Zumbrunnen, J. 2004. “Elite Domination and the Clever Citizen: Aristophanes’ Archarnians and Knights.” Political Theory 32:656-677.


Note 1
I do not agree with Henderson, who has repeatedly argued that comic criticism of the dēmos ’s exercise of power was always directed at bad leaders rather than the dēmos itself (see Henderson 1990:288ff., 1998:271ff., and 2003:159ff.).

Note 2
For more on this see Wohl 2002:86ff.

Note 3
Henderson 1975:118.

Note 4
Henderson 1975:68.

Note 5
Bennett-Tyrell 1990:245.

Note 6
Ehrenberg 1951:47; Littlefield 1968:21–22; Dover 1972:98; Henderson 1990:288; McGlew 1996:354, 357; Zumbrunnen 2004:672. Ford 1965:110 and Brock 1986:15–16 accept the transformation of Demos, but only as part of an idealistic second plot, which follows the realistic and more cynical one in the beginning (see also the section about the Sausage-seller, below). For Brock (1986:16), “the completion of the first of these plot lines (i.e. the realistic) brings the play to a false conclusion, which is superseded by the real ending.”

Note 7
Edmunds 1987:261, Kallet 2003:138–139.

Note 9
Edmunds 1987:259.

Note 10
Sommerstein 1981:216.

Note 11
Edmunds 1987:260.

Note 12
Ionia is strongly associated with nuances of luxury and softness (cf. Edmunds 1987:259).

Note 13
McGlew 1996:353.

Note 14
So Henderson 1975:69, Sommerstein 1981:219, Bennett and Tyrell 1990:249.

Note 15
Brock 1986:20; Kallet 2003:138–140 refers to both Demos in Knights and Philokleon in Wasps as examples to show that the notion of dēmos tyrannos is accompanied by positive nuances in Aristophanes: “His [i.e. Philocleon’s] position of monarchos / tyrannos per se is uncontested as something desirable.” I am not sure though that either figure reflects a desirable and appealing potentate. The effect is rather ironic, since on one hand Demos is not in fact the “sovereign of Greece,” and on the other hand Philocleon’s “development” will most probably get him into trouble (cf. Henderson 1975:82).

Note 16
Landfester 1967:36, 92–94.

Note 17
Ford 1965:108ff., Brock 1986:15–16, McGlew 1996:357ff., Zumbrunnen 2004:671–672.

Note 18
Zumbrunnen 2004:672. Yet, he believes that Agorakritos retains lofty motives.

Note 19
Henderson (2003: 161) believes that with this phrase Aristophanes intends to absolve Demos from every blame and put it all on demagogues, since “comic criticism of the demos’ exercise of power was always directed at bad leaders rather than the demos itself.” (Cf. also Henderson 1990:312 “Comic poets particularly wanted the demos to look through the lies, compromises, self interest and general arrogance of their leaders and to remember who was ultimately in charge.”) Yet Demos is to blame as well.

Note 20
Hesk 2000:35.

Note 21
Hesk 2000:35.

Note 22
Edmunds (1987:256) argues that Demos still remains an old man in the end. Against this view is Olson 1990.

Note 23
For the motif see Burkert 1983:83ff.