Who is to Blame? Political Leaders and Demos in Aristophanes’
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
[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).
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
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
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:  φιλῶ
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
) covered with a fig leaf ( θρῖον
have sexual implications and
indicate the male genitals, 
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
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: 
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
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
(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 
. 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
(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 
; the traditional virtue of καλὸς κἀγαθὸς
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.
Thus, the suggestion here may be
that Demos has become an Ionian.
Moreover, considering that σπονδαί
apart from peace treaties also denote libations, 
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
Hence Demos looks more like a rich Ionian ready to join a symposium 
—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.” 
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
some girls embodying the “ σπονδαί
these two have been often thought of as Demos’ recovery of sexual potency,
which symbolizes his rejuvenation.
However, the situation here is rather ironic: Demos,
whom we knew as a δύσκολον γερόντιον
, 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
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 
transforms himself into a trustworthy political advisor, Agorakritos.
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
. 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.
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, 
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
Brock, R. W. 1986. “The
Double Plot in Aristophanes’ Knights.” Greek, Roman and
Byzantine Studies 27:15–27.
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.
1987. Cleon, Knights, and Aristophanes’
Politics. Lanham, MD.
1951 (first ed. 1943). The People of
Aristophanes: A Sociology of Old Attic Comedy.
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.
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.
2000. Deception and Democracy in Classical
2003. “Dēmos Tyrannos: Wealth, Power, and
Economic Patronage.” In Morgan 2003:117–153.
1967. Die Ritter des Aristophanes.
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.
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
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.
2002. Love Among the Ruins: The Erotics of
Democracy in Classical Athens. Princeton.
2004. “Elite Domination and the Clever
Citizen: Aristophanes’ Archarnians and
Knights.” Political Theory 32:656-677.
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.).
For more on this see Wohl 2002:86ff.
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.”
Edmunds 1987:261, Kallet 2003:138–139.
Ionia is strongly associated with nuances of luxury and softness (cf.
So Henderson 1975:69, Sommerstein 1981:219, Bennett and Tyrell
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
Landfester 1967:36, 92–94.
Ford 1965:108ff., Brock 1986:15–16, McGlew 1996:357ff., Zumbrunnen
Zumbrunnen 2004:672. Yet, he believes that Agorakritos retains lofty
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.
Edmunds (1987:256) argues that Demos still remains an old man in the
end. Against this view is Olson 1990.
For the motif see Burkert 1983:83ff.