Monday, May 25, 2015

The Man Who Gave Demagogues a Bad Name

Demagogue, like tyrant or barbarian, is a Greek word.  Like tyrant or barbarian, demagogue was originally a neutral term that only later became a pejorative.  A demagogue was simply a popular leader, or a champion of the common people.  Only later did it come to mean one who lies, appeals to base instincts, or makes unrealistic demands.  Aristotle pairs off popular and aristocratic leaders in Athens.  Solon, he says, stood along, although he was clearly a champion of the common people. Then Pisistratus as champion of the common people and Lycurgus of the aristocracy; then Cleisthenes and IsagorasXanthippus (father of Pericles) and Miltiades (hero of Marathon); Themistocles (hero of the Persian Wars) and Aristides (called the just); Ephialtes and Kimon (son of Miltiades); Pericles and Thucydides (not the historian, though possibly a relative); Cleon and Nicias; and finally Cleophon and Theramenes  (Watch this Theramenes.  We will be seeing more of him).

Certainly of the popular champions Solon, Pisistratus, Cleisthenes, Themistocles, and Pericles were outstanding statesmen as (we shall see) was Thrasybulus, later restorer of Athenian democracy and not included on Aristotle's list.  Yet by the original definition, they were all demagogues because they were popular leaders.  Aristotle expresses a marked preference for politicians of the earlier generation (presumably, the Persian War or earlier) and for conservative politicians like Thucydides, Nicias, and Theramenes, although he admits that Theramenes is controversial.

Cleon is a different matter.  Aristotle describes him as the first leader of the popular faction who was not "in good repute with the respectable classes."  Thucydides and Aristophanes are both strongly hostile.  Modern historians debate how justified this hostility is.  Some of it may simply be based on snobbery or an offended sense of decorum.  Cleon was not an aristocrat; Aristophanes mocks him for being a tanner.  Yet his rival, Nicias, though rich, was not aristocratic either.  Nor was it unprecedented for a leading Athenian politician to be a non-aristocrat.  Aristides and Themistocles  were both of humble and obscure origin.  His rabble-rousing style appears to have offended the aristocracy -- Aristotle called him, "[T]he first person to use bawling and abuse on the platform, and to gird up his cloak before making a public speech."  But Themistocles, too, may have had a style that was too rough for aristocratic tastes.  What was unprecedented (though it gets less attention than one might expect) was that Cleon lacked background as a military commander.  For reasons previously discussed, all Athens' leaders before Cleon (including Nicias) had distinguished themselves as military commanders.  For Cleon, lacking military experience, to take the lead in wartime must have been deeply offensive to many.  Some modern historians have suggested that Aristophanes and Thucydides are oligarchic in their outlook and may therefore be unjust to a populist politician.  It is also suggested that they may be biased by personal grudges against Cleon.  When Thucydides commanded the attempt to retake Amphipolis, Cleon prosecuted and exiled him for failure.  Cleon also prosecuted Aristophanes for one of his plays.  So both men had grudges, but neither episode reflects well on Cleon either.

In deciding how seriously to take Aristophanes' charges -- well, imagine historians 2500 years from now relying on Monty Python as a major source of information on post-WWII Britain and some of the odd and contradictory conclusions they might reach.  Nonetheless, Aristophanes accuses Cleon of needlessly prolonging the war while ignoring the suffering it is causing, embezzling public funds, prosecuting political opponents on false charges, and accusing everyone who disagrees with him of being an enemy of the democracy.  Also of scapegoating gays as a way to shut down rival oratory schools and encouraging uncontrolled farting.  So it is hard to tell just what is and is not meant to be serious.  One matter on which Aristophanes presumably is serious is his calculation that out of 2,000 talents of tribute extracted from allies, only 150 -- less than a tenth -- goes to paying jurors.  The rest, he implies, is going into the pockets of corrupt politicians like Cleon.

It seems unlikely.  Yes, it is good to know that Athens did not have to squeeze allies to meet its basic administrative expenses, and war profiteering has been around for a long time.  But every official upon leaving office had to present an accounting of his use of public funds and could be prosecuted for any funds that he could not account for.  Besides, it should go without saying that Athens' main expense at the time was the war itself.  The charge of being a malicious prosecutor may have some substance.  Athens had no public prosecutor and allowed any free man, citizen or metic, to bring charges.  This led to a plague of professional prosecutors and informants.  Public officials were made especially easy to prosecute and hard to defend.  So it may be that Cleon used this technique to put pressure on his rivals.  And as for a general tendency for Cleon to accuse opponents of being anti-democratic or pro-Spartan and ordinary people to believe it -- well, the general history of democracies in wartime, including our own, is not exactly encouraging in this regard, so the accusation may very well be true.

Thucydides, by contrast, makes some very serious, very substantive accusations.  First, Cleon was the prime instigator of the sentence of extirpation against Mytilene and the  fiercest opponent of mercy.  He also instigated the sentence of extirpation against Scione, which was not revoked.  And obviously, this deserves our absolute condemnation and is enough to condemn Cleon even if none of the other accusations against him hold.

Second, when 420 Laconian forces were trapped on the island of Sphacteria and the Spartans sought to end the war, Cleon was chiefly responsible for refusing their offer and insisting instead on completely unacceptable terms.  On this issue, some modern historians defend Cleon's decision, saying that any peace reached at the time would have failed (as the peace reached four years later did).  It is not clear what they would consider a stable and sustainable peace.

Third, as the siege of Sphacteria dragged on, with no end in sight and winter threatening to bring it to an end and the Athenians regretting not ending the war while they could, Cleon accused the generals in charge of the siege of either lying or incompetence.  Nicias retorted that if capturing the island was so easy, why didn't Cleon do it.  At this, Cleon, who lacked meaningful military experience, tried to back out, but the Assembly insisted.  Unable to get out of commanded, Cleon rashly boasted that he would capture the island in twenty days.  His opponents saw this scenario as ideal for them.  If he captured the island, great; if not, then he would be discredited.  Cleon set out, picking Demosthenes as the general in charge of the actual assault.  And, indeed, they did succeed in capturing the island in 20 days.  The Spartans, who everyone knew would never surrender, surrendered. They were taken to Athens, prisoners.  Cleon threatened to kill them if Sparta invaded Attica again.  The invasions ceased.  Athenian farmers could return to their land, the city was relieved of its overcrowding, and the plague stopped.  Thucydides concedes, "And the mad promise of Cleon was fulfilled; for he did bring back the prisoners within twenty days, as he had said."  Unsurprisingly, Cleon became the hero of the hour.  Aristophanes' play, The Knights, is best seen as a sort of temper tantrum over the hated Cleon's triumph.  And the fairest assessment of Cleon here is that nothing succeeds like success.

Success appears to have gone to Cleon's head and convinced him that he was a brilliant general, which he was not.  Thucydides gets one last dig at Cleon when he attempted to retake Amphipolis.  Cleon proved an incompetent commander leading a less disciplined force, which was routed by Brasidas and the Spartans, with 600 Athenian dead to only seven on the Spartan side.  Cleon was killed, Thucydides says, while running away.

It is not clear where Cleon's authority came from.  As we have seen, Athens' leaders up to that point were all military commanders.  After all, military commanders along with treasurers were the only elective office in Athens, and the only one not subject to a one-year term limit.  Most civil officials chosen by lot, limited to a single one-year term, and only administered a small part of city government, with no meaningful policy making power.  The Council had real policy making power -- it conducted most foreign policy and decided what business was to go the the Assembly.  But members of the Council were chosen by lot and limited to two one-year terms.  What non-military office could Cleon have used as the base for his power?  He may have been a member of the Council, although he could only have served for two years, and he appears to have been prominent for about five (Thucydides introduces him in 427 B.C. calling for the extirpation of Mytilene and announces his death in 422).  Possibly he may have been some sort of elective treasurer or auditor and used this office to prosecute opponents for real or imagined financial irregularities.  But on the whole, Cleon seems to have derived his power not from any military or civil office, but solely from being a persuasive speaker.  This, I suspect, was what was truly new and unsettling about Cleon.

But another point has to be made here, the real point of this overly long post.  Cleon's opponents accuse him of many things -- of rabble rousing, corruption, malicious prosecution, smearing his opponents, presuming to think he knew more about military matters than seasoned generals, war mongering, prolonging the war for political gain, and crimes against humanity.  But one thing they never accuse him of is aspiring to be a dictator.  And this cannot be blamed on an anti-democratic bias.  Dictators were, if anything, even more repugnant to oligarchs than to democrats.  Nothing would please an oligarch more than to see in every demagogue (in either the neutral or the pejorative sense) an aspiring dictator.

I hope before too long to be able to post about another demagogue (the notorious Alcibiades) who we cannot be so confident about.  But in the meantime, although democracy has not yet failed at this stage in Athens, Thucydides gives us a briefer account of it failing in several other cities.

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