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Cleon

Updated on November 24, 2009

Cleon (died 422 B.C.), Athenian politician and general. The son of a wealthy tanner, he was the first member of the commercial classes |to attain prominence in Athenian politics. Cleon participated in the political attacks of 430 B.C. against Pericles and against Pericles' defensive strategy in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. After Pericles' death in 429, Cleon eventually emerged as "leader of the people." The historian Thucydides described him as "the most violent of the citizens and by far the most persuasive among the common people" when Cleon convinced the Athenians in 427 to punish the revolt of Mytilene on Lesbos by killing all the men and selling the women and children into slavery. This cruel verdict was reversed at a second assembly, also described by Thucydides, who attributes to Cleon a speech in which he reveals himself as a cold and calculating imperialist and as a demagogue introducing class hatred into internal politics.

In 425, when Athens had forced Sparta to discuss peace by seizing Pylos in Messenia, Cleon convinced the people to continue the war by making excessive demands for the return of territories lost 40 years earlier. Shortly thereafter he publicly accused the Athenian generals of incompetence for failing to capture the Spartans whom they had besieged on the island of Sphacteria, near Pylos. When the general Nicias challenged Cleon to take command and do better, Cleon rashly promised to kill or bring back alive the Spartans within 20 days. He fulfilled this promise, attacking according to a plan conceived by the general Demosthenes. Cleon's return with 292 prisoners raised his prestige even higher.

Cleon and Brasidas

In the next year Cleon was responsible for trebling the tribute paid by the subject states of Athens' empire. His attempt to recapture mainland areas earlier lost by Athens was checked at Megara and led to an Athenian defeat at Delium in Boeotia. After the Spartan general Brasidas had won over from Athens several important cities in Thrace, there was a truce in 423 to discuss peace. Peace was not concluded, however, because of the opposition of both Cleon and Brasidas. When the Thracian town of Scione revolted against Athens in 423, Cleon had a decree passed ordering that the men be killed and the women and children enslaved. Upon the expiration of the truce in 422, he led an army to Thrace, where he captured Torone. Shortly thereafter he was defeated and killed by Brasidas at Amphipolis. Since Brasidas also died there, the chief supporters of war were removed, and the Peace of Nicias was signed in 421.

Evaluation

Cleon was viciously lampooned by the comic poet Aristophanes, whose charges of dishonesty were probably wildly exaggerated. Yet Cleon invited attack, especially when contrasted with his more aristocratic predecessors and rivals, because of his crudity, demagogy, and vanity. He was also portrayed unsympathetically by Thucydides, perhaps partly because he was responsible for the historian's exile, but mostly because of what Cleon stood for: war and expansion when an honorable peace was possible, harshness in dealing with the subject states, and the introduction of class rivalry and suspicion into Athenian politics. These three factors were to lead to Athens' losing the war, its empire, and, at least temporarily, its democracy.

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