KNIGHTS was the fourth play in
order of time produced by Aristophanes on the Athenian stage;
it was brought out at the Lenæan Festival, in January,
424 B.C. Of the author's previous efforts, two, The Revellers
and The Babylonians, were apparently youthful essays,
and are both lost. The other, The
Acharnians, forms the first of the three Comedies dealing
directly with the War and its disastrous effects and urging the
conclusion of Peace; for this reason it is better ranged along
with its sequals, the Peace
and the Lysistrata,
and considered in conjunction with them.
In many respects, The Knights may
be reckoned the great Comedian's masterpiece, the direct personal
attack on the then all-powerful Cleon, with its scathing satire
and tremendous invective, being one of the most vigorous and
startling things in literature. Already in The Archanians
he had threatened to "cut up Cleon the Tanner into shoe-leather
for the Knights," and he now proceeds to carry his menace
into execution, "concentrating the whole force of his wit
in the most unscrupulous and merciless fashion against his personal
enemy." In the first-mentioned play Aristophanes had attacked
and satirized the whole general policy of the democratic party--and
incidentally Cleon, its leading spirit and mouthpiece since the
death of Pericles;
he had painted the miseries of war and invasion arising from
this mistaken and mischievous line of action, as he regarded
it, and had dwelt on the urgent necessity of peace in the interests
of an exhausted country and ruined agriculture. Now he turns
upon Cleon personally, and pays him back a hundredfold for the
attacks the demagogue had made in the Public Assembly on the
daring critic, and the abortive charge which the same unscrupulous
enemy had brought against him in the Courts of having "slandered
the city in the presence of foreigners." "In this bitterness
of spirit the play stands in strong contrast with the good-humoured
burlesque of The Acharnians and the Peace, or,
indeed, with any other of the author's productions which has
The characters are five only. First and
foremost comes Demos, 'The People,' typifying the Athenian democracy,
a rich house-holder--a self-indulgent, superstitious, weak creature.
He has had several overseers or factors in succession, to look
after his estate and manage his slaves. The present one is known
as 'the Paphlagonian,' or sometimes as 'the Tanner,' an unprincipled,
lying, cheating, pilfering scoundrel, fawning and obsequious
to his master, insolent towards his subordinates. Two of these
are Nicias and Demosthenes. Here we have real names. Nicias was
High Admiral of the Athenian navy at the time, and Demosthenes
one of his Vice-Admirals; both held still more important commands
later in connection with the Sicilian Expedition of 415-413 B.C.
Fear of consequences apparently prevented the poet from doing
the same in the case of Cleon, who is, of course, intended under
the names of 'the Paphlagonian' and 'the Tanner.' Indeed, so
great was the terror inspired by the great man that no artist
was found bold enough to risk his powerful vengeance by caricaturing
his features, and no actor dared to represent him on the stage.
Aristophanes is said to have played the part himself, with his
face, in the absence of a mask, smeared with wine-lees, roughly
mimicking the purple and bloated visage of the demagogue. The
remaining character is 'the Sausage-seller,' who is egged on
by Nicias and Demosthenes to oust 'the Paphlagonian' from Demos'
favour by outvying him in his own arts of impudent flattery,
noisy boasting and unscrupulous allurement. After a fierce and
stubbornly contested trial of wits and interchange of 'Billingsgate,'
'the Sausage-seller' beats his rival at his own weapons and gains
his object; he supplants the disgraced favourite, who is driven
out of the house with ignominy.
The comedy takes its title, as was often
the case, from the
Chorus, which is composed of Knights--the order of citizens
next to the highest at Athens, and embodying many of the old
aristocratic preferences and prejudices.
The drama was adjudged the first prize--the
Satyrs of Cratinus
being placed second--by acclamation, as such a masterpiece of
wit and intrepidity certainly deserved to be; but, as usual,
the political result was nil. The piece was applauded in the
most enthusiastic manner, the satire on the sovereign multitude
was forgiven, and Cleon remained in as much favour as ever.
This article is reprinted
from Aristophanes: The Eleven Comedies. Trans. Anonymous.
London: The Athenian Society, 1922.