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Friends in Low Places: Cleon’s philia in Aristophanes

Robert Holschuh Simmons

 Explanations of the political success of Cleon and other demagogues in Peloponnesian War-era Athens tend to focus on demagogues’ utility: their charismatic speech, for instance (Arist. Pol. 1305a12-13; Henderson 1990; Rhodes 1995), their expertise in management (Andrewes 1962; Davies 1981), or their support of measures that tangibly benefited the impoverished majority (e.g., Thuc. 2.65.10; Ar. Eq. 773-776; Xen. Hell. 1.7.2; Finley 1962; Munn 2000).  Connor (1971), though, influentially explored an intangible factor that likely abetted the success of Cleon in particular: his apparent treatment of the Athenian demos as a philos, implicitly ceding to that group the role of influential insider that elite politicians typically offered to their personal friends (Plut. Mor. 806f9-13; cf. Isoc. 8.126).  Yet Connor did not address why individual Athenians would have reciprocated the friendly feelings; depictions of Cleon make him appear unctuous and manipulative (e.g., Ar. Eq. 48; Vesp. 592; Rosenbloom 2002; Fisher 2008), not especially desirable traits in a friend.  Yet what looks like flattery to one person might look like friendship to another (Arist. Eth. Eud. 1233b30-34a32), and comic portrayals of Cleon show him interacting with common Athenians in a way that contemporary sociology has identified as often leading to feelings of friendship.  Those close interactions, as much as rhetoric or any other factor, likely led to a sense of philia with the demos, registering loyalty in the minds of common Athenians, one person at a time.

The most important factor leading people to conceive of one another as friends is proximity (Homans 1950; Smith and Zipp 1983), and lower-status people more readily develop such feelings in the presence of higher-status individuals (Boissevain 1985).  So depictions of Cleon (or his stand-in in Knights, Paphlagon) interacting throughout Knights with the personified Demos, or being surrounded by various vendors (Eq. 852-57) or by “a hundred heads of flatterers” (Vesp. 1033-34=Pax 756-57), all of which suggest that he was in the habit of letting people of lower status close to him in public, likely led many of those people to register their proximity to him as friendship. 

While not every person of low status could spend time in Cleon’s immediate vicinity, a concept called “transitivity” reveals a strong tendency for people to consider that they, too, have a connection to someone if a friend of theirs, or even someone whom who is like them, has such a connection (Balzer, Sneed, and Moulines 2002; Kilduff and Tsai 2003).  Classical sources provide instances of this phenomenon as well (Eur. Elec. 358-63; Strauss 1987; Blundell 1989).  Thus the many Athenians who would not have had opportunity to share space with Cleon would likely have seen others  like them doing so, and thought  that they too, if circumstances were different, could do so, and thus felt themselves friends of Cleon by extension.

Finally, genuine feelings of friendship can only come about if there is a sense of “homophily,” or attraction based on commonality (Arist. Nic. 1158b29-1159a12; McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Cook 2001; Schwartz 2007), and Cleon’s background would have given him this connection to common Athenians.  First of all, Cleon was from a family that was largely undistinguished until the generation before him (Davies 1971, 1981), and comedy mocked him as a working man (e.g., Nub. 581, Vesp. 38-40).  Beyond that, he apparently acted as though they could fit in with common Athenians.  When Demosthenes tells the Sausage-Seller, Paphlagon’s demagogic rival in Knights, that a great political advantage he has is that he is agoraios (“fitting in in the marketplace,” Eq. 217-19), it suggests that Cleon, too, made common Athenians feel at ease with him because of a manner of self-presentation that reflected his humble roots.

Politics is often as personal as it is practical.  Cleon’s depiction in comedy seems to reflect a way in which he compelled common Athenians to feel a sense of friendly connection to him, and to have gained their political allegiance from that connection.

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Politics and Parody in Old Comedy

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