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Thucydides' portrait of Kleon Boundy, Deane Floyd

Abstract

It is Professor A. G. Woodhead who recalls that, since the time of the nineteenth-century historian George Grote, Thucydidean scholars have divided themselves into pro-Kleon and anti-Kleon camps, with the latter group more than holding its own. It is the purpose of this study to join forces with the pro-Kleon camp,and to rehabilitate Kleon. Kleon has always held interest for students of the Peloponnesian War; the evidence about him both in Thucydides and in the other ancient sources is almost consistently derogatory, and yet on detailed examination of the sources the student can barely resist a murmur of dissent from the persistent condemnation the man receives. This study seeks to find justification for this dissent, and to restore Kleon to a place of respect and integrity. It is not my aim to redeem Kleon from charges of coarseness and unorthodox manners. The comic poets did not fasten upon him so readily without reason. What this study seeks is to restore Kleon’s status as a politician, statesman, and energetic war leader. To do this, it has been necessary to examine with care all the evidence of the ancient sources, and, with equal care, to evaluate it. I have studied, first, Thucydides’ portrait of the demagogue, noted the inconsistencies of that portrait, and searched for their causes and their meaning. The result has been a conviction that Thucydides has treated Kleon unfairly, and has condemned him without just cause. I have turned, in the second place, to the other ancient evidence, that is, aside from Aristophanes. Here we see that all the evidence looks back to Thucydides and the anti-democratic tradition, except for shafts of light here and there that, if not flattering of Kleon, at least do not condemn him à vue d'oeil. Finally, I have consulted the comic poet Aristophanes, to find that his representation of the demagogue, while laudable as comedy, is untenable as history. An examination and analysis of the evidence forces the conclusion that only Thucydides is reliable as a source for appraising the character of Kleon; even so, we may call into question the historian's judgements. The conclusion of the study, therefore, is clearly stated: Kleon was a wiser and more intelligent statesman, with a better reputation and more just entitlement to fame and honour, than our principal authorities lead us to suppose.

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