Cleon (English pronunciation: //; Greek: Κλέων Kleon, Ancient Greek: [kléɔːn]; died 422 BCE) was an Athenian statesman and a general during the Peloponnesian War. He was the first prominent representative of the commercial class in Athenian politics, although he was an aristocrat himself. His contemporaries Thucydides and Aristophanes represented him as a warmonger and a demagogue.
Opposition to Pericles
Cleon first came to notice as an opponent of Pericles in the late 430s through his opposition to Pericles' strategy of refusing battle against the Peloponnesian League invaders in 431 BC. As a result, he found himself acting in concert with the Athenian aristocratic parties, who also had no liking for Pericles. During 430 BC, after the unsuccessful expedition by Pericles to the Peloponnesus, and when the city was devastated by the plague, Cleon headed the opposition to Pericles' rule. At this time, Pericles was accused by Cleon of maladministration of public money, with the result that Pericles was found guilty and removed from office (see Grote's History of Greece, abridged ed., 1907, p. 406, note 1). However, Pericles' setback was temporary and he was soon reinstated.
Rise in popularity
The death of Pericles from the plague in 429 BC left the field clear for new leadership in Athens. Hitherto Cleon had only been a vigorous opposition speaker, a trenchant critic and accuser of state officials, but he now came forward as the professed champion and leader of the democracy and, as a result, dominated Athenian politics. Although rough and unpolished, he was charismatic, being gifted with natural eloquence and a powerful voice, and he knew how to work upon the emotions of the Athenian populace. He strengthened his support amongst the poorer citizens of Athens by increasing the pay of the jurymen, which provided many of the poorer Athenians with a means of livelihood.
The fondness of the Athenians for litigation increased his power; and the practice of "sycophancy" (raking up material for false charges), enabled him to remove those who were likely to endanger his ascendancy. In 426 BC, Cleon brought an unsuccessful prosecution against Laches based on his generalship in the unsuccessful first Sicilian expedition. This is one of the very few times that an Athenian general escaped civil punishment for a defeat. Having no further use for his former aristocratic associates, he broke off all connection with them, and thus felt at liberty to attack the secret combinations for political purposes, the oligarchical clubs to which they mostly belonged. Whether he also introduced a property-tax for military purposes, and even held a high position in connection with the treasury, is uncertain.
Aristophanes and Thucydides on Cleon
The character of Cleon is represented by Aristophanes and Thucydides in a very unfavourable light, justifiable considering he instilled a feeling of mistrust within Athens through a kind of Athenian "McCarthyism" caused by the excessive number of informants he employed to keep a watchful eye on the city. But both have been suspected of being prejudiced witnesses: The playwright had a grudge against Cleon, who may have accused him before the Council of having ridiculed (in his lost play Babylonians) the policy and institutions of his city in the presence of foreigners and at the time of a great national danger. Thucydides, a man of strong oligarchical inclinations, had also been prosecuted for military incapacity and exiled by a decree proposed by Cleon. It is therefore possible that Cleon has had injustice done to him in the portraits handed down by these two writers.
His influence lay in his forceful and bullying style of oratory, anti-intellectual and anti-aristocratic in tone, and his populism. This might have brought him many enemies. He seems to have aimed at short-term goals, but Athens' poor stood to benefit by his policies, at the expense of heavy taxes levied onto her allies. 
For the literature on Cleon see Karl Friedrich Hermann, Lehrbuch der griechischen Antiquitäten, i. pt. 2 (6th ed. by V. Thumser, 1892), p. 709, and Georg Busolt, Griechische Geschichte, iii. pt. 2 (1904), p. 988, note 3.
The following are the chief authorities:
- Favourable to Cleon
- C. F. Ranke, De Aristophanis Vita Commentatio (Leipzig, 1845)
- J. G. Droysen, Aristophanes, ii., Introd. to the Knights (Berlin, 1837)
- G. Grote, History of Greece. chs. 50, 54
- W. Oncken, Athen und Hellas, ii. p. 204 (Leipzig, 1866)
- H. Müller-Strübing, Aristophanes und die historisehe Kritik (Leipzig, 1873)
- J. B. Bury, Hist, of Greece, i. (1902)
- J. F. Kortüm, Geschichtliche Forschungen (Leipzig, 1863), and Zur Geschichte hellenichen Statsverfassungen (Heidelberg, 1821)
- F. Passow, Vermischte Schriften (Leipzig, 1843)
- C Thirlwall, History of Greece, ch. 21
- E. Curtius, History of Greece (Eng. tr. iii. p. 112)
- J. Schvarcz, Die Demokratie (Leipzig, 1882)
- H. Delbrück, Die Strategie des Perikles (Berlin, 1890)
- E. Meyer, Forschungen zur alten Geschichte, ii. p. 333 (Halle, 1899)
- Balance between the two extreme views:
- Cf. Aristophanes, chiefly The Knights (864-867: "You are like the fishers for eels; in still waters they catch nothing, but if they thoroughly stir up the slime, their fishing is good; in the same way it's only in troublous times that you line your pockets.", etc.), The Wasps (esp. 664-712), and most mentions of Cleon in the other plays.
- Cf. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, book III (36: "the most violent man at Athens", and 37-40 on the Mytilene affair), IV (21:"a popular leader of the time and very powerful with the multitude", 22, 27-29 on the Pylos affair), and V (16: "Cleon and Brasidas, who had been the two principal opponents of peace on either side--the latter from the success and honour which war gave him, the former because he thought that, if tranquillity were restored, his crimes would be more open to detection and his slanders less credited").
- A.H.M. Jones, ‘The Athenian democracy and its critics’, Cambridge Historical Journey. 11.1 (1953) 1-26.
- "Cleon" Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition vol IV, p. 495;
- "Cleon" Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, edited by M.C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers, Oxford University Press
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.