The Knights

For other uses, see Knights (disambiguation).
The Knights

The Dramatis Personae in ancient comedy depends on interpretation of textual evidence.[1] This list is based on Alan Sommerstein's translation.[2]
Written by Aristophanes
Chorus knights
  • Demosthenes a slave of Demos
  • Nicias another slave of Demos
  • Agoracritus a sausage seller
  • Paphlagonian (Cleon) a slave and steward of Demos
  • Demos an elderly Athenian

Silent roles

  • The Peacetreaties two girls
  • Several slaves
Setting Outside Demos' house near the Pnyx in Athens

The Knights (Ancient Greek: Ἱππεῖς Hippeîs; Attic: Ἱππῆς) was the fourth play written by Aristophanes, the master of an ancient form of drama known as Old Comedy. The play is a satire on the social and political life of classical Athens during the Peloponnesian War and in this respect it is typical of all the dramatist's early plays. It is unique however in the relatively small number of its characters and this was due to its scurrilous preoccupation with one man, the pro-war populist Cleon. Cleon had prosecuted Aristophanes for slandering the polis with an earlier play, The Babylonians (426 BC), for which the young dramatist had promised revenge in The Acharnians (425 BC), and it was in The Knights (424 BC) that his revenge was exacted. The Knights won first prize at the Lenaia festival when it was produced in 424 BC.


The Knights is a satire on political and social life in 5th-century BC Athens, the characters are drawn from real life and Cleon is clearly intended to be the villain. However it is also an allegory, the characters are figures of fantasy and the villain in this context is Paphlagonian, a comic monstrosity responsible for almost everything that's wrong with the world. The identity Cleon=Paphlagonian is awkward and the ambiguities aren't easily resolved. This summary features the real-world names Cleon, Nicias and Demosthenes (though these names are never mentioned in the play). See Discussion for an overview of the ambiguous use of characterization in The Knights.

Short summary: A sausage seller, Agoracritus, vies with Cleon for the confidence and approval of Demos ('The People' in Greek), an elderly man who symbolizes the Athenian citizenry. Agoracritus emerges triumphant from a series of contests and he restores Demos to his former glory.

Detailed summary: Nicias and Demosthenes run from a house in Athens, complaining of a beating that they have just received from their master, Demos, and cursing their fellow slave, Cleon, as the cause of their troubles. They inform the audience that Cleon has wheedled his way into Demos's confidence and they accuse him of misusing his privileged position for the purpose of extortion and corruption. They advise us that even the mask-makers are afraid of Cleon and not one of them could be persuaded to make a caricature of him for this play. They assure us however that we are clever enough to recognize him even without a mask. Having no idea how to solve their problems, they pilfer some wine from the house, the taste of which inspires them to an even bolder theft - a set of oracles that Cleon has always refused to let anyone else see. On reading these stolen oracles, they learn that Cleon is one of several peddlers destined to rule the polis and that it is his fate to be replaced by a sausage seller. As chance would have it, a sausage seller passes by at that very moment, carrying a portable kitchen. Demosthenes informs him of his destiny. The sausage seller is not convinced at first but Demosthenes points out the myriads of people in the theatre and he assures him that his skills with sausages are all that is needed to govern them. Cleon's suspicions meanwhile have been aroused and he rushes from the house in search of trouble. He immediately finds an empty wine bowl and he loudly accuses the others of treason. Demosthenes calls upon the knights of Athens for assistance and a Chorus of them charges into the theatre. They converge on Cleon in military formation under instructions from their leader:

Hit him, hit him, hit the villain hateful to the cavalry,
Tax-collecting, all-devouring monster of a lurking thief!
Villain, villain! I repeat it, I repeat it constantly,
With good reason since this thief reiterates his villainy![3]

Cleon is given rough handling and the Chorus leader accuses him of manipulating the political and legal system for personal gain. Cleon bellows to the audience for help and the Chorus urges the sausage-seller to outshout him. There follows a shouting match between Cleon and the sausage seller with vulgar boasts and vainglorious threats on both sides as each man strives to demonstrate that he is a more shameless and unscrupulous orator than the other. The knights proclaim the sausage-seller the winner of the argument and Cleon then rushes off to the Boule to denounce them all on a trumped-up charge of treason. The sausage seller sets off in pursuit and the action pauses for a parabasis, during which the Chorus steps forward to address the audience on behalf of the author.

The Chorus informs us that Aristophanes has been very methodical and cautious in the way he has approached his career as a comic poet and we are invited to applaud him. The knights then deliver a speech in praise of the older generation, the men who made Athens great, and this is followed by a speech in praise of horses that performed heroically in a recent amphibious assault on Corinth, whither they are imagined to have rowed in gallant style.

Returning to the stage, the sausage seller reports to the knights on his battle with Cleon for control of the Council - he has outbid Cleon for the support of the councillors with offers of meals at the state's expense. Indignant at his defeat, Cleon rushes onto the stage and challenges the sausage-seller to submit their differences to Demos. The sausage seller accepts the challenge. They call Demos outdoors and compete with each other in flattering him like rivals for the affections of an eromenos. He agrees to hear them debating their differences and he takes up his position on the Pnyx (here represented possibly as a bench).[4] The sausage-seller makes some serious accusations in the first half of the debate: Cleon is indifferent to the war-time sufferings of ordinary people, he has used the war as an opportunity for corruption and he prolongs the war out of fear that he will be prosecuted when peace returns. Demos is won over by these arguments and he spurns Cleon's wheedling appeals for sympathy. Thereafter the sausage seller's accusations become increasingly absurd: Cleon is accused of waging a campaign against buggery in order to stifle opposition (because all the best orators are buggers) and he is said to have brought down the price of silphium so that jurors who bought it would suffocate each other with their flatulence. Cleon loses the debate but he doesn't lose hope and there are two further contests in which he competes with the sausage seller for Demos's favour - a) the reading of oracles flattering to Demos; b) a race to see which of them can best serve pampered Demos's every need. The sausage seller wins each contest by outdoing Cleon in shamelessness. Cleon makes one last effort to retain his privileged position in the household - he possesses an oracle that describes his successor and he questions the sausage seller to see if he matches the description in all its vulgar details. The sausage seller does match the description. In tragic dismay, Cleon at last accepts his fate and he surrenders his authority to the sausage-seller. Demos asks the sausage seller for his name and we learn that it is Agoracritus, confirming his lowly origin. The actors depart and the Chorus treats us to another parabasis.

The knights step forward and they advise us that it is honourable to mock dishonourable people. They proceed to mock Ariphrades, an Athenian with a perverse appetite for female secretions. Next they recount an imaginary conversation between some respectable ships that have refused to carry the war to Carthage because the voyage was proposed by Hyperbolus, a man they despise. Then Agoracritus returns to the stage, calling for respectful silence and announcing a new development - he has rejuvenated Demos with a good boiling (just as if he were a piece of meat). The doors of Demos's house open to reveal impressive changes in Demos's appearance - he is now the very image of glorious 'violet-crowned' Athens, as once commemorated in a song by Pindar. Agoracritus presents his transformed master with the Peacetreaties - beautiful girls that Cleon had been keeping locked up in order to prolong the war. Demos invites Agoracritus to a banquet at the town hall and the entire cast exits in good cheer - all except Cleon, who is required to sell sausages at the city gate as punishment for his crimes.

Historical background

Some significant events leading up to the play:

Cleon, knights and Aristophanes

Cleon's political career was founded on his opposition to the cautious war strategy of Pericles and its highpoint came with the Athenian victory at Sphacteria, for which he was feted and honoured by the majority of his fellow citizens. Included in the civic honours were free meals at the town hall or prytaneion and front row seats at festivals such as the Lenaia and City Dionysia. Cleon's entitlement to these honours is continually mocked by Aristophanes in The Knights and possibly Cleon was sitting in the front row during the performance. Aristophanes makes numerous accusations against Cleon, many of them comic and some in earnest. He mocks Cleon for his questionable pedigree [5] but inscriptions indicate that the social origins of demagogues like Cleon were not as obscure as Aristophanes and other comic poets tried to make out.[6] He appears to have used the law courts for personal and political ends but it is possible that he was neither venal nor corrupt.[7] He had prosecuted Aristophanes for an earlier play, The Babylonians, but an attempt at political censorship during a time of war was not necessarily motivated by personal malice or ambition on Cleon's part - the play depicted the cities of the Athenian League as slaves grinding at a mill[8] and it had been performed at the City Dionysia in the presence of foreigners. The knights (citizens rich enough to own horses) were the comic poet's natural allies against a populist such as Cleon - according to a passage in The Acharnians,[9] they had recently forced him to hand over a large sum of money, implying that he had obtained it corruptly.[10] As an educated class, knights occupied many of the state offices that were subject to annual audits and Cleon specialized in the prosecution of such officials, often using his rapport with jurors to obtain the verdicts he wanted.[11] This abuse of the auditing system is one of the complaints made by the Chorus when it enters the stage and it accuses Cleon of selecting officials for prosecution like figs according to their wealth and psychological vulnerability (lines 257-65). The play also accuses Cleon of manipulating census lists to impose crippling financial burdens on his choice of victims (lines 911-25).

Places and people mentioned in The Knights

Old Comedy is a highly topical form of comic drama and its meanings are often obscured by multiple references to contemporary news, gossip and literature. Centuries of scholarship have unriddled many of these references and they are explained in commentaries in various editions of the plays. The following lists are compiled from two such sources.[12][13] Note: Paphlagonian is here referred to by his real name, Cleon.

Athenian politicians and generals
Poets and other artists
Athenian personalities
Religious, cultural, historic and foreign identities


The play's dual significance as a satire/allegory leads to an ambivalence in its characters that isn't easily resolved.

Agoracritus - miracle-worker and/or sausage-seller: The protagonist is an ambiguous character. Within the satirical context, he is a sausage seller who must overcome self-doubts to challenge Cleon as a populist orator, yet he is a godlike, redemptive figure in the allegory. His appearance at the start of the play is not just a coincidence but a godsend (kata theon, line 147), the shameless pranks that enable him to defeat Paphlagonian were suggested to him by the goddess Athena (903), he attributes his victory to Zeus, god of the Greeks (1253), and he compares himself to a god at the end (1338). He demonstrates miraculous powers in his redemption of The people and yet it was done by boiling, a cure for meat practised by a common sausage seller.

Cleon and/or Paphlagonian: The antagonist is another ambiguous character - he represents a real person, Cleon, and a comic monstrosity, Paphlagonian. He is never called 'Cleon' and he doesn't look like Cleon since the maskmakers refused to caricature him. Cleon's father, Cleaenetus, is mentioned by name (line 574) but there is no mention of his relationship with Paphlagonian. The name 'Paphlagonian' implies that the antagonist is of foreign descent and he is said to be the grandson of a foreign mercenary employed by the tyrant, Hippias (line 449). However, an oracle refers to Paphlagonian as the watchdog of Athens (Kuon or Dog, line 1023) and Kuon was in fact Cleon's nickname (later exploited in the trial scene in The Wasps).[52] The first half of the debate at the Pnyx (lines 756-835) features some serious accusations that are clearly aimed at Cleon. On the other hand, the second half of the debate (lines 836-940) features absurd accusations that are aimed at an entirely comic villain.

Nicias and Demosthenes and/or two slaves: The two slaves are listed as Demosthenes and Nicias in ancient manuscripts. The lists were probably based on the conjecture of ancient critics and yet there is little doubt that they reflect Aristophanes' intentions.[53] Demosthenes summons the Chorus of knights as if he were a general in command of cavalry. Moreover, he says he made a Spartan cake in Pylos that was later pilfered by Paphlagonian (lines 54-7) and this seems to be a reference to Cleon's success in taking the lion's share of the credit for the victory at Sphacteria. However, the identity slaves=generals is problematic. In the standard edition of the collected plays,[54] the two slaves leave the stage early and they don't return. This is consistent with their role as minor characters and yet Nicias and Demosthenes were not minor figures in Athenian political life. One editor[55] has Demosthenes deliver a short valedictory speech congratulating Agoracritus at the end of the play (lines 1254-56) - a speech that is otherwise assigned to the leader of the Chorus. However this is a token appearance after a long absence and it still leaves the audience in the dark about how Nicias feels at the end.

Imagery: It has been observed that imagery is the most important aspect of Aristophanes' comic poetry.[56] In this play, the imagery provides a context in which the ambiguities mentioned above can be resolved. Paphlagonian is a monstrous giant (74-9), a snoring sorcerer (103), a mountain torrent (137), a hook-footed eagle (197), garlic pickle (199), a mud-stirrer (306), a fisherman watching for shoals of fish (313), a butchered pig (375-81), a bee browsing blooms of corruption (403), a dog-headed ape (416), a storm by sea and land (430-40), a giant hurling crags (626-29), a storm surge at sea (691-93), a thieving nurse (716-18), a fishermen hunting eels (864-67), a boiling pot (919-22), a lion fighting gnats (1037-8), a dogfox (1067), a beggar (182-3) and finally a sausage seller in the city gates (1397). These mixed metaphors present Paphlagonian as a versatile form of comic evil whose relevance transcends any particular place or time. Thus Cleon can be understood as one of Paphlagonian's many manifestations and the satire is subsumed in the larger allegory without contradiction.

Gluttony is one of the dominant themes that emerge from the imagery. The play's focus on food and drink is evident in the choice of a sausage seller as the protagonist. It is evident also in puns on the names of two characters. The name Paphlagonian bears a resemblance with Paphlazo (I splutter, boil, fret) and this pun is made explicit in lines 919-22, where Paphlagonian is imagined as a boiling pot that needs to be taken off the fire. In Greek Demos bares a resemblance to the Greek word for fat, a pun that is made explicit in lines 214-16, where Demosthenes compares the task of government to the task of preparing and cooking meat.[57] The connection Demos=fat is consistent with the notion that Agoracritus can refine his master at the end of the play by boiling him (a notion that originates in the myth of Pelias, whose children boil him like an old ram in an attempt to rejuvenate him).[58] Many of the grossest images in the play feature references to cannibalism: Paphlagonian swallows his victims like figs (258-63), Agoracritus is urged to eat Paphlagonian's crest and wattles (496-7), protagonist and antagonist threaten to devour each other (693, 698-701) and Demos devours his own officials (1131–40). Such images present the audience with a nightmarish vision of the world - it is a world where horses and ships talk and act more like human beings than human beings do. The darkness of this vision makes the final vision of a reformed Athens all the brighter by contrast.

The Knights and Old Comedy

The Knights is one of the earliest of Aristophanes' surviving plays and generally it obeys the conventions of Old Comedy. There are some significant variations in this play:

Minor variations include:



  1. Aristophanes:Lysistrata, The Acharnians, The Clouds Alan Sommerstein, Penguin Classics 1973, page 37
  2. Aristophanes: Birds and Other Plays by D. Barrett and A. Sommerstein (eds), Penguin Classics 1978
  3. The Knights lines 247-50
  4. Aristophanes:Birds and Other Plays by D. Barrett and A. Sommerstein (eds.), Penguin Classics 1978, page 64
  5. e.g. Knights line 447-9
  6. 'Greece:The History of the Classical Period' S.Hornblower, in The Oxford History of the Classical World J.Boardman, J.Griffin, O.Murray (eds), Oxford University Press 1986, page 139
  7. Aristophanes:Wasps D.MacDowell, Oxford University Press 1971, page 4
  8. 'Greek Drama' P.Levi in The Oxford History of the Classical World J.Boardman, J.Griffin, O.Murray (eds), Oxford University Press 1986, page 177
  9. Acharnians lines 5-8
  10. Aristophanes:The Birds and Other Plays by D. Barrett and A. Sommerstein (eds.), Penguin Classics 1978, page 33
  11. Aristophanes:Wasps D.MacDowell, Oxford University Press 1971, pages 1-4
  12. Aristophanis Comoediae Tomus II F.Hall and W.Geldart (eds), Oxford University Press 1907, Index Nominum
  13. Aristophanes:The Birds and Other Plays by D. Barrett and A. Sommerstein (eds.), Penguin Classics 1978, pages 315–22
  14. Clouds lines 186; Peace 219, 665; Lysistrata 104, 1163
  15. Acharnians lines 604, 613
  16. Acharnians line381
  17. Peace lines 466, 1003; Lysistrata lines 35, 40, 75, 702
  18. Peace line 475; Thesmophoriazusae 1101; Frogs 1208; Wealth II 601
  19. The Clouds line 401
  20. Birds line 968; Wealth II 173, 303
  21. Acharnians lines 181, 697; Clouds 986; Wasps 711; Birds 246; Thesmophoriazusae 806; Frogs 1296
  22. Lysistrata lines 59, 411
  23. Peace lines 145, 165
  24. Acharnians line 64, 613; Wasps 1143
  25. Acharnians line 530
  26. Clouds lines 213, 859; Peace 606
  27. Peace line 347; Lysistrata 804
  28. Acharnians line 134, 155; Clouds 400; Wasps 42, 47, 418, 599, 1220, 1236
  29. Acharnians line 846; Clouds 551, 557, 623, 876, 1065; Wasps 1007; Peace 681, 921, 1319; Thesmophoriazuase 840; Frogs 570
  30. Wasps line 1220
  31. Hippolytus line 345
  32. Alcestis line 182
  33. Peace 801; Frogs 151
  34. Aristophanes:Wasps D.MacDowell, Oxford University Press 1971, pages 297-8
  35. Wasps lines 1275-83
  36. Peace line 883; Ecclesiazusae 129
  37. Wasps line 1032; Peace 755
  38. Thesmophoriazusae line 805
  39. Acharnians lines 88, 844; Clouds 353, 400, 673; Wasps 19, 822; Peace 446, 673, 1295; Birds 289, 1475; Thesmophoriazusae 605
  40. Lysistrata 957
  41. Acharnians line 855; Wasps 787, 1302, 1308; Lysistrata 1105
  42. Clouds line 355; Wasps 1187; Birds 831; Lysistrata 621, 1092; Frogs 48, 57, 426
  43. Birds line 942
  44. Peace lines 1095, 1116
  45. Peace lines 1070, 1119; Birds 962, 970
  46. Wasps 869,; Birds 189, 870; Frogs 659; Lysistrata 1131; Thesmophoriazusae 332; Wealth II 213
  47. Lysistrata lines 619, 1153
  48. Acharnians lines 980, 1093; Wasps 1225; Peace 683
  49. Clouds line 301; Wasps 438; Wealth II 773
  50. Peace 313; Frogs 467
  51. Wasps 380; Birds 988
  52. Aristophanes:The Birds and Other Plays by D. Barrett and A. Sommerstein (eds.), Penguin Classics 1978, page 320, note 87
  53. Aristophanes: The Birds and Other Plays by D. Barrett and A. Sommerstein (eds.), Penguin Classics 1978, pages 31-33
  54. Aristophanis Comoediae Tomus I F.Hall and W.Geldart, Oxford University Press 1907
  55. Aristophanes:The Birds and Other Plays by D. Barrett and A. Sommerstein (eds.), Penguin Classics 1978
  56. Aristophanes Wasps Douglas MacDowell, Oxford University Press 1978, page 17
  57. Aristophanes:Birds and Other Plays by D. Barrett and A. Sommerstein (eds.), Penguin Classics, 1978, page 316 note 17
  58. Aristophanes:The Birds and Other Plays by D. Barrett and A. Sommerstein (eds.), Penguin Classics 1978, page 321 note 111
  59. Aristophanes:Wasps D.MacDowell (ed.), Oxford University Press 1971, page 207 note 546-630
  60. Aristophanes:The Birds and Other Plays D. Barret and A. Sommerstein, Penguin Classics 1978, page 24
  61. Aristophanes:The Birds and Other Plays by D. Barret and A. Sommerstein (eds.), Penguin Classics 1978, page 322 note 119
  62. Aristophanes:The Birds and Other Plays by D. Barret and A. Sommerstein (eds.), Penguin Classics 1978, pages 33-4
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