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Sunday, November 7, 2010



Attic black figure hydria (560 BCE) Louvre



On the road to Amphipolis: The Rodopi Mountains are the frontier of Greece with Bulgaria


Oh Muse! I sing of the tragic end of Cleon of Athens. Help me conjure his dubious image. There are no statues of Cleon, no busts, no sculptures, by which we could recall his looks. All we have is his actions in the distant time of the Peloponnesian Wars in Greece, in the fifth century BCE. He is, of course, well known to the Classicists and the Philologists, as he plays a central role in Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian Wars. Yet there are no biographies of Cleon, and even the article about him in Wikipedia has scarce information. I will mention a few facts about his life below, but I want to ask a different question first, one that pertains to my use of the word ‘tragedy’ in reference to Cleon, leaving aside, for the moment, the details of his life. What is his tragedy? Many would quibble with me about using the word ‘tragedy’ with regards to Cleon. But let us think of Cleon as a tragic figure for a moment. Why would it be tragic? Let’s start with why it would not be. It would not be because of his stature in the society. He is no King, rather a man of the people, a cunning man from the lowest classes of Athens. It would not be because of his death at Amphipolis, and the strategic mistake he made that led to it. What could be worse than the conditions of his own life? It must be because of the way we know him, through the account of the historian Thucydides. Thucydides hated Cleon. Despite the enormous efforts at objectivity that Thucydides makes in his History of the Peloponnesian War, despite the objectivity that has gained him the title of first great historian from the Academy and professionals of History, together with the less objective Herodotus, despite such legendary objectivity, Thucydides cannot manage to hide his deep dislike for Cleon. 

“Cleon, son of Cleaenetus, . . . the most violent man in Athens, and at that time by far the most powerful with The People, came forward . . . .” (3.36.6)\

First of all, Cleon was a man of the Athenian working class. Cleon's father Cleaenetus may have been a leather merchant and tanner. An inscription lists him as a choregos, i.e., producer of stage performances. Using the money and the goodwill he had inherited from his father, Cleon started a remarkable political career as a radical democrat, claiming to be deeper in love with the people's Assembly than with his friends. Thucydides was an aristocrat and an admiral of the Athenian navy, a Periclean, one who stood by the policies and theories of Pericles. Pericles, an aristocrat himself, but one who fashioned himself as a friend of the people and an enemy of the oligarchs, died shortly after the war began. He had been very cunning in the ways of obtaining the goals of Athens without going into all out war with Sparta. The death of Pericles had resulted in the growth of the influence of the more democratic parties, which were eager for all out war with Sparta.

Hoplites running

In this surge of aggressively patriotic fervor, Cleon rode the wave. He became the commander in the Athenian siege of the island of Sphacteria in 425 BCE, which had a glorious and triumphant result for Athens. Many Spartan soldiers surrendered to the Athenians and were taken prisoner, an event thought to be unprecedented, as the Spartan soldiers were reputed to be fighters to the death. This made Cleon the most admired leader in the Athenian assembly, and so he was designated commander of the expedition to re-take the city of Amphipolis, which controlled the gold and silver mines of the north of Greece. And there, due to his own mistake, Cleon would meet his death in 422 BCE, and cause the total defeat of the Athenian armies in Thrace.

The ruined walls of Amphipolis

The Battle of Amphipolis (422 BCE)


The sections of Thucydides (below) that I consider crucial to an understanding of the “tragedy” of Cleon, as I have outlined it above, are highlighted. This makes it easier to go through the main events of the battle, as well. Those of you who want to feel the cadence of Thucydides’ prose and how it makes his argument should read all of the text. And note the wonderful speech of Brasidas to the Spartans (at 5.9 below) where he lays bare the intelligent strategy that would win him the day, and his idealism for the freedom of the Spartans and their mission to liberate the other cities of Hellas from the Athenian Empire. Brasidas died in the battle, but the Spartans were victorious over the Athenians, and Cleon died too.

Bust of Thucydides (431 B.C.E)

Map of the Northern Aegean:
(click on maps to expand their size)

The city of Amphipolis is located east of the Chalcidic Peninsula in what has been known as Thrace (Thraki) since ancient times.

Map of Ancient Chalkidiki (Chalcidic Peninsula)

Diagram of the ancient city of Amphipolis on the shores of the Strymon river

The Setting

Idealized picture of Amphipolis, drawing by Cousinery, 1831

View towards the North from the Acropolis of Amphipolis: Ancient wall in the foreground (click on photo to expand its size)

[Translated by Richard Crawley]
Book V. Chapter XV

Tenth Year of the War - Death of Cleon and Brasidas 

5.2. “Meanwhile Cleon prevailed on the Athenians to let him set sail at the expiration of the armistice for the towns in the direction of Thrace with twelve hundred heavy infantry and three hundred horse from Athens, a large force of the allies, and thirty ships.
[Thucydides describes the Athenian capture of the town of Torone under Cleon’s leadership. Brasidas, the Spartan general (strategos) moved his troops towards Torone to help lift the siege, but arrives too late and turns back. Torone was a port located at the very tip of the middle Sithonian prong of the Chalcidic Peninsula, once known as Cape Dehrris (see maps above).]

5.3.6. Meanwhile Cleon, after placing a garrison in Torone, weighed anchor and sailed around Athos on his way to Amphipolis.

. . . . . . . . . .

View towards the Aegean, with the Strymon river winding its way to the coast. The port of Eion in the misty distance, and the estuary of the Strymon river seen from the Acropolis of Amphipolis

5.6. Cleon, whom we left on his voyage from Torone to Amphipolis, made Eion his base, and after an unsuccessful assault upon the Andrian colony of Stagirus, took Galepsus, a colony of Thasos, by storm. He now sent envoys to Perdiccas [King of Macedonia] to command his attendance with an army, as provided by the alliance; and others to Thrace, to Polles, king of the Odomantians, who was to bring as many Thracian mercenaries as possible; and himself remained inactive in Eion, awaiting their arrival. Informed of this, Brasidas on his part took up a position of observation upon Cerdylium, a place situated in the Argilian country on high ground across the river, not far from Amphipolis, and commanding a view on all sides, and thus made it impossible for Cleon's army to move without his seeing it; for he fully expected that Cleon, despising the scanty numbers of his opponent, would march against Amphipolis with the force that he had got with him.

The hill at Cerdylium, from the Acropolis of Amphipolis where Brasidas camped with some of the Spartan forces

5.6.4. At the same time Brasidas made his preparations, calling to his standard fifteen hundred Thracian mercenaries and all the Edonians, horse and targeteers; he also had a thousand Myrcinian and Chalcidian targeteers, besides those in Amphipolis, and a force of heavy infantry numbering altogether about two thousand, and three hundred Hellenic horse. Fifteen hundred of these he had with him upon Cerdylium; the rest were stationed with Clearidas in Amphipolis.

Foundations of south wall at Acropolis of Amphipolis with a view towards the port of Eion

5.7. After remaining quiet for some time, Cleon was at length obliged to do as Brasidas expected. His soldiers, tired of their inactivity, began also seriously to reflect on the weakness and incompetence of their commander, and the skill and valor that would be opposed to him, and on their own original unwillingness to accompany him. These murmurs coming to the ears of Cleon, he resolved not to disgust the army by keeping it in the same place, and broke up his camp and advanced.

The road to the Acropolis of Amphipolis, with Cerdylium in the distance

5.7.3. The temper of the general [Cleon] was what it had been at Pylos, his success on that occasion having given him confidence in his capacity. He never dreamed of any one coming out to fight him, but said that he was rather going up to view the place; and if he waited for his reinforcements, it was not in order to make victory secure in case he should be compelled to engage, but to be enabled to surround and storm the city. He accordingly came and posted his army upon a strong hill in front of Amphipolis, and proceeded to examine the lake formed by the Strymon, and how the town lay on the side of Thrace.

Cleon’s hill, across the Strymon, where the Athenian army decamped prior to its failed attempt to retreat to Eion, seen from the Acropolis of Amphipolis

5.7.5.He thought to retire at pleasure without fighting, as there was no one to be seen upon the wall or coming out of the gates, all of which were shut. Indeed, it seemed a mistake not to have brought down engines with him; he could then have taken the town, there being no one to defend it.

5.8.As soon as Brasidas saw the Athenians in motion he descended himself from Cerdylium and entered Amphipolis. He did not venture to go out in regular order against the Athenians: he mistrusted his strength, and thought it inadequate to the attempt; not in numbers- these were not so unequal- but in quality, the flower of the Athenian army being in the field, with the best of the Lemnians and Imbrians. He therefore prepared to assail them by stratagem.

5.8.3.By showing the enemy the number of his troops, and the shifts which he had been put to arm them, he thought that he should have less chance of beating him than by not letting him have a sight of them, and thus learn how good a right he had to despise them. He accordingly picked out a hundred and fifty heavy infantry and, putting the rest under Clearidas, determined to attack suddenly before the Athenians retired; thinking that he should not have again such a chance of catching them alone, if their reinforcements were once allowed to come up; and so calling all his soldiers together in order to encourage them and explain his intention, spoke as follows:

Ruins of the theater in the Acropolis of Amphipolis where Brasidas probably delivered his speech to the Lacedaemonians

Speech of Brasidas to the Lacedaemonians:

5.9."Peloponnesians, the character of the country from which we have come, one which has always owed its freedom to valor, and the fact that you are Dorians and the enemy you are about to fight Ionians, whom you are accustomed to beat, are things that do not need further comment. But the plan of attack that I propose to pursue, this it is as well to explain, in order that the fact of our adventuring with a part instead of with the whole of our forces may not damp your courage by the apparent disadvantage at which it places you. I imagine it is the poor opinion that he has of us, and the fact that he has no idea of any one coming out to engage him, that has made the enemy march up to the place and carelessly look about him as he is doing, without noticing us. But the most successful soldier will always be the man who most happily detects a blunder like this, and who carefully consulting his own means makes his attack not so much by open and regular approaches, as by seizing the opportunity of the moment; and these stratagems, which do the greatest service to our friends by most completely deceiving our enemies, have the most brilliant name in war. Therefore, while their careless confidence continues, and they are still thinking, as in my judgment they are now doing, more of retreat than of maintaining their position, while their spirit is slack and not high-strung with expectation, I with the men under my command will, if possible, take them by surprise and fall with a run upon their center; and do you, Clearidas, afterwards, when you see me already upon them, and, as is likely, dealing terror among them, take with you the Amphipolitans, and the rest of the allies, and suddenly open the gates and dash at them, and hasten to engage as quickly as you can. That is our best chance of establishing a panic among them, as a fresh assailant has always more terrors for an enemy than the one he is immediately engaged with. Show yourself a brave man, as a Spartan should; and do you, allies, follow him like men, and remember that zeal, honor, and obedience mark the good soldier, and that this day will make you either free men and allies of Lacedaemon, or slaves of Athens; even if you escape without personal loss of liberty or life, your bondage will be on harsher terms than before, and you will also hinder the liberation of the rest of the Hellenes. No cowardice then on your part, seeing the greatness of the issues at stake, and I will show that what I preach to others I can practice myself."

5.10. After this brief speech Brasidas himself prepared for the sally, and placed the rest with Clearidas at the Thracian gates to support him as had been agreed. Meanwhile he had been seen coming down from Cerdylium and then in the city, which is overlooked from the outside, sacrificing near the temple of Athene; in short, all his movements had been observed, and word was brought to Cleon, who had at the moment gone on to look about him, that the whole of the enemy's force could be seen in the town, and that the feet of horses and men in great numbers were visible under the gates, as if a sally were intended. Upon hearing this he went up to look, and having done so, being unwilling to venture upon the decisive step of a battle before his reinforcements came up, and fancying that he would have time to retire, bid the retreat be sounded and sent orders to the men to effect it by moving on the left wing in the direction of Eion, which was indeed the only way practicable. This however not being quick enough for him, he joined the retreat in person and made the right wing wheel round, thus turning its unarmed side to the enemy.

The path of Cleon’s retreat under the walls of Amphipolis East of the city walls. The exposed right side of the Athenian troop formations faced the city walls. The hoplite carried the shield in his left arm.

5.10.5. It was then that Brasidas, seeing the Athenian force in motion and his opportunity come, said to the men with him and the rest: "Those fellows will never stand before us, one can see that by the way their spears and heads are going. Troops which do as they do seldom stand a charge. Quick, someone, and open the gates I spoke of, and let us be out and at them with no fears for the result." [6] Accordingly issuing out by the palisade gate and by the first in the long wall then existing, he ran at the top of his speed along the straight road, where the trophy now stands as you go by the steepest part of the hill, and fell upon and routed the centre of the Athenians, panic-stricken by their own disorder and astounded at his audacity. [7] At the same moment Clearidas in execution of his orders issued out from the Thracian gates to support him, and also attacked the enemy. [8] The result was that the Athenians, suddenly and unexpectedly attacked on both sides, fell into confusion; and their left towards Eion, which had already got on some distance, at once broke and fled. Just as it was in full retreat and Brasidas was passing on to attack the right, he received a wound; but his fall was not perceived by the Athenians, as he was taken up by those near him and carried off the field.

5.10.9.. The Athenian right made a better stand, and though Cleon, who from the first had no thought of fighting, at once fled and was overtaken and slain by a Myrcinian targeteer, his infantry forming in close order upon the hill twice or thrice repulsed the attacks of Clearidas, and did not finally give way until they were surrounded and routed by the missiles of the Myrcinian and Chalcidian horse and the targeteers. [10] Thus the Athenian army was all now in flight; and such as escaped being killed in the battle, or by the Chalcidian horse and the targeteers, dispersed among the hills, and with difficulty made their way to Eion.

The direction of the Athenians’ retreat, towards the port of Eion

5.10.11. The men who had taken up and rescued Brasidas, brought him into the town with the breath still in him: he lived to hear of the victory of his troops, and not long after expired. [12] The rest of the army returning with Clearidas from the pursuit stripped the dead and set up a trophy.

5.12. After this all the allies attended in arms and buried Brasidas at the public expense in the city, in front of what is now the marketplace, and the Amphipolitans, having enclosed his tomb, ever afterwards sacrifice to him as a hero and have given to him the honour of games and annual offerings. They constituted him the founder of their colony, and pulled down the Hagnonic erections, and obliterated everything that could be interpreted as a memorial of his having founded the place; for they considered that Brasidas had been their preserver, and courting as they did the alliance of Lacedaemon for fear of Athens, in their present hostile relations with the latter they could no longer with the same advantage or satisfaction pay Hagnon his honors. [2] They also gave the Athenians back their dead. About six hundred of the latter had fallen and only seven of the enemy, owing to there having been no regular engagement, but the affair of accident and panic that I have described. After taking up their dead the Athenians sailed off home, while Clearidas and his troops remained to arrange matters at Amphipolis.”

Dying hoplite, from the pediment of the Temple of Athena in Aegina

Thucydides’ account of the battle of Amphipolis ends in a eulogy of Brasidas, and there are no good words for the dead Athenian commander. Thucydides’ dislike of Cleon, ‘the most violent man in Athens’ and darling of The People, - of the mob-, is reinforced in the account of the Battle of Amphipolis by his description of Cleon’s error in exposing the right flank of the retreating Athenians, and the basic error of the retreat itself. Thucydides buried Cleon for history. That is Cleon’s tragedy: to be known, for centuries after death, but to be known badly.

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