Shields, Bread, and Mocking Politicians

In his “Science Snapshot” column in USA Today (online) from January 7, 2007, Dan Vergano writes about the fact that “Mocking Politicians Has An Ancient History.” The protagonist of his column is the Athenian political leader, Cleon, whose army once defeated the Spartans in battle, and who brought home some Spartan shields as trophies. Vergano describes some archaeological work, led by Professor Mike Lippman of Emory University, dedicated to sorting out the meaning of some lines in a satiric play by Aristophanes that targeted Cleon. The lines concern references to the shields, to bread, and to the character, Demos, who, as you might guess, represented “the people” in the play. Vergano wrote,

“As a new Congress gets underway, and a fresh batch of legislators ascend to Capitol Hill, one venerable tradition of democracy seems likely to continue its noble history. Mocking politicians goes back a long way, it seems — at least as far back as the foundation of democracy in ancient Athens.

Consider the case of Cleon, an Athenian statesman credited with a victory over the Spartans in 425 B.C. at the Battle of Sphacteria. After capturing an astounding 120 knightly Spartans, Cleon and his victorious generals returned the Spartan shields in victory to Athens, placing them in the Agora, the center of Athenian government, as war trophies. Spartans, after all, were famously inveighed to ‘return with their shield or on them (i.e. dead),’by their own mothers before proceeding into battle. So Cleon capturing a bunch of the tough guys of the ancient world was a very big deal.

For his troubles, Cleon earned immortality as a villainous demagogue in the playwright Aristophanes’ work, Knights, produced a year after the victory. A report in the current American Journal of Archaeology may show one reason that Aristophanes viewed Cleon with so much suspicion.”

Vergano then summarizes the archaeologists’ findings:

The U.S. and indeed other nations may have current dramatic satirists of Aristophanes’ stature, but I am not aware of them. We seem to have to settle for self-satirizing pundits and some sketches on Saturday Night Live and that show’s equivalents in other nations.


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