Native name
Κλέων Κλεαινέτου Κυδαθηναιεύς
Died422 BC

Cleon (/ˈklɒn, -ən/; Greek: Κλέων Κλεαινέτου Κυδαθηναιεύς, Ancient Greek: [kléɔːn̯.nétuː kyːda.tʰɛːnai̯.ěu̯s]; died 422 BC) was an Athenian general during the Peloponnesian War. He was an early representative of the commercial class[1] in Athenian politics; which during the early Peloponnesian war was coming into prominence[1] - although he was an aristocrat himself. He strongly advocated for an offensive war strategy and is remembered for being ruthless[1] in carrying out his policies. He was often depicted in a negative way, predominantly by Thucydides and the comedic playwright Aristophanes, who both represent him as an unscrupulous, warmongering demagogue. Cleon was the son of Cleaenetus.[2]

Public service

Opposition to Pericles

Cleon came to notice as an opponent of Pericles in the late 430s BC 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 stood against the "leaders of the demos", which included Isagoras, Miltiades, Thucydides, Nicias, Theramenes, and Pericles.[3] In 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 of Pericles being found guilty and removed from office.[4] However, Pericles' setback was temporary and he was soon reinstated.[5]

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[1] and accuser of state officials, but he came forward as the professed champion and leader of the democracy and rapidly came to dominate Athenian politics. By the time of the Mytilenean revolt in 428/427 B.C. (Shortly after the death of Pericles) he is described by Thucydides as " far the most persuasive speaker in the eyes of the people."[1] [6]

Although rough and unpolished, he was charismatic, 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 by increasing the pay for jury work, which provided a livelihood for many of the poorer Athenians.[7]

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.[7] 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.[citation needed] 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. He was elected one of the ten strategos for 424–423 BC.[8] Whether he also introduced a property-tax for military purposes, and even held a high position connected with the treasury, is uncertain.[7]

War against Sparta, subsequent death

Cleon's ruling principles were an inveterate hatred of the nobility, and an equal hatred of Sparta. It was mainly through him that the opportunity of concluding an honourable peace (in 425 BC) was lost, and in his determination to see Sparta defeated, often spoke of dazzling future benefits.[7] He insisted upon Athenian security via strategic possession of territories rather than by Spartan goodwill.[9]

In 427 BC, Cleon urged his Athenian countrymen to put to death the whole adult male population of Mytilene, which had put itself at the head of a revolt. His proposal, though at first accepted, was soon rescinded due to a protracted rebuttal by Diodotus. Nonetheless, approximately one thousand chief leaders and prominent men of Mytilene were executed. In 425 BC, Cleon reached the summit of his fame by capturing and transporting to Athens the Spartans who had been blockaded at the Battle of Sphacteria. Much of the credit was probably due to the military skill of his colleague Demosthenes (not the orator);[10] but it was due to Cleon's determination that the Ecclesia sent out the additional force that was needed.[11]

It was almost certainly due to Cleon that the tribute of the "allies" was doubled in 425 BC.[7] He was not re-elected as strategos for 423–22 BC after his strategy suffered a setback when Sparta invaded Amphipolis.[8] In 422 BC, he was sent to recapture Amphipolis. This development came with the resurgence of Athenian aggressive policy toward Sparta after the revolt of Scione, an Athenian allied city.[8] During his campaign, however, Cleon was outmanoeuvred by the Spartan general Brasidas. He was killed by a peltast when his army was routed at the Battle of Amphipolis.[12] Brasidas also died at Amphipolis and their deaths removed the chief obstacles to peace. Thus, in 421 BC the peace of Nicias was signed.[7]

Aristophanes and Thucydides on Cleon

The character of Cleon is represented by Aristophanes[13] and Thucydides[14] in a very unfavourable light. Their portrayals may be justified 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 watch on the city. Yet, both have been suspected of being prejudiced witnesses: The playwright Aristophanes 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, believing in the shortcomings of democratic government,[15] had also been prosecuted (unjustly, his ships arriving two days after a town was occupied by Spartan forces) for military incapacity and exiled by a decree proposed by Cleon. Indeed, of all the persons who appear in Thucydides' History, Cleon is treated with the least impartiality.[16] It is therefore possible that Cleon has had injustice done to him in the portraits handed down by these two writers.[7]

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.[17]


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.[7]

The following are the chief authorities:[7]

In popular culture

Cleon is featured as a major antagonist in the video game Assassin's Creed Odyssey. He appears as a political adversary to Pericles using the phrase “I will make Athens great again!” He later becomes the ruler of Athens after Pericles' death, using his new position to prolong the Peloponnesian War against Sparta. It is later revealed that this is in service to the goals of the Cult of Kosmos, a secret society of which Cleon is a member that seeks to control all of Greece. The player character, together with an inner circle of allies, including Aristophanes and Herodotos, works to discredit Cleon, prompting him to personally lead the Athenian forces during the Battle of Amphipolis in order to restore his reputation, only to be killed by the protagonist in the effort.


  1. ^ a b c d e Grote, George (1849). A History of Greece: Volume VI. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 332. ISBN 978-1-108-00955-3.
  2. ^ Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 3:36
  3. ^ Kagan, Donald (2013). New History of the Peloponnesian War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. p. 127. ISBN 978-0-8014-6728-8.
  4. ^ George Grote. History of Greece, abridged ed., 1907, p. 406, note 1
  5. ^ Chisholm 1911, pp. 494–495.
  6. ^ Thucydides. "History of the Peloponesian War". MIT Classics. MIT. Retrieved 18 June 2023.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Chisholm 1911, p. 495.
  8. ^ a b c Rothwell, Kenneth (2019). Aristophanes' Wasps. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-19-090740-2.
  9. ^ Kagan, Donald (2004). The Peloponnesian War. Penguin Books. ISBN 9780142004371.
  10. ^ McGregor, Malcolm (1988). The Athenians and Their Empire. Vancouver: UBC Press. p. 141. ISBN 0-7748-0269-3.
  11. ^ Chisholm 1911.
  12. ^ Kagan, Donald (1974), The Archidamian War, 329.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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").
  15. ^ A.H.M. Jones, ‘The Athenian democracy and its critics’, Cambridge Historical Journal. 11.1 (1953), 1–26.
  16. ^ Zagorin, Perez. Thucydides. (Princeton University Press, 2015), p. 80
  17. ^ "Cleon", Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, edited by M.C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers, Oxford University Press