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Ancient and modern

Meet the Donald Trump of ancient Athens (he won)

Cleon’s violent but very persuasive rhetoric was precisely the kind of thing the Republican establishment now hates

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

Why does the Republican party loathe Donald Trump? Because Trump is the ultimate loose cannon, beholden to no one. And even worse, he is popular. What trumpery! Ancient Athenians would have loved him.

With no known political or military experience behind him, Cleon surged into the gap left by the death of Pericles in 429 BC, when Athens was locked in a difficult war against Sparta. The son of a rich tanner — certainly not ‘one of us’ — he presented himself as the warmongering, go-get-’em alternative to the cautious Pericles. Full of extravagant promises (including state handouts), he increased the tribute from Athens’ imperial possessions and worked up a strong following by his heated speeches in the rough and tumble of the democratic Assembly. It was this ‘brutal and insolent’ speaker, said the historian Plutarch, who introduced shouting and abuse and excessive gesturing, encouraging other speakers to behave equally irresponsibly. A contemporary of Cleon’s, the historian Thucydides, called him ‘violent’ but ‘very persuasive’.


All for punishing enemies to the limit, he once advocated slaughtering every male in Mytilene after it revolted from Athens in 428 BC. At first persuaded, the Assembly had second thoughts, and the slaughter was just averted. In 425 BC, when Athens had trapped some top Spartans on an island but could not get them off, Cleon boasted that he would, and in 20 days. When the Assembly told him to get on with it, he tried to back off, but the elected general Nicias invited the Assembly to appoint Cleon in his place: which it did, leaving Cleon no get-out and occasioning much laughter. Thucydides commented: ‘The more sensible Athenians welcomed this, since it would mean either the end of Cleon or the capture of the Spartans.’ And Cleon did it — in 20 days.

All this is pure Trump. No wonder the Republican inner ring are terrified of him. Good heavens, he might even be a success! That would never do.


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