As self-important comics fantasise about unseating Donald Trump with their wit, they should remember the great Aristophanes. In 424 BC, he presented a comedy about the controversial politician Cleon. He was (apparently) the son of a tanner (ugh!), and was seen by contemporaries, including the historian Thucydides, as a ‘brutal’, ‘insolent’ but ‘very persuasive’ braggart — and all too successful.
The play opens with two slaves driven out of their house after a beating by their new master Paphlagon (Cleon); he has risen to power by fawning on and flattering the gullible and senile Demos (‘the people’) and telling outrageous lies about his political rivals. So far, so Trump.
In despair, they then receive an oracle: that Paphlagon will be replaced by a tripe-seller, the only man who can outdo Paphlagon in the qualities that make him so revolting. The tripe-seller is duly invited to take on Paphlagon and become Athens’ great leader:
Tripe-seller: Me? I don’t deserve to be great.
Slave: What’s all this about ‘not deserving’ to be great? Not got any secret virtues on your conscience, have you? I mean, you’re not of good birth, are you?
Tripe-seller: Blimey, no! Scum of the earth, me.
Slave: Congratulations! Best thing that can happen to anyone who wants a future in politics.
Tripe-seller: But ’ang on. I ’ardly bin to school. I got no learnin’. I can only just abaht read and write.
Slave: Pity — much better if you couldn’t. Look, you don’t think politics is for the educated these days, or anyone of good character, do you? No, it’s for illiterate oafs like you!
The tripe-seller and Paphlagon have it out in Assembly before Demos, each attempting to out-Trump the other in vileness, deceit, filth and flattery. The tripe-seller wins, does a volte-face and tells a now repentant Demos to get his good sense back, as in the old days, and then everything will be fine.
This comedy is as viciously partisan as anything Aristophanes wrote. Yet two weeks later, the people appointed Cleon to one of the highest posts in the land. So politically, like all comedy, it achieved nothing. But at least it was comic.
— Peter Jones