Classics@16: Johnston

Sappho, Cleon and Eros in Aristophanes’ Knights

Paul Johnston
About halfway through Aristophanes’ Knights, the play’s two main characters, the Paphlagonian and the Sausage-seller, call out to Demos, who emerges from his door: [1]

          ΔΗΜΟΣ τίνες οἱ βοῶντες; οὐκ ἄπιτ᾽ ἀπὸ τῆς θύρας;
          τὴν εἰρεσιώνην μου κατεσπαράξατε.
730    τίς, ὦ Παφλαγὼν, ἀδικεῖ σε; ΠΑΦΛΑΓΩΝ διὰ σὲ τύπτομαι
          ὑπὸ τουτουὶ καὶ τῶν νεανίσκων. ΔΗ. τιή;
          ΠΑ. ὁτιὴ φιλῶ σ᾽ ὦ Δῆμ᾽ ἐραστής τ᾽ εἰμὶ σός.
          ΔΗ. σὺ δ᾽ εἶ τίς ἐτεόν; ΑΛΛΑΝΤΟΠΩΛΗΣ ἀντεραστὴς τουτουί,
          ἐρῶν πάλαι σου βουλόμενός τέ σ᾽ εὖ ποιεῖν,
735    ἄλλοι τε πολλοὶ καὶ καλοί τε κἀγαθοί.
          ἀλλ᾽ οὐχ οἷοί τ᾽ ἐσμὲν διὰ τουτονί. σὺ γὰρ
          ὅμοιος εἶ τοῖς παισὶ τοῖς ἐρωμένοις·
          τοὺς μὲν καλούς τε κἀγαθοὺς οὐ προσδέχει,
          σαυτὸν δὲ λυχνοπώλαισι καὶ νευρορράφοις
740    καὶ σκυτοτόμοις καὶ βυρσοπώλαισιν δίδως.
DEMOS What’s all the shouting? Get away from my door! (emerging) You’ve battered my harvest wreath to bits! Who, Paphlagon, is wronging you?
PAPHLAGONIAN On account of you, this guy here and these young bloods are beating me up.
DEM. Why?
PAPH. Because I adore you, Demos, and because I’m your lover!
DEM. And you — who are you?
SAUSAGE-SELLER His rival-lover, one who has long lusted for you and wanted to treat you right, like many other fine upstanding people. But because of him, we can’t. You see, you’re like the boys who attract lovers: you say no to the fine upstanding ones, but give yourself to lamp sellers and cobblers and shoemakers and tanners.
Aristophanes Knights 728–740

This passage presents the Paphlagonian and the Sausage-seller as lovers competing for the affections of Demos. In the play’s transparent allegory, the Paphlagonian and Demos stand, respectively, for the politician Cleon and the city of Athens. The passage frames the three figures in a kind of humorous love triangle, based around the joke of literalizing eroticized representations of Athenian politicians’ relationship to their city and its people, best exemplified in Pericles’ description of the ideal Athenian citizen as a “lover of the city” (ἐραστής τῆς πολέως). [2] Thus Cleon/Paphlagonian and the Sausage-seller become, bathetically literally, competing lovers, anterastai, of the city of Athens/Demos. The application of the agent nouns ἐραστής and ἀντεραστής to the Paphlagonian and the Sausage-seller is important because it asserts that the pair are the active partners in the more-or-less unidirectional system of Greek erōs. [3] It is they who are the lovers, the pursuers, the erastai; correspondingly, Demos is the beloved, the pursued, the erōmenos. Significantly, in pederastic terms, the Paphlagonian and the Sausage-seller are behaving in the role thought appropriate to an adult citizen male.

Yet matters are not quite so simple. Aristophanes complicates this simple scheme by evoking a very pointed intertext, namely Sappho’s first fragment:

          ποικιλόθρον’ ἀθανάτ’ Ἀφρόδιτα,
          παῖ Δίος δολόπλοκε, λίσσομαί σε,
          μή μ’ ἄσαισι μηδ’ ὀνίαισι δάμνα,
          πότνια, θῦμον,
5        ἀλλὰ τυίδ’ ἔλθ’, αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα
          τὰς ἔμας αὔδας ἀίοισα πήλοι
          ἔκλυες, πάτρος δὲ δόμον λίποισα
          χρύσιον ἦλθες
          ἄρμ’ ὐπασδεύξαισα· κάλοι δέ σ’ ἆγον
10      ὤκεες στροῦθοι περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας
          πύκνα δίννεντες πτέρ’ ἀπ’ ὠράνω αἴθε-
          ρος διὰ μέσσω·
          αἶψα δ’ ἐξίκοντο· σὺ δ’, ὦ μάκαιρα,
          μειδιαίσαισ’ ἀθανάτωι προσώπωι
15      ἤρε’ ὄττι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὤττι
          δηὖτε κάλημμι
          κὤττι μοι μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι
          μαινόλαι θύμωι· τίνα δηὖτε πείθω
           ̣ ̣σ̣άγην ἐς σὰν φιλότατα; τίς σ’, ὦ
20      Ψάπφ’, ἀδίκηει;
          καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,
          αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’, ἀλλὰ δώσει,
          αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει
          κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα.
25      ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦσον
          ἐκ μερίμναν, ὄσσα δέ μοι τέλεσσαι
          θῦμος ἰμέρρει, τέλεσον, σὺ δ’ αὔτα
          σύμμαχος ἔσσο.
Ornate-throned immortal Aphrodite, wile-weaving daughter of Zeus, I entreat you: do not overpower my heart, mistress, with ache and anguish, but come here, if ever in the past you heard my voice from afar and acquiesced and came, leaving your father’s golden house, with chariot yoked: beautiful swift sparrows whirring fast-beating wings brought you above the dark earth down from heaven through the mid-air, and soon they arrived; and you, blessed one, with a smile on your immortal face asked what was the matter with me this time and why I was calling this time and what in my maddened heart I most wished to happen for myself: ‘Whom am I to persuade this time to lead you back to her love? Who, Sappho, is doing you wrong? If she runs away, soon she shall pursue; if she does not accept gifts, why, she shall give them instead; and if she does not love, soon she shall love even against her will.’ Come to me now again and deliver me from oppressive anxieties; fulfil all that my heart longs to fulfil, and you yourself be my fellow-fighter.
Sappho 1

The similarity in subject matter to the passage in Knights is obvious: in both cases an erotic pursuit is described, significantly one which is to some extent frustrated and unmutual. A near verbatim quotation signals the intertext: only the proper name appearing in the vocative is changed, with minor dialectical adjustments and a slight change to the word order: “Who, Sappho, is doing you wrong?” (τίς σ’, ὦ / Ψάπφ’, ἀδίκηει; 1.19–20) becomes “Who, Paphlagon, is wronging you?” (τίς, ὦ Παφλαγὼν, ἀδικεῖ σε, 730). The similarity is especially noticeable since the first part of the Paphlagonian’s name (Παφ-, Paph-) sounds remarkably like the first part of Sappho’s name in her own Aeolic dialect (Ψαπφ-, Psapph-). In addition, Aphrodite’s promise that Sappho’s beloved will turn from not receiving gifts (μὴ δέκετ’, 22) to giving them (δώσει, 22) is mirrored but twisted in the Sausage-seller’s complaint that Demos will not receive (οὐ προσδέχει, 738) upstanding lovers but gives himself over (σαυτὸν … δίδως, 739–740) to craftsmen.

I suggest, then, that there exists an additional layer of meaning in the passage from Knights which suggests that there is something “Sapphic” about the erotic relationship of the Paphlagonian and the Sausage-seller with Demos. [4] But the model of love presented in Sappho’s poem is significantly different from that on the surface in Knights: far from the normative pederastic model of erastēs and erōmenos, pursuer and pursued, active and passive, in Sappho the directionality of love is fluid: Aphrodite promises that the pursued will become the pursuer, the receiver of gifts will become the giver. In Sappho, the lover-pair are able to swap between the active and passive roles. This fluidity is directly at odds with the normal Athenian conception of erōs as a basically directional force.
It is possible that Sappho was broadly stereotyped by this kind of fluid erōs in fifth-century Athens. One of the few early visual depictions of Sappho is on a red-figure calyx krater attributed to the Tithonios Painter (Figures 1–2): [5] it shows, on one side, Sappho, clearly labelled ΣΑΦΦΟ, her head turned to the left, and on the other an anonymous girl, labelled HΕ ΠΑΙΣ, also facing left. It has been plausibly argued that this scene is to be read as exemplifying a similar kind of fluid erōs to that which Sappho 1 describes: the figures’ gazes mean that the viewer’s eye is drawn ever to the left, and Sappho and the girl oscillate between pursuer and pursued, between active lover and passive love object, depending on what side is currently being viewed. [6] We might contrast (for example) the Berlin Painter’s famous bell krater in the Louvre depicting Zeus on one side and his beloved Ganymede on the other: [7] here, while Zeus looks to the right, Ganymede looks back to the left, leaving no doubt that Zeus is the erastēs and Ganymede the erōmenos.

Figure 1: Line drawing by Valerie Woelfel of obverse of red-figure calyx krater attributed to Tithonios Painter, Bochum, Ruhr-Universität Kunstsammlungen S 508, c. 480-70 B.C., BAPD 4979.

Figure 2: Line drawing by Valerie Woelfel of reverse of red-figure calyx krater attributed to Tithonios Painter, Bochum, Ruhr-Universität Kunstsammlungen S 508, c. 480-70 B.C., BAPD 4979.
I suggest that the evocation of Sappho 1 in Knights is deliberate, and is specifically intended to feminize the Paphlagonian, and so Cleon, by associating him with Sappho and a “Sapphic” model of erōs, and to imply by extension that he indulges in sexual practices thought improper for an Athenian male citizen. I argue that this specific allusion operates as part of a scheme in the play as a whole which often hints but never states outright that the Paphlagonian/Cleon takes the passive sexual role and perhaps even engages in prostitution. [8]
We should note that Aristophanes seems to have been under a real threat of prosecution from Cleon at the time when Knights was staged. [9] It seems that Cleon was particularly displeased with Aristophanes’ depiction of him in his earlier play, Babylonians, and had gone so far as to bring him to court in response. [10] The none-too-subtle allegory of Knights (namely, the Paphlagonian is Cleon) is Aristophanes’ cunning and typically witty attempt to have it both ways, to continue to make fun of Cleon, but in a way which leaves open a clear legal defence. This legal threat, I suggest, also lies behind Aristophanes’ reticence about explicitly alleging that the Paphlagonian took the passive sexual role in Knights; such a claim might be particularly likely to provoke Cleon into litigation, since it could plausibly, insofar as the even more serious allegation of prostitution regularly extends from it, be grounds to entirely disqualify him from participation in public life. [11] By insinuating the allegation in a more subtle way, through this allusion to Sappho and, as I will show below, elsewhere in the play, Aristophanes again gets to have it both ways: he can make the claim but he can also get off the hook from any potential lawsuit.
At one point in Knights the assertion is made, quite directly, that taking the passive sexual role is a kind of prerequisite for becoming a politician: [12]

875    ΠΑ. οὐ δεινὸν οὖν δῆτ᾿ ἐμβάδας τοσουτονὶ δύνασθαι,
          ἐμοῦ δὲ μὴ μνείαν ἔχειν ὅσων πέπονθας; ὅστις
          ἔπαυσα τοὺς βινουμένους, τὸν Γρῦφον ἐξαλείψας.
          ΑΛ. οὔκουν σε ταῦτα δῆτα δεινόν ἐστι πρωκτοτηρεῖν
          παυσαί τε τοὺς βινουμένους; κοὐκ ἔσθ ̓ ὅπως ἐκείνους
880    οὐχὶ φθονῶν ἔπαυσας, ἵνα μὴ ῥητορες γένωντο.
PAPH. But isn’t it shocking that a pair of shoes counts for so much, while you’ve quite forgotten all I’ve done for you? I put a stop to the buggers by striking Grypus from the citizen rolls.
SAUS. Well, isn’t it shocking that you should pursue this asshole sleuthing and try to stop the buggers? There’s no question that you stopped them out of rivalry, for fear they’d become politicians!
Aristophanes Knights 876–880

The Sausage-seller asserts that the Paphlagonian/Cleon’s motive for acting against sexually passive men, “buggers,” τοὺς βινουμένους, was self-interest, with the clear implication that men who engage in such behaviour are the ones who become politicians. Insofar as this behaviour can evidently be grounds for loss of citizen rights (877), we should probably understand τοὺς βινουμένους as suggesting here not merely sexually passive men, but male prostitutes. [13] Inevitably Cleon is implicated as well: Cleon is, of course, a politician, and so we ought naturally to infer that he is also to be included among this category. Indeed, we might suggest that the Paphlagonian/Cleon’s jealousy (φθονῶν) works on two levels, both professional and sexual. The Paphlagonian is also made a hypocrite: although presumably a binomenos himself, he has punished Gryphus for this reason. Significantly, of course, there is no outright assertion made; it is merely implied.

There is a similar implication made at the end of the play. Having won the affections of Demos from the Paphlagonian, the Sausage-seller outlines the punishment that the Paphlagonian will endure:

1395  ΔΗ. τὸν δὲ Παφλαγόνα,
          ὃς ταῦτ ̓ ἔδρασεν, εἴφ ̓ ὅ τι ποιήσεις κακόν.
          ΑΛ. οὐδὲν μέγ ̓ ἀλλ ̓ ἢ τὴν ἐμὴν ἕξει τέχνην·

          ἐπὶ ταῖς πύλαις ἀλλαντοπωλήσει μόνος,

          τὰ κύνεια μιγνὺς τοῖς ὀνείοις τρώγμασιν,

1400  μεθύων τε ταῖς πόρναισι λοιδορήσεται,
          κἀκ τῶν βαλανείων πίεται τὸ λούτριον.
DEM. And Paphlagon, who behaved this way, tell me how you’ll punish him.
SAUS. Nothing severe; he’s merely going to take my old job. He’ll have his own sausage stand at the city gates, hashing up dog and ass meat instead of politics, getting drunk and trading insults with the whores, and drinking the runoff from the public baths.
Aristophanes Knights 1395–1401

Although there is no direct invocation of any sexual aspect to the Paphlagonian’s punishment, again it is natural to infer one, in this case on the basis of a passage earlier in the play in which the Sausage-seller explains his past occupation to the Paphlagonian:

          ΠΑ. τέχνην δὲ τίνα ποτ ̓ εἶχες ἐξανδρούμενος;

1242  ΑΛ. ἠλλαντοπώλουν καί τι καὶ βινεσκόμην.
          . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

1245  ΠΑ. καί μοι τοσοῦτον εἰπέ· πότερον ἐν ἀγορᾷ
          ἠλλανροπώλεις ἐτεὸν ἢ ᾽πὶ ταῖς πύλαις;

          ΑΛ. ἐπὶ ταῖς πύλαισιν, οὗ τὸ τάριχος ὤνιον.
PAPH. And when you were becoming a man, what sort of trade did you follow?
SAUS. I sold sausages, and now and then I also sold my ass.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


PAPH. And tell me this, did you sell sausages in the marketplace or at the city gates?
SAUS. At the gates, where they sell cheap fish.
Aristophanes Knights 1241–1242, 1245–1247

Understood in the context of this passage, the implications of the Paphlagonian’s punishment become clear: just as the Sausage-seller sold sausages at the gates (ἠλλαντοπώλουν … ἐπὶ ταῖς πύλαισιν) and sometimes “sold his ass” (καί τι καὶ βινεσκόμην), so too the Paphlagonian will sell sausages at the gates (ἐπὶ ταῖς πύλαις ἀλλαντοπωλήσει) and we are left to fill in the blanks: he will take on the passive sexual role and become a prostitute like his sausage-seller predecessor. The commercial context, paired with sausage-selling, makes the accusation once more effectively tantamount to prostitution, and therefore even more serious. Again, however, the accusation against Cleon and the Paphlagonian works only through implication.

Returning, then, to the first passage I discussed, we can view its evocation of Sappho’s first poem, and the model of reversible eroticism that it presents, as a part of this scheme of implying, but never outright stating, that the Paphlagonian, that Cleon takes on the passive sexual role. This is not to say that Sappho’s poetry directly signified passive (male) homosexual behavior to the Athenians; to suggest as much would be absurd. Rather, I suggest that, in the context of late-fifth-century Athens, Sappho’s poetry was seen to exemplify a specifically feminine (and therefore uniquely alien from a citizen male perspective) mode of eroticism, and moreover presented models of erotic relations which were more or less explicitly at odds with the normative expectations of Athens’ male citizenry. Insofar as sexual inversion is regularly associated with gender inversion in ancient Greece, and especially in Old Comedy (the case in point being Agathon at the beginning of Thesmophoriazusae), [14] the allusion to Sappho, by associating Cleon and the Paphlagonian with the feminine, and with non-normative kinds of erōs, suggests by extension that he participates in aberrant modes of sexual intercourse, namely, in the ancient Greek context, performing the passive role.
Sappho’s poetry is in fact evoked one other time in Knights, and this allusion too can be understood as part of a scheme of feminizing implicit invective against Cleon. It occurs after the Paphlagonian and the Sausage-seller’s competition for the affections of Demos is complete and the Sausage-seller has been declared the victor:

          ΠΑ. οἴμοι, πέπρακται τοῦ θεοῦ τὸ θέσφατον.

          κυλίνδετ ̓ εἴσω τόνδε τὸν δυσδαίμονα.

1250  ὦ στέφανε, χαίρων ἄπιθι, καί σ ̓ ἄκων ἐγὼ
          λείπω· σὲ δ ̓ ἄλλος τις λαβὼν κεκτήσεται,

          κλέπτης μὲν οὐκ ἂν μᾶλλον, εὐτυχὴς δ ̓ ἴσως.
          ΑΛ. Ἐλλάνιε Ζεῦ, σὸν τὸ νικητήριον.
          ΔΗ. ὦ χαῖρε καλλίνικε καὶ μέμνησ ̓ ὅτι

1255  ἀνὴρ γεγένησαι δι ̓ ἐμέ· καὶ σ ̓ αἰτῶ βραχύ,
          ὅπως ἔσομαί σοι Φᾶνος ὑπογραφεὺς δικῶν.
PAPH. Ah me, the god’s own fateful prophecy has come to pass! “Roll me inside, utterly ill-starred!” Begone and farewell, my garland; against my will do I abandon you. “Some other man will take you as his own, no greater thief, but luckier perhaps.”
SAUS. Zeus of the Hellenes, yours the prize of victory!
DEM. Hail, fair victor, and bear in mind that you became a big shot thanks to me. And I’ll ask only a small favor, that you make me your Phanus, your notary for indictments.
Aristophanes Knights 1248–1256

As a whole, this passage is rife with allusions; 1249 references either Euripides’ Bellerophon (fr. 310) or, more likely in my view, Stheneboea (fr. 671), [15] while 1251–1252 are a near verbatim quotation from his Alcestis (181–182). The contribution of Sappho to this allusive texture, however, is less widely recognized. In fact, the language in several parts strongly recalls another now-fragmentary poem of hers: [16]

          τεθνάκην δ ̓ ἀδόλως θέλω·

          ἄ με ψισδομένα κατελίμπανεν
          πόλλα καὶ τόδ’ ἔειπέ [μοι·

          ὤιμ’ ὠς δεῖνα πεπ[όνθ]αμεν,

5        Ψάπφ’, ἦ μάν σ’ ἀέκοισ’ ἀπυλιμπάνω.
          τὰν δ’ ἔγω τάδ’ ἀμειβόμαν·

          χαίροισ’ ἔρχεο κἄμεθεν

          μέμναισ’, οἶσθα γὰρ ὤς <σ>ε πεδήπομεν·
          αἰ δὲ μή, ἀλλά σ’ ἔγω θέλω

10      ὄμναισαι [ ̣ ̣ ̣( ̣)] ̣[ ̣ ̣ ̣( ̣)] ̣εαι
          ὀσ[ – 10 – ] καὶ κάλ’ ἐπάσχομεν·
          πό[λλοις γὰρ στεφάν]οις ἴων

          καὶ βρ[όδων ̣ ̣ ̣]κίων τ ̓ ὔμοι

          κα ̣ ̣[ – 7 – ] πὰρ ἔμοι π<ε>ρεθήκα<ο>.
… and honestly I wish I were dead. She was leaving me with many tears and said this: “Oh what bad luck has been ours, Sappho; truly I leave you against my will.” I replied to her thus: “Go and fare well and remember me, for you know how we cared for you. If not, why then I want to remind you … how many … and the wonderful times we used to have. You put on many garlands of violets and roses and … together by my side,
Sappho 94.1–14

The context of farewell is obviously common to these two texts, but there are striking verbal similarities too: χαίροισ’ ἔρχεο finds a parallel in χαίρων ἄπιθι; ἦ μάν σ’ ἀέκοισ’ ἀπυλιμπάνω is recalled by καί σ ̓ ἄκων ἐγὼ λείπω; and χαίροισ’ … κἄμεθεν μέμναισ’ resembles χαῖρε … καὶ μέμνησ᾽ … ἐμέ. In addition, Sappho’s mention of garlands (στεφάν]οις), though admittedly reconstructed, might plausibly be connected with the garland which the Paphlagonian farewells (στέφανε) in this passage.

As a whole, the allusions in this passage in Knights act as a humorous appropriation of the language of serious poetic farewell scenes. The Paphlagonian is not, like Sappho, saying a tearful goodbye to a beloved companion; and he is not like Alcestis in Alcestis, who farewells the bed which symbolizes her marriage, her love for her husband Admetus, and her chastity, before she tragically dies in Admetus’ place; rather, the Paphlagonian’s farewell is bathetically addressed to a simple garland. [17] As well, the allusion to Alcestis serves to point out the latent absurdity of that scene: no matter how symbolically significant her bed is, the fact remains that Alcestis gives a tearful farewell to a mere physical object, just as the Paphlagonian farewells his garland; it is typically Aristophanic to point out the implicit ridiculousness of tragic conventions, tropes, and individual scenes.
But there is a further implication to these allusions, and that is a gendered one. The Paphlagonian’s farewell becomes coded feminine by the intertexts that it draws on. Sappho is the exemplary female poet. Alcestis is, of course, also a woman, but she is also one who, unlike many of the female characters of tragedy, is unimpeachable in her embodiment of feminine virtue. By making the Paphlagonian take on the role of Sappho and Alcestis in farewelling his garland, Aristophanes once more subtly femininizes him. The Paphlagonian farewells his garland as Alcestis farewelled her marriage bed, as Sappho farewelled her lover, and the sexual implications are familiar: the Paphlagonian plays the part of the wife, he acts as a “Sapphic” lover, and so by implication he takes the passive sexual role. I suggest that this scene, too, is a part of the play’s wider scheme of suggesting, but never explicitly stating, that Cleon likes to be the passive sexual partner.
Ultimately, there seem to be two areas in which we might draw some tentative and speculative conclusions. The first relates to Sappho’s reception in Athens. The close verbal reminiscences of the language of specific poems by Sappho suggest that Aristophanes could rely on a significant degree of knowledge of her poetry by at least some of his audience; and indeed these are far from the only echoes of Sappho’s language in Athenian drama. [18] This, then, affirms that Sappho was a prominent cultural figure in Athens in the fifth century, and her poetry presumably fairly well known among the Athenian populace; this is easily explained if we accept that Sappho’s works were performed at the Panathenaia and/or other Athenian public festivals. [19]
The nature of Aristophanes’ allusions can also tell us something about how Sappho was perceived in Athens at his time. It is perhaps trivial to suggest that Sappho was likely seen to exemplify a particularly feminine mode of erōs, although it is more interesting to note that she seems to have been understood as engaging in a type of fluid erōs which is quite foreign to normative Athenian assumptions. Indeed, the nature of the two particular poems which Aristophanes references is quite telling, too: they are without a doubt, among what little remains of Sappho’s corpus, the two poems which most explicitly engage with female-female (and therefore inherently challenging from an Athenian male point of view) eroticism. The two allusions to Sappho that we can identify also pointedly appear at the moment when the erotic rivalry between the Paphlagonian and the Sausage-seller begins (728–740), and in the immediate aftermath of the Sausage-seller’s victory in the rivalry (1248–1256); Sappho seems to act as a frame for the erotic contest. This is, perhaps, suggestive of an Athenian association of Sapphic poetry with erotic rivalry in general.
But these allusions can also help us better understand Knights itself. Essentially, Sappho seems to be deployed as part of a scheme of hidden slander against Cleon: Sappho helps Aristophanes make accusations against Cleon without actually making them. Cleon is associated, but never attributed, with femininity and passivity. This is a testament to Aristophanes’ subtlety and sensitivity as a poet. The slander is a powerful one: not only does it emasculate Cleon, it also connects him with sexual insatiability [20] and elite self-indulgence, [21] it renders him a hypocrite, [22] and, worst of all, it implies that there are grounds for stripping him of his citizenship and his right to speak in the assembly. This dimension of subtle sexual invective has been perhaps underappreciated, but it is nonetheless an important aspect of the play’s project. Slander of Cleon is, of course, the very point of Knights.

Works Cited

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Campbell, David A. 1982. Greek Lyric, Volume 1: Sappho, Alcaeus. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge MA.
Cavallini, Eleonora. 1986. Presenza di Saffo e Alceo nella poesia grecia fino ad Aristofane. Ferrara.
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Footnotes

[ back ] 1. Greek text is quoted from the editions of Wilson 2007 for Aristophanes and Voigt 1971 for Sappho. Translations are adapted from those of Henderson 1998–2008 and Campbell 1982 respectively.
[ back ] 2. Thucydides 2.43.1; cf. Plato Gorgias 481d–e, Alcibiades 1.132a; and see Monoson 1994 on the general implications of this civic-erotic imagery and Scholtz 2004 on its significance in Knights.
[ back ] 3. See especially Davidson’s (2007:23–32) discussion of the unidirectionality of erōs; cf. Dover 1989:42–54, Halperin 1990:15–40.
[ back ] 4. I suggest that this allusion has more significance than just the bathetic effect of Sappho’s serious and elevated poem appearing in this inappropriate context, which Cavallini (1986:47) identifies; cf. too Kugelmeier 1996:158–159.
[ back ] 5. Bochum, Ruhr-Universität Kunstsammlungen S 508, c. 480–470 BC, BAPD 4979.
[ back ] 6. Yatromanolakis 2002:162–165, Yatromanolakis 2005, Nagy 2010:193–195; cf. Pitts 2002:222–223, Yatromanolakis 2007:88–110, esp. 108–110. Even if a reading of Sappho 1 such as Giacomelli’s (1980) correctly captures the poem’s original intention, in suggesting that the poem’s point is ‘revenge’ and that Aphrodite’s promise is that Sappho’s beloved will become the lover of someone else (not Sappho), the poem need not have had this same meaning in the Athenian context; and indeed the Tithonios Painter vase is suggestive evidence that the Athenians understood it as implying a role reversal between lover and beloved (as most modern readers understand it, too).
[ back ] 7. Paris G175, c. 500–490 BC, ARV 2 206.124, 1633, Add 96, BAPD 201933.
[ back ] 8. Such a scheme has been identified and briefly discussed by Hubbard (1998:57), who interprets it as principally intended to establish Cleon as a hypocrite with respect to his sexual behaviour.
[ back ] 9. On Aristophanes and Cleon, see especially Edmunds 1987.
[ back ] 10. See, for example, the clear discussion of the evidence by Olson (2002:xl–lii), which comes principally from Aristophanes’ Acharnians.
[ back ] 11. Cf. Knights 877 with Sommerstein 1981:191 ad loc., Dover 1989:19–34, Halperin 1990:75–87; and Winkler 1990:45–70 more generally on the policing of sexual behavior at Athens. See Aeschines 1 for an example of prosecution speech on these grounds, and especially 19–20, 28–32, 87, 134 for the relevant laws and penalties.
[ back ] 12. This is a common joke in comedy: see Clouds 1093–1094, Ecclesiazusae 112–113, Plato Comicus fr. 202.5; and cf. Plato Symposium 192a where Aristophanes is made to express the same idea.
[ back ] 13. Cf. n10 above.
[ back ] 14. On the complexities of Agathon’s gendered/sexualized depiction more generally, see especially Duncan 2006:32–47.
[ back ] 15. I am inclined to follow Neil 1901:164 ad 1248–1249 in believing that the reference is to Stheneboea, and not Bellerophon. Although the scholiast ad loc. notes that 1249 is taken from Bellerophon with κυλίνδετ ̓ substituted for κομίζετ᾽ (hence fr. 310: κομίζετ᾽ εἴσω τόνδε τὸν δυσδαίμονα), the potential for Bellerophon and Stheneboea to be confused, given they feature near-identical characters, together with the existence of a fragment from Stheneboea that parallels the first half of 1249 (fr. 671.1: κομίζετ᾽ εἴσω τήνδε· πιστεύειν δὲ χρὴ), seems too much of a coincidence, and suggests to me that it is most likely that the scholiast has mixed up the two plays (and hence that our Bellerophon fr. 310 is spurious). The implications of this for the present argument are relatively minor, but if the reference is to the line from Stheneboea, then the Paphlagonian is once more placed into a feminine role (τήνδε, fr. 671.1).
[ back ] 16. Cavallini (1986:47) suggests that this same poem may also be alluded to at Knights 875–877; this is possible, and there are certainly similarities in the language; but I am less convinced by this allusion, which would certainly be less direct in any case.
[ back ] 17. Cf. Cavallini 1986:47–48; Kugelmeier 1996:159 on the bathetic effects here.
[ back ] 18. The most plausible candidates are Aristophanes Birds 1167 ~ Sappho 31.1–2; Euripides Trojan Women 820–824 ~ Sappho 2.13–16; Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus 1725–1727 ~ Sappho 95.11–13; and perhaps Aeschylus Agamemnon 403–408 ~ Sappho 16 (see Calder 1984 but cf. Garner 1990:31); Euripides Cyclops 182–187 ~ Sappho 16.6–9 (see Di Marco 1980); Pseudo-Euripides Rhesus 527–536 ~ Sappho 168B; Sophocles Electra 67 ~ Sappho 31.1–2; Sophocles Philoctetes 1224 ~ Sappho 5.5. In general on allusions to Sappho in Athenian drama see: Bagordo 2003:104–120 on tragedy, Kugelmeier 1996 on comedy, and Cavallini 1986 generally.
[ back ] 19. Cf. Nagy 2007:234–254; 2010:185–186; and forthcoming on Sappho’s performance at the Panathenaia.
[ back ] 20. Insofar as both women and sexually passive men are associated with sexual insatiability in Old Comedy; see Davidson 1997:167–182 for an interesting case that the force of the Greek insults καταπύγων and κίναιδος has less to do with sexual passivity per se than with insatiability.
[ back ] 21. See Henderson 1991:57–71.
[ back ] 22. See n8 above.