Politicians, People and the Power of Satire

On the morning of 7th January 2015, two Islamist terrorists stormed into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French, strongly anti-religious satirical newspaper. Armed with assault rifles and shouting Allahu Akbar ('God is the greatest'), they fired up to 50 shots, killing 11 people and injuring a further 11. It soon became clear that the motive for the attack had been anger at the newspaper's controversial depictions of the prophet Muhammad in several issues over the last decade. The following week saw a wave of retaliatory attacks against Muslims across France and a large rally championing freedom of speech in Paris. A series of related shootings in Denmark in mid-February suggests that, sadly, we can expect the effects of this event to continue for a while yet.

Political satire

Political satire - a genre of literature and other art forms which pokes fun at politics and, in particular, politicians - has formed a significant part of the media output of the Western World for the last two hundred years. Satirical shows such as Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week are immensely popular in the UK and the magazine Private Eye, first published in 1961, is currently Britain's best-selling current affairs magazine.

But, as the tragic events detailed above suggest, satire of contemporary figures, institutions and religious beliefs and practices comes at a price, and the vast majority of such magazines and programmes have over the years faced strong criticism and even legal action: the BBC Trust was compelled to apologise in 2009 for the "humiliating" comments made by Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle about the swimmer Rebecca Adlington; there were over 100 complaints about an April 2013 episode of Have I Got News For You in which Ian Hislop suggested that Mars Bars might become the currency of a post-independence Scotland; and Private Eye has come under scrutiny in recent years after publishing controversial editions after several major (inter-)national traumas, not least the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 and the September 11 attacks in 2011.


It says a lot about our society that such freedom of expression in the name of entertainment continues to be protected by law. And like much that we value today, both this freedom of expression itself and the political satire with which it is often associated have their origins in antiquity, specifically in the comedies of the Athenian playwright Aristophanes. Aristophanes lived in the second half of the fifth and first quarter of the fourth centuries BCE, and wrote most of his surviving 11 plays during the Peloponnesian war (431-404 BCE) between the two greatest Greek powers of the day, Athens and Sparta. A state of war places any population under a large amount of stress, and the regular performance of both comedy and tragedy at dramatic and religious festivals certainly will have provided the Athenians with some escapist relief from the pressures of daily life. Aristophanes certainly aimed to make his audience laugh, and everything which we would now call 'comedy' finds its way into his plays: puns, parody of other literary genres (difficult to understand nowadays, but no doubt as funny to the Athenians as parodies of music videos are to us) and visual humour - some successful, some less so - can be found on every page. Crude sexual, gender-related and toilet humour are just as prominent: two unforgettable Aristophanic scenes are the opening of Lysistrata in which Greek women plan a sex-strike in order to persuade Greek men on both sides to stop fighting; and the prologue of Peace, in which two slaves are making 'buns' of faeces to feed to a dung-beetle so that it might fly their master up to heaven to speak to Zeus (itself a parody of a Euripidean tragedy).

However, escapism was not Aristophanes' only aim. He did not shy away from tackling contemporary issues (sometimes, but not always, through humour), particularly the role of individual politicians in prolonging the suffering of everyday Athenians. Each of his plays can be read as a direct criticism of the way Athenian leaders were going about the business of war and government. Aside from his more general comedic aims, Aristophanes seems to have had four main targets for mockery, three of which have found their way into today's political satire.

Aristophanes' satirical aims

The first category is that of individual politicians who were not doing what Aristophanes thought that they ought to have been doing. His most frequent target was a well-known demagogue (a politician of the new order, that is to say a man from the lower classes who gained and maintained his position through appealing to the emotions of the people) called Cleon. Cleon effectively controlled Athens and her democractic government from the period after the death in 429 of Pericles (an aristocratic politician of the old order) until his own death in 422. Cleon and Aristophanes possibly had a personal feud going back as far as childhood, and Aristophanes took every opportunity to ridicule him. Indeed the plot of the Knights is based around the humiliating overthrow of a steward of Demos ('Thepeople', representing the Athenian people) called the 'Paphlagonian' (representing Cleon) in favour of an even worse specimen of leadership, a Sausage-Seller named Agoracritus.

The idea of a personal feud is perhaps supported by the fact that Aristophanes frequently ridiculed Cleon on a very personal level: a favourite Aristophanic joke is to reference his family's involvement with the production of leather, a very smelly and unsociable business which involved the use of urine and dung to treat the animal hides used to make the finished product. However, he also heavily criticised aspects of Cleon's politics: his uncouth oratorical style (very loud and brash), his pro-war stance (it is clear in the play Peace, written and produced after Cleon's death, that the war can now end because Cleon is no longer around to prolong it), and his trickery (such as his bribing of other leaders, his keenness to take people to court without good reason, and - a favourite joke in the Knights – his deception in taking the credit for someone else's victory against the Spartans at the Battles of Pylos and Sphacteria in 425 BCE). Moreover, Cleon is not the only one to get this sort of treatment: the contemporary military general Lamachus is ridiculed mercilessly in Acharnians for his supposedly pro-war views and overt militarism (I say 'supposedly', as the real Lamachus was - as far as the evidence suggests - not like this); and even the much loved Pericles is criticised in both Acharnians and Peace for the part that he played in starting the war.

Aristophanes' plays often seem rather unfunny to first-time readers due to the heavily contextual nature of their comedy. However, his desire to criticise contemporary politicians and leaders (either based on policy, or on a more personal level) can immediately be recognised as identical to the aim of the contemporary satirical newspapers and shows mentioned above: is abuse of Cleon really any different from cartoons about David Cameron, Boris Johnson or Barak Obama?

The second of Aristophanes' targets is the world of contemporary well-known Athenians who are not really involved in politics or war. Frequent jokes in many plays are made about a man called Cleonymus, who was both very fat and also a coward (he had dropped his shield at the battle of Delium in 424 BCE); well-known effeminate men who shave their hair and engage in passive homosexual practices also provide a frequent source of humour (such as Cleisthenes who appears in the Acharnians); and tragedians such as Aeschylus and, in particular, Euripides are the subject of parody and much ridicule. Indeed, Aristophanes devoted the whole of his Frogs to this topic. Although we no longer have famous tragedians, we do have celebrities, and each episode of Family Guy gets at least one cheap laugh from a derogatory reference to a well-known non-political figure.

The third category - the stereotyping of racial, ethnic and religious groups - was as common in antiquity as it is in today's gutter press. The opening scene of the Acharnians sees the Persians satirised for their dress, incomplete mastery of Greek and luxurious customs (the Persian-Greek war had only finished a few decades before and they still remained a threat); this play also sees the Megarians and Boeotians, peoples from other parts of Greece, portrayed in a comically derogatory manner; and Persian religious customs are a source of humour in Peace.

Aristophanes and the demos

But the most striking thing about Aristophanes is that he criticises not just political leaders but also the people (demos) of Athens themselves. The above-mentioned opening scene of the Acharnians sees the hero of the play, a country farmer called Dikaiopolis - 'just citizen'/'just towards the city' - moaning that he is the only person who has turned up to attend a meeting of the Ecclesia. It is clear that here it is the people themselves who are being criticised, albeit through humorous hyperbole, for their refusal to take part in the democratic process.

A bit later during the course of this assembly scene, the only person who proposes a discussion of peace (Amphitheus = 'doubly-divine') is arrested for bringing up the subject, a further hint that the people are not doing their job properly: they are refusing to talk about the sorts of things that need to be talked about. This criticism is echoed in Peace, when Hermes - the doorkeeper of Zeus' palace on Olympus - explains to the hero Trygaios that the gods have abandoned their home in heaven due to the failure of both the Athenian and Spartan people to even attempt to make peace, despite the gods themselves wanting it:

“They were fed up with you Greeks...Because they'd tried to make peace over and over again, and still you insisted on carrying on with the war.” (Ar. Peace trans Barrett, p.105)

Indeed, peace is only achieved in this play due to a cooperative effort, not of the leaders of Sparta and Athens but, in fact, of all the ordinary people of Greece themselves.

Perhaps the most obvious criticism of the Athenian demos comes in Knights. This play presents us with an allegory of Athenian society (Demos represents the Athenian people; the Paphlagonian represents Cleon; and the Sausage-Seller represents the man who will overthrow him). As expected, the Paphlagonian comes in for much criticism. However, Demos himself certainly does not escape. He is described by his slaves as:

“a countryman, and bad-tempered to match, he's got a morbid craving for beans [a reference to the Athenian voting system], and he flies into a fiery rage in no time. His name's Thepeople,that's right, Thepeople...and he's as dyspeptic a deaf old man as you ever met.” (Ar. Knights trans Barrett, pp.37-8)

We have no idea how the Athenian  people would have felt about being called "bad-tempered", "old" or "dyspeptic", but it seems likely that these simply form part of the general abuse of the audience which was a standard feature of the genre of Old Comedy. However, the charge of deafness (which becomes more prominent later in the play) is subtly hinting at something rather more specific: the Athenian people are incapable of listening properly to their politicians (the good and the bad), and thus they are being swindled and cheated by demagogues such as Cleon. Criticism of the demos runs through the three contests between the Paphlagonian and the Sausage seller which form the plot of the play: the Sausage-Seller wins each time, but for all the wrong reasons. He is a louder, brasher and more impudent that the Paphlagonian; he is better at flattering Demos than the Paphlagonian; and finally, he is more of a trickster than the Paphlagonian. What does this tell us about the Athenian people's ability to choose a leader?

Entertainment only?

Here we have hit on the one aspect of Aristophanic political satire which is not - maybe even cannot be - paralleled in the modern world: criticism of the voting masses. It is odd that this seemed appropriate in fifth century Athens but cannot find a place in the UK in the 21st century, especially when one considers the many similarities between the genre in antiquity and its modern day counterpart. Did fifth century Athenians have a greater ability to appreciate self-deprecating humour than we do?

Maybe. Or maybe they simply didn't take their political satire, or themselves, as seriously as we do now. We know that Cleon took Aristophanes to court in 426 BCE, probably because he didn't like the way he had been portrayed in the latter's play Babylonians. But we have no evidence of riots amongst the demos about the way in which they had been represented. Moreover, there is other evidence to suggest that political satire did not have as big an impact on how people felt about fifth century Athenian politics and politicians as those responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attacks evidently felt about that particular newspaper. Aristophanes was able to carry on writing his comedies right into the next century, despite the vehemence of his attack on contemporary politicians; and perhaps more importantly, Cleon remained in power until his death in 422 BCE, and Athenians continued to follow his pro-war policies, only making peace in 421 BCE, a year after his death. Perhaps Aristophanes' comedies were just escapist entertainment after all.

Sam Baddeley is a Classics teacher at Eastbourne College, East Sussex.