November 9, 2012, by Alan Sommerstein

Elections and divine wrath

In the last week before the US election, a storm of almost unprecedented violence (Hurricane Sandy) caused great devastation and loss of life, especially in New York and New Jersey.   The election was held on Tuesday 6 November, and a day or two later a second storm created further disruption in the same areas, with some people having to leave their homes for a second time.

There has been some speculation on the possible impact that the first storm may have had on the election, whether by making it more difficult for some voters to cast their votes or by drawing attention to the importance of public services in emergency situations.  But others have been quite sure that they knew the cause of the storm itself.  A story in the e-paper The Week reported on a variety of conspiratorial and supernatural “explanations” for the storm, including that it was engineered by the Obama administration to help secure the President’s re-election, that it had been predicted by aliens when they abducted a well-known author, and that it was a divine warning against the legalization of same-sex marriage – or perhaps against something broader, as a commenter on the article, called Carpenter, declared (all capitals etc. as in original):

“Several of the States that will overwhelmingly vote for OBAMA were FLATTENED last night by the WRATH OF GOD. What does that tell ya?

The fact is, and it is painful to say, but the fact is that Hussein Obama is doing a FINE JOB of destroying an Apostate sinful depraved nation that has abandoned GOD. Obama campaigns on Immorality and the Pagans love him! He promises to be the most evil, the most Anti-Christian most immoral leader in the world and they cheer.

The BarackAlypse is a divine punishment for an evil nation of ungodly people who have bathed in immorality and drank of depravity for too long.”

After the election result, and the second storm, Carpenter must now be even more certain (s)he is right.  But the same claim, more or less, though much better expressed, was made after another election over 2400 years ago.

In the latter part of the year that we know as 425 BC, the Athenian politician Cleon was on the crest of a big wave.  He had recently gained a spectacular success as a military commander by defeating the Spartans at Sphacteria and taking 292 prisoners (who could be, and were, used as hostages to deter Sparta from further invasions of Athenian territory), thus severely shaking the widespread belief that Spartan soldiers were more or less invincible and would always die rather than surrender.  In February 424 was held the usual annual election of ten generals, and Cleon was among those chosen.  A month or two later there was an annular eclipse of the sun, followed after a few days by an earthquake; there had already been a total eclipse of the moon the previous October.

Another year on, in the spring of 423, Aristophanes produced his comedy The Clouds.  This was mainly about new – and, in the eyes of many, subversive – trends in education, embodied in the figure of Socrates; but in the middle of the play, as usual, the leader of the chorus (of Cloud-Goddesses) addressed the audience directly in what is known as the parabasis.  There was no love lost between Cleon and Aristophanes.  In 426 Cleon had attempted to prosecute the dramatist, or perhaps his producer, on a charge of “slandering the state in the presence of foreigners”; in 424 – not long before election day – Aristophanes had devoted an entire play, The Knights, to a vicious satirical assault on Cleon, presented as a villainous slave named Paphlagon from a backward region of Asia Minor, who is confronted and defeated by an itinerant hot-dog vendor and finally condemned to take up that trade himself.   Now he made the Chief Cloud tell the Athenian people:

“When you were about to elect as general the godforsaken tanner Paphlagon, we furrowed our brows and carried on dreadfully:  thunder crashed amid lightning bolts, the Moon deserted her orbit, and the Sun forthwith withdrew his wick and refused to shine for you if Cleon became general.  But you elected him anyway!  They say that bad policymaking afflicts this city, but also that whatever mistakes you make the gods convert into successes.  And we will easily teach you how even this mistake can benefit you.  If you convict that vulture Cleon of bribery and theft, then clamp his neck in the pillory, your situation will be as it was before, and everything will turn out better for the city, in spite of your mistake.”

(Clouds 581-594, trans. J.J. Henderson [Cambridge, Mass., 1998])

Cleon was never (so far as we know) convicted of anything.  Aristophanes put him on stage again, this time as a lazy, blackmailing dog, in The Wasps early in 422; that summer, once again a general, Cleon was killed on campaign, leaving Aristophanes to dance on his grave in his next play, Peace (spring 421) in which, most unusually, more is said about the dead Cleon than about any living public figure.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose …


Posted in AristophanesComedy