This post looks at the first fifty chapters of Book Three, covering the revolt of Lesbos (with a focus on Mytilene) and the remarkable Athenian speeches of Cleon and Diodotus. All quotes come from the Thomas Hobbes translation unless otherwise noted.
And you can't imagine the restraint I've had to exercise regarding the title of this post.
In the Delian League there were only two autonomous islands that provided ships instead of tribute to Athens: Lesbos and Chios. Most of Lesbos was preparing to revolt from Athens, building defensive walls, adding to their fleet, stocking up supplies, and blocking the harbor. Lesbos had planned on revolting before the war but the Peloponnesian League would not support them. As Lesbos (and its principal city Mytilene) prepare for revolt in the fourth year of the war (428BC), word leaked to the Athenians about their plans. Athens, hit again with “the disease” and running low on money, could not afford the loss of Lesbos to the Spartan side. After their ambassadors are rebuffed, Athens sends forty ships to try and take Mytilene unawares but that fails. Mytilene sends envoys to Athens to pursue peace (unsuccessfully) and to Sparta for aid.
The envoys to Sparta successfully frame their argument around justice, freedom and opportunity. It’s doubtful that the oligarchs’ motives were so pure, hoping to project their power outside the city and over the whole island. The next year Sparta sends troops again into Attica (with an interesting note that the troops, under Pausanias, cut down what had begun to grow again from previous invasions) as well as forty ships toward Lesbos under Alcidas’ command. The Spartan ships take so much time that Mytilene, not as fully prepared for the revolt as they wanted to be, falls to the Athenians. When Alcidas receives word of the city’s fall, he kills all his prisoners and flees back to Sparta.
The fall of Mytilene was facilitated when the magistrates armed the commoners for defense of the city. Instead the people rebelled, demanding the foodstores to be divided to everyone while they delivered the city to the Athenian commander Paches under certain conditions. Paches agrees to the conditions, which allowed the common citizens of Mytilene to remain free while they send ambassadors to Athens. While waiting for word of what the Athenian council will rule with regard to Mytilene, Paches takes several nearby areas and cruelly treats those he views as inciting revolt.
The Athenian council meets regarding Mytilene, and
in their passion decreed to put them to death, not only those men there present, but also all the men of Mytilene that were of age; and to make slaves of the women and children: laying to their charge the revolt itself, in that they revolted not being in subjection as others were: and withal the Peloponnesian fleet, which durst enter into Ionia to their aid, had not a little aggravated that commotion. For by that it seemed that the revolt was not made without much premeditation. They therefore sent a galley to inform Paches of their decree, with command to put the Mytilenæans presently to death. But the next day they felt a kind of repentance in themselves; and began to consider what a great and cruel decree it was, that not the authors only, but the whole city should be destroyed. Which when the ambassadors of the Mytilenæans that were there present, and such Athenians as favoured them, understood, they wrought with those that bare office, to bring the matter again into debate; wherein they easily prevailed, forasmuch as to them also it was well known, that the most of the city were desirous to have means to consult of the same anew.
Thucydides presents Cleon, who had won the assembly over to having the Mytilenæans put to death, as “being of all the citizens most violent and with the people at that time far the most powerful.” Chapters 37 – 40 cover his speech and I found it really disturbed me, probably because I agreed with much of it even though I can’t support his argument. I think the speeches of Cleon and Diodotus, combined, present a measured approach to political life and justice in the city although I’m not sure that was Thucydides’ point. Cleon frames his speech with justice from the laws assisting Athens in its empire and war, even though others would put it as ruling through terror. Here are some quotes and summary points (with a few of my comments) from Cleon’s speech:
- “I have often on other occasions thought a democracy uncapable of dominion over others”.
- “[N]or do you consider that your government is a tyranny and those that be subject to it are against their will so, and are plotting continually against you”.
- “But the worst mischief of all is this, that nothing we decree shall stand firm, and that we will not know, that a city with the worse laws, if immoveable, is better than one with good laws, when they be not binding”. Maybe so, which means that good laws should be passed the first time and should be binding, which may have been a point Thucydides was trying to make on the fickleness of the Athenian assembly.
- The rebellion was unjustified, the laws says the punishment must be severe
- Mytilene should have never been treated differently than subjects
- What impact will this have on our allies and their actions if you grant leniency?
- Do not differentiate between the leaders and the commoners—if the commoners were against the rebellion they could have left the city
- “[Y]ou ought not to alter your former decree, nor to offend in any of these three most disadvantageous things to empire, pity, delight in plausible speeches, and lenity.” (“Pity, sentiment, and indulgence” in the Crawley translation)
There are many points, expressly stated and implied, in Cleon’s speech that I find powerful. He’s saying “We’re an empire, we’re at war, these are the laws you have passed, you need to uphold them or you put the city and empire in jeopardy.” I find the implications just as powerful—if you don’t like being an empire, if you don’t like being at war, if you don’t like the laws you passed then you should have taken different actions. I don’t feel qualified to disagree with Donald Kagan but I think his statement that “Cleon’s address amounts to a full-scale attack on the imperial policy of Pericles and the moderates” (from his book The Peloponnesian War) is wrong. I see Cleon following Pericles’ lead in many areas. Or rather, the Pericles presented in his last speech rather than the Pericles of the funeral oration. His funeral oration pointed out Athens’ superiority over the Spartans in generosity, benevolence, and courage through love of Athens (not through harsh discipline—note this is for Athens only, not the empire). The Pericles we see in his last speech, however, presents a very different picture of what is necessary during war, especially stressing the will required to fight and win. One point where the “two Pericles” agree is the necessity to follow the law.
First, attacking a rebelling member of the Delian League is not counter to Pericles’ war strategy—Athens is not adding territory (or adding “no further dominion”) but maintaining one of its crucial members. As Pericles noted, the members (or rather their money and ships) were one of Athens’ strengths. Second, Cleon echoes Pericles in reminding Athenians that they are an empire, ruling others through tyranny whether they view it that way or not. Third, Cleon asks the assembly to follow the law, first out of justice and second out of usefulness. His stress on the law echoes Pericles’ emphasis. Fourth, Cleon’s call to avoid pity, sentiment, and indulgence dovetails nicely with the Athenian envoys (who just “happened” to be in Sparta during their discussion for war—chances are they would have been sent by Pericles and the Athenian assembly to unofficially speak for the city) who stress “honour, fear, and profit” as defining and necessary requirements for empire.
Thucydides presents Diodotus as the speaker most opposed to putting the citizens of Mytilene to death in the first assembly. Here are some quotes and summary points in his reply to Cleon’s speech (Chapters 42 – 48):
- Cleon urges fear and suspicion against his opponents, accusing them of providing advice for selfish gain. Cleon argues for equality in how presentations are received. (Even if the presenter doesn’t have the city’s best interests in mind?)
- We must allow fair and equal hearings under the law: “But now, according to the passion that takes you, when at any time your affairs miscarry, you punish the sentence of that one only that gave the counsel, not the many sentences of your own that were in fault as well as his.” (A reprimand? This comes after essentially saying he will use a ruse in order to counter Cleon’s argument—“no man can possibly benefit by the plain and open way without artifice.” I have to admire his openness.)
- Ah, here’s the ruse: “For we contend not now, if we be wise, about the injury done by them, but about the wisest counsel for ourselves.” In other words, don’t worry about the laws or justice, worry about “what’s good for the commonwealth.” But according to Pericles, reverence for the laws is what’s good for the commonwealth. Cleon believes it best to follow the laws, even if they are bad—that’s why I think one of Thucydides’ points in showing these speeches as he does is to address Athens’ inability to always discern good from bad laws, being subject to a demagogue or even a “principal man” like Pericles. (Stressing moderation, a Spartan attribute?)
- Diodotus follows with a discussion of whether capital punishment serves the city and if it is a deterrent (as Cleon claims) or not (as Diodotus holds)
- Diodotus says he will not appeal to their “compassion or lenity” (echoing Cleon’s claim that there is no place in an empire for them), but asks them to focus on what will “be both good for the future, and also of present terror to the enemy.” (Not mentioned is terror of their allies)
I found it interesting that Diodotus never argues whether or not Mytilene was guilty (he admits they are), nor does he really seem to argue against capital punishment for the oligarchs. His focus comes down only to “the commonality” or regular people of the city, saying the Athenians would be committing a crime by putting them to death. In other words, put a premium on what is best for the city in carrying out the laws.
I took so much time presenting these speeches because I found them fascinating. On each reading of them I find more layers and I’m sure I’m missing a great deal (not to mention there is a lot I didn’t include in these summaries).
The outcome? It was a close vote but “the sentence of Diodotus prevailed”. The Athenians had already sent a ship with the instructions of the first day’s assembly—kill everyone in Mytilene. The Athenians send a second galley, assisted by Mytilenaean ambassadors, and make it to the city just as Paches read the first sentence. However the penalty for the revolt was still extremely stiff: those most culpable (about 1,000) put to death, the walls of Mytilene razed, their fleet appropriated, and all of their lands (both on the island and elsewhere) seized. Any other town revolting with Mytilene was treated the same way. Thucydides thought the initial verdict a “great and cruel decree” and I assume he preferred the “lesser” sentence.