Tuesday, 15 February 2011



In this further extract from Thucydides' great work, Sabidius has translated excerpts from the speeches made during the debate in the Athenian assembly about the fate of Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos which had rebelled against the Athenian Empire in 428 B.C. Since Mytilene was a long-standing and privileged member of that empire, the Athenians were shaken and angry at this disloyalty, especially since they were now engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Sparta (the Peloponnesian War 431-404 B.C.). The Athenians subjected Mytilene to a long blockade and succeeded in capturing it in the following year, after which their general, Paches, sent the ring-leaders of the revolt to Athens. The fate of Mitylene is determined in a meeting of the Athenian assembly on the Pnyx in the summer of 427 B.C. when passions were running high because of the difficulties which Athens had recently experienced. The two main speakers were Cleon, the notorious demagague, who led the more aggressive elements within the assembly, and the more moderate Diodotus, about whom nothing outside this speech is known, but who was probably a follower of the great Pericles, who had died in the autumn of 429.

This extract shows Thucydides' writing at its most compelling. As a historian he aimed at impartiality and accuracy, which he obtained to an impressive degree. While the many speeches which he records, and of which the two excerpts below are notable examples, were written in his own words, he claimed that they contained the gist of what was actually said. One is struck by the sophistication and profundity of thought reflected in these speeches. When one considers that some of the dilemmas experienced by the Athenians in relation to their empire would have struck cords of recognition in the minds of Britons of the Victorian age, one can see why the content as well as the literary value of Thucydides' history was rated so highly by educationalists of that time.

This extract is taken from "A Greek Anthology", published by JACT through the Cambridge University Press, (2002).

Ch. 36.2 - 37.2.  The Athenians initially decide that all the adult males of Mytilene should be put to death and the women and children enslaved, but, having had second thoughts, they debate the matter again. Cleon argues forcefully that they should confirm their previous decision.   

They made proposals about the prisoners (lit. men), and, in the fury of the moment (lit. through fury), it seemed good to them to put to death not only those who were present but also all the Mytilenean males who (lit. as many as) were adult, and to enslave the children and women, giving as an objection the other aspects of the revolt that, (although) not being subjects like the others, they had made (a rebellion), and not least that the ships of the Peloponnesians had contributed to the uprising by venturing to cross over to Ionia (in) coming to help them; for they seemed to have made the revolt not through a momentary impulse (lit. through no small design). And so they send a trireme to Paches (as) a messenger of the things which had been decided, telling (him) to despatch the Mytileneans with speed. On the next day there was, immediately, some repentance among them and the thought that they had made a cruel and outrageous decision to destroy a whole city rather than the guilty ones. When they perceived this, the ambassadors of the Mytileneans who were present, and those of the Athenians supporting them, arranged with those in authority that they hold the debate (lit. put forward the proposals) again; and they persuaded them the more easily because it was also clear to them that the majority of the citizens wished that some one should give them the opportunity to deliberate again. An assembly having been convened immediately, various views were expressed on both sides, and Cleon, the (son) of Cleaenetus, the same man who had carried the former (motion) that they should put (them) to death, being in all other respects the most violent of the citizens, and, at that time, by far the most persuasive, spoke again as follows.

"I, for my part, have often at other times already been convinced (lit. known) that a democracy is incapable of governing others, and, especially now in relation to your change of mind about the Mytileneans. Because your situation from day to day is free from fear and without plots among yourselves, you have the same (attitude) towards the allies, and in whatever way you make a mistake, either having been persuaded by them in argument or (when) you have given way in pity, you do not think it is dangerous to you to become weak without gaining the gratitude of the allies, not considering that you have the empire (as) a tyranny and disaffected subjects, themselves (turning) towards plotting (against you), (and) who obey you not from whatever things you do as favours, (although) yourselves being harmed (by doing so), but from the ways in which you are superior to them in strength rather than through their good will."

Ll. 40.7 - 42.1.  After Cleon has urged the assembly not to be weak, Diodotus advises that decisions taken in anger and haste are likely to be poor ones.

Cleon concludes his speech with these words:

"So, do not become traitors to yourselves, but, placing yourselves in thought as close as possible to the (moment of) the injury (lit. suffering) and (thinking) how you would have (then) considered (it) of supreme importance to have conquered them, now pay (them) back (for it), not becoming soft just at the present moment, nor forgetting the danger then having been hung over (you), and punish them deservedly, and make (them) a clear example to the other allies that whoever may rebel will be punished with death. For, if they learn this, you will less often fight your allies, (while) neglecting your enemies."

Such were the words Cleon spoke. After him, Diodotus, the (son) of Eucrates, who in the previous assembly also had spoken very strongly against putting the Mytileneans to death, coming forward, then spoke as follows (lit. such things):

"I do not blame those who have proposed a fresh debate about the Mytileneans, nor do I praise those urging that we should not often deliberate about the most important matters, and I think the two things most opposed to good counsel are haste and anger, of which the former is accustomed to go together with folly, and the latter with ignorance and lack of judgement."

Ll. 47.1 - 48.2.  Diodotus argues that it would not be wrong, but also counter-productive to their interests, for the Athenians to impose such a savage sentence.

Diodotus concludes his speech with these words:

"You must consider how much you would go wrong on this, (if you were) persuaded by Cleon. For at present  the democratic faction in all the cities is well-disposed to you, and, either it does not join in with the oligarchs (lit. the few) in revolting, or, if it is forced (to do so), it becomes at once an enemy to the rebels and you go to war with the hostile city having the people on your side. If you destroy the democratic faction of the Mytileneans, who had no share in the rebellion and (who), when they got possession of weapons, willingly surrendered the city, you will, firstly, act wrongly (by) killing your benefactors, and (then) you will bring about, in relation to the upper classes (lit. the powerful) of the population, what they most want. For, (when) inciting their cities to rebellion, they will have the democratic faction immediately (as) an ally, you having made known beforehand that the same punishment has been laid down both for the guilty and, likewise, for those (who are) not. And it is necessary, even if they were guilty, to pretend otherwise, so that (that) element which alone is still allied to us should not become hostile. I consider it much more advantageous for the maintenance of our empire that we should willingly be subject to injustice rather than that we should justly put to death those whom it is in our interest not (to do so). And the (claim) of Cleon that justice and expediency in punishment (are) the same is not found to be possible to bring about at the same time in this case. So, may you, confessing that this is the better course, and conceding too much neither to pity nor to fairness, by which (motives) not even I allow (you) to be influenced, but upon these recommendations by me, (may you) be persuaded to try at your leisure (those) of the Mytileneans, whom Paches has sent off as guilty, and allow the others to live (on undisturbed). For this (will be) good both for the future, and at the present moment (will be) a cause of fear to the enemy; for whoever plans well against his adversaries is stronger than (someone) attacking with folly (combined) with deeds of strength.

Ll. 49.1 - 49.4.  Diodotus' view just carries the day, and the second ship sent out by the Athenians arrives just in time to avert the slaughter.

Diodotus spoke such things; these opinions, almost evenly matched against each other, having been expressed, the Athenians proceeded to a division (lit. conflict) of their opinion nevertheless, and they appeared nearly equal in the show of hands, but the (view) of Diodotus prevailed. And immediately they sent off another trireme in haste, for fear lest, the former ship having anticipated (them), they might find that the city had been destroyed; it had a lead of about a day and a night. The ambassadors of the Mytileneans, providing wine and barley-meal for the ship, and promising great things if they arrived first, such haste in the voyage occurred that they ate barley cakes kneaded with wine and olive-oil at the same time as rowing, and  some snatched sleep in turns, and the others rowed. By chance no wind being opposed (to it), and the former ship not sailing in haste on (such) unwelcome business, this (second) ship making haste in such a manner, the former arrived ahead (just) so much ahead that Paches had read the decree and was about to implement the things that had been decided, (when) the (ship), (coming) later than it, then came in to land and prevented the massacre. Mytilenene came within so short a distance of the danger (of destruction).

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