[5] The Mitylenean Debate .....Thucydides 3.37 ff.

[428 BC. After a first vote to execute the men of Mitylene and enslave their families, the Athenians began to regret their decision and a second assembly was convened: ]

...after much expression of opinion on both sides, Cleon, son of Cleaenetus, the same who carried the earlier motion of putting the Mityleneans to death, the most violent man at Athens, and at that time by far the most powerful with the common people, came forward again and spoke as follows:

'I have often before now been convinced that a democracy cannot govern an empire, and never more so than by your present change of mind in the matter of Mitylene. Fears or plots being unknown to you in your daily relations with each other, you feel just the same with regard to your allies, and never reflect that the mistakes into which you may be led by credulity and compassion, are full of danger to yourselves and bring you no gratitude for your weakness from your allies; entirely forgetting that your empire is a tyranny and your subjects are conspirators against you. Their obedience is guaranteed not by your suicidal concessions, but by the superiority that you have in your own strength and not their loyalty. The most disturbing development in this regard is the constant change of policy that undermines our security, and our apparent ignorance of the fact that bad laws which are never changed are better for a city than good ones that have no authority; that instinctive loyalty is more valuable than quick-witted insubordination; and that ordinary men usually manage public affairs better than their more gifted fellows. The latter are always wanting to appear wiser than the laws, and to overrule every proposition brought forward, thinking that these are the best tests of their wit; by such rivalry all too often they ruin their country. But those who mistrust their own cleverness are content to be less learned than the laws, and less able to pick holes in the speech of a good speaker; and being fair judges rather than rival competitors, generally conduct affairs successfully. These we ought to imitate, instead of being led on by cleverness and intellectual rivalry to advise your people against our real opinions.

'For myself, I stick to my earlier position, and I am amazed at those who have proposed to reopen the case for the Mityleneans, and who are thus causing a delay in favor of the guilty, making the plaintiff proceed against the offender with the edge of his anger dulled. But where vengeance follows most closely upon the wrong, it best equals it and most adequately punishes it. And I wonder who it is who will argue the contrary and pretend to show that the crimes of the Mityleneans are somehow to our advantage, and our misfortunes actually hurt the allies (more than they hurt us). Such a man must either have such confidence in his rhetoric, to try to prove that what has been once-for-all decided is still undetermined, or he must have been bribed to try to delude us with fancy talk. In such contests the city gives the rewards to others, and takes the dangers for herself.

'The persons to blame are you who so foolishly put on these contests; you who have gotten used to being spectators of speeches and an audience for news of the events, who judge the practicability of a project by the wit of its advocates, and for the facts of what has happened, rather than rely on what you saw done, you trust in the clever pronouncements you heard [from the politicians]. You are quite good at falling for newfangled arguments, but unwilling to follow tried-and-true solutions; you are slaves to every new paradox, rebels against common sense. Every man's fondest wish is to rival the speakers by pretending to comprehend their ideas, by applauding every point almost before it is made, and by being as quick in catching an argument as you are slow in foreseeing its consequences. You seem to be looking for a different world without understanding the one we live in. You are slaves to pleasures of the ear, more like the audience at an academic debate than people deciding policy for their city.

'In order to keep you from this reversal, I shall show that no one state has ever injured you as much as Mitylene. I can make allowance for those who revolt because they cannot endure our domination, or who have been forced to do so by the enemy.  But [considering all the preferential treatment Mitylene was given], as they kept possession of their island with its fortifications intact ...and their own navy to protect them, though they were independent and their rights respected by you--for them to act as they have done is not revolt--revolt implies oppression--it is deliberate and wanton aggression. It is an attempt to ruin us by siding with our bitterest enemies--which is a worse offence than if they made war to seize power on their own account. The fate of of their neighbors who had already rebelled and were conquered, was no lesson to them. Their own prosperity could not dissuade them from taking the risk; blindly confident in the future and full of hopes beyond their power (though not beyond their ambition) they declared war and made their decision to prefer might to right, acting not upon provocation but at the opportune moment.

'The truth is that good fortune coming suddenly and unexpectedly tends to make a people arrogant: in most cases it is safer for mankind to have [moderate] success within reason... It is easier for them, one may say, to stave off adversity than to preserve prosperity. Our mistake has been to distinguish the Mityleneans as we have done: had they been long ago treated like the rest, they never would have so far forgotten themselves, since human nature is as surely made arrogant by indulgence as it is intimidated by firm resolve. Let them now therefore be punished as their crime deserves, and do not, while you condemn the ruling class, absolve the people. This is certain, that all attacked you without distinction, although they might bave come over to us and regained possession of their city. But no, they thought it safer to throw in their lot with the aristocracy and so joined their rebellion!

'Consider therefore! if you subject to the same punishment the ally who is forced to rebel by the enemy, and him who does so by his own free choice, which of them, do you suppose, will not rebel on the slightest pretext, when the reward of success is freedom, and the penalty for failure is nothing very serious? Meanwhile, we shall have to risk our money and our lives against one rebel state after another. And if we win them back, we get a ruined town that no longer brings in the revenue our strength depends on. But if we lose, we shall have one more enemy on our hands, and have to spend the time and effort that might be used against our adversaries in controlling our own allies. No hope of forgiveness for human error, therefore--none of the mercy that mere rhetoric may inspire or money may buy--should be shown to the Mityleneans. Their offense was not involuntary, but malicious and deliberate; and mercy is only for unwilling offenders. I therefore now as before persist against your reversing your first decision, or giving way to the three failings most fatal to empire--pity, sentiment, and indulgence. Compassion is due to those who can reciprocate the feeling, not to those who will never forgive us in return but are our natural and necessary enemies. The orators who charm us with sentiment should find some other, less momentous arena for their talents, instead of staging a debate where the city pays heavily for a brief entertainment and only the contestants get any credit for all their fine phrases. Indulgence should be shown towards those who will be our friends in future, instead of towards men who will remain [hostile] as before.

'To sum up shortly, I say that if you follow my advice you will do what is just towards the Mityleneans, and at the same time expedient; while by a different decision you will not oblige them so much as pass sentence upon yourselves. For if they were right in rebelling, you must be wrong in ruling. However, if, right or wrong, you determine to rule, you must carry out your principle and punish the Mityleneans as your interest requires; or else you must give up your empire and cultivate respectability without risk. Make up your minds, therefore, to repay them in kind;...consider what they would have done if they had won, especially as they were the aggressors. It is those who wrong their neighbor without cause who must pursue their victim to the death, on account of the danger [of reprisal] which they foresee in letting their enemy survive; since the target of an unprovoked wrong is more dangerous, if he escape, than an enemy [who expects hostile action]. Do not, therefore, be traitors to yourselves, but recall as nearly as possible the moment of outrage and the supreme importance which you then attached to their punishment. Pay them back, without yielding to present weakness or forgetting the danger that once hung over you. Punish them as they deserve, and teach your other allies a lasting lesson, that the penalty for those who revolt is death. Let them once understand this and you will not have so often to neglect your enemies while you are fighting with your confederates.'

Such were the words of Cleon. After him Diodotus, son of Eucrates, who had also in the previous assembly spoken most strongly against putting the Mityleneans to death, came forward and spoke as follows:

'I do not blame the persons who have reopened the case of the Mityleneans, nor do I approve the protests which we have heard against important questions being frequently debated. I think the two things most opposed to good decision-making are haste and passion; haste usually goes hand in hand with folly, passion with coarseness and narrowness of mind. As for the argument that speech ought not to be the exponent of action, the man who uses it must be either senseless or self-serving: senseless if he believes it possible to treat of the uncertain future through any other medium; self-serving if, wishing to carry a disgraceful measure and doubting his ability to speak well in a bad cause, he thinks to frighten opponents and hearers by well-aimed lies. What is still more intolerable is to accuse a speaker of making a show in order to be paid for it. If ignorance only were imputed, an unsuccessful speaker might retire with a reputation for honesty, if not for wisdom; while the charge of dishonesty makes him suspected, if successful, and thought, if defeated, not only a fool but a rogue. The city is no gainer by such a system, since fear deprives it of its advisers; although in truth, if our speakers are to make such assertions, it would be better for the country if they could not speak at all, as we should then make fewer blunders. The good citizen ought to triumph not by frightening his opponents but by beating them fairly in argument; and a wise city without over-distinguishing its best advisers, will nevertheless not deprive them of their due, and far from punishing an unlucky counsellor will not even regard him as disgraced. In this way successful orators would be least tempted to sacrifice their convictions to popularity, in the hope of still bigger honours, and unsuccessful speakers to resort to the same popular methods in order to win over the multitude.

'This is not our way; and, besides, the moment that a man is suspected of giving advice, however good, from corrupt motives, we feel such a grudge against him for the gain which after all we are not certain he will receive, that we deprive the city of its certain benefit. Plain good advice has thus come to be no less suspected than bad; and the advocate of the most monstrous measures is not more obliged to use deceit to gain support from the people, than the best counsellor is to lie in order to be believed. Because of such intrigue and suspicion, the city (and the city only) can never be served openly and without disguise--he who does serve it openly being always suspected of serving himself in some secret way in return. Still, considering the magnitude of the interests involved, and the position of affairs, we orators must make it our business to look a little further than you who judge offhand; especially as we, your advisers, are responsible for our proposals, while you, our audience, are not so. For if those who gave the advice, and those who took it, suffered equally, you would judge more calmly; as it is, you visit the disasters into which the whim of the moment may have led you, upon the single person of your adviser, not upon yourselves, his numerous companions in error.

'However, I have not come forward either to oppose or to accuse in the matter of Mitylene; indeed, the question before us as sensible men is not their guilt, but our interests. Though I prove them ever so guilty, I shall not, therefore, advise their death, unless it be expedient; nor though they should have claims to indulgence, shall I recommend it, unless it be clearly for the good of the country. I consider that we are deliberating for the future more than for the present; and where Cleon is so positive as to the useful deterrent effects that will follow from making rebellion capital, I who consider the interests of the future quite as much as he, am just as positive in maintaining the contrary. And I require you not to reject my useful considerations for his specious ones: his speech may have the attraction of seeming the more just in your present anger against Mitylene; but we are not in a court of justice but in a political assembly; and the question is not [retributive] justice, but how to make the Mityleneans useful to Athens.

'Now of course communities have enacted the penalty of death for many offences far lighter than this: still hope leads men to take their chances, and no one ever yet put himself in peril without the inward conviction that he would succeed in his design.. Again, was there ever city rebelling that did not believe that it possessed either in itself or in its alliances resources adequate to succeed? All, states and individuals, are alike prone to err, and there is no law that will prevent them; or why should men have exhausted the list of punishments in search of measures to protect them from evil-doers? It is probable that in early times the penalties for the greatest offences were less severe, and that, as these were disregarded, the penalty of death has been by degrees in most cases arrived at, which is itself disregarded in like manner. Either some deterrent more terrible than this must be discovered, or it must be recognized that this threat is useless; and that as long as poverty gives men the courage of necessity, or plenty fills them with ambition, arrogance and pride, and the other conditions of life remain each under the power of some fatal passion, so long will the impulse never be wanting to drive men into danger. Hope also and greed, the one leading and the other following, the one conceiving the attempt, the other suggesting easy success, cause the widest ruin, and, although invisible agents, are far stronger than the dangers that are seen. Fortune, too, powerfully helps the delusion, and by the unexpected aid that she sometimes lends, tempts men to venture with inferior means; and this is especially the case with communities, because the stakes played for are the highest, freedom or empire, and, when all are acting together, each man irrationally magnifies his own capacity. In sum, it is impossible to prevent--and only great simple-mindedness can hope to prevent--human nature from doing what it has once set its mind upon, by force of law or by any other deterrent force whatsoever.

'We must not, therefore, commit ourselves to a false policy through a belief in the efficacy of the death penalty or exclude rebels from the hope of repentance and an early atonement for their error. Consider a moment: at present, if a city that has already revolted see that it cannot succeed, it will come to terms while it is still able to refund expenses, and pay tribute afterwards. In the other case, what city would not make all the more urgent preparation and hold out to the last against its besiegers, if it is all the same whether it surrender late or soon? And how can it be otherwise than hurtful to us to be put to the expense of a siege, because surrender is out of the question; and if we take the city, to receive a ruined town from which we can no longer draw the revenue which forms our real strength against the enemy? We must not, therefore, sit as strict judges of the offenders [against our own interest], but rather see how by moderate correction we may, be enabled to benefit in future from the revenue of the territories we control; we must make up our minds to look for our protection not to the terrors of punishment but to careful administration. At present we do exactly the opposite. When a free community, held in subjection by force, rises up, as is only natural, and asserts its independence, it is no sooner reduced than we fancy ourselves obliged to punish it severely; although the right course with freemen is not so much to punish them when they rebel as to watch them vigilantly before they revolt and prevent them from ever getting stirred up, and when we do have to put down a rebellion, to hold as few responsible as possible.

'Only consider what a blunder you would commit in doing as Cleon recommends. As things are at present, in all the cities the demos is your friend, and either does not revolt with the oligarchy, or, if forced to do so, becomes at once the enemy of the insurgents; so that in the war with the hostile city you have the masses on your side. But if you butcher the people of Mitylene, who had nothing to do with the revolt and who, as soon as they got arms, of their own motion surrendered the town, first you will commit the crime of killing your benefactors; and next you will play directly into the hands of the upper classes, who when they induce their cities to rise, will immediately have the people on their side, through your having announced that you will inflict the same punishment upon those who are guilty and those who are not. On the contrary, even if they were guilty, you ought to pretend not to notice it, in order to avoid alienating the only class still friendly to us. In short, I consider it far more useful for the preservation of our empire voluntarily to put up with injustice, than to put to death, however justly, those whom it is our interest to keep alive. As for Cleon's idea that in punishment the claims of justice and expediency can both be satisfied, facts do not support such a solution.

'Let us admit, therefore, that this is the wisest course, and without conceding too much either to pity or to indulgence, by neither of which motives do I any more than Cleon wish you to be influenced, upon the plain merits of the case before you be persuaded by me rationally to put on trial those of the Mityleneans whom [general] Paches sent off as guilty, and to leave the rest undisturbed. This is at once best for the future, and most terrible to your enemies at the present moment, inasmuch as good policy against an adversary is superior to the blind attacks of brute force.'

Such were the words of Diodotus. The two opinions thus expressed were the ones that most directly contradicted each other; and the Athenians, notwithstanding their change of feeling, now proceeded to a division, in which the show of hands was almost equal, although the motion of Diodotus carried the day. Another ship was at once sent off in haste, for fear that the first might reach Lesbos in the interval, and the city be found destroyed; the first ship having about a day and a night's headstart. Wine and barley-cakes were provided for the vessel by the Mitylenean ambassadors, and great promises made if they arrived in time; which caused the men to use such diligence upon the voyage that they took their meals of barley-cakes kneaded with oil and wine as they rowed, and only slept by turns while the others were at the oar. Luckily they met with no contrary wind, and the first ship being in no hurry on so horrible an errand, while the second pressed on in the manner described, the first arrived so little before them, that Paches had only just had time to read the decree and to prepare to execute the sentence, when the second ship put into port and prevented the massacre.

Thus Mitylene escaped the most imminent and utter peril. The other party whom Paches had sent off as the prime movers in the rebellion, were upon Cleon's motion put to death by the Athenians, the number being rather more than a thousand. The Athenians also demolished the walls of the Mityleneans, and took possession of their ships. Afterwards tribute was not imposed upon the Lesbians; but all their land, except that of the Methymnians, was divided into three thousand allotments [cleruchies], three hundred of which were reserved as sacred for the gods, and the rest assigned by lot to Athenian shareholders, who were sent out to the island. With these the Lesbians agreed to pay a rent of two minae a year for each allotment, and cultivated the land themselves. The Athenians .also took possession of the towns on the continent belonging to the Mityleneans...Such were the events that took place at Lesbos.