The Ruinous Logic of Empire – The Mytilenian Debates and Melian Dialogue
These two episodes in Thucydides’ account of the war seem to fit together, firstly the Mytilenian Debates in the Athenians Assembly in 427 BC and secondly the Melian Dialogue of 4016/5 BC supposedly between the commanders of the Athenian expeditionary forces that were besieging the neutral island of Melos. Fundamentally they are about the progression of the ruthless application of imperial power and the descent into despotism and blood. As they say, the first killing is the hardest and each one thereafter is progressively easier.
Background to the Mytilenian Debates
The Athenian empire (known as the Delian League”) originated in the Greek alliance of the Persian Wars and had been originally led by Sparta as the pre-eminent Greek military power. In 479 BC the Greeks decisively destroyed the Persian army at the battle of Plataea and at the same time defeated the remainder of the Persian fleet and associated army at the battle Mycale on the western shore of Asia Minor (today, hopefully temporarily Turkey). The Greek alliance then went on the offensive with the intention of liberating all the Greek cities around the Aegean Sea littoral from Persian rule, but disagreements soon emerged, and Sparta and its Peloponnesian League allies were not comfortable with overseas wars and resigned from the war in 478 BC.
Of the remaining members of the alliance, Athens was by far the strongest and in effect became the leader, with those cities newly liberated from Persian rule signing up to ensure their continued independence. In the decades of war that followed the Delian League prospered and extended its ambitions and operations as far as Egypt and Cyprus, achieving maritime and commercial dominance across the Eastern Mediterranean and into the Black Sea. As the Persian threat receded, many of the League’s members tired of having to provide troops and ships every year, and agreed with Athens to provide money every year in lieu. The money in effect meant that Athens’ armed forces became every stronger and gradually states that had been allies became subjects of Athens, with the latter making sure that pro Athenian regimes were in control.
In 441 BC one of the strongest members of the League, the island of Samos, tried to leave but Athens crushed it and made it a tributary member, likewise the strategically crucial city of Byzantium. By now only two major states were still notionally ‘allies’ rather than tributary subjects – the large islands of Lesbos and Chios.
The outbreak of war between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC, the devastation of the plague at Athens and the death of Pericles seem to have convinced the leadership of Mytilene, the largest city on Lesbos, that the time to regain real freedom from Athens was nigh and they began to prepare to revolt by strengthening their own walls and forcing the smaller cities of Lesbos into political union. However, informants betrayed their plans to Athens and the small city of Methymna resisted attempts at forcible incorporation, and an Athenian expeditionary force was sent to lay siege to Mytilene. Spartan attempts to raise the siege were ineffectual and in 429 BC Mytilene was forced to surrender and await its fate.
The Mytilenian Debates
The debates about how to treat the fallen city of Mytilene were held over two consecutive days in the Athenian Assembly. In chapter 36 of Book 3 Thucydides gives a brief account of what the Assembly agreed – to put all the Mytilenian men to death and to sell all the women and children into slavery. A warship was dispatched at once to relay the order to the Athenian forces on Lesbos.
Thucydides then says that many people had second thought overnight and so the Assembly was reconvened the following day to debate the decision once more. The second debate was clearly a fractured affair but as ever Thucydides encapsulates it in just two speeches by the men he regarded as the principal advocates of both sides of the argument – for mercy and for no mercy. The latter is articulated by Cleon son of Claenetus, of whom Thucydides says,
“…he had been responsible for passing the original motion for putting the Mytilenians to death. He was remarkable among the Athenians for the violence of his character, and at this time he exercised the greatest influence over the people.”
In describing Cleon Thucydides breaks his usual approach to tell, don’t show and he clearly detested Cleon and missed few opportunities to damn Cleon’s character and achievement. He seems to have blamed Cleon for his own exile from Athens and regarded him as a kind of anti-Pericles, one of the leaders responsible for Athens’ decline and defeat. Cleon is today still described as an unprincipled demagogue because of Thucydides, a man appealing to the Athenians baser instincts to gain the ascendancy. This is probably an exaggeration. Cleon was responsible for arguably Athens’ greatest victory of the war over Sparta – the forcing of a regiment of Spartans to surrender on home ground – a victory that sent shockwaves through Greece, but was also arguably at least partly responsible for Athens’ greatest defeat – the annihilation of his expedition to Amphipolis, another pair of these linked devices threaded in the narrative.
Cleon berates the Assembly for even discussing a change of decision regarding Mytilene and among his arguments, sets out his vision of what Athens is really about, a complete contrast with the Periclean vision of the Funeral Oration only three years earlier,
“…when you give way to your own feelings of compassion you are being guilty of a kind of weakness which is dangerous to you and which will not make them(your subjects) love you any more. What you do not realise is that your empire is a tyranny exercised over subjects who do not like it and who are always plotting against you, you will not make them obey you by injuring your own interests in order to do them a favour; your leadership depends on superior strength and not on the goodwill of others. We should realise that a city is better off with bad laws, so long as they remain fixed, than with good laws that are constantly being altered…”
Cleon goes on to criticise the elitism of Athens’ previous’ government, a clear attack on the aristocratic Pericles’ government of three decades, and to say that it’s better to have the country run by working men than by intellectuals and experts. Some may agree with this! Essentially, Cleon’s vision is one of might is right and that there is no room for mercy if you are going to run an empire – it’s all about fear, not pretty words.
The opposing viewpoint is spoken by Diodotus who only appears in this context. He attacks Cleon’s whole concept of government and argues that the extermination of rebels will simply inspire others to fight to the death rather than surrender, something that will only end with Athens exhausted and a ruined empire of ashes. He argues for a self-interested leniency rather than mercy for its own sake. Much closer to the Athens of Pericles’ Oration, but still a step down.
Diodotus narrowly wins the argument, another warship is dispatched to countermand the order for massacre and arrives in the nick of time. The Mytilenian leadership is however still executed and the city effective enserfed, with land confiscations etc.
In summary Thucydides is presenting us with a picture of an idealised city already descending into a brutal demagogic tyranny, but not quite so far gone yet as to indulge in wholesale genocide. The war, the need to sustain the empire, the Plague and a new generation of leaders are already doing their worst. Where this will lead in terms of the dominant practice and idea of Athenian empire is revealed in the second part of the pair – the Melian Dialogue.
The Melian Dialogue
The small Aegean island of Melos was one of the few Aegean islands not already subject to Athens. It was Dorian Greek in population, supposedly founded by Spartan colonists, and had tried its best to stay neutral during the war. Athens had previously issued it with an ultimatum to be absorbed into its empire, something the Melians rejected, and in 416 BC an Athenian expeditionary force landed to enforce surrender. Before fighting broke out the Athenians sent delegates into the city to issue their demands and Thucydides in a unique passage within his book, describes a debate between the unnamed Athenian delegates and the Melian leadership. The debate is a complete abstraction and reads like debate between professors of political theory, rather than what was surely a blunt ultimatum to surrender or die. Just to give you a flavour of the debate,
Athenians: “We on our side will use no fine phrases saying for example that we have a right to our empire because we defeated the Persians, or that we have come against you because of the injuries you have done us – a great mass of words that no one would believe. And we ask you not to imagine that you will influence us by saying that, though you are a Spartan colony, you have not joined Sparta in the war, or that you have never done us any harm. Instead we recommend that you should try to get what is possible for you to get, taking into consideration what we both really do think; since you know as well as we do that when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”
Melians: “Then in our view (since you force us to leave justice out of account and to confine ourselves to self-interest) – in our view it is at any rate useful that you should not destroy a principle that is to the good of all men – namely in that in the case of those who fall into danger there should be such a thing as fair play and just dealing, and that such people should be allowed to use and profit by arguments that fall short of a mathematical accuracy. And this is a principle which affects you as much as anyone since your own fall would be visited by the most terrible vengeance and would be an example to the world.”
Thereafter the debate morphs from one of principles into a discussion as to whether the Melians have any chance of being saved by Sparta. The Melians reject the Athenian ultimatum, resist and after a prolonged siege the city is captured, the population killed or enslaved by the Athenians and the island colonised.
It’s a very chilling passage of Thucydides, made colder by the fact the speakers are anonymous, as if it’s just impersonal forces in conflict, might-is-right versus justice-is-in-everyone’s-ultimate-interest. In some regards it reminds me of some of the dialogue of ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’. I don’t believe for a minute that’s it’s a remotely accurate representation of the discussions between the Athenians and Melians, but rather Thucydides’ reflections of where the remorseless logic of empire and war was taking Athens, now a city totally unrecognisable in its political ethos from that of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, one attacking and exterminating small neutral cities just because it can.
It’s a marked deterioration from even Cleon’s position in the Mytilenian debate – a further descent into Hell, and I am sure that it was teeing up another subsequent debate, this time among the victorious Spartan alliance about what to do with a defeated Athens, one that Thucydides never got the chance to write. The Melians themselves were warning the Athenians what could happen to them if they were defeated and were treated as they have treated others. We know that the Theban allies of Sparta wanted Athens wiped out, but that the Spartans perhaps surprised everyone by offering clemency, something they had not given to Plataea. We might have a clue as to how Thucydides would have explained Sparta’s surprising decision by looking at the next dual narrative mechanic – The Spartan defeat at Sphakteria and the Athenians’ catastrophe at Syracuse, events that sparked perhaps Thucydides’ finest descriptive prose, arguably comparable with the works of his contemporaries Euripides and Sophokles, something I wish to cover in the next instalment,
© JD de Pavilly 2021
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