Monday, March 15, 2010

What to Do about the Mytilenes?


Mytilene is located on the Greek island of Lesbos. In the fifth century BC Athens, the first great democracy, had created through threat and force a league of Greek city states, in effect an empire of subject states. This came about because of the leading role that Athens had played in overcoming the Persian invasion led by Xerxes earlier in the fifth century. The Greeks' victory in four sea and land battles, most famously at Marathon, caused a transformation of the Hellenic spirit that contributed to the achievement orientation in the fifth and fourth centuries that made Athens the cornerstone of western civilization.

Athens had allowed Mytilene to retain a greater degree of independence than most of the other city states in its Hellenic league. Despite its independence, Mytilene resented Athenian domination. Conflicts in Corcyra and Potidea convinced Sparta to go to war against Athens about fifty years after the victory over the Persians. Sparta had the Hellenic world's strongest army but Athens had the best navy.

Seeing a way out of their subjection to Athens, Mytilene turned on Athens, and asked Sparta to allow them to join its Peloponnesian League. Sparta agreed, but failed to reach Mytilene in time when Athens invaded. Despite the Mytilenian government's aim to put up a strong fight against Athens, the Mytilene people insisted on surrender.

When the Athenians learned that Mytilene had surrendered, they were enraged that Mytilene had betrayed them because they had granted it more freedom than other city states in their alliance. At first they decided to kill every male in Mytilene and to enslave the women and children. They sent an envoy to order Paches, the commander at Mytilene, to do so. But the next day many Athenians relented. There was a debate as to what the best way to manage an empire might be. Would fear of execution or just treatment be most expedient in managing their empire? Can punishment serve as a deterrent?

Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War is viewed as one of the earliest examples of historical writing (Xenophon was earlier and Herodotus later). Besides inventing science, philosophy, the rule of law, theater, democracy and excelling in art, pottery, architecture, music and mathematics, Athens created history as well. This was done by a society that, like all of its contemporaries around the world, practiced slavery and ruled an empire. With respect to slavery, the Sophists, Greek teachers of political skills, included a few who may have been the world's first abolitionists.

The decision to kill all of the Mytilenian men was followed by a public democratic debate, according to Thucydides. Thucydides quotes Cleon, son of Cleaenetus, in favor of putting the men to death:

"Personally I have had occasion often enough already to observe that a democracy is incapable of governing others, and I am all the more convinced of this when I see how you are now changing your minds about the Mytilenians. Because fear and conspiracy play no part in your daily relations with each other, you imagine that the same thing is true of your allies, and you fail to see that when you allow them to persuade you to make a mistaken decision and 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 does not make them love you any more. What you do not realize 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 favor; your leadership depends on superior strength and not on any good will of theirs. And this is the very worst thing--to pass measures and then not to abide by them. We should realize that a city is better off with bad laws, so long as they remain fixed, than with good laws that are constantly being altered, that lack of learning combined with sound common sense is more helpful than the kind of cleverness that gets out of hand, and that as a general rule states are better governed by the man in the street than by intellectuals. These are the sort of people who want to appear wiser than the laws, who want to get their own way in every general discussion, because they feel that they cannot show off their intelligence in matters of greater importance, and who as a result, very often bring ruin on their country...the best punishment and the one most fitted to the crime is when reprisals follow immediately...

"Let me sum the whole thing up. I say that, if you follow my advice, you will be doing the right thing as far as Mytilene is concerned and at the same time will be acting in your own interests; if you decide differently, you will not win over them, but you will be passing judgment on yourselves. For if they were justified in revolting, you must be wrong in holding power. If however, whatever the rights or wrongs of it may be, you propose to hold power all the same, then your interest demands that these too, rightly or wrongly, must be punished. The only alternative is to surrender your empire, so that you can afford to go in for philanthropy..."

In turn, Diodotus, son of Eucrates, opposed putting the Mytilenes to death:

"I do not blame those who have proposed a new debate on the subject of Mytilene, and I do not share the view which we have heard expressed that it is a bad thing to have frequent discussions on matters of importance. Haste and anger are, to my mind, the two greatest obstacles to wise counsel--haste that usually goes with folly, anger that is the mark of primitive and narrow minds. And anyone who maintains that words cannot be a guide to action must be either a fool or one with some personal interest at stake; he is a fool if he imagines that it is possible to deal with the uncertainties of the future by any other medium, and he is personally interested if his aim is to persuade you into some disgraceful action and, knowing that he cannot make a good speech in a bad cause, he tries to frighten his opponents and his hearers by some good-sized pieces of misrepresentation....

"...If we are a sensible people, we shall see that the question is not so much whether they are guilty as whether we are making the right decision for ourselves. I might prove that they are the most guilty people in the world, but it does not follow that I shall propose the death penalty, unless that is in your interests; I might argue that they deserve to be forgiven, but should not recommend forgiveness unless that seemed to me the best thing for the state...

"...Cities and individuals alike, all are by nature disposed to do wrong, and there is no law that will prevent it, as is shown by the fact that men have tried every kind of punishment, constantly adding to the list, in the attempt to find greater security from criminals...Either therefore we must find some fear more potent than the fear of death, or we must admit that here certainly we have not got an adequate deterrent. So long as poverty forces men to be bold, so long as the insolence and pride of wealth nourish their ambitions, and in the other accidents of life they are continually dominated by some incurable master passion or another, so long will their impulses continue to drive them into danger...And this is particularly true in the case of whole peoples, because they are playing for the highest stakes--either for their own freedom or for the power to control others--and each individual, when acting as part of a community, has the irrational opinion that his own powers are greater than in fact they are...

"We must not, therefore, come to the wrong conclusion through having too much confidence in the effectiveness of capital punishment, and we must not make the condition of rebels desperate by depriving them of the possibility of repentance and of a chance of atoning as quickly as they can for what they did. Consider this now: at the moment, if a city has revolted and realizes that the revolt cannot succeed, it will come to terms while it is still capable of paying an indemnity and continuing to pay tribute afterwards. But if Cleon's method is adopted, can you not see that every city will not only make much more careful preparations for revolt, but will also hold out against seige to the very end, since to surrender early or late means just the same thing?...

"Our business, therefore, is not to injure ourselves by acting like a judge who strictly examines a criminal; instead we should be looking for a method by which, employing moderation in our punishments, we can in future secure for ourselves the full use of those cities which bring us important contributions. And we should recognize that the proper basis of our security is in good administration rather than in the fear of legal penalties. As it is, we do just the opposite: when we subdue a free city, which was held down by force and has, as we might have expected, tried to assert its independence by revolting, we think that we ought to punish it with the utmost severity. But the right way to deal with a free people is this--not to inflict tremendous punishment on them after they have revolted, but to take tremendous care of them before this point is reached, to prevent them even contemplating the idea of revolt, and if we do have to use force with them, to hold as few of them as possible responsible for this...As for Cleon's point--that in this act of vengeance both justice and self-interest are combined--this is not a case where such a combination is at all possible.

"I call upon you, therefore, to accept my proposal as the better one. Do not be swayed too much by pity or by ordinary decent feelings. I, no more than Cleon, wish you to be influenced by such emotions. It is simply on the basis of the argument which you have heard that I ask you to be guided by me, to try at your leisure the men whom Paches has considered guilty and sent to Athens, and to allow the rest to live in their own city."

Diodtus's argument passed, although there was still much conflicting feeling. Before this debate the Athenians had sent an envoy ordering Paches, the Athenian commander, to order the mass killing. However, a second envoy was sent 24 hours later. They were ordered to row in haste and were given special food and offered "great rewards" if they arrived before the first envoy. As it was, they arrived only an hour or two after the first envoy, and prevented the executions.

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