Raphael800xSchoolOfAthensAthenians were addicted to clever debates, according to Cleon. They were such eager consumers of any new idea, they failed to use common sense in governing their empire. Painting: Raphael, “School of Athens” fresco (1509-1511) via wikimedia


All the Mytilenes Must Die

“If we waver, it will send the wrong message.”

The war with the Peloponnesian League created an opportunity for cities that wanted to break free from Athens. Mytilene (MITT uh LEEN ee) prepared for its revolt in 428 B.C., when Athens was distracted by an outbreak of plague and high costs of maintaining several fleets and outposts.Cleon_Intro2 Mytilene sent envoys to the Spartans, asking for protection, but the Spartan fleet did not arrive in time to help the rebels. The Mytilene uprising collapsed.

Athens responded with unexpected fury. Mytilene was not a subjugated state, which might have been expected to revolt, but an independent ally, nominally equal to Athens. It was clear the Mytilenes had put in months of careful planning and deception, making their treachery that much worse. At the urging of Cleon (who had become the city’s most influential citizen after the death of Pericles), the Athenian Assembly voted to put every man in Mytilene to death, whether or nor there was evidence he took part in the conspiracy. The women and children were to be sold into slavery. That would teach an unforgettable lesson to any colonies contemplating revolt, Cleon said.

The next day, Athenians began to have second thoughts about so extreme a penalty, and the matter was brought to the Assembly for another vote. Cleon rose again to support the original measure, saying any sign of uncertainty would encourage other colonies to see how much they might get away with. Could Athens afford to appear weak and uncertain? On the other hand, could Athens behave like a tyrant and still claim to be the home of democracy? Read Cleon’s speech, and decide for yourself if his harsh logic holds true.

Cleon Speech:

Cleon Questions: