In the toxic and farcical climate of contemporary politics cooler heads rarely prevail. A few minutes listening to the various news and political commentators reveal a distinct lack of seeking to understand each other or compromise. My escape is the Classics. Looking back on the struggles of past societies and empires allows us to have meaningful discussions about principles of government and politics without the vitriol and intense emotions that often arise when we discuss our own situations (although I have witnessed discussions between scholars get pretty heated; it’s amazing that people are so passionate about events that are more than two millennia old!). This relationship with the Classics can then inform our discussions about modern situations.
When most people think of Classical Greece, they think of the Golden Age of Athens. Most people think of the Athens of Sophocles and Euripides, with the beautiful Parthenon standing atop the Acropolis, filled with great statues and other works of art. But most do not realize that the same Athens that spawned so many cultural and intellectual achievements also had a darker, more sinister side. While Athens was the birthplace of democracy, the exercise of that democracy also led to tremendous abuses and horrendous actions. Examining the dark underbelly of Athens helps us to make sure our enthusiasm is grounded, but also tested. Something as wonderful as Athens and Athenian democracy can be better understood and appreciated when the good is examined and the bad is observed. Chancellor Palpatine once said to Anakin Skywalker, “If one is to understand the great mystery, one must study all its aspects” (Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith). This is true not only of the Force, but of ancient Athens as well.
(Most people think of the architectural and artistic achievement of Ancient Athens, but rarely do they dwell on the darker aspects of Athenian democracy)
During the course of a twenty-seven year war between Athens and Sparta, two events occurred that demonstrate the dark side of Athenian politics—which, in a democracy, reflects on the people as a whole. Throughout the Aegean, city-states often struggled with internal factions—aristocrats and oligarchs who tended to support Sparta and their oligarchic government, and the people, who favored Athens and democracy. In the city-state of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea, the aristocrats had overthrown the pro-Athenian government and given the city over to the Spartans. However, not long after, the general population rose up against the small Spartan occupying force, and demanded that the city surrender to Athens. Once the Athenian assembly was apprised of the situation in Mytilene, they immediately voted to kill all the men and sell all the women and children into slavery. According to Thucydides, this harsh decision was made “in the fury of the moment” (3.36.2), but “the morrow brought repentance with it and reflection on the horrid cruelty of a decree which condemned a whole city to the fate merited only by the guilty” (3.36.4). Accordingly, the assembly was called to debate the previous day’s decision, and is known as the Mytilenian Debate.
Speaking in favor of the original proposal was a man named Cleon, who argued that the harsh punishment was the just and correct one for a city-state who had revolted, notwithstanding their privileged status. On the other hand, a man named Diodotus argued for leniency. But it is the motives behind Diodotus’ proposal that is so telling, and is opposite to the supposed enlightened ideals we usually hold about Athens. Diodotus argues that “the question before us as sensible men is not their guilt, but our interests…(and) how to make the Mytilenians useful to Athens” (3.44.1–4). He argues that only the ringleaders of the revolt should be punished and the general population should be spared, not because it is the right, just, and moral thing to do, but rather because doing so would actually work in Athens’ favor. Once word got out that Athens treats all her enemies the same—whether they surrender voluntarily after only a short struggle, or they are besieged for a long period of time—then every city would fight to the last man to avoid a gruesome fate. Furthermore, once Athens finally captured rebellious cities, there would be nothing useful in them. The population would be killed or exported, and any potential benefits would be lost.
The Athenian people voted in favor of Diodotus’ proposal, but just barely (3.49.1). The interesting part of this entire episode is how the Athenian people were persuaded by arguments of self-interest. This is not necessarily wrong, and it happens frequently in modern politics and business. Even in day-to-day personal and family situations, decisions are often made not on whether it is the right decision, but whether it is the most advantageous one. But the Mytilenian Debate illustrates a part of Athenian life and politics that is not acknowledged in modern discussions of Athenian greatness.
About ten years after the Mytilenian Debate, another city-state met with an unfortunate fate at the hands of the Athenians. The island of Melos had been a neutral city-state since the beginning of the war between Athens and Sparta, and, as a colony of Sparta, refused to join the Athenians. Athenian envoys met with a delegation from Melos, and the discussion between them is known as the Melian Dialogue.
The main Athenian argument is one of might makes right. The Athenian envoys assert that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” (5.89). Again, this is not the concept of Athens that most people have in their minds, and it seems to contradict the image of shiny marble statues that is in the mind’s eye. Like in the Mytilenian Debate, the principles of justice and self-interest arise. When the Melians complain that the Athenians are focused only on what is in the best interests of Athens, at the expense of justice, the Athenians respond high-handedly that it is also in the best interests of Melos to surrender to Athenian hegemony, “because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst” (5.93). Not being able to come to a diplomatic solution, hostilities resumed and the Melians were eventually defeated. Their fate was gruesome. “The Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves” (5.116.4).
The episodes of the Mytilenian Debate and the Melian Dialogue are insightful, but are not presented as an indictment of Athens or democracy. Some see any attempt to portray the darker side of our cultural heritage or culture heroes as character assassination, but in reality it makes us understand them better. Athens was the first democracy in human history, and struggled with challenges in a new and unique way. The fact that democracy, which has a kind of mythical and quasi-divine status in contemporary Western society, has made horrible decisions in the past does not diminish it. Instead, it helps us to develop a fuller picture of our own heritage and realize that as a human society we have been struggling with the same kinds of problems for a long time. The shine on Athens’ marble statues and the majesty of the Parthenon are not dulled nor dimmed by recognizing and acknowledging the missteps of the past. On the other hand, Athens’ greatest achievements shine all the more because they stand in stark contrast to her dark moments.