In 426 B.C., the people of Athens took a vote on whether to murder or enslave every single citizen of a rival city-state.
By Adam Azra'el
(Photo by Nils)
To unpack this one, we'll need to dial our time machines back to ancient Greece, in the midst of the Peloponnesian War.
The war had essentially two sides, each of which was comprised of a number of allied city states grouped into a League. The Delian League was led by Athens; the Peloponnesian League was led by Sparta (whose lasting legacy was to become the namesake of half of the high school sports teams in the U.S.). The details of why they were fighting are a perfect combination of (a) a little fuzzy, and (b) utterly irrelevant to our story. For all we care, they were fighting over which group had to go skins at the annual city-state picnic and softball game.
The Delian League had a particular member - Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos - which was growing increasingly nervous about its membership. Athens was the "heavy hitter" of the League and, one by one, all of the other members had mysteriously been convinced to pay the Athenians an annual tribute. The Mytileneans, not overly fond of the idea of breaking out the piggy bank to purchase friendship, decided that enough was enough and sent an envoy to Sparta with a message: we'd like to defect.
THE WORST REVOLUTION
Sparta, naturally, was thrilled with the idea of a port city turning on Athens, and promised its full support. Emboldened by their new friends and increasingly restless over their relationship with the Athenians, the Mytileneans began preparations for a revolution.
The trouble was, as soon as they put out word to their citizens to prepare, that word also made it to Athens. The Athenians, who had probably already geared up when the Mytileneans stopped returning their emails, set sail immediately and caught a disastrously unprepared Mytilene with its proverbial pants all the way down. Fortifications were half-erected and supplies half-gathered when the Athenian fleet arrived and the revolution began far ahead of schedule.
Ultimately, the aid from the Spartans did arrive - a huge shipment of weapons. The weapons were distributed amongst the working-class people, who promptly turned them on the oligarchs and demanded food. The oligarchs, for their part, were also out of food, and negotiations with the Athenians resulted in the more or less unconditional surrender of the city.
The Athenians, still reeling from their unanticipated total victory, weren't without their sense of basic sportsmanship. A delegation was permitted to travel from Mytilene to Athens to beg for mercy, which was considered and denied. The entire delegation was slaughtered, and a ship was dispatched with orders for the army which were simple enough: kill every man in the city, sell the women and children into slavery, and start dividing up the lands for redistribution. You know....sportsmanship. Their orders having been sent, the people of Athens committed themselves to an evening of revelry.
THE DEBATE AND THE DISPATCH
Upon awakening the following morning, a more level-headed, slightly less bloodthirsty, and (presumably) immensely hungover Athens began to question the haste with which its brutal sentence had been delivered. An assembly of citizens was called to debate a policy shift, an argument which was spearheaded by two prominent men: Cleon and Diodotus.
Cleon, speaking first, gave a fiery speech during which he asserted that Athens had made a strong decision and, we assume, how the Mytileneans were monsters who didn't return emails from their grandmothers. Diodotus, older and far less hot-headed, argued plainly that murdering all the men and enslaving all the women and children was for sure a power move, but that the optics on it weren't necessarily great and eventually somebody was going to end up tweeting about it.
A vote was taken and the citizens, realizing perhaps that genocide is the kind of thing that's hard to explain to your friends at dinner parties, sided with Diodotus. The entire city breathed a sigh of relief and just begun congratulating themselves on their humanity and such when somebody remembered....wait, did we already send a ship with orders yesterday?
After a few moments of guilt-induced vomiting, an emergency plan was created. A ship was outfitted with a double rowing crew and sent with new orders and instructions to overtake the first ship or die trying. After nonstop rowing, they sailed into the harbor at Mytilene just in time to catch the first ship and replace their orders. The Athenian army, still occupying Mytilene, carefully follwed their orders and didn't murder any Mytilenian citizens....though they did raze the city walls and seize all of the land on the island to be redistributed to Athenians.
The moral of this story: there are no good guys and ancient Greece was a terrible, terrible place.
Adam Azra'el is the producer of The Lesser Stories podcast, a multi-instrumentalist, and a colossal fan of ham and cheese sandwiches. You can find him around the internet being a general pain in everyone's backside on facebook and instagram, and he has tweeted exactly once.
- The History Of The Peloponnesian War - Thucydides 431 BC (trans. Richard Crawley) (via Gutenberg.org)
- The Mytelinian Debate And Us - Ejaz Haider (via Tribune.com)