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Athens the Empire?

Thucydides tells us in his work The Peloponnesian War that during the fifth year of the Peloponnesian war there was an uprising of the Mytilenian people against the Athenian people by The People who were armed by the aristocrats of Mytilene. That revolt was squashed by an Athenian named Paches, but there was a debate on what to do with those who revolted. During the second day of speeches, Athenian assembly heard two speakers who gave different opinion on how the Mytilenian people should be treated. Both of these speeches will give contrasting opinions about the state of Athenian democracy and how best to deal with the parties that where responsible for the uprising.
The first speech listed by Thucydides is Cleon who is given the epithets of “most violent man in Athens “and “at the time most powerful among the people.” (3.36.6) The opening of Cleon’s appeal says” I have often before now been convinced that a democracy is incapable of empire” (3.37.1) But right after that statement is this: “your empire is a despotism and your subjects disaffected conspirators who obedience is granted by the superiority given to you by your own strength” (3.37.2), implying that Athens is no longer all about the people ruling, but an empire that is held together by brute strength. Cleon believes that it is worse when a people side with the enemy out of spite, than if they have a problem with Athens,” I can make allowance for those who revolt because they cannot bear our empire… it is deliberate and wonton aggression ; an attempt to ruin us by siding with a bitterest enemies.”(3.39.2) Again the language suggests that Cleon already considers Athens to be less than democratic. This type of rebellion is viewed to be worse “than a war undertaken on their own account in the acquisition of power.”(3.39.2) Cleon could be speaking of Athens with that line, because the Athenians are well known for having the best navy. He touches on the subject of who should be punished for the revolt and Cleon states this “Their offense was not involuntary, but of malice and deliberate; and mercy is only for the unwilling offenders” (3.40.1) He goes on to announce that there are three things that are fatal to an empire and in this case Athens:” pity, sentiment and indulgence. Compassion is due to those who can reciprocate the feeling… charm us with sentiment may find other less important arenas for their talents …while indulgence should be shown toward those who will be are friends in the future” (3.40.2) Claims that justice has to prevail and in order for that to happen the Mytilenians have to be shown that it was stupid to rebel against such a powerful enemy, ” punish the Mytilenians as your interest requires; or else you must give up your empire and cultivate honesty without danger.”(3.40.4) By that statement Cleon is maintaining that if Athens shows mercy this one time, then all of the other tributaries will take up arm, and then Athens will no longer wield vast amounts of power nor hold an empire. “The penalty of rebellion is death. Let them once understand this and you will not have so often to neglect your enemies while you are fighting with your own confederates”, I take this to mean that on the occasion that when a smaller polis learns that it should not rebel against a larger more dominate polis, the better off both parties will be.

While Cleon makes the case that Athens is no longer a democracy but an empire, Diodotus “son of Eucrates” (3.42.1) does seem to believe that Athens is no longer a democracy, however he came to that conclusion a bit differently than Cleon did. Diodotus starts off his speech by saying that there are “two things most opposed to good counsel: haste and passion “and that “haste usually goes hand in hand with folly, passion with coarseness and narrowness of mind” (3.42.1) I do think he is making light of Cleon’s earlier speech because all of what he said could be seen as passion therefore calling into question whether or not Cleon is giving good counsel. Diodotus declares that Athens should not look at the short term, but the assembly should be thinking more long term, and the outcome of the Mytilenian will have lasting effects, “deliberating for the future more than for the present.” (3.44.3) Diodotus unlike Cleon is not interested in justice but what is in Athens’ best interest; “the question is not justice, but how to make Mytilene useful to Athens.”(3.44.4) and “the question before us sensible men is not of their guilt, but of our interests” (3.44.1) He goes with the argument that all people have the urge to be deviant, but only through laws and force will you curve that urge,” states and individuals , are alike prone to err” (3.45.3), but it is impossible to prevent and only great simplicity can hope to prevent, human nature doing what it has once set its mind upon, by force of law or by any other deterrent.”(3.45.7) He gives opposing scenarios dealing with a revolting city, the best being to let The People live and have them pay money to us.” We must not therefore, sit as strict judges of the offenders…see how moderate chastisements we may be enabled to benefit in future by revenue producing powers” (3.46.4) Diodotus closes his speech by arguing what is best in the long run will eventually pay off for Athens, “it is far more useful for the preservation of our empire to put up with injustice voluntarily, than to put to death, however justly, those whom is our interest to keep alive” (3.47.5)

Cleon’s speech was all about the short term results for Athens, not as a democracy but an empire. Whereas Diodotus’ appeal touches on the fact that he believes Athens is an empire, because throughout his speech, he claims that Mytilene could be useful through a tribute, which is something empires tend to do with places they have conquered.

21 Responses to “Athens the Empire?”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Emily,

    I think you make an interesting point re: the conception that Cleon and Diodotus each hold of Athens. Cleon appeals to justice even though he admits that Athens is an empire; Diodotus does not, and yet somehow gives the more humane speech. It is quite striking that “the most violent” demagogue in Athens (Cleon) is unable, even with the moral mask of justice, to convince the people. Somehow Diodotus, speaking directly to their interests, won the day.

    Some scholars think Diodotus’ speech is something of a stand-in for Thucydides’ own views. Whether or not this is true in the end, it is provocative. Might Thucydides have cared even less for justice than it appears? Does he even believe in justice? (It is not clear he believes in the gods, after all…)

    KH

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