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427 BC / Athens

Do the Right Thing

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The Athenians decided to put to death the entire adult male population of Mytilene and to make slaves of the women and children. What they held against Mytilene was the fact that it had revolted, even though it was not a subject state, like the others, and the bitterness of their feelings was considerably increased by the fact that the Peloponnesian fleet had actually dared to cross over to Ionia to support the revolt. This, it was thought, could never have happened unless the revolt had been long premeditated. So they sent a trireme to Paches, the general who had been sent to put down the revolt, to inform him of what had been decided, with orders to put the Mytilenians to death immediately.

Next day, however, there was a sudden change of feeling, and people began to think how cruel and how unprecedented such a decision was—to destroy not only the guilty, but the entire population of a state. Observing this, the deputation from Mytilene, which was in Athens, and the Athenians who were supporting them approached the authorities with a view to having the question debated again. They won their point the more easily because the authorities themselves saw clearly that most of the citizens were wanting someone to give them a chance of reconsidering the matter. So an assembly was called at once. Various opinions were expressed on both sides, and Cleon, the son of Cleaenetus, spoke. It was he who had been responsible for passing the original motion for putting the Mytilenians to death. He was remarkable among the Athenians for the violence of his character, and at this time he exercised by far the greatest influence over the people. He spoke as follows:

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Politics
About the Author

Thucydides, from History of the Peloponnesian War. The assembly decided not to follow through on the severe proposal, but Thucydides claims that one thousand of the revolt’s leaders were executed without trial at Cleon’s request. Among the first prominent Athenian politicians of the commercial class, Cleon emerged as a leader of the democracy around the start of the Peloponnesian War, following the death of his opponent Pericles in 429 BC. He was killed, along with six hundred other Athenians, in a battle against the Spartans at Amphipolis in 422 BC.

The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.
G. K. Chesterton, 1908
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