The World's Famous Orations/Volume 1/On the Punishment of the Mytileneans

As reported in Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War. Slightly abridged.



(427 B.C.)

Born after 500 B.C., died in 422; usually classed as a demagog; came into prominence in 429 as an opponent of Pericles: violently opposed Nicias; in 425 placed in charge of operations against Sphæteria, serving with Demosthenes; in 422 defeated and slain in battle.

On many other occasions before this have I been convinced that a democracy is incapable of maintaining dominion over others, and I am so more than ever from your present change of purpose respecting the Mytilenæns. For owing to your daily freedom from fear, and from plotting against each other, you entertain the same views toward your allies also. And you do not reflect, in whatever case you may either have made a mistake through being persuaded by their words, or may have given way to pity, that you show such weakness to your own peril, and at the same time too gain no gratitude from your allies; not considering that it is a tyrannical dominion which you hold, and over men who are plotting against you, and involuntarily subject to you; and who obey you not from any favors you confer on them to your own hurt, but from the fact of your being superior to them through your power, rather than their good feeling.

But of all things, it is the most fearful, if nothing of what we have resolved is to be steadfast; and if we are not convinced that a state with inferior laws which are unchanged is better than one with good ones which are not authoritative; that homely wit with moderation is more useful than cleverness with intemperance; and that the duller class of men, compared with the more talented, generally speaking, manage public affairs better. For the latter wish to appear wiser than the laws, and to overrule what is ever spoken for the public good—thinking that they could not show their wisdom in more important matters—and by such means they generally ruin their country. But the former, distrusting their own talent, deign to be less learned than the laws, and less able than to find fault with the words of one who has spoken well; and being judges on fair terms, rather than rivals for a prize, they are more commonly right in their views. So then ought we also to do, and not to advise your people contrary to our real opinion, urged on by cleverness and rivalry of talent.

I, then, continue of the same opinion; and am astonished at those who have proposed to discuss a second time the case of the Mytileneans, and caused in it a delay of time, which is all for the advantage of the guilty (for so the sufferer proceeds against the offender with his anger less keen; whereas when retribution treads most closely on the heels of suffering, it best matches it in wreaking vengeance). I wonder, too, who will be the man to maintain the opposite opinion, and to pretend to show that the injuries done by the Mytileneans are beneficial to us, and that our misfortunes are losses to our allies. It is evident that either trusting to his eloquence he would strive to prove, in opposition to us, that what we consider most certain has not been ascertained; or, urged on by the hope of gain, will endeavor to lead us away by an elaborate display of specious language. But in such contests as these the state gives the prizes to others, and takes only the dangers itself. And it is you who are to blame for it, through unwisely instituting these contests; inasmuch as you are accustomed to attend to speeches like spectators [in a theater], and to facts like mere listeners [to what others tell you]; with regard to things future, judging of their possibility from those who have spoken cleverly about them: and with regard to things which have already occurred, not taking what has been done as more creditable from your having seen it, than what has been only heard from those who in words have delivered a clever invective. And so you are the best men to be imposed on with novelty of argument, and to be unwilling to follow up what has been approved by you; being slaves to every new paradox, and despisers of what is ordinary. Each of you wishes, above all, to be able to speak himself; but if that is not possible, in rivalry of those who so speak, you strive not to appear to have followed his sentiments at second-hand; but when he has said any thing cleverly, you would fain appear to have anticipated its expression by your applause, and are eager to catch beforehand what is said, and at the same time slow to forsee the consequences of it.

Wishing then to call you off from this course, I declare to you that the Mytileneans have injured you more than any one state ever did. For I can make allowance for men who have revolted because they could not endure your government, or because they were compelled by their enemies. But for those who inhabited an island with fortifications, and had only to fear our enemies by sea, on which element, too, they were themselves not unprotected against them by a fleet of triremes, and who lived independent, and were honored in the highest degree by us, and then treated us in this way; what else did those men do than deliberately devise our ruin, and rise up against us, rather than revolt from us (revolt, at least, is the part of those who are subject to some violent treatment), and seek to ruin us by siding with our bitterest enemies? Yet surely that is more intolerable than if they waged war against you by themselves for the acquisition of power.

But success is wont to make those states insolent to which it comes most unexpected and with the shortest notice; whereas the good fortune which is according to men's calculation is generally more steady than when it comes beyond their expectation; and, so to say, they more easily drive off adversity than they preserve prosperity. The Mytileneans then ought all along to have been honored by us on the same footing as the rest, and in that case they would not have come to such a pitch of insolence; for in other instances, as well as theirs, man is naturally inclined to despise those who court him, and to respect those who do not stoop to him. But let them even now be punished as their crimes deserve; and let not the guilt attach to the aristocracy, while you acquit the commons. For at any rate they all alike attacked you; since they might have come over to us, and so have been now in possession of their city again. Thinking, however, the chance they ran with the aristocracy to be the safer, they joined them in revolting.

And now consider; if you attach the same penalties to those of the allies who were compelled by their enemies to revolt, and to those who did it voluntarily, which of them, think you, will not revolt on any slight pretext, whether he either gains his liberation, if he succeed, or incurs no extreme suffering, if he fail? And so we shall presently have to risk both our money and our lives against each separate state.

You ought not therefore to hold out any hope, either relying on oratory or purchased with money, of their receiving allowanee for having erred through human infirmity. For they did not involuntarily hurt you, but wittingly plotted against you: and it is only what is involuntary that can claim allowance. I, then, both on that first occasion [so advised you], and now contend that you should not rescind your former resolutions, nor err through three things, the most inexpedient for empire, namely, pity, delight in oratory and lenity. For pity is property felt toward those of a kindred temper, and not toward those who will not feel it in return, but are of necessity our enemies for ever. And the orators who delight us with their language will have a field in other subjects of less importance, instead of one in which the state, after being a little pleased, will pay a great penalty; while they themselvas from their good speaking will receive good treatment in return. And lenity is shown to those who will be well-disposed in future, rather than to those who remain just what they were, and not at all less hostile.

To sum up in one word, if you are persuaded by me, you will do what is just toward the Mytileneans, and at the same time expedient; but if you decide otherwise, you will not oblige them, but will rather pass sentence upon yourselves. For if they were right in revolting, you cannot properly maintain your empire. If, however, you determine to do so, even tho it is not proper, you must also, overlooking what is right, punish these men from regard to expediency, or else give up your empire, and act the honest man without danger. Resolve, then, to requite them with the same penalty; and not to show yourselves, in escaping their designs, more insensible than those who formed them against you: considering what they would probably have done, if they had prevailed over you; especially, as they were the first to begin the wrong. For it is those who do ill to any one without reason, that persecute him most bitterly, nay, even to the death, from suspicion of the danger of their enemy's being spared; since he who has suffered evil without any necessity [but by provoking it himself] is more bitter, if he escape, than one who was an enemy on equal terms.

Be not therefore traitors to your own cause; but bringing yourselves in feeling as near as possible to the actual state of suffering, and reflecting how you would in that case have valued their subjection above everything, now pay them back in return, not indulging in weakness at the present moment, nor forgetting the danger which once hung over you. Punish these men, I say, as they deserve; and give a striking example to the rest of your allies, that whoever revolts will pay the penalty for it with his life. For if they know this, you will less freuently have to neglect your enemies, while you are fighting with your own confederates.

  1. Delivered in Athens before the Assembly, 427 B.C. Reported by Thucydides. Translated by Henry Dale. Slightly abridged.