This week we looked at some debates in the Athenian Assembly, and discussed the merits of their democratic processes.
Athenian democracy certainly had some similarities to our own system, but most initial observers would I think be struck by the differences. Anyone familiar with C-Span would report that Congressional sessions often devolve into a process few understand, with rigid rules.
Both the language used and the process itself probably lead in part to laws that no one can really understand. Here for example, is an honest-to-goodness random page from the controversial health-care law, though any law would do. . .
As an aside, this has led to a pet theory of mine — if you would enjoy a rabbit hole click here.
Some practices that look foolish to us make more sense in this light. The Athenians often insisted that proposed laws be voted on that same day. This could lead to short-sightedness and lack of depth. But I think one reason the Athenians did this was to keep the debates centered on one issue. They had no ridiculous “riders” to bills. It also meant that issues needed clarity and simplicity so that all could understand. In the ancient world. laws could also be simpler because they didn’t write on paper. Their laws had to fit on a single stone or clay tablet, which in itself limited their focus.
Athenian politics operated much more dynamically, probably because the main decision making body in Athens was comprised of whichever 5-7,000 citizens happened to show up for a particular session. Votes were usually taken on the same day someone proposed a particular law or action, so the language had to be plain and direct. We don’t need to assume word-for-word accuracy from Thucydides to rest comfortably with this assertion. In fact, Thucydides probably “dressed up” the sessions a bit for his narrative. If we think of British Parliament, we might get some idea of how the Athenians probably operated.
One student commented that, “They’re like a pack of monkeys!” but we should not underestimate the strengths of this approach. Some students noted that in the British system obfuscation behind elaborate formality might be much less of a problem. The “common” approach to debate gives everyone a chance to participate.
Speakers at the Assembly took many more risks than any of our politicians. In a number of Thucydides’ speeches, for example, speakers criticize the people, the “demos.” No politician could ever get away with calling out the “American people” for our faults and survive, but in Athens some of their most respected politicians did this often. Perhaps we have much thinner skin, or perhaps we worship democracy more than our ancient forebears. We could partly attribute this to a strong aristocratic tradition in Athenian history which served as a silent, but often distant alternative to democracy, and again, we have no other tradition to use as an internal reference point for our policies.
If we find our political process frustrating we may find Athens a wonderful breath of fresh air.
However, the approach has its drawbacks. The rollicking nature of the process could get out of hand. In the discussion on whether or not to attack a Spartan contingent on the island of Pylos, the “dove” Nicias took a gamble and tried to bait the “hawk” Cleon, by urging Cleon to take command personally of the expedition if he wanted to fight the Spartans so much. Cleon demurred, claiming correctly that he had no legal authority to command any expedition, but the crowd was into it, and did not buy that “excuse.” Cleon had to assume command illegally or face shame forever, and he chose the former.
As fate would have it, he and Demosthenes led the Athenians to a shocking and crushing victory over Spartans, making him an instant hero. All’s well that ends well? Perhaps. For its strengths, the rough-and-tumble nature of the Assembly could lead to extra-legal actions such as these. This time it worked out, but when something similar happened in the aftermath of the Battle of Arginusae years later, the results would bring disaster upon Athens.
For those interested, below is a famous debate in the Assembly about the fate of Mytilene, one their rebellious allies.
(36) When the captives arrived at Athens the Athenians instantly put Salaethus to death, although he made various offers, and among other things promised to procure the withdrawal of the Peloponnesians from Plataea which was still blockaded. Concerning the other captives a discussion was held, and in their indignation the Athenians determined to put to death not only the men then at Athens, but all the grown-up citizens of Mytilenè, and to enslave the women and children; the act of the Mytilenaeans appeared inexcusable, because they were not subjects like the other states which had revolted, but free. That Peloponnesian ships should have had the audacity to find their way to Ionia and assist the rebels contributed to increase their fury; and the action showed that the revolt was a long premeditated affair.17 So they sent a trireme to Paches announcing their determination, and bidding him put the Mytilenaeans to death at once. But on the following day a kind of remorse seized them; they began to reflect that a decree which doomed to destruction not only the guilty, but a whole city, was cruel and monstrous. The Mytilenaean envoys who were at Athens18 perceived the change of feeling, and they and the Athenians who were in their interest prevailed on the magistrates to bring the question again before the people; this they were the more willing to do, because they saw themselves that the majority of the citizens were anxious to have an opportunity given them of reconsidering their decision. An assembly was again summoned, and different opinions were expressed by different speakers. In the former assembly, Cleon the son of Cleaenetus had carried the decree condemning the Mytilenaeans to death. He was the most violent of the citizens, and at that time exercised by far the greatest influence over the people.19 And now he came forward a second time and spoke as follows:–
(37) ‘I have remarked again and again that a democracy cannot manage an empire, but never more than now, when I see you regretting your condemnation of the Mytilenaeans. Having no fear or suspicion of one another in daily life,20 you deal with your allies upon the same principle, and you do not consider that whenever you yield to them out of pity or are misled by their specious tales, you are guilty of a weakness dangerous to yourselves, and receive no thanks from them. You should remember that your empire is a despotism21 exercised over unwilling subjects, who are always conspiring against you; they do not obey in return for any kindness which you do them to your own injury, but in so far as you are their masters; they have no love of you, but they are held down by force. Besides, what can be more detestable than to be perpetually changing our minds? We forget that a state in which the laws, though imperfect, are inviolable, is better off than one in which the laws are good but ineffective.22 Dullness and modesty are a more useful combination than cleverness and licence; and the more simple sort generally make better citizens than the more astute. For the latter desire to be thought wiser than the laws;23 they want to be always getting their own way in public discussions; they think that they can nowhere have a finer opportunity of displaying their intelligence,24 and their folly generally ends in the ruin of their country; whereas the others, mistrusting their own capacity, admit that the laws are wiser than themselves: they do not pretend to criticise the arguments of a great speaker; and being impartial judges, not ambitious rivals, they hit the mark. That is the spirit in which we should act; not suffering ourselves to be so excited by our own cleverness in a war of wits as to advise the Athenian people contrary to our own better judgment.
(38) ‘I myself think as I did before, and I wonder at those who have brought forward the case of the Mytilenaeans again, thus interposing a delay which is in the interest of the evil-doer. For after a time the anger of the sufferer waxes dull, and he pursues the offender with less keenness; but the vengeance which follows closest upon the wrong is most adequate to it and exacts the fullest retribution. And again I wonder who will answer me, and whether he will attempt to show that the crimes of the Mytilenaeans are a benefit to us, or that when we suffer, our allies suffer with us. Clearly he must be some one who has such confidence in his powers of speech as to contend that you never adopted what was most certainly your resolution;25 or else he must be some one who, under the inspiration of a bribe, elaborates a sophistical speech in the hope of diverting you from the point. In such rhetorical contests the city gives away the prizes to others, while she takes the risk upon herself. And you are to blame, for you order these contests amiss. When speeches are to be heard, you are too fond of using your eyes, but, where actions are concerned, you trust your ears; you estimate the possibility of future enterprises from the eloquence of an orator, but as to accomplished facts, instead of accepting ocular demonstration, you believe only what ingenious critics tell you.26 No men are better dupes, sooner deceived by novel notions, or slower to follow approved advice. You despise what is familiar, while you are worshippers of every new extravagance. Not a man of you but would be an orator if he could; when he cannot, he will not yield the palm to a more successful rival: he would fain show that he does not let his wits come limping after, but that he can praise a sharp remark before it is well out of another’s mouth; he would like to be as quick in anticipating what is said, as he is slow in foreseeing its consequences. You are always hankering after an ideal state, but you do not give your minds even to what is straight before you. In a word, you are at the mercy of your own ears, and sit like spectators attending a performance of sophists, but very unlike counsellors of a state.
(39) ‘I want you to put aside this trifling, and therefore I say to you that no single city has ever injured us so deeply as Mytilenè. I can excuse those who find our rule too heavy to bear, or who have revolted because the enemy has compelled them. But islanders who had walls, and were unassailable by our enemies, except at sea, and on that element were sufficiently protected by a fleet of their own, who were independent and treated by us with the highest regard, when they act thus, they have not revolted (that word would imply that they were oppressed), but they have rebelled; and entering the ranks of our bitterest enemies have conspired with them to seek our ruin. And surely this is far more atrocious than if they had been led by motives of ambition to take up arms against us on their own account. They learned nothing from the misfortunes of their neighbours who had already revolted and been subdued by us, nor did the happiness of which they were in the enjoyment make them hesitate to court destruction. They trusted recklessly to the future, and cherishing hopes which, if less than their wishes, were greater than their powers, they went to war, preferring might to right. No sooner did they seem likely to win than they set upon us, although we were doing them no wrong. Too swift and sudden a rise is apt to make cities insolent and, in general, ordinary good-fortune is safer than extraordinary. Mankind apparently find it easier to drive away adversity than to retain prosperity. We should from the first have made no difference between the Mytilenaeans and the rest of our allies, and then their insolence would never have risen to such a height; for men naturally despise those who court them, but respect those who do not give way to them. Yet it is not too late to punish them as their crimes deserve. And do not absolve the people while you throw the blame upon the nobles. For they were all of one mind when we were to be attacked. Had the people deserted the nobles and come over to us, they might at this moment have been reinstated in their city; but they considered that their safety lay in sharing the dangers of the oligarchy, and therefore they joined in the revolt. Reflect: if you impose the same penalty upon those of your allies who wilfully rebel and upon those who are constrained by the enemy, which of them will not revolt upon any pretext however trivial, seeing that, if he succeed, he will be free, and, if he fail, no irreparable evil will follow? We in the meantime shall have to risk our lives and our fortunes against every one in turn. When conquerors we shall recover only a ruined city, and, for the future, the revenues which are our strength will be lost to us.27 But if we fail, the number of our adversaries will be increased. And when we ought to be employed in repelling the enemies with whom we have to do, we shall be wasting time in fighting against our own allies.
(40) ‘Do not then hold out a hope, which eloquence can secure or money buy, that they are to be excused and that their error is to be deemed human and venial. Their attack was not unpremeditated; that might have been an excuse for them; but they knew what they were doing. This was my original contention, and I still maintain that you should abide by your former decision, and not be misled either by pity, or by the charm of words, or by a too forgiving temper. There are no three things more prejudicial to your power. Mercy should be reserved for the merciful, and not thrown away upon those who will have no compassion on us, and who must by the force of circumstances always be our enemies. And our charming orators will still have an arena,28 but one in which the questions at stake will not be so grave, and the city will not pay so dearly for her brief pleasure in listening to them, while they for a good speech get a good fee. Lastly, forgiveness is naturally shown to those who, being reconciled, will continue friends, and not to those who will always remain what they were, and will abate nothing of their enmity. In one word, if you do as I say, you will do what is just to the Mytilenaeans, and also what is expedient for yourselves; but, if you take the opposite course, they will not be grateful to you, and you will be self-condemned. For, if they were right in revolting, you must be wrong in maintaining your empire. But if, right or wrong, you are resolved to rule, then rightly or wrongly they must be chastised for your good. Otherwise you must give up your empire, and, when virtue is no longer dangerous, you may be as virtuous as you please. Punish them as they would have punished you; let not those who have escaped appear to have less feeling than those who conspired against them. Consider: what might not they have been expected to do if they had conquered?–especially since they were the aggressors. For those who wantonly attack others always rush into extremes, and sometimes, like these Mytilenaeans, to their own destruction. They know the fate which is reserved for them by an enemy who is spared: when a man is injured wantonly he is more dangerous if he escape than the enemy who has only suffered what he has inflicted.29 Be true then to yourselves, and recall as vividly as you can what you felt at the time; think how you would have given the world to crush your enemies, and now take your revenge. Do not be soft-hearted at the sight of their distress, but remember the danger which was once hanging over your heads. Chastise them as they deserve, and prove by an example to your other allies that rebellion will be punished with death. If this is made quite clear to them, your attention will no longer be diverted from your enemies by wars against your own allies.’
(41) Such were the words of Cleon; and after him Diodotus the son of Eucrates, who in the previous assembly had been the chief opponent of the decree which condemned the Mytilenaeans, came forward again and spoke as follows:
(42) ‘I am far from blaming those who invite us to reconsider our sentence upon the Mytilenaeans, nor do I approve of the censure which has been cast on the practice of deliberating more than once about matters so critical. In my opinion the two things most adverse to good counsel are haste and passion; the former is generally a mark of folly, the latter of vulgarity and narrowness of mind. When a man insists that words ought not to be our guides in action,30 he is either wanting in sense or wanting in honesty: he is wanting in sense if he does not see that there is no other way in which we can throw light on the unknown future; and he is not honest if, seeking to carry a discreditable measure, and knowing that he cannot speak well in a bad cause, he reflects that he can slander well and terrify his opponents and his audience by the audacity of his calumnies. Worst of all are those who, besides other topics of abuse, declare that their opponent is hired to make an eloquent speech. If they accused him of stupidity only, when he failed in producing an impression he might go his way having lost his reputation for sense but not for honesty; whereas he who is accused of dishonesty, even if he succeed, is viewed with suspicion, and, if he fail, is thought to be both fool and rogue. And so the city suffers; for she is robbed of her counsellors by fear. Happy would she be if such citizens could not speak at all, for then the people would not be misled. The good citizen should prove his superiority as a speaker, not by trying to intimidate those who are to follow him in debate, but by fair argument; and the wise city ought not to give increased honour to her best counsellor, any more than she will deprive him of that which he has; while he whose proposal is rejected not only ought to receive no punishment, but should be free from all reproach. Then he who succeeds will not say pleasant things contrary to his better judgment in order to gain a still higher place in popular favour, and he who fails will not be striving to attract the multitude to himself by like compliances.
(43) ‘But we take an opposite course; and still worse. Even when we know a man to be giving the wisest counsel, a suspicion of corruption is set on foot; and from a jealousy which is perhaps groundless we allow the state to lose an undeniable advantage. It has come to this, that the best advice when offered in plain terms is as much distrusted as the worst; and not only he who wishes to lead the multitude into the most dangerous courses must deceive them, but he who speaks in the cause of right must make himself believed by lying. In this city, and in this city only, to do good openly and without deception is impossible, because you are too clever; and, when a man confers an unmistakeable benefit on you, he is rewarded by a suspicion that, in some underhand manner, he gets more than he gives. But, whatever you may suspect,31 when great interests are at stake, we who advise ought to look further and weigh our words more carefully than you whose vision is limited. And you should remember that we are accountable for our advice to you, but you who listen are accountable to nobody. If he who gave and he who followed evil counsel suffered equally, you would be more reasonable in your ideas; but now, whenever you meet with a reverse, led away by the passion of the moment you punish the individual who is your adviser for his error of judgment, and your own error you condone, if the judgments of many concurred in it.
(44) ‘I do not come forward either as an advocate of the Mytilenaeans or as their accuser; the question for us rightly considered is not, what are their crimes? but, what is for our interest? If I prove them ever so guilty, I will not on that account bid you put them to death, unless it is expedient. Neither, if perchance there be some degree of excuse for them, would I have you spare them, unless it be clearly for the good of the state. For I conceive that we are now concerned, not with the present, but with the future. When Cleon insists that the infliction of death will be expedient and will secure you against revolt in time to come, I, like him taking the ground of future expediency, stoutly maintain the contrary position; and I would not have you be misled by the apparent fairness of his proposal, and reject the solid advantages of mine. You are angry with the Mytilenaeans, and the superior justice of his argument may for the moment attract you; but we are not at law with them, and do not want to be told what is just; we are considering a question of policy, and desire to know how we can turn them to account.
(45) ‘To many offences less than theirs states have affixed the punishment of death; nevertheless, excited by hope, men still risk their lives. No one when venturing on a perilous enterprise ever yet passed a sentence of failure on himself. And what city when entering on a revolt ever imagined that the power which she had, whether her own or obtained from her allies, did not justify the attempt? All are by nature prone to err both in public and in private life, and no law will prevent them. Men have gone through the whole catalogue of penalties in the hope that, by increasing their severity, they may suffer less at the hands of evil-doers. In early ages the punishments, even of the worst offences, would naturally be milder; but as time went on and mankind continued to transgress, they seldom stopped short of death. And still there are transgressors. Some greater terror then has yet to be discovered; certainly death is no deterrent. For poverty inspires necessity with daring; and wealth engenders avarice in pride and insolence; and the various conditions of human life, as they severally fall under the sway of some mighty and fatal power, lure men through their passions to destruction. Desire and hope are never wanting, the one leading, the other following, the one devising the enterprise, the other suggesting that fortune will be kind; and they are the most ruinous, for, being unseen, they far outweigh the dangers which are seen. Fortune too assists the illusion, for she often presents herself unexpectedly, and induces states as well as individuals to run into peril, however inadequate their means; and states even more than individuals, because they are throwing for a higher stake, freedom or empire, and because when a man has a whole people acting with him,32 he magnifies himself out of all reason. In a word then, it is impossible and simply absurd to suppose that human nature when bent upon some favourite project can be restrained either by the strength of law or by any other terror.
(46) ‘We ought not therefore to act hastily out of a mistaken reliance on the security which the penalty of death affords. Nor should we drive our rebellious subjects to despair; they must not think that there is no place for repentance, or that they may not at any moment give up their mistaken policy. Consider: at present, although a city may actually have revolted, when she becomes conscious of her weakness she will capitulate while still able to defray the cost of the war and to pay tribute for the future; but if we are too severe, will not the citizens make better preparations, and, when besieged, resist to the last, knowing that it is all the same whether they come to terms early or late? Shall not we ourselves suffer? For we shall waste our money by sitting down before a city which refuses to surrender; when the place is taken it will be a mere wreck, and we shall in future lose the revenues derived from it;33 and in these revenues lies our military strength. Do not then weigh offences with the severity of a judge, when you will only be injuring yourselves, but have an eye to the future; let the penalties which you impose on rebellious cities be moderate, and then their wealth will be undiminished and at your service. Do not hope to find a safeguard in the severity of your laws, but only in the vigilance of your administration. At present we do just the opposite; a free people under a strong government will always revolt in the hope of independence; and when we have put them down we think that they cannot be punished too severely. But instead of inflicting extreme penalties on free men who revolt, we should practise extreme vigilance before they revolt, and never allow such a thought to enter their minds. When however they have been once put down we ought to extenuate their crimes as much as possible.
(47) ‘Think of another great error into which you would fall if you listened to Cleon. At present the popular party are everywhere our friends; either they do not join with the oligarchs, or, if compelled to do so, they are always ready to turn against the authors of the revolt; and so in going to war with a rebellious state you have the multitude on your side. But, if you destroy the people of Mytilenè who took no part in the revolt, and who voluntarily surrendered the city as soon as they got arms into their hands; in the first place they were your benefactors, and to slay them would be a crime; in the second place you will play into the hands of the oligarchic parties, who henceforward, in fomenting a revolt, will at once have the people on their side; for you will have proclaimed to all that the innocent and the guilty will share the same fate. Even if they were guilty you should wink at their conduct, and not allow the only friends whom you have left to be converted into enemies. Far more conducive to the maintenance of our empire would it be to suffer wrong willingly, than for the sake of justice to put to death those whom we had better spare. Cleon may speak of a punishment which is just and also expedient, but you will find that, in any proposal like his, the two cannot be combined.
(48) ‘Assured then that what I advise is for the best, and yielding neither to pity nor to lenity, for I am as unwilling as Cleon can be that you should be influenced by any such motives, but simply weighing the arguments which I have urged, accede to my proposal: Pass sentence at your leisure on the Mytilenaeans whom Paches, deeming them guilty, has sent hither; but leave the rest of the inhabitants where they are. This will be good policy for the future, and will strike present terror into your enemies. For wise counsel is really more formidable to an enemy than the severity of unreasoning violence.’
(49) Thus spoke Diodotus, and such were the proposals on either side which most nearly represented the opposing parties. In spite of the reaction there was a struggle between the two opinions; the show of hands was very near, but the motion of Diodotus prevailed. The Athenians instantly despatched another trireme, hoping that, if the second could overtake the first,34 which had a start of about twenty-four hours, it might be in time to save the city. The Mytilenaean envoys provided wine and barley for the crew, and promised them great rewards if they arrived first. And such was their energy that they continued rowing whilst they ate their barley, kneaded with wine and oil, and slept and rowed by turns. Fortunately no adverse wind sprang up, and, the first of the two ships sailing in no great hurry on her untoward errand, and the second hastening as I have described, the one did indeed arrive sooner than the other, but not much sooner. Paches had read the decree and was about to put it into execution, when the second appeared and arrested the fate of the city.
So near was Mytilenè to destruction.