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(The GREEKS at WAR (494 to 371 BCE – continued)

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The GREEKS at WAR, 494 to 371 BCE (5 of 8)

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The War and a Question of Genocide

Athens began where it had an advantage – with its navy and marines. The leader of Athens, Pericles, let Sparta and its allies advance on land into Attica. People in Attica abandoned their vineyards and farms and fled to safety behind Athens' stone walls. Those with property exposed to the ravages of the enemy were offended by Pericles' strategy. And the strategy of Pericles offended most Athenians. They favored direct and immediate attacks.

Sparta's army didn't try to breach the walls that protected Athens, and when that first year of fighting ended, Sparta withdrew from around Athens, having accomplished nothing more than some harassment, destruction of property and having killed many people.

Athens now had many dead to bury, and Pericles, in his funeral oration, addressed the benefits versus costs of the war by flattering those who had gathered to pay their respects to the dead. He praised their ancestors and fathers for their efforts at having made Athens great and claimed that those who had died had done so for a glorious cause.

The following year, 430 BCE, plague came to Athens, made worse by the overcrowding that had come with people entering the city from the countryside. The plague killed Pericles, and passion influenced the Athenians' choice of a new leader, a man named Cleon, a merchant tanner by trade who was more excitable than had been Pericles. Cleon's desire for vengeance and punishing the enemy matched theirs.

One who did not go along with the public's passion was the playwright Aristophanes. Following a playwright's responsibility to be above common opinion, he depicted Cleon as a demagogue and a rogue. And with his dislike of democracy he expressed his wish that leaders of Athens be chosen by less excitable and more moderate-minded men rather than the public.

Cleon took the toughest of wartime stands against the city of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos against Athenian domination. In the year 428 (the war's third year) Mytilene led a rebellion against Athens. As the Athenian navy held Mytilene under siege, Cleon told the Athenian Assembly that pity, sentiment and indulgence were fatal to an empire. Brutal measures, he said, were necessary because of the tenacity and malice of their enemies. Punish Mytilene, he advised, or give up your empire and live in the danger of weakness that would accompany this.

Punishment meant killing the men of Mytilene and selling its women and children into slavery – a punishment designed to make others afraid of following Mytilene's example. A member of the assembly, Diodotus, argued against Cleon, claiming that haste and passion were the two things most opposed to good counsel. Haste, he said, usually goes hand in hand with folly and passion usually with a coarseness and narrowness of mind. He described the brutal measures advocated by Cleon as terrorism that would not prevent other subject states from rebelling but would encourage them if they did rebel to fight to the bitter end.

In a close vote the assembly chose to spare Mytilene's population. Athenian marines conquered Mytilene but rather than a genocidal slaughter they merely tore down the city's walls and confiscated its navy. Athens also confiscated Mytilene lands on the shores of mainland Asia Minor, and Athens opened Mytilene to settlement by Athenians. And, as Cleon proposed, Athens had the leaders of Mytilene's revolt executed. The people of Mytilene and others on the island were compelled to be under Athenian domination, but they would be ready to rebel when circumstances improved.

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