The Revolt of Lesbos by H. L. Havell


We have already traced the steps by which the various cities composing the Confederacy of Delos gradually became subjects and tributaries of Athens. After this great change was effected, the only members of the original league who retained their independence were the wealthy and powerful communities of Chios and Lesbos. These two islands were allowed to retain undisturbed control of their own affairs, with the sole obligation of sending a fixed quota of ships to serve in the Athenian Navy. It does not appear that the performance of this duty was felt as a grievance, and no act of oppression had been committed by Athens, such as might have provoked her allies in Lesbos or Chios to turn against her. In both islands the general body of the citizens were on the whole friendly to the Athenians, who afforded them an effectual means of protection against the tyranny of the nobles, by summoning high-born offenders to be tried before the Athenian tribunals. [Footnote: The evidence for this statement will be found in Thucydides, viii. 48.] It was therefore not among the people at large, but among the privileged few, that any movement of revolt against Athens was to be expected.

Some years before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War the Lesbian malcontents had solicited the Spartans to help them in throwing off the yoke of Athens. This application, which was probably made at the time of the revolt of Samos, found no favour with Sparta, and nothing further was attempted on that occasion. But in the fourth year of the war alarming rumours were brought to Athens from Tenedos, a small island included in the Athenian alliance, whose inhabitants were jealous of the threatened ascendancy of Lesbos in the eastern districts of the Aegaean. There was a design, it was said, among the leading citizens of Mytilene, the principal city of Lesbos, to unite the inhabitants of the island by force under their rule, and renounce their allegiance to Athens. Help was expected from Sparta, and the Boeotians, who were of the same race as the Lesbians, were also in the plot. This statement was confirmed by envoys from Methymna, the second city of Lesbos, which stood apart from the conspiracy, and by certain citizens of Mytilene, who had turned informers from motives of private revenge.

Among the Athenians at this time there was a general feeling of despondency and exhaustion. The full hardship of the war pressed heavily upon them, and their population was thinned by the ravages of the plague. In such a mood the thought of undertaking a campaign against a great island like Lesbos, then at the height of her power, filled them with dismay. Was it possible that a favoured and privileged ally had taken up arms against them in the hour of their distress? It was a slander, they could not, they would not believe it. At any rate, before proceeding to extremities, they would try the effect of a friendly remonstrance. So they sent envoys with a pacific message to the Mytilenaeans, hoping by fair words to deter them from their purpose. In this, however, they were disappointed, and being at last convinced that the Lesbians were on the brink of revolt, they sent off forty triremes without delay, in order, if possible, to catch them unawares. For they had been informed that the Mytilenaeans were about to celebrate the festival of Apollo, in which the whole population took part, outside the city walls; and if the triremes arrived in time, there would be a fine opportunity for a surprise. At the same time they took possession of ten Mytilenaean triremes, which had been sent to serve in the Athenian fleet, and imprisoned the crews.

But now was seen one of the weaknesses inherent in the nature of the Athenian constitution. These measures could not be taken without public debate in the popular assembly, and such a method of procedure rendered secrecy impossible. The Mytilenaeans received timely warning of their danger, and keeping close within their walls, repaired the weak places in their defences, and set a careful watch. Shortly afterwards the Athenian fleet hove in sight. As the Mytilenaeans refused to obey the summons delivered to them in the name of the imperial people,—that they should raze their walls, and surrender their ships,—hostilities commenced. But on neither side was much vigour displayed, for the Athenian officers thought themselves too weak to undertake any decisive operations with their present force, and the Mytilenaeans desired to obtain a respite, to enable them to obtain aid from Sparta. Accordingly they asked for an armistice, pretending that they wished to plead their cause by their own representatives before the Athenian assembly; and their request being granted, they sent envoys to Athens, who made a show of carrying on negotiations. And in the meantime a trireme was despatched in all haste to carry their petition to Sparta.

On the return of the Mytilenaean envoys from Athens, where of course they had accomplished nothing, the siege of Mytilene began in earnest. The city was situated on a promontory facing the Asiatic coast on the south-eastern side of the island, and had two harbours, on its northern and southern side. Both of these harbours were now held in close blockade by the Athenians, who established two camps, one on either side of the town, and patrolled the harbour-mouths with their ships. But on the land side the investment was not yet completed, so that supplies could still be brought into the town from the island. Reinforcements, however, came pouring into the Athenian quarters in answer to a summons sent to the cities of the Athenian alliance, who were the more willing to lend help, as the Lesbians made no vigorous effort in their own defence.

While the prospects of Athens were thus brightening, the Mytilenaean envoys, after a stormy voyage, arrived at Sparta, and laid their petition before the authorities. It happened that the Olympic festival was close at hand, where representatives would be present from all the cities of the Peloponnesian league; so the envoys received orders to go to Olympia, and state their case in the presence of the Spartan allies. They went, therefore, to Olympia, and when the festival was over, the Mytilenaean orator addressed the confederates as follows:—

"Before we urge our claim for assistance we wish to combat a prejudice which we know to be general in Greece against those who desert their allies in time of war. For we wish not only to obtain your countenance and support, but also to preserve your respect. To abandon an ally without just cause in a time of peril is justly regarded as an act of treason. But then the alliance must be a fair and equal relation voluntarily assumed on both sides, based on mutual esteem and parity of power. Can anyone assert that our connexion with Athens answers to this description? Have we not seen how the confederacy of maritime cities formed against Persia was gradually converted into an Athenian empire? And though we and the Chians enjoyed nominal independence, we had good reason to fear that this was only a temporary concession, which would be withdrawn as soon as the Athenians felt themselves strong enough to attack us. We were allowed to retain our liberty, partly because they feared our navy, and partly because they wished to make us accomplices in their own aggressions, and lend an appearance of equity to the acts of violence in which we were compelled to take part. Having swallowed up the smaller states, they were ready to pounce upon us, and were only prevented by the outbreak of the present war. Who, then, can blame us, if we seized the opportunity when they were weakened to repudiate this false alliance, and anticipate the blow which they were preparing for us? Athens, we repeat, has no just title to our allegiance; the bond which held us together was fear on our side and interest on theirs. We are natural enemies; and when your foe is disabled, then is the time to strike.

"Having thus cleared ourselves from the imputation of disloyalty, we will now make plain to you the advantages which you will gain by espousing our cause. If you wish to inflict irreparable injury on Athens, you must promote every hostile movement against her in those regions which contain the sources of her power, that is to say, the islands and coast-lands of the Aegaean. For if our revolt is successful, others will follow our example, and the Athenians will be stripped of their revenues, the mainstay of their empire. You can lend us aid most effectually by summoning your allies for a second [Footnote: Attica had already been invaded earlier in the summer.] invasion of Attica, and thus preventing the Athenians from sending reinforcements to Lesbos. You have a rare opportunity, for their city is wasted by the plague, and their navies are dispersed on foreign service. Remember, then, your proud position as champions of Greek liberty, and put away the reproach which you have sometimes incurred by leaving the revolted subjects of Athens to fight their battles alone. [Footnote: As in the case of Samos.] For the cause of Lesbos is the cause of all Greece."

It will be observed that the greater part of this remarkable speech consists of an elaborate endeavour on the part of the Mytilenaeans to justify themselves. The arguments employed were entirely sophistical, for the Lesbians had no real grievance—and the statement that they were in danger of losing their independence was a pure invention. But they spoke to a partial audience, and the Spartans had already prejudged the case in their favour. It was therefore decided to receive them into the Peloponnesian alliance, and orders were issued to the allies to assemble at the Isthmus with two-thirds of their forces for an immediate invasion of Attica. The Spartans, acting with unusual vigour, were the first to appear at the Isthmus, where they made preparations for hauling ships overland from the northern harbour of Corinth, intending to attack Athens by sea and land. But the rest of the confederates came in but slowly, as they were engaged in getting in their harvest, and had little inclination for a second campaign.

The Spartans soon found out that they were mistaken in supposing the energies of Athens to be exhausted. Without moving their fleet from Lesbos, the Athenians manned a hundred triremes, raising the crews from the whole body of the citizens, with the exception of the knights and the wealthiest class of the Solonian census, and pressing even resident foreigners into the service; and with this imposing force they made an armed demonstration before the eyes of their enemies at the Isthmus, and then, coasting along Peloponnesus, made descents wherever they pleased. This spirited conduct produced the desired effect. For the Spartans, who were still waiting for their allies at the Isthmus, saw themselves baffled in all their calculations, and concluded that they had been misinformed by the Lesbians as to the state of affairs at Athens; and hearing that their own coast-lands were being ravaged by the Athenian fleet, they hastily decamped, and the plan of a second invasion came to nothing.

The summer was now drawing to a close, and as yet no progress had been made with the siege of Mytilene. The town was still blockaded by sea, but the Mytilenaeans had free egress on the land-side, and marched up and down the island, confirming the other towns which had joined in the revolt, and threatening Methymna, which still remained loyal to the Athenian alliance. When the Athenians were informed of this state of things, they sent a thousand hoplites under Paches to reinforce the besieging army; and on their arrival the investment of Mytilene was completed by a wall drawn from sea to sea, and cutting off the town from the rest of the island. The Mytilenaeans now began to despair, for their supplies were failing, and there seemed no hope of relief. But during the winter a ray of hope reached them from outside, and encouraged them to persevere in their resistance. There was a weak point in the Athenian wall, where it closed a ravine; and through this interval a Spartan named Salaethus, who had sailed to Lesbos in a trireme, and crossed the island on foot, succeeded in making his way into the town. Salaethus announced himself as an agent sent from Sparta, to inform the distressed garrison that, as soon as the season permitted, forty triremes would be sent to their assistance, and that Attica would be invaded at the same time, to keep the enemy occupied at home. At this welcome news the hopes of the Mytilenaeans revived, and all thoughts of surrender were laid aside.


As soon as spring arrived, the Spartans, true to their promise, sent off forty triremes, commanded by Alcidas, to raise the siege of Mytilene, and marched in full force into Attica, thinking thus to divert the attention of the Athenians, and prevent them from interfering with the voyage of Alcidas. They remained a long time in Attica, waiting for news from their fleet, and employing the time in a systematic ravage of the whole territory. But time passed, and no message arrived from Alcidas, who seemed to have disappeared with all his ships; so that at last, as their expectations were disappointed, and their supplies exhausted, they broke up their army and returned home.

The position of Mytilene was now growing desperate. Nothing more was heard of the relieving squadron, and the scanty store of provisions was rapidly failing; for, owing to the betrayal of their design, the Mytilenaeans had been hurried into revolt before their preparations were completed, and had had no time to lay up a sufficient stock of food. Salaethus, therefore, determined to make a sudden sally, and break out of the town; and the better to effect this purpose, he furnished the common people, who had hitherto served as light-armed soldiers, with the full equipment of heavy infantry. But this proceeding brought on a catastrophe, for the commons no sooner found themselves in possession of better weapons than they turned upon their masters, and accused them of secreting supplies of corn for their own use. "Bring out your corn," they cried, "and divide it equally, or we will go out and make terms with the Athenians for ourselves." Alarmed at this threat, which if carried out would leave them exposed as the sole objects of Athenian vengeance, the nobles sent a message to Paches, on behalf of the whole city, offering to surrender, on condition that their case should be tried by the tribunals at Athens, and stipulating that, while the decision was pending, no violence should be offered to any of the inhabitants. The proposal was accepted, and Paches marched his forces into the town. In spite of the convention, the leaders of the revolt took sanctuary in the temples, being in dread of summary execution. Paches reassured them, and sent them in safe custody to Tenedos.

We must now turn back a little, and follow the movements of Alcidas. The Spartan admiral, it would seem, had small stomach for the bold adventure on which he was bound—no less than to rob the Athenians of one of their most important possessions, and defy the redoubtable captains of Athens on their own element. After loitering for some time off the coast of Peloponnesus, he sailed on slowly as far as Delos, and then, touching at Icarus, he heard that Mytilene was already taken. Wishing, however, to inform himself with certainty, he pushed on as far as Erythrae, on the mainland of Asia, which he reached seven days after the fall of Mytilene. Being now assured that the report was true, he called a council of war to decide what was to be done. Then a certain Greek of Elis, named Teutiaplus, made a bold suggestion: "Let us," he said, "sail straight to Mytilene, and make an attempt to recapture the town by surprise. Most likely the Athenians, flushed with success, will be taken unawares, and we shall find the harbour open, and the land forces dispersed, and if we make a sudden onfall, under cover of darkness, we shall probably succeed."

The prudent Alcidas found this proposal little to his taste; nor was he better pleased by another plan, put forward by the Lesbian envoys who were returning on board the Peloponnesian fleet, and seconded by a party of exiles from the cities of Ionia. These men tried to persuade Alcidas to establish himself in some city of Asia Minor, and raise a revolt among the allies of Athens in these parts. He had, they said, every prospect of success, for his arrival was welcomed on all sides. Let him seize the opportunity of attacking the Athenians in their most mortal part, first by withdrawing the tribute of Ionia, and secondly by putting them to the expense of a blockade.

This daring scheme might have led to something important, if the fleet had been commanded by Brasidas. But Alcidas was a man of very different temper, and having arrived too late to save Mytilene, he had now but one thought,—to return to Peloponnesus as fast as he could, and get out of the reach of the terrible Athenian triremes. So he set his fleet in motion, and sailing along the coast in a southerly direction put in at Ephesus. On the voyage he showed himself to be as cruel as he was cowardly, by capturing and putting to death the crews of the vessels which came in his way. These were not a few, for the ships which crossed his path approached fearlessly, under the impression that his fleet was from Athens; for no one dreamed that a Peloponnesian squadron would dare to enter these waters. For this senseless barbarity he was severely rebuked by a deputation of Samian exiles, now living on the mainland, who met him at Ephesus. His was a strange method, they remarked with bitter irony, of helping the Ionians to recover their liberty—to butcher defenceless men, who had done him no harm, but looked to him for rescue from their bondage to Athens! If he continued to behave thus, he would make the name of Sparta detested throughout Ionia. Dull as he was, Alcidas could not but feel the justice of this reprimand, and he let the rest of his prisoners go.

The presence of a Peloponnesian fleet had caused great alarm among the inhabitants of Ionia, and urgent messages came in daily to Paches at Mytilene, summoning him to their aid. For even though Alcidas had declined to take up a permanent station on the coast, as the exiles had suggested, it was apprehended that he would pillage the sea-side towns, which were unfortified, on his homeward voyage. At last two state triremes, the Paralus and Salaminia, which had been sent on public business from Athens, came into Mytilene with the news that they had sighted the fleet of Alcidas lying at anchor off Clarus. [Footnote: A little town, north-west of Ephesus.] Thereupon Paches put to sea at once, and gave chase. But Alcidas had got wind of his danger, and was already on the high seas, making all speed for Peloponnesus. Paches pursued him as far as Patmos, and then turned back. He would gladly have caught the Peloponnesians in blue water, where he could have sent all their ships to the bottom; but as it was he thought himself fortunate to have escaped the necessity of forming a blockade, as he must have done if he had come up with them near land, and driven them ashore. As for Alcidas, he fled in wild haste, keeping the open sea, being resolved not to touch land, if he could help it, until he reached the shelter of a Peloponnesian harbour.


On his return to Lesbos, Paches despatched to Athens the prisoners who had been sent to Tenedos, among whom was the Spartan Salaethus. When they arrived the Athenians immediately put Salaethus to death, and then met in full assembly to decide on the fate of the rest. They had just been delivered from a fearful danger, and in the natural reaction of vindictive rage which had now set in they came to the horrible resolution of putting all the adult male population of Mytilene to the sword, and selling the women and children as slaves. The Mytilenaeans, they argued, were without excuse: they were not subjects of Athens, who might wish to escape from their burdens, but free and privileged allies. They had treacherously plotted against Athens, when she was sunk deep in calamity, and brought a Peloponnesian fleet within the sacred circle of her empire. For a long time past they had evidently been hatching a vile conspiracy against the very existence of Athens. Having once come to this decision, the Athenians lost no time, but sent off a trireme on the same day, with orders to Paches to carry the decree into effect.

But after a night of cool reflection they began to repent of their haste. It was a cruel and monstrous thing, they now thought, to butcher the population of a whole city, innocent and guilty alike. The Mytilenaean envoys, who had been sent to Athens on the surrender of the city, perceived that there was a change in the public temper, and acting in concert with influential Athenians who were in their interest, they induced the magistrates to summon a second assembly, and re-open the debate.

It is on this occasion that we first catch sight [Footnote: That is, in the narrative of Thucydides.] of the notorious demagogue Cleon, who for the next six years will be the most prominent figure in Athenian public life. This man belongs to a class of politicians who had begun to exercise great influence on the affairs of Athens after the death of Pericles. That great statesman had really led the people, checking their excesses, setting bounds to their ambition, and guiding all the moods of the stormy democracy. But the demagogues were lowborn upstarts, who, while seeming to lead the people, really followed it, and kept their position by pandering to the worst passions of the multitude. It must, however, be mentioned that the two contemporary writers from whom we draw our materials for the portrait of Cleon, the historian Thucydides and the comic poet Aristophanes, were both violently prejudiced against him. Aristophanes hated him as the representative of the new democracy, which was an object of abhorrence to the great comic genius; and Thucydides, a born aristocrat, of strong oligarchical sympathies, looked with cold scorn and aversion on the coarse mechanic, [Footnote: Cleon was a tanner by trade.] who presumed to usurp the place, and ape the style, of a true leader like Pericles.

In the previous debate Cleon had been the chief promoter of the murderous sentence passed against Mytilene; and when the question was brought forward again, he made a vehement harangue, the substance of which has been preserved by Thucydides. In this speech he appears as a practised rhetorical bravo, whose one object is to vilify his opponents, and throw contempt on their arguments, by an unscrupulous use of the weapons of ridicule, calumny, and invective. He reproaches the magistrates for convening a second assembly, in a matter which had already been decided; and this was, in fact, strictly speaking, a breach of the constitution. He laughs at the Athenians as weak sentimentalists, always inclined to mercy, even when mercy was suicidal. Of the subject communities he speaks as if they were mere slaves and chattels, outside the pale of humanity, to be kept down with the scourge and the sword. "Let the law prevail," cries this second Draco. "The law is sacred, and must not be moved. You are so clever that you will not live, by fixed rule and order, and you deride the approved principles of political wisdom. Every one of you wants to be a lawgiver, a statesman, and a reformer, and to manage the public affairs in his own way. We, who understand your true interests, are bound to resist this mood of lawless extravagance, and keep you in the right path, whether you will or no."

Then preserving the same tone, as of one who is exposing an outrageous paradox, Cleon proceeds to deal with the actual subject of debate. To massacre a whole population, was, in his view, a commonplace and ordinary proceeding; and, in the present instance, the only course consistent with prudence and common sense. Those who maintained the contrary were either flighty enthusiasts, whose opinion was not worth considering, or venal orators, who had sold their country for a bribe. "Will you suffer yourselves," asked the indignant moralist, "to be blinded by these corrupt advocates, who amuse you with their eloquence, and then pocket the price? But it is your own fault: you have no sense of public responsibility—you are like clever children, playing at a game of politics. While you sit here, listening to your favourite speakers, and sharpening your wits against theirs, your empire is going to ruin. Plain fact is too simple a diet for your pampered appetites; you must have it hashed and served up with a fine flavouring of fancy and wit. In short, you have lost all hold upon reality, you live in an intellectual Utopia, and treat grave matters of public interest as though they were mere themes in a school of declamation."

In drawing this remarkable picture of Athenian character, which, though strangely out of place, really contained a large element of truth, Cleon overreached himself, and was caught in his own snare. It was he, and not his opponents, who was diverting attention from facts, and involving a plain issue in a cloud of wordy rhetoric. He has no arguments, worthy of the name, but tries to carry his case by playing on the passions of the people, and blowing up the flames of their anger, which was beginning to cool. But though the more discerning among his audience must have seen through his sophistries, to a large proportion of his hearers his speech no doubt seemed a masterpiece of eloquence. The Athenians, who, like all people of lively talent, were fond of laughing at themselves, would be especially amused by his humorous description of their own besetting weakness, their restless vanity, and inordinate love of change.

The chief advocate for mitigating the sentence against Mytilene was a certain Diodotus, who had taken a leading part in the previous debate, and now stood up again to oppose the blood-thirsty counsels of Cleon. The speech of Diodotus is calm, sober, and business-like. After a dignified remonstrance against the vile insinuations of Cleon, by whom all who differed from him were decried as fools or knaves, Diodotus proceeded to argue the question from the point of view of expediency. He was not there, he said, to plead the cause of the Mytilenaeans, or to discuss abstract questions of law and justice. What they had to consider was what course would be most conducive to the interests of Athens. According to Cleon, those interests would be best served by a wholesale massacre of the inhabitants of Mytilene, which would strike terror into the other subjects of Athens, and prevent them from yielding to the same temptation. But, reasoned Diodotus, experience had shown that intending criminals were not deterred from wrongdoing by the increased severity of penal statutes. For a long time lawgivers had framed their codes in this belief, thinking to drive mankind into the path of rectitude by appealing to their terrors. Yet crime had not diminished, but rather increased. And what was true of individuals, was still more true of cities, where each man hoped to be concealed among the crowd of transgressors. Criminals, whether they acted singly, or in large numbers, were only rendered desperate, if all degrees of crime were confounded in one common penalty of death.

Such were the enlightened principles of jurisprudence set forth by an Athenian of the fifth century before Christ—principles which were first recognised in modern Europe within the memory of men still living. Then, bringing his theories to a practical test, he pointed out the gross impolicy of driving a revolted city to desperation, by excluding all rebels from the hope of pardon. This, he said, would be the effect on the subjects of Athens, if they passed the same sentence on the Mytilenaeans, without distinction between the innocent and the guilty. At present the commons in every city were loyal to Athens; and though they might be beguiled or coerced into rebellion, they would, if assured of fair treatment, take the first opportunity of returning to their allegiance, as the commoners of Mytilene had done. "Do not, therefore," concluded Diodotus, "destroy this, the strongest guarantee of your security, but punish the ringleaders of the revolt, after due deliberation, and leave the rest in peace."

The arguments of Diodotus were unanswerable, and it might have been supposed that the Athenians, in their relenting mood, would have carried the amendment by a large majority. But this was not the case. The debate was keenly contested, and when the president called for a show of hands, the more merciful decree was only passed by a few votes. There was no time to be lost, for the first trireme was already a day and a night on her voyage, and the fate of Mytilene hung by a hair. A second trireme was launched with all speed, and the Mytilenaeans present in Athens promised large rewards to the crew if they arrived in time. With such inducements the rowers toiled day and night, taking their meals, which consisted of barley-meal kneaded with wine and oil, at the oar, and sleeping and rowing by turns. Happily there was no contrary wind to retard their progress, and the crew of the first vessel, bearing that savage mandate, made no efforts to shorten their passage. As it was, they were not an hour too soon: for when they arrived, Paches had already received the decree, and was preparing to carry it out. Thus Mytilene escaped destruction by a hair's-breadth, and Athens was saved from committing a great crime. But even the modified sentence, which was passed directly afterwards on the motion of Cleon, condemning more than a thousand Mytilenaean citizens to death, was sufficiently ferocious, and was remembered against the tyrant city in the days of her humiliation.