"Democracy is incapable of empire.''

 In 428 B.C., one year after the death of Pericles, occurred
an event that reveals the character of Athenian democracy when stripped of Periclean idealism and statesmanship. The island of Lesbos, encouraged by Sparta and led by the oligarchs of its chief city, Mitylene, withdrew from its alliance with Athens.  This revolt -- for so the Athenians saw it -- was crushed and the Athenian assembly voted to make an example of Lesbos in order to discourage future rebellions within the Empire. A ship was sent with orders to the Athenian commander on Lesbos to put to death all the men of Mitylene and sell the women and children into slavery. "The next day," reports Thucydides, "there was a feeling
of repentance; they reflected that the decree was cruel and
indiscriminate, to slay a whole city and not the guilty only."
The debate was reopened, and the speech delivered on the occasion by Cleon, the promoter of the original policy of frightfulness, is given below in Thucydides' version. It is a typical example of Thucydides' use of speeches as a means of penetrating behind the facts to reveal and interpret the character and motives of both individuals and states. He admitted his inability to give verbatim reports of what was said, explaining that "the speeches have been composed as it seemed to me each speaker would say what
was most necessary about the various situations, keeping as close as possible to the general intent of what actually was said."
Though cynically brutal, his convictions were honestly held, and he had enough of statesman-like courage to oppose the views of  his audience. His description of the fickleness of the Athenian populace was warranted. By a narrow margin the assembly reversed itself and sent another order, which arrived in the nick of time to halt the wholesale massacre of the Mitylenians.

The question posed here by Thucydides -- is a democracy
capable of running an empire? -- is a recurrent one. The Romans, as we shall see, faced it, and its modern version -- Is a democracy capable of world leadership? -- faces Americans today.


III, 37. 'I have often before now been convinced that a democracy is incapable of empire, and never more so than by your present change of mind in the matter of Mitylene. Fears or plots being unknown to you in your daily relations with each other. you feel just the same with regard
to your allies, and never reflect that the mistakes into which you may be led by listening to their appeals. or by giving way to your compassion, are full of danger to yourselves, and bring you no thanks for your weakness from your allies; entirely forgetting that your empire is a despotism and your subjects disaffected conspirators, whose obedience is insured not by your suicidal concessions, but by the
superiority given you by your own strength and not their loyalty. The  most alarming feature in the case is the constant change of measures with which we appear to be threatened, and our seeming ignorance of the fact that bad laws which are never changed are better for a city than
good ones that have no authority; that unlearned loyalty is more serviceable than quick-witted insubordination: and that ordinary men usually manage public affairs better than their more gifted fellows. The latter are always wanting to appear wiser than the laws, and to overrule every proposition brought forward, thinking that they cannot show their
wit in more important matters, and by such behavior too often ruin their country; while those who mistrust their own cleverness are content to be less learned than the laws, and less able to pick holes in the speech of a good speaker; and being fair judges rather than rival athletes, generally conduct affairs successfully. These we ought to imitate.
instead of being led on by cleverness and intellectual rivalry to advise your people against our real opinions.


38. "For myself. I adhere to my former opinion. and wonder at those who have proposed to reopen the case of the Mitylenians. and who are thus causing a delay which is all in favor of the guilty, by making the sufferer proceed against the offender with the edge of his anger blunted; although where vengeance follows most closely upon the wrong,
it best equals it and most amply requites it. I wonder also who will be the man who will maintain the contrary, and will pretend to show that the crimes of the Mitylenians are of service to us, and our misfortunes injurious to the allies. Such a man must plainly either have such confidence in his rhetoric as to venture to prove that what has been
once for all decided is still undetermined, or be bribed to try to delude us by elaborate sophisms. In such contests the state gives the rewards to others, and takes the dangers for herself. The persons to blame are you who are so foolish as to institute these contests: who go to see an oration as you would to see a sight, take your facts on hearsay, judge of the practicability of a project by the wit of its advocates, and trust for the truth as to past events not to the fact which you saw more than to the clever strictures which you heard; the
easy victims of new-fangled arguments, unwilling to follow received conclusions; slaves to every new paradox, despisers of the commonplace; the first wish of every man being that he could speak himself, the next to rival those who can speak by seeming to be quite up with their ideas
by applauding every hit almost before it is made, and by being as quick in catching an argument as you are slow in foreseeing its consequences; asking, if I may so say, for something different from the conditions under which we live, and vet comprehending inadequately those very
conditions; very slaves to the pleasure of the ear, and more like the audience of a rhetorician than the council of a city.


39. 'In order to keep you from this, 1 proceed to show that no one state has ever injured you as much as Mitylene. I can make allowance for those who revolt because they cannot bear our empire, or who have been forced to do so by the enemy. But for those who possessed an island with
fortifications; who could fear our enemies only by sea, and there had their own force of galleys to protect them; who were independent and held in the highest honor by you -- to act as these have done. this is not revolt -- revolt implies oppression; it is deliberate and wanton aggression; an attempt to ruin us by siding with our bitterest enemies;
a worse offense than a war undertaken on their own account in the acquisition of power The fate of those of their neighbors who had already rebelled and had been subdued, was a  lesson to them: their own prosperity could not dissuade them from affronting danger; but blindly
confident in the future, and full of hopes beyond their power though not beyond their ambition, they declared war and made their decision to prefer might to right, their attack being determined not by provocation but by the moment which seemed propitious.... Our mistake has been to
distinguish the Mitylenians as we have done: had they been long ago treated like the rest, they never would have so far forgotten themselves, human nature being as surely made arrogant by consideration, as it is awed by firmness. Let them now therefore be punished as their  crime requires, and do not, while you condemn the aristocracy, absolve
the people. This is certain, that all attacked you without distinction, although they might have come over to us, and been now again in possession of their city. But no, they thought it safer to throw in their lot with the aristocracy and so joined their rebellion! Consider therefore! if you subject to the same punishment the ally who is forced to rebel by the enemy, and him who does so by his own free choice, which
of them, think you, is there that will not rebel upon the slightest pretext when the reward of success is freedom, and the penalty of failure nothing so very terrible? We meanwhile shall have to risk our money and our lives against one state after another; and if successful,
shall receive a ruined town from which we can no longer draw the revenue upon which our strength depends; while if unsuccessful, we shall have an enemy the more upon our hands, and shall spend the time that might be employed in combating our existing foes in warring with our own allies.


40. "No hope, therefore, that rhetoric may instill or money purchase, of the mercy due to human infirmity must be held out to the Mitylenians. Their offense was not involuntary, but of malice and deliberate; and mercy is only for unwilling offenders. I therefore now as before persist against your reversing your first decision, or giving way to the three
failings most fatal to empire -- pity, sentiment, and indulgence.... To sum up briefly, I say that if you follow my advice you will do what is just towards the Mitylenians, and at the same time expedient; while by a different decision you will not oblige them so much as pass sentence
upon yourselves. For if they were right in rebelling, you must be wrong in ruling. However, if right or wrong, you determine to rule, you must carry out your principle and punish the Mitylenians as your interest requires; or else you must give up your empire and cultivate honesty without danger. Make up your minds, therefore, to give them like for like; and do not let the victims who escaped the plot be more insensible
than the conspirators who hatched it; but reflect what they would have done if victorious over you, especially as they were the aggressors....Punish them as they deserve, and teach your other allies by a striking example that the penalty of rebellion is death. Let them once understand this and you will not have so often to neglect your enemies while you
are fighting with your own confederates." Such were the words of Cleon.