The Athenian electorate voted to kill all the men in Mytilene. Then they had a second vote and changed their mindsby Charlotte Higgins / October 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Athenian democracy is often sentimentalised as the great ancestor of modern western democracies. But as usual when thinking about the ancient world, it’s really the points of difference with our own times that are interesting.
Radical Athenian democracy involved the entire eligible populace voting on intricate details of foreign policy, which is certainly not part of our system—or, at least, it never was until that “what have we done?” moment in June 2016. “Eligible” is also an important word here. Free, adult, citizen men took part in politics. Slaves, foreigners and women did not.
Another big twist is that many key posts were given out by lot. (Although, most of the really big roles, such as the generalships, tended to be appointments, and, surprise, surprise, frequently held by members of a handful of elite aristocratic families.)
Nevertheless, some of the arguments that raged about the merits and demerits of democracy in ancient Athens are still potent today. There may be few who are now willing to stick their necks out, Plato-style, and argue for putting philosopher-kings in charge. But running through Athenian thought from Herodotus to Thucydides is a recurrent anxiety: Are the people just rubbish at making decisions, incapable of proper deliberation? Are they instead liable to be swayed by spurious arguments and manipulated by power-hungry, unscrupulous rhetoricians?
Oh right, yes, that does ring a bell, doesn’t it?
“Kill all the men”
Here’s another thing that might remind you of the dilemmas produced by our own dabbling with direct democracy. In 427BC, during the Peloponnesian wars against Sparta, the Athenians were locked in a debate about what to do about Mytilene. After attempting to revolt from its alliance with Athens, the rich city on Lesbos had been defeated by a force under the Athenian general Paches.
Swayed by the hawkish politician Cleon, the Athenian electorate voted to kill all the men of the city, and enslave all the women and children. A trireme—a vessel—was sent off to Lesbos to inform the Athenian troops of the decision.
But overnight there are second thoughts among the Athenians. Is this really the right thing to do? The following day, a second debate is held.
Cleon speaks again. “As a general rule states are better governed by the man in the street than by intellectuals,” he says. Diodotus doesn’t directly disagree on that point, but speaking for the other side, he urges the citizens to reconsider: “I have no criticism of those who have proposed a review of our decision about the Mytilaenians, and no sympathy with those who object to multiple debates on issues of major importance. In my opinion the two greatest impediments to good decision-making are haste and anger,” he tells them.
The vote is agonisingly close—but delivers a different result. A second trireme is sent out to Lesbos. Its job is to catch up the first ship, which has a lead of a day and a half. The rowers are given power snacks (barley meal kneaded with wine and olive oil) to keep them going and take it in turns to sleep.
They don’t overtake the first ship. Paches receives the original decree and prepares to carry out the massacre. Just then, the second ship, with the result of the second vote, arrives. Mass murder is averted.
Second referendums—taking a more considered approach, trying your best to overcome hot-headed resentment against other lands, aiming for a decision that is truly in the best interest of the nation and people—can be an awfully good idea.