Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Greek by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

The Envoys Of Life An Death

Near the coast of Asia Minor lies the beautiful island of Lesbos, the birthplace of the poets Sappho, Alemus, and Terpander, and of other famous writers and sages of the past. Here were green valleys and verdure-clad mountains, here charming rural scenes and richly-yielding fields, here all that seems necessary to make life serene and happy. But here also dwelt uneasy man, and hither came devastating war, bringing with it the shadow of a frightful tragedy from which the people of Lesbos barely escaped.

Lesbos was one of the islands that entered into alliance with Athens, and formed part of the empire that arose from the league of Delos. In 428 b.c. this island, and its capital, Mitylene, revolted from Athens, and struck for the freedom they had formerly enjoyed. Mitylene had never become tributary to Athens. It was simply an ally; and it retained its fleet, its walls, and its government; its only obligations being those common to all members of the league.

Yet even these seemed to have been galling to the proud Mitylenians. Athens was then at war with Sparta. It seemed a good time to throw off all bonds, and the political leaders of the Lesbians delared themselves absolved from all allegiance to the league.

The news greatly disturbed the Athenians. They had their hands full of war. But Mitylene had asked aid from Sparta, and unless brought under subjection to Athens it would become an ally of her enemy. No time was therefore to be lost. A fleet was sent in haste to the revolted city, hoping to take it by surprise. This failing, the city was blockaded by sea and land, and the siege kept up until starvation threatened the people within the walls. Until now hope of Spartan aid had been entertained. But the Spartans came not, the provisions were gone, death or surrender became inevitable, and the city was given up. About a thousand prisoners were sent to Athens, and Mitylene was held till the pleasure of its conquerors should be known.

This pleasure was a tragic one. The Athenians were deeply incensed against Mitylene, and full of thirst for revenge. Their anger was increased by the violent speeches of Cleon, a new political leader who had recently risen from among the ranks of trade, and whose virulent tongue gave him controlling influence over the Athenians at that period of public wrath. When the fate of Mitylene and its people was considered by the Athenian assembly this demagogue took the lead in the discussion, wrought the people up to the most violent passion by his acrimonious tongue, and proposed that the whole male population of the conquered city should be put to death, and the women and children sold as slaves. This frightful sentence was in accord with the feeling of the assembly. They voted death to all Mitylenians old enough to bear arms, and a trireme was sent to Lesbos, bearing orders to the Athenian admiral to carry this tragical decision into effect.

Slaughter like this would to-day expose its authors to the universal execration of mankind. In those days it was not uncommon, and the quality of mercy was sadly wanting in the human heart. Yet such cruelty was hardly in accord with the advanced civilization of Athens, and when the members of the assembly descended to the streets, and their anger somewhat cooled, it began to appear to them that they had sent forth a decree of frightful cruelty. Even the captain and seamen of the trireme that was sent with the order to Mitylene left the port with heavy hearts, and would have gladly welcomed a recall. But the assembly of Athens was the ruling power and from its decision there was no appeal.

Though it was illegal, the friends of Mitylene called a fresh meeting of the assembly for the next day. In this they were supported by the people whose feeling had quickly and greatly changed. Yet at this new meeting it appeared at first Cleon would again win a fatal verdict, so vigorously did he again seek to stir up the public wrath. Diodotus, his opponent, followed with a strong appeal for mercy, and while willing that the leaders of the revolt, who had been sent to Athens, should be put to death, argued strongly in favor of pardoning the rest. When at length the assembly voted, mercy prevailed, but by so small a majority that for a time the decision was in doubt.

And now came a vital question. The trireme bearing the fatal order had left port twenty-four hours before. It was now far at sea, parrying its message of cold-blooded slaughter. Could it possibly be overtaken and the message of mercy made to fly more swiftly across the sea than that of death? As may well be imagined, no time was lost. A second trireme was got ready with all haste, and amply provisioned by the envoys from Mitylene then in Athens, those envoys promising large rewards to the crew if they should arrive in time.

The offers of reward were not needed. The seamen were as eager as those of the former trireme had been despondent. Across the sea rushed the trireme, with such speed as trireme never made before nor since. By good fortune the sea was calm; no storm arose to thwart the rowers' good intent; not for an instant were their oars relaxed; they took turns for short intervals of rest, while barley-meal, steeped in wine and oil, was served to them for refreshment upon their seats.

Yet they strove against fearful odds. A start of twenty-four hours, upon so brief a journey, was almost fatal. Fortunately, the rowers of the first trireme had no spirit for their work. They were as slow and dilatory as the others were eager and persistent. And thus time moved slowly on, and the fate of Mitylene hung desperately in the balance. An hour more or less in this vital journey would make or mar a frightful episode in the history of mankind.

Fortune proved to be on the side of mercy. The envoys of life were in time; but barely in time. Those who bore the message of death had reached port and placed their dread order in the hands of the Athenian commander, and he was already taking steps for the fearful massacre, when the second trireme dashed into the waters of that island harbor, and the cheers of exultation of its rowers met the ears of the imperilled populace.

So near was Mitylene to destruction that the breaking of an oar would have been enough to doom six thousand men to death. So near as this was Athens to winning the execration of mankind, by the perpetration of an enormity which barbarians might safely have performed, but for which Athens could never have been forgiven. The thousand prisoners sent to Athens—the leading spirits of the revolt—were, it is true, put to death, but this merciless cruelty, as it would be deemed to-day, has been condoned in view of the far greater slaughter of the innocent from which Athens so narrowly escaped.

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