In the fourth year of the Peloponnesian War the city of Mytilene threw off the yoke of Athens. Mytilene was the capital of Lesbos, an island near the coast of Asia. The city had belonged to the Delian league, and when the league became the empire of Athens, the city remained faithful to the empire. But as time passed the Mytileneans became afraid lest Athens should treat them as she had treated the Samians, and should make them subjects instead of allies.
While Athens was at war with Sparta she would have little time, thought the Mytileneans, to trouble about their small island, so they revolted and asked the Spartans to support them, if that should be necessary. The Spartans promised to help the Mytileneans if the Athenians should punish their disloyalty, but, as so often happened, they did not attempt to keep their promise until it was too late.
Athens was angry when she heard of the revolt at Mytilene. Although she could ill spare the men, she sent an army under a general named Paches to blockade the town by sea and by land and so to starve her into submission. At all costs Mytilene must not fall into the hands of Sparta.
Before long, so strict was the blockade, food began to run short in the hapless island, and the Spartans failed to send the help they had promised.
But when the citizens were desperate with hunger, a messenger from Sparta reached the town. He had passed the Athenian army unnoticed and had entered Mytilene, to the delight of the starving people. When he assured them that ships laden with corn were on the way and would reach them soon, their joy was unbounded.
Day after day, week after week passed, but the Spartan ships did not come, and hope began to die out of the hearts of the Mytileneans. It was plain that they must either surrender or starve to death; so they determined to surrender.
They sent for Paches, and agreed to give up the city, and to leave their fate to be decided by the Athenian assembly. In the meantime about one thousand of the inhabitants were sent as prisoners to Athens.
The Athenians had been bitterly angry with the Mytileneans for revolting when their hands were already full with war at home and with the misery caused by the plague. They were in no mood now to deal mercifully with them.
Cleon, a leather-merchant, who by his own efforts had risen to a high position in the State, roused the temper of the people by his rough and noisy eloquence, and Pericles was no longer alive to restrain it, as he had so often done, by his wiser, calmer speech.
When the assembly met, it was Cleon who proposed that all those able to bear arms should be put to death, and that the women and children should be sold as slaves. In its angry mood the assembly voted as Cleon wished.
No sooner was the sentence of death passed, than a ship was dispatched to the island to bid Paches, the Athenian general, carry out the terrible decision of the assembly.
But a little later, when the assembly broke up and escaped from the influence of Cleon's eloquence, the members began to be ashamed of their cold-blooded sentence.
Ambassadors from Mytilene had come to Athens to plead the cause of their people. When they saw that the Athenians were uneasy, they persuaded them to call another meeting of the assembly the following morning, to reconsider the sentence that they had passed.
Cleon had felt no regret at the fate of the rebels, and he was indignant that the assembly should dream of revoking its decree. When it met on the following day he spoke even more vehemently than before, urging the members to see that the sentence was carried out.
But Diodotus, a noble Athenian, whose name has never been forgotten, spoke as well as Cleon. So wise were his words that those who had already wished to alter the sentence for pity's sake, were now sure that wisdom also demanded that the Mytileneans should be spared. Diodotus won the day, for Cleon was defeated by a small majority.
No sooner was the sentence revoked than in hot haste a ship was manned, and the crew was bidden to do its utmost to overtake the vessel which was carrying the sentence of doom to Mytilene. Already it was twenty-four hours since the ship had left Athens. Was it possible to carry the good news in time?
The ambassadors promised large rewards to the oarsmen if they reached the city before the terrible sentence had been carried out. In their anxiety they provided barley, wine, oil for the crew.
There was no lack of zeal on the part of the sailors. They rowed with all their strength, taking but scant rest, and eating the barley, which had been soaked in wine and oil and made into cakes, as they sat at their oars. They knew that on their speed depended the life or death of thousands.
Swifter and swifter flashed the oars of the second ship. In the first vessel the sailors pulled slowly, for they were in no haste to deliver the dread tidings which they carried. And it was well that they had no heart for their task, for with every muscle strained to the utmost the crew of the second boat reached Mytilene only just in time.
The death sentence had already reached Paches, and he was preparing to carry it out, when with a glad, triumphant shout the second boat swung into the harbour, and the Mytileneans were saved.
But even so they paid heavily for their rebellion, for about thirty of their leading citizens were executed, their fleet was taken by the Athenians, and the walls of their city were destroyed.