Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Alfred J. Church

The Murder of the Generals

All this time a gloom had been settling down over the Athenian people. The official despatch, which, as giving details of the loss in the late engagement, was so anxiously expected, did not arrive; but quite enough information to cause a very general anxiety came to hand in various ways. Private letters from men serving with the fleet began to be brought by merchant ships; and not a few persons were found who had talked or who professed to have talked with sailors and marines who had taken part in the action. These written and oral accounts were indeed far from being consistent with each other. Some were obviously impossible; more were presumably exaggerated. But they were all agreed in one point. Not only had there been a serious loss of ships and men during the battle, but this loss had been grievously aggravated by the casualties that had taken place after the battle. It was pretty clear, unless the whole of these stories were fictitious, that the second loss had been more fatal than the first.

At last the long expected despatch arrived. It ran somewhat in this fashion:

"The victory which, by the favor of the gods and the good fortune of the Athenian people, we lately won over the Spartans and their allies at the Islands of Arginusæ has turned out to be no less important and beneficial to the state than we had hoped it would be. The squadron of the enemy that was blockading the harbor of Mitylene has disappeared; nor indeed are any of his ships anywhere to be seen. Our fleet, on the contrary, is stronger than it has been for some years past; and we are daily receiving overtures of friendship from cities that have hitherto been indifferent or hostile. But this success has not been achieved without loss. The late battle was long and obstinately contested, and, as has been mentioned in a former despatch, not a few of our ships were either disabled or sunk. We did not neglect the duty of succoring the crews of the vessels that had met with this ill-fortune, committing to officers whom we knew to be competent, the task of giving such help and assigning to them a sufficient number of ships. At the same time we did not omit to make provision for a pursuit of the enemy. But unluckily when the battle was but just finished, a storm arose so severe that we could not either rescue our friends or pursue our enemy. These then escaped, and those, or the greater part of them perished, having behaved as brave men toward their country. Lists of those that have so died, so far as their names are at present known, are sent herewith."

In this official communication, it will be seen, no blame was laid on any person. The weather, and the weather alone, was given as the cause of the disaster that had occurred. But in their private communications with friends at home the generals were not so reticent. They had commissioned, they said, Theramenes and Thrasybulus to save the shipwrecked men. If all that was possible had not been done to execute this commission it was they and they only who were to be blamed. Such words, even if they are intended only for the private reading of the people to whom they are written, seldom fail sooner or later to get out. In this case so many people were profoundly and personally interested in the matter that they got out very soon. And, of course, among the first persons whom they reached were the two incriminated officers, Theramenes and Thrasybulus. It was a charge, hinted at if not exactly made, which no man would allow to be made against him without at least an attempt to refute it. Theramenes, who had come back on leave not many days after the battle, at once bestirred himself in his own defence. He was an able speaker, all the more able because he was utterly unscrupulous; and he had a large following of personal friends and partisans. On the present occasion he was reinforced by the many citizens who had lost relatives or friends in the late engagement. These were furious and not without some cause. What had been at first represented as a great victory had at length turned out to be as fatal as a great defeat. They loudly demanded a victim. Somebody, they said, must be punished for so scandalous, so deadly a neglect. Theramenes had the advantage of being on the spot, and of being able to guide these feelings in a way that suited his own personal interests. "I was commissioned," he said, "to do the work; I do not deny it. But the charge was given me when it was almost too late to execute it, and I hadn't the proper means at hand. I could not get hold of the ships that were told off for this task, or of the crews who should have manned them. If one of the ten had come himself to help me, things might have been different. As it was, the men either could not be found, or refused to come. A subordinate must not be blamed for failing in what ought to have been undertaken by a chief in command."

These representations, in which, as has been seen, there was a certain measure of truth, had a great effect. An assembly was held to consider the contents of the second despatch, and at this it was resolved, with scarcely an opposing voice, that the generals should be recalled. They were publicly thanked for the victory which they had won, but they were suspended, at least for the present, in their command, and successors were sent out to replace them. Conon, as having been shut up at the time in Mitylene, and being therefore manifestly clear of all blame in the matter, was continued in office, and another of the ten had died. Eight, therefore, were left to be affected by the decree. Of these eight two determined not to run the risk of returning; the other six sailed at once for home. Of these six Diomedon, about whom something has been said already, was one.

As soon as was practicable after their arrival at Athens, an assembly was held and they were called upon for their defence. The chief speaker against them was Theramenes. His colleague, Thrasybulus, stood by apparently approving by his presence the charge that was brought but not opening his mouth. One man among the accused men might have easily secured his own safety at the expense of his colleagues. If Diomedon had stood up and recapitulated the advice which he had given in the council held after the battle; if he had affirmed what none of his fellows would have been able to deny, "I urged you to make the rescue of the imperiled crews your first business, to use for it all the means at your disposal, and to undertake it yourselves," he must have been triumphantly acquitted, but he was of too generous a temper thus to save himself. He chose to stand or fall with his fellows. All, accordingly, put forward the same defence, and it was in substance this: "We did what seemed best in our judgment. We detailed for the duty of saving the crews what we considered to be an adequate force, and put over it men whom we knew to be competent. If Theramenes accuses us, we do not accuse him. We believe that he was hindered from doing the duty intrusted to him by the storm, and that if he had had double the number of ships, even the whole fleet, at his disposal, he would have been no less powerless to give the shipwrecked men any effectual help."

There was a sincerity of tone about their defence which was just the thing to win favor of such an audience as the Athenian assembly. There were murmurs indeed. The friends and kinsfolk of the drowned men could not endure to think that no one would be punished for what they believed to be a shameful neglect. But the general applause drowned the dissenting voices, and the friends of the accused began to hope that they were safe. If there had been only a few more minutes of daylight, such might have been the result. A show of hands was taken by the presiding magistrate, and it was believed to be in favor of the accused, but it was too dark to count; no regular decision could be made; and the matter had to be adjourned to another meeting of the assembly.

But now came another change in the impulsive, passionate temper of the people. The next day or the next day but one was the first of the great family festival of Athens, the Apaturia, a celebration something like the Christmas Day or the New Year's Day of the modern world. It was one of the most cherished, as it was one of the most ancient of the national festivals. All the great Ionic race, with scarcely an exception, kept it, and had kept it from times running back far beyond history. The family annals were now, so to speak, made up, and consecrated by a solemn association with the past. If a marriage had been celebrated in the family during the year it was now formally registered; if a son of the house had reached his majority his name was now entered upon the roll. These formalities were duly marked by customary sacrificing and sacrifices were accompanied, as always in the ancient world, by festivities. But family festivities are apt, as most of us know only too well, to be marred by melancholy associations. It is delightful to greet those that remain, but what of those who are gone? And so it had been year after year, since the day when Athens embarked on the fatal war which for nearly thirty years drained her resources. So it was, in a special way, in the year of which I am writing. The men whom Athens had lost were not hired servants but sons. Everyone, the slaves only excepted, left an empty place in some family gathering. And now for the first time the city realized the greatness of her loss. The numbers had been known before; but numbers, however startling, do not impress the mind like visible facts, and now the visible facts were before the eyes of all. The streets were filled with men and women in mourning garb, for the families which had suffered individually assumed it. It seemed as if almost every passerby had lost a kinsman. There could scarcely have been any such proportion of mourners, but any uniform garb renders the impression of being much more numerously worn than is really the case.

And there can be but little doubt that the demonstration was purposely exaggerated. For now came in the sinister influence of political strife, which since the oligarchical revolution of five years before had grown more than ever bitter and intense. The accused leaders belonged to the party of moderate aristocrats; a party loyal to the democratic constitution of Athens, but disposed to interpret its provisions in a conservative sense. The oligarchy hated them, and Theramenes had been an oligarchical conspirator before, and was about to be again. And the extremists on the other side hated them. Between the two a plot was concocted. Men who had no kinsfolk among the lost soldiers and sailors were bribed or otherwise persuaded to behave as if they had, to come into the streets with black clothes and shaven heads, and to swell the numbers of the mourners, thus increasing the popular excitement.

Strangely enough it was the Senate, the upper chamber of the Athenian constitution, that first gave this excitement an expression. At the first meeting after the festival, Callixenus, a creature of Theramenes—the man himself was probably too notorious to take an active part—proposed a resolution which ran as follows:

"For as much as both the parties in this case, to wit, the prosecutor on the one hand, and the accused on the other were heard in the late assembly, it seems good to us that the Athenian people now vote on the matter by their tribes, there being provided for each tribe two urns, and that the public crier make proclamation as follows in the hearing of each tribe: 'Let everyone who finds the generals guilty of not rescuing the heroes of the late sea fight deposit his vote in Urn No. 1. Let him who is of the contrary opinion deposit his vote in Urn No. 2.' Furthermore it seems good to us, that, if the aforesaid generals be found guilty, death should be the penalty; that they should be handed over to the Eleven, and their property confiscated to the state, excepting a tenth part, which falls to the goddess [Athena]."

The Senate passed this resolution, though there was a strong minority that protested against it. The assembly was held next day, and Callixenus came forward again and proposed his resolution as having received the Senate's sanction.

It was received with a roar of approval from the majority. But there were some honest men who were not inclined to sanction a proceeding so grossly illegal, for such indeed it was. One of them, Euryptolemus by name, rose in his place, and spoke:

"There is an enactment which for many years has been observed by the people of Athens for the due protection of persons accused of crime. By this enactment it is provided that every person so accused shall be tried separately, and shall have proper time allowed him for the preparation of his defence. Seeing then that the resolution just proposed to the assembly contravenes this enactment by providing that the accused persons should be tried all together and without such allowance of due time, I hereby give notice that I shall indict Callixenus its proposer for unconstitutional action."

A tremendous uproar followed the utterance of these words. "Who shall hinder us from avenging the dead?" cried one man. "Shall this pedant with his indictment stand between the Athenian people and their desire to do justice?" shouted another. But the excitement rose to its height when a man clad as a mariner forced his way through the crowded meeting, and struggled by the help of his companions into the Bema, the platform, or hustings, of the place of assembly.

It was a strange figure to stand in that place from which some of the famous orators and statesmen of the world had addressed their countrymen. He was evidently of the lowest rank. His dress was ragged and soiled. His voice, when he spoke, was rough and uncultured. Yet not Pericles himself, who so often speaking from that place "Had swayed at will that fierce democracy," ever spoke with more effect.

"Men of Athens," he cried, "I was on the Cheiron. I was run down by a Corinthian ship just before the battle came to an end. The Cheiron sank immediately; I went down with her, but managed to get free, and came up again to the surface of the water. I saw a meal-tub floating by me, and caught hold of it. Some ten or twelve men were near me. They kept themselves up for a time by swimming, but sank one by one. I spoke to several of them, and bade them keep up their spirits, because the admirals would be sure to rescue us. No help came. At last only one was left. He was my brother-in-law. I made him lay hold of the other side of the meal-tub; but it was not big enough to keep us both up. He let go of it again. He said to me 'Agathon'—that is my name—'you have a wife and children; I am alone. Bid them remember me; and tell the men of Athens that we have done our best in fighting for our country, and that the admirals have left us to perish."

Was the man telling the truth, or was he one of those historic liars that have made themselves famous or infamous for all time by the magnitude of the fictions that they have invented just at the critical time when men were most ready to accept them.

Whether it was true or false, the story roused the people to absolute fury. Thousands stood up in their places and shook their fists at the accused, and at the orators who had spoken in their favor, while they screamed at the top of their voices, "Death to the generals! death to the murderers!"

A momentary silence fell upon the excited crowd when a well-known orator of the intense democratic party threw himself into the hustings.

"I propose that the names of Euryptolemus and of all those who have given notice of the indicting of Callixenus be added to the names of the accused generals, and be voted upon in the same way for life and death."

The speaker added no arguments; and the roars of approval that went up from the assembly showed sufficiently that no arguments were needed. The advocates of constitutional practice were cowed. It was only too plain that to persist would surely be to meet themselves the fate of the accused. Euryptolemus was a brave man, and as we shall soon see, did not intend to desert his friends; but for the present he gave way. "I withdraw my notice," he cried, reflecting doubtless that he could renew it when the people should become more ready to listen to reason and justice. But there was still another constitutional bulwark to be thrown down. The presiding magistrates refused to put the motion to the assembly. Their chief (or chairman as we should call him) rose in his place. He was pale and agitated, and his voice could not be heard beyond the benches nearest to him when he said, "The motion of Callixenus is against the laws, and we cannot put it to the assembly."

"They refuse! they refuse!" was the cry that went from mouth to mouth. Again the rage of the multitude rose to boiling point, and again the popular orator saw his opportunity.

"I propose," he said, appearing again in the hustings, "that the names of the presiding magistrates be added to those of the accused in the voting for life and death!'

A shout of approval more vehement than ever greeted this announcement. Once more the policy of concession, or shall we say of cowardice prevailed. The magistrates conversed a few moments in hurried whispers, and then advanced to the railings in front of their seats. It was immediately seen that they had yielded, and loud applause followed. "Hail to the popular magistrates! Hail to the friends of the people!" was the universal cry. But one was still sitting in his place. His colleagues turned back to bring him. They talked, they gesticulated, they laid hold of him by the arms; they were trying to force him out of his seat. He heeded them not; to all persuasion he returned the same answer: "I am set to administer the laws, and will do nothing that is contrary to them." The most of the house could, of course, hear nothing of what was being said; but they could see plainly what had happened. "Socrates refuses! Socrates refuses!" was now the cry, followed by shouts of "Death to Socrates!" "Death to the blasphemer! Death to the atheist!"

The philosopher sat unmoved, and his colleagues made no further attempt to persuade him. They took what was, perhaps, the only possible course under the circumstances—for they had not all the martyr-like temper of Socrates—and put the question without him. It was carried by a large majority.

The presiding magistrate, having announced the result of the vote, went on: "Seeing that it has seemed good to the Athenian people to try the generals accused of negligence in saving the lives of citizens, the said generals are hereby put upon their trial. If they, or any citizen on their behalf, wish to address the assembly, let them or him speak."

It might have been thought that the furious crowd which had been ready to overpower with violence the advocates of constitutional practice would have howled down any who dared to advocate so unpopular a cause. But it was not so. The majority, having swept away, as they thought, the trammels of technicality, in their eagerness for justice, had no wish to disregard justice by refusing a hearing to persons on their defence. Whatever the faults of the Athenian democracy, it was at least ready to hear both sides. When therefore Euryptolemus rose to address the assembly on behalf of the generals, an instantaneous silence followed; nor was he interrupted during the delivery of his speech except, it may be, by occasional murmurs of approval. He spoke as follows:

"Men of Athens, I have three things to do now that I address you. First, I have to blame in some degree my dear friend and kinsman Pericles, and my friend Diomedon; second, I have to plead somewhat on their behalf; third, I have to give you such advice as will in my judgment best advantage Athens. I blame them because they, through their generous temper, have taken upon themselves the fault which, if it exists, lies upon others. For indeed what happened after the battle was this: Diomedon advised that the whole fleet should proceed to the relief of the disabled ships and their crews. Erasinides counselled that the whole fleet should be sent in pursuit of the enemy. Thrasyllus declared that both duties might be discharged together, part being sent against the enemy, and part to help the shipwrecked men. And this last course was actually taken. Forty-seven ships were told off for this duty; three, that is, from each of the eight divisions, ten belonging to private captains, ten that were from Samoa, and three that belonged to the commander-in-chief: And three ships were committed to the charge of Thrasybulus and Theramenes, the very men who now bring these charges against the accused. Yet these men I do not even now, on behalf of the generals, myself accuse. I allow that the violence of the storm prevented them from executing this order.

"So far then, men of Athens, do I blame the accused, and I do plead for them. And now let me venture to give you some advice. Give these men time, if it be but one day only, to make their defence. You know that there is yet a form of law by which it is enacted: 'If any person hath aggrieved the people of Athens, he shall be imprisoned and brought to a trial before the people; and in case he be convicted, he shall be put to death and thrown into the pit, his goods and chattels to be confiscated to the state, reserving a tenth part for the goddess.' By this law try the accused. Give to each a separate day and try them in due order. So will you judge them according to the law, and not seem, as verily you will seem if you adopt the resolution of Callixenus, to be allies of the Lacedæmonians, by putting to death the very men who have taken twenty of their ships. "Why indeed are you in such vehement haste? Are you afraid to lose your hold of life and death? That right no one doubts or threatens. Should you not rather be afraid lest you put an innocent man to death? One man do I say, nay many innocent men? And lest, afterwards repenting of your deed, you shall reflect how ill and unjustly you have acted? Forbid it, ye gods, that the Athenians should do any such thing. Take care, therefore, I implore you, that you, being successful, do not act as they often act, who are on the brink of despair and ruin. Only those who are without hope insult the gods; yet somehow you will insult them, if instead of submitting to them on points that are subject to their will alone, you condemn those men who failed because it was the pleasure of the gods that they should fail. You would do more justly if you honor these men with crowns of victory rather than visit them with this punishment of death."

A visible effect was produced by this speech. That the republic should put to death its successful generals almost in the moment of victory seemed to many to be the very height of folly, even of impiety. The gods had favored these men. To lay hands upon them would be an insult to heaven. But supposing they had erred, would it be well for the state to deprive itself of the services of its most skillful servants? This seemed the common sense view. The question was: would it prevail against the sticklers for law, those who were hardened by the sense of personal loss, and the unscrupulous partisans who were ready to seize any pretext for destroying political opponents? The voters filed past the balloting urns, and dropped their votes as they passed. No one could guess what the result would be, for no one could watch more than one of the ten pairs of urns—a pair to each tribe—which were placed to receive the suffrages. The process took no little time, and then when it was finished, there was the counting, also a long and tedious process. It was almost dark when the tables were finished.

In the midst of a profound silence the presiding magistrate stood up. It was now dark, and his figure was thrown into striking relief by the lamps with the help of which the votes had been counted. He read the numbers from a small slip of paper. "There have voted," he said, "for condemnation 3254, for acquittal 3102."

The sensation produced by the announcement was intense. Not a few who had voted 'guilty' already half repented of what they had done. Indeed the reaction which ended in the banishment and ultimately the death by starvation of the author of the proposal may be said to have begun at that moment. The general excitement rose to a still higher pitch when the officers of the Eleven, the magistrates to whose custody condemned criminals were handed, were seen making their way, lighted by slaves holding torches, to the place where the accused were sitting. There was not one of the six whose features were not familiar to many in the assembly. More than one had rendered distinguished service to Athens; and one, Pericles, son of the great statesman by Aspasia, bore a name which no Athenian could pronounce without some emotion of pride and gratitude. It so happened that it was he on whom the officers laid hands. Something like a groan went up from the crowd; but it was too late to undo what they had done and it was too early for the repentance that had already begun to work to have any practical effect. The six were led off to immediate execution.

Callias, anxious to say a few words of farewell to his friend and kinsman Diomedon, had hurried round, as soon as he heard the announcement of the numbers, to the door by which he knew the condemned would be taken from the place of assembly. The president of the Eleven who was conducting the matter in person, as became an occasion so important, allowed a brief interview.

The young man was so overcome with grief that he could only throw himself into the arms of his friend and cling to him in speechless agony. Diomedon, on the contrary, was perfectly calm and collected. "My son," he said, this has ended as badly as I thought that it would you will remember what I said to you after the battle. For myself, this that I am about to suffer is scarcely a thing to be lamented. It is hard indeed to have such a return for my services to Athens; and I would gladly have served her again. It has not so seemed good to the Athenians. Let it be so. I am delivered from trouble to come. I would not have fled from them willingly, but if my countrymen compel me, why should I complain? That at least Socrates has taught me not to do. And this day has at least brought this good, that no one can doubt hereafter that he believes what he says. For you, my son, I have but one word. Do not despair of your country. A grateful child pays his dues of nurture even to an impassive mother. And now farewell!"

An hour afterwards he and his colleagues were lying mangled corpses at the bottom of the pit.