Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

LAST WEEK we wondered how those who randomly murdered and maimed their own citizens like the Real IRA) should be treated - though Parliament, bowing supinely to EU diktat, will not even discuss the possibility of capital punishment.

Mytilene, a city-state on the island of Lesbos, revolted against Athens in 427 BC, and was brought to heel. The Athenian Assembly voted to punish them by executing all the adult males and enslaving the women and children. Next day, however, there was a change of feelings about such a `cruel and unprecedented' act, and a second Assembly was called. Thucydides reports the two main speeches: Cleon for holding the line, Diodotus for executing only the guilty.

Cleon argues that Athens' power depends on its strength. To show weakness at a time like this will be disastrous. Fancy arguments are no substitute for firm action (`the man in the street knows best,' he says). Mytilene's revolt was deliberate, calculated and unprovoked. Athens had done them no harm, and they took advantage of Athens' good treatment of them. Other states will follow their example if Athens does not crack down.

Diodotus' reply has two main threads. …

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