previous chapter
The Rule of the Strong and the Limits of Friendship
next sub-section


The debate between Kleon and Diodotos about the fate of the Mytileneans is one of the most closely studied portions of the History.[3] Like the Melian debate, it finds its way outside of classics into many courses, on topics such as political science and international relations. Before they revolt, the Mytileneans themselves deliver one of the most important—and overlooked—speeches in Thucydides.[4] In a few brief pages (Thuc. 3.9–14), they raise crucial questions about considerations of friendship and justice in a world dominated by power politics. In justifying their actions according to traditional values, they indicate that those values have taken on an almost entirely new and grim meaning.

Like the Corcyraeans, these would-be allies must demonstrate both that they have something to offer and that their character is trustworthy. As C. Macleod pointed out, this defence of character became a topos for all speeches soliciting an alliance.[5] The Mytileneans, however, face an even more daunting task of defending their character than did the Corcyraeans. By rebelling against their ally Athens, they have called into serious question their own moral worth, and hence their value as allies. They specifically confront this problem and declare that they will make their case on the grounds of to dikaion, “justice,” and aretê (Thuc. 3.10.1)—both of which they, by some standards, abandoned when they abandoned Athens in wartime. They agree with the traditional assumption that friendship must rely on “an aretê that is obvious to each other and on similar habits in other regards.”

But, contrary to traditional thought, the Mytileneans argue that such friendships depend upon a stable balance of power.[6] Affection and loyalty are secondary factors in their view (Thuc. 3.11.1). “Balanced fear (to antipalon deos) is the only sure basis of an alliance (summachia): he who would like to transgress in some respect is then deterred by the fact of not being superior (prouchein).” Athens had, however, grown progressively more powerful and had reached the point where it could strip Mytilene of its independence:

Had we all been still independent (autonomoi), we could have had more faith in their not attempting any change; but the greater number being in their power (hupocheirioi), while they associated with us on the basis of equality (apo tou isou:), they would naturally (eikotôs) chafe with us alone still confronting them as equals (ant-isoumenou) in contrast to the majority that gave way (eikon); particularly as they daily grew more powerful (dunatôteroi), and we more alone.

The Mytileneans appeal to “common sense”: the Athenians would naturally (eikotôs) press their advantage. Once they had acquired more dunamis (i.e., were dunatôteroi), then they were no longer equal, isos, to the Mytileneans, and no one could expect that they would long tolerate a relationship predicated on equality. The material realities of the situation would ultimately assert themselves as naturally as geological pressures lead to an earthquake, and the coming realignment would inevitably push Mytilene into an inferior position. The Mytileneans never even consider the possibility that the Athenians might find the current arrangement useful in itself even if it no longer reflected their true relative status. The will to power inexorably exerts pressure until external dealings reflect the true balance of force.

The Mytileneans then move from this imbalance to its grotesque consequences, which invert the proper relationship between friends. The respect that they paid each other ceased to reinforce their mutual affection and to keep alive the social bonds that connected them, and became instead a cynical practice whereby each maneuvered for advantage and for the ultimate chance to strike. Thus the Mytileneans explain away the honors that Athens conferred upon them:

Again, if we were left independent (autonomoi), it was only because they thought they saw their way to rule (archê) more clearly by speciousness (euprepeia) of language and by the paths of policy (gnômê) than by those of strength (ischus). Not only were we useful as evidence that powers who had votes, like themselves, would not, surely, join them in their expeditions, against their will, without the party attacked being in the wrong; but the same system also enabled them to lead the stronger states against the weaker first, and so to leave the former to the last, stripped of their natural allies, and less capable of resistance.

As Simon Hornblower points out in his note on Thucydides 3.11.3, the Mytileneans are on shaky ground here, for, according to Thucydides, they had sent reinforcements to help Athens put down Samos—formerly one of the “free” allies (Thuc. 1.116.2, 117.2). They thus imply that they helped the Athenians under duress, and direct toward the Athenians the charge of hypocrisy to which they themselves are open. The Athenians, they claim, exploit language when they feel that it can help them expand their rule (archê) better than the application of strength (ischus). The alliance with Mytilene was useful for propaganda and helped Athens prepare for absorbing Mytilene as well in the end.

Once the Mytileneans have lost their faith in Athens and the spirit of the relationship has, in their minds, been corrupted, they reply in kind:

The court that we paid (therapeia) to their general populace (to koinon autôn) and those who were also becoming its protectors (tôn aiei proestotôn) also helped us to maintain our independence.

The Mytileneans cynically pay court to the common people of Athens and to whatever leaders emerged as their prostatai, champions. Their favors, however, did not set out to reinforce a firm and lasting friendship but were a mere expedient of the moment:

However, we did not expect to have the power to do so much longer, if this war had not broken out, following the examples that we had had of their conduct to the rest. Was this friendship (philia) or freedom (eleutheria) here worthy of trust? In this, we accepted each other against our judgment (para gnômên). They, on the one hand, paid court (etherapeuon) to us during the war because they were afraid (deidiotes; cf. deos), and we did the same thing to them during the quiet times. Goodwill (eunoia) most of all establishes trust (pistis) of others. For us, it was terror (phobos) that made them reliable (echuros), while we were retained as allies (summachoi) more by fear (deos) than by friendship (philia). To whichever of us security (asphaleia) should provide the boldness (tharsos), these would be the first to attempt some transgression.

Even as they allude to goodwill (eunoia), the Mytileneans imply that eunoia has no inherent value but exists only within narrow tolerances.[7] Theirs is a world in which even closest allies cannot be trusted and in which friendship has become a thin disguise for deadly competition. The values of the archaic world—with its countless alliances, limited competition, and relatively flat hierarchies—no longer function for them. Symbolic capital depends for its existence upon trust and upon the certainty that good services to an individual will be repaid in kind. The good services that the Athenians and Mytileneans confer upon each other have no future. They establish nothing.

The Mytileneans conclude this portion of their argument by inverting the language of reciprocal gift exchange in spectacular fashion:

So that if we seem to anyone to act unjustly (adikein) by revolting ahead of time (proapostantes) because of their delay of dreadful things against us, ourselves not waiting in turn (antanameinantes) to know clearly if any of these things would have taken place, he does not consider (skopei) properly. For if we had the power (dunatoi) on the basis of equality (apo tou isou) to plot in turn (antepibouleusai) and delay in turn (antimellêsai), why should it have been necessary for us—in a state of parity (apo tou homoiou)—to be at their mercy (ep’ ekeinois). Since the initiative was always on their side, preemptive defence (proamunasthai) must belong to us.

In a relationship of ritualized friendship, gift matches countergift, as the partners compete with one another in terms of generosity. In this case, however, the two parties compete with one another for advantage, and even the idealized relationship is twisted. The Mytileneans no longer dream of matching gift with gift or of competing with the Athenians in public demonstrations of generosity to one another, but they still express themselves in the language of reciprocity. The verbal prefix anti- indicates that an action mirrors something that has previously taken place, and commonly appears when speakers wish to stress the reciprocity of what they are doing. The Mytileneans use the prefix three times in this paragraph. They lament that they cannot match the Athenians in staying power (ant-anameinantes), match plot with plot (ant-epibouleusai), or match their ability to delay action (anti-mellesai), as they could if they were acting “on the basis of equality” (apo tou isou) or “in a state of parity” (apo tou homoiou). Even as they express a viable model of friendship with the linguistic tags of reciprocal action, they have turned the spirit of friendship upside down.

At this point, we might briefly recall the ethnographic literature discussed in chapter 4. The spirit of the gift was crucial in archaic Greece, as in so many other societies. The exchange of gifts or ritualized tokens of respect could not simply be empty but served as signs and substance at once of a larger social relationship. The Greek term charis, in part, represents such concepts as “the “money of fame,” ” [8] the “spirit of the gift,” [9] and Bourdieu’s “symbolic capital.” In chapter 4, we saw not only that both the Corcyraeans and the Corinthians based their pleas to Athens on this system of gift and countergift, but that the Athenians had no interest in such arguments. They ultimately choose a course that was meant to harm both Corcyra and Corinth as much as possible. Thus, on one level, Athens’s decision to aid Corcyra reinforces the Mytilenean argument: the Athenians cannot, in fact, be trusted to support their relationship with Mytilene, because they have no interest in the general scheme of embedded social relations. The Athenians do not believe in the “spirit of the gift.”

The Mytilenean plea for help, however, is also problematic. Reconciling justice with expediency is tricky,[10] but the main difficulty in this speech is more tightly linked to traditional social practices of the archaic period. If “balanced fear” is the only basis for a relationship, then there is little room in any relationship for “goodwill” (eunoia) and “friendship” (philia), since these are strong words for affection. Goodwill and friendship only come to the test when one party falls upon hard times and seeks help from its friends. According to the Mytileneans, trouble for one party would involve an automatic change in the relationship, with the powerful seeking to exploit the weakness of its fallen (and therefore former) friend. Similarly, the statement at Thucydides 3.12.7 that Mytilene had cultivated the Athenians does indeed, as Gomme suggests, “amount to a damaging admission,” but not just or primarily because this behavior had implicated Mytilene in Athenian policy. The subsequent defence does much more harm. The Mytileneans had begun this part of their argument by suggesting that they needed to demonstrate their aretê (Thuc. 3.10.1), which here denotes their “honesty” or basic moral worth. Yet, in denying their former friendship with Athens, they demonstrate that they really cannot be trusted. Their actions do not reflect their feelings. Even as they struggle to frame their needs in terms of philia, eunoia, and aretê, they have sketched a system of forces that leaves no room for these qualities, since friendship, goodwill, and aretê are meaningful only if they endure despite external conditions. Furthermore, if Mytilene wholly subordinates its actions to circumstances, then its alliance is good only so long as Sparta remains useful to it, and friendship with Mytilene is not nearly as valuable—that is, expedient—as it might otherwise be. The Mytilenean speech demolishes its own premises, for it shows that the speakers have little moral worth and consequently offer a good deal less practical advantage.

The Mytilenean speech is in many ways a pivotal passage and connects with a number of other sections. In chapter 3, I analyzed the relationship between Sparta and Tegea as it appears in Herodotus. This relationship seems to have stood as the central paradigm for all bilateral relationships with Sparta: those who acknowledged Sparta’s superiority would not be degraded but would, despite their inequality in military power, enter into a partnership based on mutual respect. Thus even small states could define their alliance in similar terms and at least pretend that they, like the Tegeans, received honor and respect from Sparta. Sparta depended for its position, as we saw earlier, on the shared assumption that the powerful would not overwhelm the weak. The Mytilenean speech baldly drags the general principle involved out into the open and denies an assumption by which the Peloponnesian allies listening to them at Olympia maintained their allegiance to Sparta. I will conclude by comparing the Mytilenean sentiments with the defence of Athenian imperialism at Sparta, but first I must sketch the implications of the Mytilenean speech for the evolution of language in the description of stasis at Corcyra, for Kleon’s later demand that the Mytileneans be exterminated, and for Sparta’s offer of peace in book 4.

First, the Mytilenean affair (like the other great episode in book 3, the fall of Plataia) sets the stage for the dismal analysis of civil strife and its effect upon human behavior at Corcyra. Thucydides begins this excursus by stating two conditions for such savage internal conflict: the presence of war and the opportunity to bring in a great power as ally. The Mytileneans tried to argue that those with common habits (see homoiotropoi at Thuc. 3.10.1) could establish a firm friendship, but their own argument makes it clear that material considerations, such as relative power, are more important than personal habits. Ulimately, the Athenians come to make democrats their allies, and oligarchs consistently turn to Sparta (3.82.1).[11]

When the Mytileneans offered their inverted model of friendship, in which the parties hold each other at bay with the threat of reciprocal violence, they anticipate a general linguistic phenomenon that Thucydides deplores in his analysis of stasis at Corcyra:

In their own judgment (dikaiôsis), people exchanged (antêllaxan) the accustomed evaluation (axiôsis) of words (onomata) with regard to deeds (erga) Reckless audacity (alogistos tolma) came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally (andreia philetairos), and prudent hesitation (mellêsis promêthês) was thought specious cowardice (deilia euprepes). Self-restraint (to sôphrôn) became a cloak for unmanliness (to anandron); ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence (to emplêktos oxu) became the attribute of a true man; plotting (to epibouleusasthai) from a position of safety (asphaleia), a creditable pretext (eulogos prophasis) for self-defence.

In the following sections, Thucydides develops this idea at even greater length. As the grim details pile up, the general principle remains consistent: trust and good nature withered in the savagery of civil war, and as human behavior became more brutal, language changed to reflect the new reality. Those noble concepts that remained uncorrupted were “laughed out of existence” (Thuc. 3.83.1), and those terms that previously had denoted generous virtues shifted to describe grotesque inversions of their former selves. The dismal, Hobbesian view of friendship that the Mytileneans put forward neatly illustrates how, on the other side of the Greek world from Corcyra, the meaning of one fundamental quality had already begun to change. Furthermore, the Mytileneans conclude the defence of their own action by anticipating exactly the final statement in the paragraph quoted above. Both they and the Athenians, they claim, were maintaining their charade of friendship and goodwill only until a position of safety (3.12.1: asphaleia) would provide one or the other with the courage so that they could be first to transgress against their supposed friendship. Once they had the opportunity, they not only “plotted against” the Athenians (cf. antepibouleusai at 3.12.3 and to epibouleusasthai at 3.82.4) but took preemptive action as well. The creditable pretext (eulogos prophasis) for self-defence mentioned at 3.82.4 perfectly describes the Mytilenean defence at 3.10–12 and especially 3.12.1–3.

Second, so many readers of Thucydides have focused on the dramatic confrontation between Kleon and Diodotos that little attention has been paid to the relationship between the Mytilenean speech at Thucydides 3.9–14 and Kleon’s denunciation of Mytilene at 3.37–40. The Mytileneans, for example, admit that they had been friendly toward the champions of the common people at Athens. Their tokens of respect constituted nothing but a tactic by which they could buy time (Thuc. 3.11.7). When the Mytileneans revolted, those champions of the people who had also championed the Mytileneans must have been placed in a difficult position. Kleon was the most famous prostatês of the Athenian people of the time, and, for all we know, the Mytilenean revolt may have personally embarrassed him. Whatever his relations with Mytilene, his speech demands the execution of all Mytileneans and bases its argument in large measure upon the peculiar relationship between Athens and Mytilene. He thus develops a major theme presented in the Mytilenean speech.

Kleon’s speech picks up two of the themes that the Mytileneans introduce and that become part of the general case study of civil strife at Corcyra. The Mytileneans are acutely conscious that their status with respect to Athens is almost unique—only the Chians remain as free allies (Thuc. 3.10.5). They offer their uncertain position as a pretext (prophasis) to justify their revolt (3.9.1, 13.1). Thucydides describes later how desperate men justified such plots by using self-defence as a creditable pretext (eulogos prophasis) (3.82.1). Kleon analyzes the Mytilenean revolt in the same way. He demands severe retaliation against Mytilene so that no one in the future will “revolt on some small pretext” (bracheia prophasis apostêsesthai). Furthermore, according to the Mytileneans, each side constantly plotted against the other (antepibouleusai; see 3.12.3 and to epibouleusasthai at 3.82.4). Kleon shares with the Mytileneans the idea that they have engaged in plotting, but fastens upon this term and gives it considerable prominence. He uses epibouleuô and various derivatives five times in his speech (3.37.2 twice, 39.2, 40.1, 40.5).

Kleon does more, however, than echo the term epibouleuô. He combines plotting with the assumption that different power relationships justify different kinds of behavior. But where the Mytileneans had used this principle to bolster their own moral position—they were so much more powerful than we that we had to take action—Kleon makes it a linchpin for his attack:

I proceed to show that no one state has ever injured you as much as Mytilene. I can have forgiveness (sungnômê) for those who revolt because they cannot bear our rule (archê), or who have been forced to do so by the enemy. But these possessed an island with fortifications, could fear our enemies only by sea, and they had their own force of triremes to protect them. They were independent (autonomoi) and shown honor (timê) to the highest degree by you. These people have not revolted—revolt is the act of those who have suffered violence (biaion ti). Rather, they have hatched plots (epebouleusan) and stabbed us in the back.[12] They sought to stand at the side of our bitterest enemies and to destroy us. Indeed, this is more serious than if they had acquired power (dunamis) by themselves and confronted us in war (antepolemêsan).

The Mytileneans had feared degradation to the status of subject ally, but this change had not taken place. Where the Mytileneans stress the difference in real power, Kleon—with at least as much and probably more validity—points to the actual state of affairs. The Mytileneans were in fact still independent (autonomoi), and they did receive unusual honor (timê) from Athens. Those who had “suffered some act of violence” (tôn biaion ti paschontôn) might revolt, and for them there could be forgiveness (sungnômê), because they returned no more than they had received. (The logic of reciprocity that Kleon applies is, it should be noted, opportunistic—at Thucydides 5.91.1, the Athenians imply that savage retribution is more suitable when chastising subjects than when vanquishing equals.) The Mytileneans were not, however, under Athenian rule (archê), and the Athenians had never brought any act of violence (biaion ti) to bear against them. The high status that the Mytileneans had enjoyed meant that their act was simple treachery rather than the desperate rebellion of an oppressed subject.

Kleon, however, argues on both sides of the question. He states that the Mytileneans deserve to die because they acted as if they were friends but betrayed the Athenians. At the same time, however, he shares the Mytileneans’ grim view of human relationships. Acts of kindness have at best no value in themselves and, for an imperial power, are self-defeating:

The Mytileneans should long ago have received from us no honor (timê) distinguished from the rest, and they never would have given in to hubris to this extent, for human beings (anthrôpos) tend by nature to despise that which pays court (therapeuô) and to feel awe (thaumazein) before that which does not yield (to mê eikon).

Kleon does not believe that it is possible to accumulate any positive symbolic capital with subordinates. Kind actions appear as a sign of weakness. There is no room in his view for patrons and clients, only masters who squeeze as much as they possibly can from resentful slaves.

The honor that Athens had conferred upon Mytilene therefore did not win corresponding respect but instead inflamed the Mytileneans with hubris. Kleon brackets the speech with attacks against any notion that the Athenians can accumulate a store of charis with their allies. “You do not realize,” he says at Thucydides 3.37.2, “that your softness (to malakizesthai) will contribute to your danger and not to the charis felt by your allies.…The allies will not obey you because you—harming your own selves—stored up charis (charizesthe).” Toward the end (Thuc. 3.40.4), he says: “To sum up in brief, I say that if you follow my advice you will do what is just (ta dikaia) toward the Mytileneans, and at the same time expedient (ta sumphora); while by a different decision you will not store up charis with them so much as pass sentence upon yourselves.”

But, like the Mytileneans, Kleon does still understand the world in terms of balanced reciprocity even as he dismisses the possibilities of effective friendship between Athens and its allies:

It is just that compassion (eleos) be given in return (antididosthai) to one’s peers (hoi homoioi), and not to those who will never pity us in return (antoiktountes) but are constituted of necessity our eternal enemies: the orators who charm us with sentiment may find other less important arenas for their talents, in the place of one where the city pays a heavy penalty for a momentary pleasure, themselves receiving fine acknowledgments for their fine phrases; while indulgence (epieikeia) should be shown toward those who will be our friends (epitêdeioi) in future, instead of toward those who will remain just what they were, and as much our enemies (polemioi) as before.

This passage, in the conclusion of Kleon’s argument, pulls together several themes that we have discussed. First, it asserts again the priority of an objective reality whose influence inexorably determines the overall character of human relations. The Mytileneans are constituted as enemies of the Athenians. A product of necessity (anankê), this condition is permanent. No compassion (eleos) or pity (oiktos) conferred upon the Mytileneans will ever convert them from enemies to friends. No relationship with the Mytileneans can base itself on exchanges of kindness and good feelings. Mytilene is far weaker than Athens, but it comes as close to being a peer as any of Athens’s allies. If Mytilene is so inferior that it cannot maintain true friendship with Athens, then Athens is truly alone. It has no friends, only allies. Those who concern themselves with fine language can develop brilliant verbal arguments to the contrary, but they cannot change these objective realities, and they only endanger the city by obscuring the real situation. Language, properly used, mirrors the true situation. Gifts, honors, and words alike are vapid epiphenomena. The relative balance of power alone matters.

Kleon develops his argument from the premise that Athenian archê is a turannis (Thuc. 3.37.2). The opening of Kleon’s argument is a dense network of ideas that relates now familiar terms for friendship and treachery to the condition of tyranny:

Because your daily life is free from fear (adees, lacking in deos) and not filled with plotting (anepibouleuton) against each other, you feel just the same with regard to your allies and never reflect that the mistakes into which you may be led by listening to their appeals, or by giving way to your own compassion (oiktos), are full of risk (kindunos) for yourselves and bring you no thanks (charis) from your allies for your weakness; entirely forgetting that your empire is a turannis and your subjects are plotting against you (epibouleuontas) and subject to your rule (archê) against their will. These men will not obey you because of those things that you—although doing injury to yourselves—store up as charis, but by the superiority given you by your own strength (ischus) and not their goodwill (eunoia).

Athens is a democracy, and its citizens live a daily life that is free from fear (adees, lacking in deos) and not filled with plotting (anepibouleuton). But Athenian rule (archê) is a turannis—a domination based on force, pure and simple. Thus compassion (oiktos), charis, and goodwill (eunoia) are meaningless concepts, and any trust put in their influence brings with it risk (kindunos). The allies eternally plot against their masters. In the world of friendship and trust, symbolic capital maintains stability and lends to human relationships an on-going momentum through time. In Kleon’s world, the turannis maintains its position by the constant possession of ischus. Once the Athenians lose their material superiority, they will plummet downward like a bird that has ceased beating its wings.

Kleon’s speech thus reinforces an idea expressed by the Mytileneans. Differences in power prevent Greek states from being peers. A powerful state such as Athens inevitably bends its subordinates to its will and exercises the greatest possible control. In such a world, affection is possible only between peers. The Athenians do not exercise hegemony but domination pure and simple. Kleon has no use for a conciliating ideology that seeks to justify Athenian prominence and to evoke any emotions other than fear from the allies. The Athenians had treated the Mytileneans with honor, but the Mytileneans had not reciprocated this respect and had acted as hostile subordinates, eager to strike those above them.

previous chapter
The Rule of the Strong and the Limits of Friendship
next sub-section