Is this any way to run a war? Sphacteria & Pylos, 425 BC

Start by reading the very last sentence of the translation. The assembly thought it was a no-lose win-win choice. Either Cleon would win and that would be rad. Or he’d lose and get killed, and that would be rad too. Either way, as the Australians today would put it, “she’s apples.” Rather than translate anew, I’ve used the classic translation by Thomas Hobbes. Yes, that Thomas Hobbes. Then read the whole chapter, and I’ll tie things together infra.

“But Nicias, seeing the Athenians to be in a kind of tumult against Cleon, for that when he thought it so easy a matter he did not presently put it in practice, and seeing also he had upbraided him, willed him to take what strength he would that they could give him and undertake it. [2] Cleon, supposing at first that he gave him this leave but in words, was ready to accept it; but when he knew he would give him the authority in good earnest, then he shrunk back and said that not he but Nicias was general, being now indeed afraid and hoping that he durst not have given over the office to him. [3] But then Nicias again bade him do it and gave over his command [to him] for so much as concerned Pylus and called the Athenians to witness it. They (as is the fashion of the multitude), the more Cleon declined the voyage and went back from his word, pressed Nicias so much the more to resign his power to him and cried out upon Cleon to go. [4] Insomuch as not knowing how to disengage himself of his word, he undertook the voyage, and stood forth saying that he feared not the Lacedaemonians and that he would not carry any man with him out of the city but only the Lemnians and Imbrians that then were present and those targettiers that were come to them from Aenus and four hundred archers out of other places; and with these, he said, added to the soldiers that were at Pylus already, he would within twenty days either fetch away the Lacedaemonians alive or kill them upon the place. [5] This vain speech moved amongst the Athenians some laughter, and was heard with great content of the wiser sort. For of two benefits, the one must needs fall out: either to be rid of Cleon (which was their greatest hope) or, if they were deceived in that, then to get those Lacedaemonians into their hands.”
Thucydides 4.28

ὁ δὲ Νικίας τῶν τε Ἀθηναίων τι ὑποθορυβησάντων ἐς τὸν Κλέωνα, ὅτι οὐ καὶ νῦν πλεῖ, εἰ ῥᾴδιόν γε αὐτῷ φαίνεται, καὶ ἅμα ὁρῶν αὐτὸν ἐπιτιμῶντα, ἐκέλευεν ἥντινα βούλεται δύναμιν λαβόντα τὸ ἐπὶ σφᾶς εἶναι ἐπιχειρεῖν. [2] ὁ δὲ τὸ μὲν πρῶτον οἰόμενος αὐτὸν λόγῳ μόνον ἀφιέναι ἑτοῖμος ἦν, γνοὺς δὲ τῷ ὄντι παραδωσείοντα ἀνεχώρει καὶ οὐκ ἔφη αὐτὸς ἀλλ᾽ ἐκεῖνον στρατηγεῖν, δεδιὼς ἤδη καὶ οὐκ ἂν οἰόμενός οἱ αὐτὸν τολμῆσαι ὑποχωρῆσαι. [3] αὖθις δὲ ὁ Νικίας ἐκέλευε καὶ ἐξίστατο τῆς ἐπὶ Πύλῳ ἀρχῆς καὶ μάρτυρας τοὺς Ἀθηναίους ἐποιεῖτο. οἱ δέ, οἷον ὄχλος φιλεῖ ποιεῖν, ὅσῳ μᾶλλον ὁ Κλέων ὑπέφευγε τὸν πλοῦν καὶ ἐξανεχώρει τὰ εἰρημένα, τόσῳ ἐπεκελεύοντο τῷ Νικίᾳ παραδιδόναι τὴν ἀρχὴν καὶ ἐκείνῳ ἐπεβόων πλεῖν. [4] ὥστε οὐκ ἔχων ὅπως τῶν εἰρημένων ἔτι ἐξαπαλλαγῇ, ὑφίσταται τὸν πλοῦν, καὶ παρελθὼν οὔτε φοβεῖσθαι ἔφη Λακεδαιμονίους πλεύσεσθαί τε λαβὼν ἐκ μὲν τῆς πόλεως οὐδένα, Λημνίους δὲ καὶ Ἰμβρίους τοὺς παρόντας καὶ πελταστὰς οἳ ἦσαν ἔκ τε Αἴνου βεβοηθηκότες καὶ ἄλλοθεν τοξότας τετρακοσίους: ταῦτα δὲ ἔχων ἔφη πρὸς τοῖς ἐν Πύλω στρατιώταις ἐντὸς ἡμερῶν εἴκοσιν ἢ ἄξειν Λακεδαιμονίους ζῶντας ἢ αὐτοῦ ἀποκτενεῖν. [5] τοῖς δὲ Ἀθηναίοις ἐνέπεσε μέν τι καὶ γέλωτος τῇ κουφολογίᾳ αὐτοῦ, ἀσμένοις δ᾽ ὅμως ἐγίγνετο τοῖς σώφροσι τῶν ἀνθρώπων, λογιζομένοις δυοῖν ἀγαθοῖν τοῦ ἑτέρου τεύξεσθαι, ἢ Κλέωνος ἀπαλλαγήσεσθαι, ὃ μᾶλλον ἤλπιζον, ἢ σφαλεῖσι γνώμης Λακεδαιμονίους σφίσι χειρώσεσθαι.

Some Background
The Athenians, thanks to the general Demosthenes’ cunning had built a fort on Pylos, very inconveniently for the Spartans on site, who took refuge on the nearby island of Sphacteria. Athenian success in the resultant naval battle meant the Spartans were cooped up on the island. Spartan wasn’t used to being in such a position. It gave them gas. Frantic Sparta even went so far as to offer the Athenians peace, which under Cleon’s influence the Athenians rejected. The issue became what Athens should do next.

In a typically rowdy meeting of the Assembly, Cleon told the senior general, Nicias, “You’ve dicked up. Big time. Asshole.” That’s how the previous chapter (27) ended.

In medias res
Not suave, Cleon. Nicias is pissed. So is the Assembly. Nicias is no fool. He offers Cleon the gig, and then, aided by the Assembly, he sticks him with it. And that gets us to the end of the quote with that damnfool decision the Assembly made.

Cleon has a history. After Pericles’ death earlier in the decade, he became the most dominant figure in the Assembly. In particular, when Mytilene revolted in 428/7, he carried a motion in the Assembly to kill all the men and enslave the women and children. The next day, however, the Assembly came to its senses for a change and reversed the decision. Cleon totally lost influence as a result. People had had too much of his sweet nature:

“of all the citizens most violent and with the people at that time far the most powerful (= “persuasive”)”

καὶ ἐς τὰ ἄλλα βιαιότατος τῶν πολιτῶν τῷ τε δήμῳ παρὰ πολὺ ἐν τῷ τότε πιθανώτατος

Hah. Cleon won at Sphacteria. Back to power. He won big, and he used his win, big. He put through a brutal reassessment of the Tribute List for the Athenian empire, in an off year for reassessment. Usually the tribute lists have a very brief intro and then list who owes what. Not so this time. It has a long preamble, very possibly written by Cleon himself, which threatens and bullies…and ups the tribute to impossible levels while demanding tribute from places which will never contribute.

Here is a translated excerpt from that decree (IG2 63):

ATL reassment 425 excerpt

The inscription is fragmentary, requiring various kinds of restorations. Hence the strange symbols, and the lack of the Greek text on the principle of “don’t try this at home.” If anyone is wildly keen to see the Greek, enquire.

And he kept using his win. In 424 he visited on the island of Scione the same punishment he’d tried to impose on Mytilene. Nobody second-guessed him.

But still, returning to where we started, really now, is this any way to run a war?Speaking of which….

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