Saturday, September 12, 2015

Athens' Worst Atrocities at Melos and Scione

During the Vietnam War, Noam Chomsky liked making the point that just because the US was a democracy and respected (for the most part) the rights of its own citizens did not mean that it had any regards for the people of other countries.  So it was at the time; so it has proven yet again in Iraq. Nor is this new.  Chomsky had many examples of atrocities committed by democratic governments that respected the rights of their own citizens from the British Empire all the way back to Ancient Athens. Which brings us to the worst atrocities of the war, the massacres at Scione and Melos.  Neither played any direct role in the city's downfall, yet they stand as indelible blemishes on Athens' record, as the city itself was to acknowledge.

In the midst of his description of the Argive war, Thucydides tosses off a single sentence, saying that the Athenians captured Scione, killed all the men, sold the women and children as slaves, and turned the land over to the Plataeans.  It is not clear who these women and children were, since Thucydides previously reported that the Spartans had evacuated the non-combatants from Scione.  One possibility is that the situation was similar to that in Plataea, where Thucydides first says that the Athenians evacuated all the non-combatants but later  clarifies that a few women remained in support roles and were sold as slaves when the city fell.  This may also have been the case in Scione.  The other, horrifying, possibility, is that the peace agreement, besides giving the Spartans safe passage from Scione and leaving that city to Athens despite the decree of extirpation against it, also required the return of evacuees.  Nor is it clear why Thucydides passed over such a horrible act in a single sentence. Presumably he believed that, having made clear that the people of Scione did not know there was a truce in force when they revolted, that Athens could easily have been awarded the city by arbitration, and that the vile Cleon was responsible for the decree of extirpation, believed that nothing further need be said.

And then there is the matter of Melos.  While Scione has been largely forgotten, Melos stands with  My Lai as an example of the horrors democracy is capable of committing.  Melos was an island, a Spartan colony, but a neutral and of no strategic significance.  The Athenians nonetheless demanded, on penalty of extirpation, that Melos pay tribute and join the alliance.  When the Melians refused, the Athenians laid siege, surrounded the city, cut off its food supply, and starved it into submission. Thucydides tantalizingly speaks of some treachery within.  Perhaps the Melians hoped, like the people of Mytilene, to be spared if they sought the safety of surrender.  If so, it was a futile hope. The Athenians massacred all the men and sold the women and children as slaves.  So why does the atrocity at Melos live on in infamy to this day, while Scione is forgotten?  Partly, perhaps, because in Scione the Athenians had as least the minimal excuse that the city had revolted during a truce (even if they didn't know about the truce), while Melos was a neutral that gave no excuse whatever.  Partly, perhaps, because the Spartans had (apparently) evacuated most of the non-combatants, leaving only a few women to be enslaved (probably already slaves).  But mostly it is presumably because of the Melian Dialogue, Thucydides' horrifying account of the negotiations that took place between the parties before the siege.

According to Thucydides, the Melian Council refused to allow the Athenian ambassadors to address the Assembly, fearing that it would be intimidated.  In their private negotiations, the Athenians made no pretense that there was any justice in their demands.  They were strong enough to destroy Melos; Melos should therefore capitulate; that was all.  The Melians replied that everyone benefits from having certain standards in war of how the defeated will be treated, since everyone risks being defeated some time.  They offered to be neutral.  The Athenians said that to allow a small island to be neutral might be taken as weakness, while to destroy it was certain proof of strength.  The Melians suggested that the Spartans might come to their aid, but the Athenians warned that in great power rivalry, the great powers tend to treat small countries as expendable.  The Melians said that Sparta would have to come to their rescue or lose all credibility with its allies.  The Athenians replied that whatever their intentions, the Spartans lacked the naval power to rescue an island.  Nonetheless, the Melians would not yield, and the siege and massacre ensued.

Historians has since debated whether  the dialogue actually took place as Thucydides says.*  The dispute whether anyone could really have made such ruthlessly amoral pronouncements as the Athenians are portrayed as making.  My only answer can be, what difference does it make what was said?  No one disputes what was done.  What difference can it possibly make what mere words surrounded it?  Some have argued that the massacre at Melos was not a unique atrocity,** but that the Athenians were unique in making no attempt to rationalize it, in acknowledging that they were wrong and proceeding anyhow.  To this I can only say, look at Plataea.  Granted, the destruction of Plataea was not quite as bad as the destruction of Melos.  The Plataeans, after all, had slaughtered 180 Theban soldiers after they surrendered, while the Melians asked only to be neutral.  Most of the Plataean non-combatants had been evacuated and about half the garrison escaped.  But the execution  of the remaining garrison for the "crime" of being on the wrong side of the war, and selling of the few remaining women is quite bad enough.  And read the horrible self-righteous posturing of the Thebans as the demand the execution of the helpless Plataeans to see if it in any way mitigates the massacre that follows.  Then compare it to the Melian dialogue.  The Melian dialogue chills to the bone; the "Plataean dialogue" turns the stomach.  Pick your poison.

Also significant -- if there was any controversy over the extirpation of Melos, Thucydides does not mention it.  The main suggestion of any such controversy comes from Euripides' great tragedy, Trojan Women, about the fall of Troy, the city destroyed, all the men slaughtered, and the women and children sold as slaves.  The play was written  shortly after the fall of Melos and is generally seen as topical.  Later accounts blame Alcibiades for passing the decree of extirpation.  Plutarch says that the massacre was "chiefly due" to his support for the decree.  We also have what purports to be a contemporary speech blaming him for "recommending" the massacre.  That speech, incidentally, is generally regarded as spurious.  It purports to be an argument that Alcibiades, rather than one of his rivals, should be ostracized (exiled).  But votes on ostracism were not, in fact, proceeded by any such speeches.  And the speech contains a variety of errors, including, quite probably, that the massacre took place after the vote on ostracism.  In any event, the speech contains many scandalous details of Alcibiades' life to date, making the main controversy whether it was written in the early 4th Century BC and served as Plutarch's main source, or whether it was written much later and used Plutarch as its source.  Most significantly, according the the speech, Alcibiades claimed one of the enslaved women of Melos for himself in the manner of a Homeric hero and had a son by her:
Alcibiades who carries his villainy to such unheard-of lengths that, after recommending that the people of Melos be sold into slavery, he purchased a woman from among the prisoners and has since had a son by her, a child whose birth was more unnatural than that of Aegisthus,*** since he is sprung from parents who are each other's deadliest enemies, and of his nearest kin the one has committed and the other has suffered the most terrible of wrongs. Indeed it would be well to make such shamelessness still plainer. He got himself a child by the very woman whom he had turned from a free citizen into a slave, whose father and kinsfolk he had put to death and whose city he had made a waste, that he might thereby make his son the deadly enemy of himself and of this city; so inevitably is the boy driven to hate both. When you are shown things of this kind on the tragic stage, you regard them with horror; but when you see them taking place in Athens, you remain unmoved—and yet you are uncertain whether the tales of tragedy are founded on the truth or spring merely from the imagination of the poets; whereas you well know that these other lawless outrages, which you accept with indifference, have occurred in fact.
It seems unlikely that any Athenian would have spoken of his city in such terms only shortly after the fall of Melos!  Certainly, Alcibiades took no personal part in the siege of Melos, since he was busy fighting in Argos at the time, and was probably not available to propose anything to the Assembly (though this is guesswork).  While it is quite clear that Alcibiades was treacherous, unscrupulous and an extreme hawk, nothing in his career suggests that he was particularly bloodthirsty or cruel.  His fighting in Argos was gentlemanly enough as (we shall see) was his leadership in the later stages of the war.

And for all these horrors, one can find a small note of encouragement here.  The Classical Greeks really were more civilized than their Homeric forebears.  Reading Thucydides is rather like reading the Old Testament or the Iliad in terms of the atrocities it describes.  Thucydides' work, like those others, often shocks and horrifies us.  The difference is that Thucydides recognized that he was describing atrocities and intended for us to be shocked.  Every time someone excuses or defends a particular atrocity, it is an implied admission that it really was an atrocity.  Massacres of the Melian type occurred, but they were the exception and not the rule.  In the Iliad, they are warfare as usual. Enslavement of conquered people is more common, but the Homeric practice of a warrior claiming a woman whose male kinsmen he has killed is now regarded with horror and revulsion.  Compare the speech above to Briseis' lament for Patroclus in the Iliad.  Though Achilles killed her husband and brothers and destroyed her city, he is also her only protection and she hopes for him to marry her.

My own opinion then, is this.  The massacre at Melos was the collective crime of the Athenian people.  No one individual was particularly to blame; it was the decision of the voting public as a whole.  Later on, as the massacre came to be generally recognized as an atrocity (perhaps in part thanks to Thucydides and Euripides), the Athenians went looking for a scapegoat and fastened on Alcibiades.

But this is a mere sidelight, important as showing Athens' worst moral failings, but not significant in the downfall of the democracy.  The beginning of that unraveling will be seen in my next post.
*Particularly suspect is the following exchange:
Melians: 'Well, then, since you set aside justice and invite us to speak of expediency, in our judgment it is certainly expedient that you should respect a principle which is for the common good; that to every man when in peril a reasonable claim should be accounted a claim of right, and that any plea which he is disposed to urge, even if failing of the point a little, should help his cause. Your interest in this principle is quite as great as ours, inasmuch as you, if you fall, will incur the heaviest vengeance, and will be the most terrible example to mankind. 
Athenians: The fall of our empire, if it should fall, is not an event to which we look forward with dismay; for ruling states such as Lacedaemon are not cruel to their vanquished enemies. With the Lacedaemonians, however, we are not now contending; the real danger is from our many subject states, who may of their own motion rise up and overcome their masters.
Since Athens was defeated in the end and since, after some debate, the Spartans did decide to spare the Athenians such a fate, many suspect this was an example of a prophecy after the fact.

**Melos appears to be the worst atrocity of this particular war, but by no means unique in Classical Antiquity.  The Greeks famously commemorated a similar atrocity with the fall of Troy.  What the Athenians did to Melos the Macedonians would to on a larger scale to Thebes, the Romans to Corinth, and, most famously, the Romans to Carthage.

***Product of a father raping his daughter.

1 comment:

  1. I have to challenge the first paragraph of this essay. As far as invading armies go, the US army behaved exceptionally humanely in Iraq. It did not commit mass rapes, nor raze any cities to the ground. Look back on America's actions in Vietnam and WW2 and you will see that the US military has clearly grown more humane. And compare the US military to all other militaries from all states and time periods and it comes off even better.

    One reason is that the intense media coverage of the occupation of Iraq meant that atrocities are difficult to cover up. The worst scandal that came out of the occupation was Abu Grahib, where some American servicemen abused Iraqi prisoners. That pales in comparison to the razing of Melos, the massacre at My Lai, the bombing of Hiroshima, the campaigns of Genghis Khan, etc.

    Another factor to consider is that American culture itself is very humane. Few cultures are as obsessed over respecting the rights of racial minorities, women, and religious minorities as the US. The Middle East is in fact the most bigoted region of the world. ISIS fanatically abuses anyone who does not conform to their extreme form of Sunni Islam. The atrocities that these Muslims have visited on their fellow Muslims in Iraq are so bad it feels like the world has pretty much forgotten everything bad the US did. The criticism the US faces now is that it failed to appreciate the vicious ethnic hatreds that bubbled under the surface of Iraqi society, and foolishly thought that it could make Iraqis as peaceful, civilized, and democratic as America is today.