Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Trial of the Generals: Athens Disgraces Itself (Late 406 BC)

Athens followed its victory with the other really destructive episode of punching up under the democracy -- the trial of the generals who won the battle.  The generals, it should be noted, were eminent, highly respected men, many of them clearly established as champions of the democracy.  Xenophon names all of them.*  Among them, Pericles was the son of the great Athenian statesman. Diomedon was a general in the Aegean phase of the war and one of the commanders who rallied the fleet against the oligarchy of the 400.**  Thrasyllus was a hoplite (foot soldier) promoted to general at the time of the coup because of his loyalty to the democracy.  He, too, helped rally the fleet to the democracy, and commanded in many of the string of victories that followed.  Aristocrates was one of the moderate wing of the 400, who joined forces with Theramenes in turning against the oligarchy and restoring the democracy.  And they won a desperate, come-from-behind victory when all seemed truly lost. Yet all were convicted and sentenced to death together, without regard for their individual actions, and without any reasonable opportunity to defend themselves.

While all accounts agree that it was a disgraceful episode, Xenophon and Diodorus give somewhat contradictory accounts. For myself, I see only one real contradiction; the accounts otherwise are best seen as incomplete but complementary.

The generals (or admirals) must have foreseen that, while the Athenians would rejoice at the victory, they would demand an explanation why they did not rescue the survivors (Xenophon) or retrieve the dead (Diodorus).  Diodorus says that the generals sent Thrasybulus and Theramenes (now serving as captains) back to Athens to report the outcome. When the generals learned that the people were angry at them for failing to retrieve the dead, they sent a letter blaming the two captains, saying they had been responsible for the cleanup and had failed to do so.  This forced Theramenes "and his associates," who presumably included Thrasybulus, to defend themselves before the Assembly and deflect blame onto the generals.  Xenophon does not directly mention such a blame game, but his account indirectly seems to imply it. He speech a speech in defense of the generals in which the speaker says the generals originally prepared a letter blaming Thrasybulus and Theramenes, but that two of their number persuaded the others to leave the accusation out.  He also later cites Theramenes  as saying that the generals first blamed him, and that his actions were defensive.

In any event, the Athenians deposed the generals, except for Conon who was holed up in Mytilene and therefore could not be blamed, and ordered to turn over command to Conon and return home for trial. Two fled while the others returned.  From then on Xenophon's account is by far the more detailed and presumably the more reliable, except for its strange insistence that Theramenes seemed to have it out for the generals (including his friend and colleague, Aristocrates) for no discernible reason.

According to Xenophon's account, the generals explained to the Council that rescue was impossible because of the storm, but the Council had them arrested and turned over to the Assembly for trial. Theramenes was the chief of many accusers before the Assembly and (presumably to clear his own name) presented a letter in which the generals blamed to failed rescue on the storm.  The generals had only a brief opportunity to speak, but said that they had sailed against the enemy while leaving the rescue to their most competent captains, Thrasybulus and Theramenes, who were not to blame either, because of the storm.  The generals presented witnesses in their defense, and citizens stepped forward as sureties for them.  All in all, cooler heads seemed to be prevailing when night fell, making it too dark to vote, so the Assembly asked the Council to make a proposal as to how the generals should be tried.  Business was then delayed because a festival of gathering families.  Xenophon claims that Theramenes persuaded his followers to dress in mourning and impersonate the relatives of the dead and either convinced or bribed a man named Callixenus to accuse the generals before the Council.  Diodorus, rather more plausibly, simply says that the actual relatives of the dead appeared in mourning and called for revenge.

Callixenus, in turn, convinced the Council to have the Assembly vote immediately on the innocence or guilt of the generals, together as a block, without giving them the opportunity to present any further defense, and executed if convicted.  This was even though their roles had all been different, some having been on sunken ships themselves.  At this point a brave dissenter by the name of Euryptolemus invoked the graphe paramonon, or penalty against anyone making an illegal proposal.  This was somewhat equivalent to an accusation of unconstitutionality in our present system.  It should be noted that the last time the graphe paramonon had been suspended, it has been for the 400 to propose overturning the democracy and establishing an oligarchy.  That alone should have been enough to make the Athenians cherish the protections it afforded, but the mob psychology had taken hold.  Many cried out for the majority to be allowed to do whatever it wished.  One went so far as to propose that anyone invoking the graphe paramonon be tried along with the generals, so the authors backed down.  When some members of the presiding committee deemed the proposal unconstitutional and refused to allow a vote on it, some of the mob demanded that they, too, be tried along with the generals.  At this point the committee backed down, with one courageous holdout -- Socrates.  And yes, that is the Socrates, as Plato and Xenophon affirm.  At this point Euryptolemus  desperately pleaded with the Assembly, begging them to apply any procedure and impose any penalty, so long as the generals might be tried individually and given the opportunity to defend themselves.  Indeed, he pointed out, they had done as much even for members of the 400 who overthrew the democracy and betrayed a fortress to the enemy,*** while these generals had won a major victory  (And were loyal democrats as well).  The proposal to try the generals separately  narrowly carried.  But someone demanded a recount, and this time the vote was in favor of an immediate vote of innocent or guilty.  The vote was then held, the generals found guilty, and executed.

One final horror.  It is not clear how the generals were executed.  Possibly if was with hemlock, as with Socrates.  But their execution may have been on the plank, which apparently consisted of tightly chaining the condemned man to a plank and leaving him to die.  Exactly when and how the plank gave way to hemlock is apparently uncertain.****

*Their names match up with a list he gives earlier of the generals elected when Alcibiades was deposed, with two discrepancies.  The list of generals elected included an Aristarchus, but the list of generals tried replaces him with Lysias.  Xenophon does not explain the discrepancy, though a later speech says that he was killed in the battle at Mytilene.  (Thanks to Grote pp. 401-402 for pointing this out).  Another general named Leon is on the original list of ten, but not the second.  Unlike Aristarchus, he was not replaced, reducing the total from ten to nine.  Thucydides regularly pairs him with Diomedon, both in the war and rallying the fleet for the democracy.    Xenophon says that Leon and the general Erasinides were with Conon when they were trapped in Mytilene.  Yet Erasinides was present at Arginusae, while Leon is never heard of again.  Quite possibly, Leon was killed there along with Aristarchus.  But some modern historians have speculated otherwise. Xenophon says that Conon sent out his two best ships to Athens to seek reinforcements. One was captured, but the other escaped to Athens to carry the news.  The speculation is that Erasinides was on the ship that reached Athens to request reinforcements, while Leon was on the ship that was captured.  Keep Leon's name in mind.  There will be further speculations about him.
**Along with Leon, see note above.
***This refers specifically to Aristarchus and confirms the account in Thucydides that, after the coup was defeated, he went to the garrison as Oenoe and told the defenders that a peace had been reached and they should turn the fortress over to the Thebans.  The garrison trusted him and did so.  I previously disbelieved the account of a later orator that Aristarchus was executed for defending Phrynichus, a leading conspirator in a posthumous trial.  It seemed most unlikely since Aristarchus had gotten away.  But apparently he was somehow returned to Athens, presumably not voluntarily.
****One suggestion is that the Thirty Tyrants, who we will be meeting soon, were humanitarians in this one regard at least, and substituted hemlock for the plank.  But the cited speech clearly refers to executions "on the plank" after the time of the Thirty as well.  And Aristophanes in Frogs offers a despised politician hemlock, although that was together with a noose and a blade, so he may have been speaking of murder or suicide, rather than execution.  Perhaps hemlock was for citizens and the plank for slaves.  Except the same speech refers to slaves being executed "on the plank," but also to citizens.  And Aristophanes' comedy Thesmophoriazusae features a citizen sentenced to death bound to a plank until Euripides swoops in and rescues him.  Another suggestion is that hemlock was available to those who could afford it, although to judge from the amount of it the Thirty dispensed, it must have been cheap.  Or perhaps hemlock was for less serious capital crimes and the plank for worse ones.  We just don't know.

No comments:

Post a Comment