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THE SENTENCE OF DEATH
 IN the fourth year of the Peloponnesian War the city of
Mytilene threw off the yoke of Athens. Mytilene was
the capital of Lesbos, an island near the coast of
Asia. The city had belonged to the Delian league, and
when the league became the empire of Athens, the city
remained faithful to the empire. But as time passed
the Mytileneans became afraid lest Athens should treat
them as she had treated the Samians, and should make
them subjects instead of allies.
While Athens was at war with Sparta she would have
little time, thought the Mytileneans, to trouble about
their small island, so they revolted and asked the
Spartans to support them, if that should be necessary.
The Spartans promised to help the Mytileneans if the
Athenians should punish their disloyalty, but, as so
often happened, they did not attempt to keep their
promise until it was too late.
Athens was angry when she heard of the revolt at
Mytilene. Although she could ill spare the men, she
sent an army under a general named Paches to blockade
the town by sea and by land and so to starve her into
submission. At all costs Mytilene must not fall into
the hands of Sparta.
Before long, so strict was the blockade, food began to
run short in the hapless island, and the Spartans
failed to send the help they had promised.
But when the citizens were desperate with hunger, a
messenger from Sparta reached the town. He had passed
 the Athenian army unnoticed and had entered Mytilene,
to the delight of the starving people. When he assured
them that ships laden with corn were on the way and
would reach them soon, their joy was unbounded.
Day after day, week after week passed, but the Spartan
ships did not come, and hope began to die out of the
hearts of the Mytileneans. It was plain that they must
either surrender or starve to death; so they determined
They sent for Paches, and agreed to give up the city,
and to leave their fate to be decided by the Athenian
assembly. In the meantime about one thousand of the
inhabitants were sent as prisoners to Athens.
The Athenians had been bitterly angry with the
Mytileneans for revolting when their hands were already
full with war at home and with the misery caused by the
plague. They were in no mood now to deal mercifully
Cleon, a leather-merchant, who by his own efforts had
risen to a high position in the State, roused the
temper of the people by his rough and noisy eloquence,
and Pericles was no longer alive to restrain it, as he
had so often done, by his wiser, calmer speech.
When the assembly met, it was Cleon who proposed that
all those able to bear arms should be put to death, and
that the women and children should be sold as slaves.
In its angry mood the assembly voted as Cleon wished.
No sooner was the sentence of death passed, than a ship
was dispatched to the island to bid Paches, the
Athenian general, carry out the terrible decision of
But a little later, when the assembly broke up and
escaped from the influence of Cleon's eloquence, the
members began to be ashamed of their cold-blooded
Ambassadors from Mytilene had come to Athens to plead
the cause of their people. When they saw that the
Athenians were uneasy, they persuaded them to call
another meeting of
 the assembly the following morning, to reconsider the
sentence that they had passed.
Cleon had felt no regret at the fate of the rebels, and
he was indignant that the assembly should dream of
revoking its decree. When it met on the following day
he spoke even more vehemently than before, urging the
members to see that the sentence was carried out.
But Diodotus, a noble Athenian, whose name has never
been forgotten, spoke as well as Cleon. So wise were
his words that those who had already wished to alter
the sentence for pity's sake, were now sure that wisdom
also demanded that the Mytileneans should be spared.
Diodotus won the day, for Cleon was defeated by a small
No sooner was the sentence revoked than in hot haste a
ship was manned, and the crew was bidden to do its
utmost to overtake the vessel which was carrying the
sentence of doom to Mytilene. Already it was
twenty-four hours since the ship had left Athens. Was
it possible to carry the good news in time?
The ambassadors promised large rewards to the oarsmen
if they reached the city before the terrible sentence
had been carried out. In their anxiety they provided
barley, wine, oil for the crew.
There was no lack of zeal on the part of the sailors.
They rowed with all their strength, taking but scant
rest, and eating the barley, which had been soaked in
wine and oil and made into cakes, as they sat at their
oars. They knew that on their speed depended the life
or death of thousands.
Swifter and swifter flashed the oars of the second
ship. In the first vessel the sailors pulled slowly,
for they were in no haste to deliver the dread tidings
which they carried. And it was well that they had no
heart for their task, for with every muscle strained to
the utmost the crew of the second boat reached Mytilene
only just in time.
The death sentence had already reached Paches, and he
 was preparing to carry it out, when with a glad,
triumphant shout the second boat swung into the
harbour, and the Mytileneans were saved.
But even so they paid heavily for their rebellion, for
about thirty of their leading citizens were executed,
their fleet was taken by the Athenians, and the walls
of their city were destroyed.