Tuesday, 19 January 2021

The remarkable Salaethus and the siege of Mytilene

I mentioned in a previous post how, three years into the Peloponnesian war (i.e. in 428 BC), taking advantage of Athenian setbacks – plague, the death of Pericles, diminishing resources – the oligarchic regime in Mytilene saw an opportunity to fulfill its long-held aims of expanding its authority over the whole of Lesvos and removing the island from the Athenian empire.

In this revolt, Sparta, inevitably, offered backing and encouragement, while the Mytileneans promised that a united Lesvos under their hegemony would attach itself to the Peloponnesian alliance.

Outraged by Mytilenean duplicity and impudence, and defying the repeated blows it had recently endured, the Athenians summoned all their fiscal and materiel resources to despatch a task force to put down the Mytilene rebellion. After skirmishing and an inconclusive battle, the Mytileneans retreated behind their city walls and prepared to hold out against Athens until Spartan relief arrived.

JE Lendon, in his Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian war begins, describes the increasing desperation of the Mytileneans after six months of siege:
‘A winter’s day in embattled Mytilene. The hungry guards looked out from the walls at the Athenian stockade surrounding the city; the cold Athenians on the stockade gazed resentfully at the city walls topped with cozy towers. All the long winter, Mytilene has been blockaded by darting ships upon the deep and by soldiers from the landward side: food was running short, and once again there was talk of begging Athens for terms. But suddenly a knock on a postern or a low cry from no-man’s land revealed the impossible: someone wanted to get into the city.

‘Opening a gate in the city wall, the astonished guards admitted a drenched figure whose long hair and red cloak – and no doubt his chilly equanimity at having crept through the Athenian lines – revealed him as a Spartan. Salaethus was his name, and in a trireme he had crossed the stormful February Aegean to land at one of Mytilene’s small allies on Lesvos; then on foot to Mytilene he had come, slipping under the Athenian fortifications by crawling up the bed of a torrent. Now, having rattled the ice out of his beard, he spoke his message to the besieged. The Peloponnesians were coming!’
Despite the heroic Salaethus’ confidence, the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies, encumbered by hesitation and misjudgment, did not come and the demoralised Mytileneans were soon compelled to surrender their city to Athens. Then there follows one of the most celebrated episodes in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war, in which the Athenian assembly debates what punishment to mete out to defeated Mytilene.

Mytilenean ambassadors pled their city’s case, only for the appalling (to Thucydides) Cleon to demand that Mytilene be made an example of to deter any other potential defectors from the Athenian empire. And, indeed, his proposal for the wholesale destruction of Mytilene, the slaughter of its male population and the selling into slavery of the city’s women and children, is passed and a ship with the grim order is despatched to the Athenian garrison stationed on the island.

However, the following day, having reflected on the harsh punishment they had decided to inflict on the Mytileneans, the Athenians conduct a new debate and vote, which rescinds the original order in favour of a more moderate one, targetting only the rebellion’s ringleaders.

Now, in a race against time, to prevent the first order from being carried out, a second ship is sent to Lesvos. It arrives in the nick of time, just as the Athenian commander Paches is preparing Mytilene’s annihilation.

As for the remarkable Salaethus, having failed to convince the Mytileneans to attempt a break out rather than surrender and having escaped from Mytilene before the Athenians entered the city, finding sanctuary in an allied town on Lesvos, he is eventually captured, sent to Athens and executed, along with 1,000 Mytileneans, supporters of the rebellion.

For more discussion on issues emanating from JE Lendon’s Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian war begins, see here.