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Persuasion and Imperial Strategy in Cleon’s Speech (Thucydides 3.36-39)

Emma N Warhover

UNC Chapel Hill

In Book 3 of Thucydides’ History, Thucydides uses Cleon’s speech in the Mytilenean debate to covertly introduce his belief that Athens’ democratic government was unable to effectively govern its empire. Cleon compares Athens’ political system with that of Mytilene, and implies that Mytilene is better organized. This characterization is shocking because Mytilene’s oligarchic government has revolted against Athenian hegemony, and even more shocking because it comes from Cleon, a leader in the Athenian democracy who is advocating that the Mytileneans be horribly punished. I argue that Thucydides shows Cleon favoring Mytilenean oligarchy in order to present his own position on Athens’ internal conflict over how to reconcile empire and democracy: if the Athenians truly desire to keep their empire in a death grip, Thucydides implies, they must acquire traits more usually associated with oligarchy.

Cleon’s hypocrisy has been recognized before, by Colin Macleod (1983), Antonis Tsakmakis (2006), and Edward Harris (2013), among others, but these earlier discussions focus on the speech’s contradictory stance on political persuasion without as much attention to its political implications. Cleon argues against political persuasion by using the tactics of political persuasion. I agree with earlier assessments that Cleon’s speech is meant to be both persuasive and disingenuous, but add that the deception displayed in the Mytilenean debate also illustrates the dilemma of a democratic and imperial Athens.

Despite his professed disdain for reasoned political discourse, Cleon expands his case against the Mytileneans with evidence that reflects the same contempt for the Athenians’ lazy thinking and ignorant acceptance of good stories that Thucydides expresses elsewhere (6.1 on the size of Sicily, 6.53-60 on the tyrannicides). For example, he accuses the Athenians of being “hearers of deeds” (ἀκροαταὶ δὲ τῶν ἔργων, 3.38.3) who do not so much participate in politics as treat it like a theatrical performance. Cleon refers to past and future events in an oblique reference to the long-term perspective that Thucydides aims to instill through the study of history. By bringing up these similar themes, Thucydides draws attention to the commonalities between Cleon’s ideas and his own arguments, so that Cleon builds a case that openly encourages Athens to revitalize its democracy while implying that Athens’ democracy is its problem. Although Cleon as a character does not seem to realize that he is undermining his own cause by emphasizing the weaknesses in Athenian democracy, Thucydides as an author points the possibility out to the reader.

Cleon’s argument against Mytilene emerges from his criticism of his overly persuasive fellow statesmen and from his assertion that the Athenians are irresponsible decision makers. When Cleon accuses his fellow Athenians of “having been persuaded by the speech of others” (λόγῳ πεισθέντες ὑπ’ αὐτῶν, 3.37.2) instead of thinking for themselves, he is building up his credibility as a plain speaker in the ekklesia, but in the larger context of Thucydides’ work he is also undermining himself. He claims that the Mytileneans should not be pitied because they planned their revolt, given that they knew they could rely on their position as an island with a strong navy (3.39.2). Athens employs a similar strategy, as behind its walls it can behave like an island. Cleon goes on to imply that the Mytileneans are more decisive than the Athenians and that their calculated betrayal may have been morally wrong but was practically advantageous for them (3.39.3-4). The rebel Mytilenean oligarchy protects its interests and pursues its policies more effectively than the Athenian democracy does.

Cleon’s speech paints the Athenians as too indecisive to maintain control over oligarchies like Mytilene. Athenians are “defeated by the pleasure of listening” (ἀκοῆς ἡδονῇ ἡσσώμενοι, 3.38.7), while their allies revolt. The Athenians’ willingness to listen (ἀκούειν) becomes in Cleon’s speech a hint that they are willing to be ruled (ὑπακούειν).

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Greek Historiography

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