[In Our Time] The Mytilenaean Debate

The Mytilenaean Debate

20/06/2019 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: http://podplayer.net/?id=73929491
Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/6/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p07dng1v.mp3

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss why Athenians decided to send a fast ship to Lesbos in 427BC, rowing through the night to catch one they sent the day before. That earlier ship had instructions to kill all adult men in Mytilene, after their unsuccessul revolt against Athens, as a warning to others. The later ship had orders to save them, as news of their killing would make others fight to the death rather than surrender. Thucydides retells this in his History of the Peloponnesian War as an example of Athenian democracy in action, emphasising the right of Athenians to change their minds in their own interests, even when a demagogue argued they were bound by their first decision.


Angela Hobbs
Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield

Lisa Irene Hau
Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Glasgow


Paul Cartledge
Emeritus AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture, University of Cambridge and Senior Research Fellow of Clare College

Producer: Simon Tillotson

Listen Date: 2019-09-04


  • Paul Cartledge seemed to have a very familiar voice, was he on another episode recently? Ah, yes, both Thebes and The Iliad.
  • The panelists were referring to Macchiavelli and Hobbes, but I kept thinking of Deirdre McCloskey, and how she mentioned both prudence and justice as classical virtues; and how the Diadoricus speech cunningly swaps out justice for prudence as rhetorical sleight of hand.
  • And also of all the PG Wodehouse school stories in which Thucydides plays a minor role.
  • Oh, so the demagogue of Athens who wanted to slay all the men was Cleon? I wonder if Asimov was deliberately referencing that when he named the last Galactic Emperor Cleon II.
  • Considering the focus on demagogy, this episode too feels like it was done as Trump or Brexit slytweeting.
  • Thucydides seemed to have a flair for drama, talking about how the second ship reaches right as the general is giving the order for the genocide.
  • Greek history has turned out to be another of those things where I am roughly familiar with all the events but not their sequence. Maybe I should read Thucydides himself.



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