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Book III, chaps. liii-lix

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  • Abram Shulsky
    Book III, chaps. liii-lix Plataean speech to the Spartan judges The Plataeans, as Daniel Holmes has pointed out, appeal to the Spartan sense of honor and
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 22, 1998
      Book III, chaps. liii-lix

      Plataean speech to the Spartan judges

      The Plataeans, as Daniel Holmes has pointed out, appeal to the
      Spartan sense of honor and concern for their reputation.
      Although the Spartans had promised to punish no one against
      justice (52.2), they now appear to identify justice with their
      own advantage. As the Plataeans admonish them, "For if you shall
      decide the question of justice by such considerations as your
      immediate advantage and their [the Thebans'] hostility, you will
      show yourselves to be, not true judges of what is right, but
      rather to be mere slaves of expediency."

      The Plataeans also recount their own glorious history at the time
      of the Persian Wars (which contrasts to the Thebans' "Medizing,"
      i.e. siding with Persia) and their help to Sparta after the
      earthquake and the revolt of the Helots. (This incident was the
      cause of the first open break between Athens and Spartan
      following the Persian Wars. I.ci-cii.) The Plataeans then imply
      that their alliance with Athens occurred after these events
      (lv.i), whereas it in fact preceded them (a fact of which the
      Thebans will make use in their reply -- it enables the Thebans to
      assert that Plataea's anti-Persian stance was just another sign
      of its loyalty to Athens.)

      The Plataeans even invoke the Spartans' "ideological"
      justification for the war: "we adjure you ... not, while
      liberating the rest of the Hellenes, to bring utter destruction
      upon us." (lix.4)

      This incident reminds us of the story of the Spartan admiral
      Alcidas, who automatically put to death the prisoners he took in
      Ionia (citizens of Chios and various other cities subject to
      Athens), until some pro-Spartan Samians pointed out to him "that
      he was not going the right way to free Hellas in massacring men
      who had never raised a hance against him, and who were not
      enemies of his, but allies of Athens against their will, and that
      if he did not stop he would turn many more friends into enemies
      than enemies into friends." (III.xxxii.2) Alcidas immediately
      sees the strength of this point and changes his behavior:
      Thucydides' point seems to be that, prior to the Samians'
      remonstrance, a Spartan like Alcidas hadn't even considered
      whether killing his prisoners was expedient or not.

      The Spartan behavior here seems similar, but as the Plataeans
      suspect (and Thucydides later confirms), the Spartans actually
      have a reason for killing the Plataeans -- to please the Thebans,
      whom the Spartans saw as important allies in the war. (lviii.4)

      In any case, this story, coming right after the Mytilenean debate
      at Athens, shows the Spartans in a particularly unpleasant light.
      They promise to deal with the Plataeans according to justice
      (Paches made no such promise to the Mytileneans III.xxviii -- all
      the Mytileneans are promised is the opportunity to plead their
      case before the Athenian assembly), but it is evident that they
      have no such intention. Their initial question to the capture
      Plataeans explicitly equates justice with support for Sparta in
      the war, a totally "ideological" approach.

      By comparison with the Athenians, what is most striking is the
      absence of any Spartan deliberation about the justice or
      expediency of putting the Plataeans to death -- this would appear
      to be a matter of course for them. (This recalls Cleon's claim
      that sparing the Mytileneans is such a preposterous position that
      one could take it only if one had been bribed or if one wanted to
      "show off" by cleverly maintaining an absurdity. III.xxxviii.2-
      7 Presumably, Cleon would have been willing to have dispensed
      with the debate altogether had that been possible in Athens.)
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