In the aftermath of the onset of BRAGNARÖK, a number of people have been talking somewhat wistfully of the Mytilene Debate in Thucydides (3.36-48), when the Athenians changed their minds about massacring the entire population of a rebellious allied city. I think the first reference I saw to Mytilene on Twitter was from Angie Hobbs (@drangiehobbs) on 25th June (given how rapidly events are developing at the moment, I think it’s important to keep the chronology clear…), offering it as an exemplum rather than an analogy, but in recent days there’s been a blog post by Caitlin Harris, an MA student at Swansea (https://projects.swan.ac.uk/ancient-world/?p=386), arguing that it would be fundamentally undemocratic to deny people the right to vote again with a different perspective; a letter in the Grauniad from one Shoshana Goldhill in Cambridge (now there’s a famous classical surname…) arguing that it shows the ability for democracy to self-correct its own excesses; and an article in the Frankfürter Allgemeine Zeitung from Uwe Walter (Professor of Ancient History at Bielefeld, for anyone who doesn’t know his work), ‘Man müsste bloß wieder zurückrudern’, drawing on the work of Egon Flaig to explore in detail the circumstances of the second Mytilene debate and concluding by wondering whether the fateful Article 50 trireme that’s been dispatched will be over-hauled by a new Parliament, a courageous government or the obdurate Scots.
As with many historical analogies (see Donna Zuckerberg’s excellent recent piece on in Eidolon, ‘Make Comparisons Great Again’, on classical readings of Trump), such references are alluring (“I’ve got an analogy! Classics is relevant!”) and sometimes comforting (certainly in the case of Mytilene; less so with Trump, except insofar as they offer reassurance that Classics is relevant), but they are at best often under-analysed (Walter’s substantial article is clearly an exception), and sometimes little more than partisan rhetoric. They are predicated on the assumption that the Leave vote was a mistake (I wholeheartedly agree, but not on the basis of an analogy with ancient Greece), and that this is sufficiently obvious to all that the decision needs to be reconsidered; Mytilene shows, they argue, that democracies can and should change their minds, without any fear that this would somehow be undemocratic. Leaving aside the obvious problem that the Athenians were voting to devastate another city rather than themselves (except insofar as Mytilene threatened to be another example of the hubris that would eventually bring nemesis down upon them) whereas Britain threatens other states only as an accidental by-product of its own self-mutilation, most of these references fall into the familiar trap of assuming that Athenian democracy was basically more or less the same thing as ours.
Put like that (with echoes of Paul Cartledge’s recent arguments on this theme), it’s obvious – and I’m sure all the people referencing Mytilene would immediately respond “yes, of course we know that”. But once you recognise this, what does the Mytilene episode actually have to offer us in the present situation? Other than the wish to erase and rewind, it simply isn’t a very good analogy. Firstly, the Athenians had this sort of decisive, winner-takes-all popular vote all the time, as Mary Beard has recently observed. How far they were any good at them is another question (see Thucydides passim), but they went into such a decision with their eyes open about the possible consequences, including for themselves and their families (and, it’s fair to say, the possible consequences were substantially easier to grasp in a vastly simpler world). We are acculturated to a political system which (as Cartledge argues) the Athenians would have regarded as basically oligarchic, and all our institutions, political culture and instincts are orientated towards this – and, while the events of the last week constitute a thorough indictment of the quality, integrity, competence and decision-making capabilities of those oligarchs, let alone their motives, it isn’t obvious that more popular referendums would be any sort of improvement.
Secondly – and arguably as a consequence of the centrality of such popular votes in the Athenian system – the Athenians regularly changed their minds, or at least considered changing them, without worrying about whether this was somehow undemocratic. Mytilene is just one example; worth recalling that the debate about the Sicilian Expedition in Thucydides’ account was in a sense the second, as Nicias seized the opportunity in a debate about the practical aspects of an invasion that had already been agreed to reopen the whole question of whether this was a terribly good idea – yes, figures like Cleon and Alcibiades could always argue that the will of the people had already been expressed, as a means of trying to shore up their core support, but there was no suggestion that a second vote should not be held. But this doesn’t help us, precisely because such popular votes are not normal for us, hence no pre-existing institutions or practices to help make sense of them or manage their consequences, hence unmistakable tendency to fetishise the result as the True and Irrevocable Voice of the People. In a sense, the Athenians knew full well that the People changed their mind regularly (Cleon points this out in his Mytilene Debate speech precisely as a means of trying to shame them into sticking to their guns), whereas, because normally our People gets to speak every five years, it is easier (and for many, much more convenient) to believe that its views are constant and must be respected regardless of any other circumstances.
Uwe Walter identifies this contrast in a slightly different sense: the Referendum result is to be celebrated and cherished by historians as ‘heroic’ (a ‘magisch-irritierende Moment’), since it offered at least the brief illusion of a decisive historical shift and a new beginning, precisely because it appears both unequivocal and irrevocable, unlike the election results that are always complex and nuanced, and can always be reversed in the next election. There seems to be a nostalgia here for simpler, more exciting times, when political history was a matter of individual actions and decisions having immediate effect, in contrast to the sluggish and impersonal complexity of the present, which I wouldn’t sign up to for a moment – but it does make the point that our politics is not like that. We don’t make decisions like this; and when we try to, it puts the world out of kilter.
In other words, the majority of these Mytilene analogies are founded on wishful/wistful thinking, a longing for the world to be different: for a world where heroic individuals and their actions still count, or for a world where the mechanisms exist to reverse an undesired event without any fuss (“Activate the Omega 13!”). Frankly, if we’re going to wish for anything, it should be the graphe paranomon, the Athenian legal procedure brought against someone for introducing a proposal contrary to the existing laws, which effectively offered an opportunity to review and even rescind decisions make by the assembly (and to suspend them while the matter was resolved), and to punish the perpetrator if found guilty. Gove, Johnson, Leadsom, Farage, Stuart, Hoey, Dacre, Murdoch et al, you have lied to the people and corrupted the laws of the state, and we’re coming to get you.
And a pony. We don’t live in this world, we live in a very different world where the normal rules of politics have been set aside – but superficial analogies with ancient Athens are not any sort of substitute or solution for our familiar practices, however broken and inadequate, especially if their starting assumption is to make the world simpler than it really is. Thucydides’ account of Mytilene is not a lesson in what is actually possible, except in the most trivial sense; it’s a case study in political rhetoric and manipulation, that we’ve missed the chance to learn from this time around but desperately need for the future.
[edited 11:53 2/7/16 to clarify that Angie Hobbs’ tweet offered Mytilene as an exemplum rather than an analogy, and 15:05 4/7/16]