On this date in 1780, three men were executed in London — John Gamble was hanged at Bethnal-Green, Samuel Solomons in Whitechapel, and James Jackson in the Old-Bailey — for that summer’s working-class Gordon Riots.
These three all died for pulling down houses during the riots. Our focus today is on Mr. Gamble, who helped haul down the house of Justice David Wilmot, Esq.
Crying “Let’s go to Justice Wilmot’s!” rioters on the east end of London that night of June 7 headed straight for the residence of their notorious foe, a magistrate who had made himself infamous in workers’ eyes by his zeal to bring working-class economic resistance to heel.
Gamble, a hard-drinking journeyman cabinet-maker, was among the pillagers, and by dint of recognition was designated to pay the penalty for it.
“There might be a thousand” people who mobbed the Wilmot house, one witness at Gamble’s trial estimated. “When I left the place they were pulling down the house. They had thrown down part of the lead, and were throwing down the rest.”
This one was among three witnesses who testified to seeing Gamble on the scene, hauling out wood for a merry bonfire and “chuck[ing] tiles off two or three times” from the roof.
The penniless artisan defended himself as well as he could, cross-examining witnesses in an attempt to show conflicting reports of his dress that night. He himself claimed to have simply been out for a walk while drunk. Evidently it made a favorable impression on many in the courtroom.
“The prisoner being but a lodger had no friend to appear for him, nor any counsel; he was too poor,” reported the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (July 6, 1780). “It was hoped by many, as he was a very hard-working, ignorant man, that he would have been recommended to mercy, and several of the Jury were certainly for it, but others, with the Foreman, seemed to be of a different opinion.”
London authorities were all about making a point with these Gordon Riots cases, and Gamble’s execution was arranged on a “gallows at Bethnal-green … fixed immediately opposite to Justice Wilmot’s house.” That’s as per the General Evening Post, July 20, 1780 – July 22, 1780, which affords us this affecting description of the actual hanging:
the Ordinary got up into the cart, and prayed with him upwards of 20 minutes, in which he joined with the greatest devotion; he was then tied up, and his brother and another friend got up into the cart, and took an everlasting farewell, and kissing each other, they retired. Here the prisoner desired the Ordinary to pray some minutes longer with him, which he readily complied with; having finished, and gone to his coach, the executioner pulled his cap over his face, and at the request of the prisoner a handkerchief was tied over his cap. He put his hands together, and lifting them towards Heaven, cried out “Lord Jesus receive me,” when the cart drew away, and he was launched into eternity about half past eight o’clock, amidst a numerous crowd of spectators. After hanging upwards of an hour his body was cut down, and delivered for interment. The prisoner was about 36 years of age, a cabinet-maker, and has left a wife and three children. ‘Twas observed, that all the time he was under the gallows, he never but once turned his face towards Mr. Wilmot’s house. His time was taken up so much in prayer, that he made no speech to the populace of any kind.
Just as Gamble was turned off, two pick-pockets, dressed tolerably decent, were detected, and delivered over to the custody of the civil officers.
(After this ceremonial procession-to-hanging-site, the penal party returned to Newgate to repeat the same with Samuel Solomons, then returned to Newgate again to repeat it with James Jackson. Additional executions for other pullers-down of houses took place around London on both July 21 and July 22.)
While captaining a unit for Frederick, Kunz had his lands ravaged by William’s guys; eventually he even got outright captured and had to spring for a crippling 4,000-florin ransom.
The warring brothers settled things in 1451, but Kunz found to his fury that his postwar meaningful ahems around the Elector of Saxony did not meet with any compensation reciprocating the fortune ruined in the Elector’s service. (During the war Kunz had been given some captured property of one of William’s supporters, but the terms of the peace reverted everything to its original owner.)
Kunz skulked, and sued, and eventually Frederick flat-out banished him. But his grievance was never met, and in that day German nobles felt themselves entitled to force redress via feuds and private wars entirely alien to our post-Westphalian states.
Kunz’s personal contribution to the annals of noble vendetta was the Altenburg Prinzenraub — the Altenburg Prince-Robbery, which consisted of, well, robbing Frederick of his two sons Ernest** and Albert.
On the night of July 7-8, 1455, Kunz and his retainers snatched the two boys, aged 14 and 11 respectively, from Altenburg. The kidnapping went pear-shaped almost immediately: starting for Bohemia on the 8th, Kunz was captured by some concerned citizen or other, liberating Albert. Various legends make it monks, villagers, or a heroic collier.
His buddies took Ernest to an abandoned medieval mine shaft, today known as the “Prince Cave”. After holing up three days — and catching the news of Kunz’s ignominiously easy capture — this party arranged to turn Ernest back over in exchange for an amnesty, and scuttled away.
Kunz, of course, was not so lucky. A back paving-stone in Freiburg is said to mark the spot where his severed head came to rest on the 14th of July, 1455.
* Data point for the nature vs. nurture debate: the father of Frederick and William was known as Frederick the Belligerent or Frederick the Warlike.
** This is the “Ernest” referenced by the the Ernestine line — a lineage ancestor to present-day royal families of Belgium and Great Britain.
On this date in 1589, Hans Volckla of Onoltzbach, alias Hemmerlein, was beheaded by Nuremberg.
In early modern Germany’s crazy quiltwork of rivalrous fiefdoms and principalities nominally confederated in the Holy Roman Empire, the free imperial city of Nuremberg and its surrounding lands stood irritatingly athwart the non-contiguous Margravate of George Frederick — who ruled Ansback to Nuremberg’s southwest, and also Brandenburg-Bayreuth to Nuremberg’s northeast.
Local rivalries in this period could easily boil over into micro-wars, and this had happened before between Nuremberg and the Margravate. In 1502, George Frederick’s grandfather* had raided the disputed village of Affalterbach causing several hundred casualties; in 1552, that long-running dispute saw the village burned to the ground.
Tensions were running high again (or still) in the late 1580s,** and the margrave’s chief ranger did not mind making provocations out in the disputed (and unpopulated) frontiers. According to Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt, our man Hans Volckla, alias Hemmerlein, “had been so bold as to seize the snares of the fowlers” and “took wares from the pedlars.”
Moreover, he led a little gang that shot three men fatally in 1587. Nuremberg declared him an outlaw.
Nuremberg, for its part, tried to check the poaching threat through the use of informers. We know of one man in particular, one Michael, resident of the wealthy nearby town of Furth whose sovereignty was likewise the subject of regional squabbling. (The town’s emblem is still today a three-leafed clover, said to represent (pdf) the “triple government” of Nuremberg, Ansbach, and the Prince-Bishopric of Bamberg.)
Like 20% or more of Furth’s population, Michael was Jewish — but Nuremberg didn’t mind so long as he caught poachers, which he did. George Frederick did mind: he had Michael put to death in 1596, and buried under an insolent marker reading “Michael, Nuremberg Jew, Betrayer.”
But this date our concern is Hemmerlein, and it was a serious concern of Nuremberg as well: they meant to cut off the head of a man in the train of the very tetchy next lord over. Only weeks earlier, on May 28th, Nuremberg had likewise executed a man named Hans Ramsperger as a betrayer and a spy for the Margrave, but at least that man was a Nuremberger.
Schmidt remembered that in preparation for Hemmerlein’s execution “some cannon were placed on the walls, some sharpshooters posted, and precautions taken against an attack by the Margrave’s men. Orders were also given to me, Master Franz the executioner … that I should put him to death on the bridge or elsewhere in case the Margrave’s men attacked us, so that they might not find him alive.”
In the event, there was no attack and the execution went off without incident in the early morning.
On this date in 1800 — which was the same date they buried his victim — the 23-year-old student Suleiman al-Halabi was put to death in Cairo for assassinating French General Jean Baptiste Kleber.
Casualty of the brief Napoleonic adventure in Egypt, Kleber had received supreme command of the expedition when Napoleon himself returned to France the previous year — a mission which involved running the English naval blockade that trapped the Armee d’Orient.
Kleber, a product of the French Revolution’s military meritocracy who had attained his rank capably suppressing the Vendee royalists, was certainly up to the martial tasks at hand. He routed a larger Ottoman-English-Mamluk force in March of 1800, and then smashed a revolt in Cairo.
But the Napoleonic invasion often figures as a periodization marker for this region: the germ of liberalism and nationalism that would tear apart the Ottoman Empire and set the scene for a recognizably modern Middle East. So it’s somewhat fitting that Kleber would be undone by a figure who could be lifted from the evening news,* the anti-occupation insurgent.
He had been in Cairo to study, but after a return visit home was induced by the Turks to attend himself to punishing the invader instead. He then made his way back to to Egypt where, disguising himself as a beggar, where he was able to approach the general innocuously and dagger him to death.
The French, of course, had just a few years before this point introduced its most distinctive execution device in place of the ghastly old methods, and employed it with egalite for commoner and king alike. Nor was France, as an imperial power, reluctant about exporting its invention to the everycornerofearth.
But in this particular instance, the French decided to prioritize, er, cultural sensitivity.
The committee, after carrying through the trial with all due solemnity and process, thought it necessary to follow Egyptian customs in its application of punishment; it condemned the assassin to be impaled after having his right hand burned; and three of the guilty sheikhs to be beheaded and their bodies burned.
The “guilty sheikhs” in question were men to whom the killer had confided — not his plan, exactly, but the fact that he was on a jihad mission. Hey, close enough.
As for Suleiman al-Halabi himself,
The executioner Barthèlemy sat down on Suleiman’s belly, drew a knife from his pocket, and made a large incision to widen the rectum, then hammered the point of the stake into it with his mallet. Then he bound the patient’s arms and legs, raised the stake the air and mounted it in a prepared hole. Suleiman lived for four hours, and he had lived longer save that, during the absence of Barthèlemy, a soldier gave him a drink which caused his immediate death.
(Impaling victims could live for agonizing days, but the water caused Suleiman, mercifully, to quickly bleed out.)
Not content with going all Vlad the Impaler, the French then paid homage to the invasion’s scientific sub-theme** by shipping Suleiman’s remains back to France for use as an anthropological exhibit.† His skull still remains at the Musee de l’Homme to this day. What’s left in his homeland(s) is a martyr’s memory.
According to the scholar al-Jabarti, whose chronicle is one of the principal sources on this episode, the investigation indicated that Suleiman undertook his mission for no ideology save his family’s desperate need of the purse the Porte was willing to offer. But in the ensuing decades’ growth of nationalism and, eventually, anti-colonialism, the brave young Muslim dying on a spike to slay the French commander could not help but be viewed in an exalted light. (Notably, at the acme of Arab nationalism, the Egyptian writer Alfred Farag celebrated Suleiman as an avatar of resistance in a 1965 play. “I do not kill for revenge,” Farag’s Suleiman avers — and when pressed for the reason, he has a one-word reply: “Justice.”)
* Indeed, the name has been in the news: there’s a Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood in Aleppo that has seen fighting during the ongoing Syrian civil war. Since it’s even a Kurdish neighborhood one can’t but suspect that it’s named for the man featured in this post; however, I haven’t been able to establish that with certainty. If any reader knows, a comment would be most welcome.
On this date in 1902, the Jewish socialist Hirsh Lekert was hanged in Vilna (Vilnius) for his attempt on that city’s governor.
The 22-year-old shoemaker, active in the Bund since childhood, was aggrieved along with many others by repressive measures taken against that leftist council by Vilna governor Victor von Wahl — culminating with the calculated humiliation he inflicted by personally overseeing the flogging of 20 Jews and 6 Poles arrested at a May Day demonstration.
As was thestyleatthetime, Lekert took some retaliatory potshots at the municipal dictator on May 18, 1902. He scored a couple of flesh wounds before the police on hand beat him all to hell.
And that was pretty well that. Lekert got sent to face a military tribunal with a foreordained result. But he made his bones with posterity by refusing to apologize and instead fearlessly vindicating his action as a defense of the Jewish worker’s dignity.
This carried his legend in the early 20th century Jewish community much further than one might assume.
For Jewish Workers Bund, “the first great attempt at the organization of the Jewish masses for secular and independent political activity,”* Lekert’s uncompromising embrace of revolutionary violence created an internal controversy: radical workers saw a martyred hero; elites, and the Bund officially, were much more wary of terrorism provoking official backlash in an empire where Jewish communities were still liable to be targeted by pogroms at any time. All this during a renaissance of cultural and political thought among Eastern European Jewry.
Even decades later, the esteem remaining Lekert from his sacrifice gave his name power. Another generation of Jewish terrorists — in Mandate Palestine — was incensed at the British for flogging some Irgun members, leading Menachem Begin to invoke Lekert as his justification for kidnapping several British soldiers and flogging them. (Source) The British had no stomach for this, and desisted with floggings.
Artistic tributes followed as well — folk songs; plays by Arn Kushnirov and H. Leyvik; the bust that illustrates this post; a monument in Soviet Minsk; even this appearance in a 1927 silent film called His Excellency:
May 4, 1471 was the date of one of England’s most pivotal battles, Tewkesbury.
Tewkesbury was the last great victory in the War of the Roses for the House of York, and it must have seemed to contemporaries like the last victory Yorkists would ever need. The “kingmaker” Warwick was dead from a previous battle that April; the Lancastrian claimant Henry VI was imprisoned by the Yorkists, who would murder him before the month was out; and Henri’s heir apparent, the 17-year-old Prince of Wales, was put to death immediately after Tewkesbury.
Young Edward of Westminster had been stewing these past several years — until the aforementioned Kingmaker swung to his side — in exile in France, trying to finagle a way to rally the Yorkist cause. Like many a teenager he was prone to nursing bilious fantasies of revenging himself on people, as the Milanese ambassador wrote in 1467.
This boy, though only thirteen years of age, already talks of nothing but of cutting off heads* or making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle or the peaceful occupant of that throne.
“Peace” would not be the watchword of the abortive Lancastrian restoration attempt.
Shortly after returning to England, Edward had word of Warwick’s defeat. But having taken the trouble to come all this way from France, he still plowed ahead into the desperate stand at Tewkesbury. Edward had no experience at all in battlefield command.
When the Lancastrian lines broke at Tewkesbury, a disordered route fled towards nearby Tewkesbury Abbey. The nobles who reached it would hole up there claiming the privilege of sanctuary … for just two days, at which point the victorious Yorkist King Edward IV had them arrested and put to swift execution, sanctuary be damned. (The abbey had to close to re-purify.)
Prince Edward didn’t even make it that long. There are varying accounts of his death at Tewkesbury suggesting a summary execution scenario of some kind.
In one version, the Duke of Clarence overtook him in flight. Clarence having himself briefly supported the rebellion before he returned to the Yorkist side, he’s supposed to have immediately beheaded the youth in a paroxysm of demonstrative loyalty.
Prince Edward was taken as he fled towards the towne, by Sir Richard Crofts, and kept close … After the field was ended, proclamation was made, that whosoever could bring forth prince Edward alive or dead, should have an annuity of a hundred pounds during his life, and the princes life to be saved, if he were brought forth alive. Sir Richard Crofts, nothing mistrusting the kings promise, brought forth his prisoner prince Edward, being a faire and well proportioned young gentleman; whom when king Edward had well advised, he demanded of him, how he durst so presumptuously enter into his realm with banner displayed.
Whereunto the prince boldly answered, saying; “To recover my fathers kingdom and heritage, from his father and grandfather to him and from him after him to me lineally descended.” At which words king Edward said nothing, but with his hand thrust him from him, or (as some say) stroke him with his gauntlet; whom incontinently, George duke of Clarence, Richard duke of Gloucester, Thomas Grey marquess Dorset,** and William lord Hastings that stood by, suddenly murdered: for the which cruel act, the more part of the doers in their latter days drank of the like cup, by the righteous justice and due punishment of God.
Shakespeare dramatized this (considerably more dramatic — if admittedly less execution-like) version in Henry VI, Part 3.
Lancaster’s very dim (circa 1471) fortunes would ultimately be rescued in the 1480s by the grandson of a beheaded Welsh courtier — who won the throne as Henry VII and founded the Tudor dynasty.
* Edward as a seven-year-old was alleged to have been given the authority by his mother to decide what fate should befall the knights who had not successfully protected Henry VI from capture. Edward decreed their beheading.
On this date in 1975, Sisowath Sirik Matak was executed with his aides by the Khmer Rouge.
As a young royal in French-administered Cambodia, Sirik Matak had had a shot to be selected as king in 1941. Instead, that dignity went to Norodom Sihanouk — and with it, Sihanouk would later charge, Sirik Matak’s lifelong resentment.
Sihanouk the “god-king” dominated the ensuing decades of Cambodian politics, and he kept Sirik Matak well away from domestic influence throughout the 1960s by shunting him off to a series of overseas diplomatic appointments. But the arch-conservative Sirik Matak’s longtime ally Lon Nol became Prime Minister in 1969 and took Sirik Matak on as his chief aide.
Sihanouk’s complex political career had by this time seen him abdicate the kingship as well as the Prime Ministership. Now he was head of state under the title “Prince” but by the end of the Sixties his power was faltering: an alliance with China yielded little as that country navigated the turbulent Cultural Revolution, while the Vietnam War next door fed into a Cambodian Civil War, too. (Sihanouk permitted the North Vietnamese to use bases in Cambodia.)
On March 18, 1970, Lon Nol deposed Prince Sihanouk in a bloodless coup — but it was Sirik Matak who orchestrated the move. There’s even an account that says Sirik Matak forced a wavering Lon Nol at gunpoint to go through with it.
The United States strongly supported the regime change, which was not exactly a portent of its success. Prince Sihanouk might be gone, but he did not take Cambodia’s civil conflict with him; arguably, his ouster intensified it, for Sihanouk was far more popular with the peasantry than the new, Washington-backed leaders. The existing secret bombing campaign the U.S. was directing at North Vietnamese refuges in Cambodia vastly intensified, becoming a campaign against the Khmer Rouge that outlasted the Vietnam War itself. Tens of thousands of people died under those bombs, and millions more were made refugees — and the insurgency only multiplied.
The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’etat in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide … the very domino effect that the Vietnam War was supposed to prevent …
[T]he bombs drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success. Pol Pot himself described the Khmer Rouge during that period as “fewer than five thousand poorly armed guerrillas … scattered across the Cambodian landscape, uncertain about their strategy, tactics, loyalty, and leaders.”
Years after the war ended, journalist Bruce Palling asked Chhit Do, a former Khmer Rouge officer, if his forces had used the bombing as anti-American propaganda. Chhit replied:
Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched…. The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them…. Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.
Within a few years, the capital fell to the growing insurgency. The U.S. offered asylum to the leaders of Cambodia’s collapsing government; many accepted it, but many others refused. Preferring near-certain execution at the hands of the Khmer Rouge (his name was already published on the movement’s list of “seven traitors”) Sisowath Sirik Matak reproached his U.S. patrons in a letter to the American ambassador declining evacuation.
Dear Excellency and friend,
I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion.
As for you and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave us and it is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky.
But mark it well that, if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.
Please accept, E
Just days into the Khmer Rouge’s occupation of Phnom Penh, the Communists forced the French embassy to hand over Sirik Matak and a number of aides who had taken temporary refuge there. They were summarily executed (apparently by shooting) at the old Cercle Sportif swimming pool — a site that has since become the location of the new U.S. embassy.
* Taylor Owen has mapped the known U.S. bombing sorties into Cambodia; he discusses that project, and the ways the bombing impacted the Khmer Rouge, here.
On this date in 1687, the Austrian empire made the first of its many Protestant martyrs in Eperjes — the Hungarian name for the city now in Slovakia, where it is known as Prešov.
In the wake of the unsuccessful Zrinski-Frankopan Hungarian conspiracy against Hapsburg absolutism, the arch-Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Leopold did some cracking down.
Leopold suspended the Hungarian constitution and rounded up Protestant pastors, who “were not executed, but the choice of those convicted was between recantation and serving as galley slaves.” (Source)
That meant that his followers would share the downfall of that enterprise.
After the siege was thrown off, Thokoly’s rebellion was gradually quashed, culminating in a 1685 battle at Presov — one of Thokoly’s major bastions. (Hungarian link)
Thereafter, Thokoly himself would be a ward of the Ottomans, alternately a prisoner or a vassal captain in the field. (He would briefly establish himself as Prince of Transylvania with Ottoman backing in 1690.)
Pope John Paul II and Evangelical bishop Jan Midriak prayed together at a monument to the Presov martyrs in 1995.(cc) image from Jozef Kotulic.
For Presov and those misfortunate enough to be caught there, matters were worse.
From February 1687, Presov Protestants trying to raise money to re-establish war-damaged schools were accused of conspiring to rise again and subjected to a series of torture-driven show trials.
The first four of these, Sigmund Zimmermann, Caspar Rauscher, Andreas Keczer and Franz Baranyay, were beheaded and quartered on March 5, 1687. All told, some two dozen would die over the course of 1687 in this hunt, most of them on the scaffold — the Martyrs of Eperjes. (German link.)
Although it occurred some weeks before, the execution/murder of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba only became public on February 13, 1961.
A week later, on February 20, pro-Lumumba forces in Stanleyville (today, Kisangani) shot approximately 15 prisoners in retaliation. Stanleyville was the headquarters of Lumumba ally Antoine Gizenga, whose enclave the late Lumumba had been trying to reach when he was captured. In the confused post-Lumumba days, Gizenga elevated himself to head of state for the rebellious Lumumbist state; 21 Communist-backed states would recognize this as Congo’s legitimate government, in opposition to the official one of Joseph Kasavubu.
Those suffering the Lumumba-backers’ wrath this date included ten politicians — notably Alfonse Songolo, a former Lumumbist minister who had prominently broken with that faction after Lumumba was deposed the previous autumn — plus five soldiers in the anti-Lumumba force of the bright young officer and future definitive author of Congolese horrors, Joseph-Desire Mobutu.
The London Times had reported (Feb. 23-24) that “usually well-informed sources” alleged the execution, but that the U.N. was unable itself to confirm the fact independently.
Athens put all of Melos’s adult men to death, selling its women and children into slavery.
This ghastly event is covered by Thucydides‘ History. Thucydides’ account of the diplomatic negotiation between the mighty Athenians and the hopelessly outmuscled Melians is the subject of the Melian dialogue — a timeless classic of philosophy and statecraft.
The Athenians’ coldly realistic position — and their ultimate disposition of their conquest — is summed up in the wonderful epigraph, “the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.” (And numerous variations of this translation.)
As the reigning naval power, Athens (at war with a league led by its rival, the land power Sparta) had decided that an independent and neutral Melos would no longer be in the offing. The Melian dialogue pits Athens’ ultimatum to Melos to submit and save itself, against the Melians’ vain attempt to assert the justice of their cause; likewise, it is the dialogue of an imperial order against a holdover independent city-state from a fading era.
Athenians: Well, then, we Athenians will use no flue words; we will not go out of our way to prove at length that we have a right to rule, because we overthrew the Persians; or that we attack you now because we are suffering any injury at your hands. We should not convince you if we did; nor must you expect to convince us by arguing that, although a colony of the Lacedaemonians, you have taken no part in their expeditions, or that you have never done us any wrong. But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.
Melians: Well, then, since you set aside justice and invite us to speak of expediency, in our judgment it is certainly expedient that you should respect a principle which is for the common good; and that to every man when in peril a reasonable claim should be accounted a claim of right, and any plea which he is disposed to urge, even if failing of the point a little, should help his cause. Your interest in this principle is quite as great as ours, inasmuch as you, if you fall, will incur the heaviest vengeance, and will be the most terrible example to mankind.
Athenians: The fall of our empire, if it should fall, is not an event to which we look forward with dismay; for ruling states such as Lacedaemon are not cruel to their vanquished enemies. And we are fighting not so much against the Lacedaemonians, as against our own subjects who may some day rise up and overcome their former masters. But this is a danger which you may leave to us. And we will now endeavour to show that we have come in the interests of our empire, and that in what we are about to say we are only seeking the preservation of your city. For we want to make you ours with the least trouble to ourselves, and it is for the interests of us both that you should not be destroyed.
Athenians: It may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?
Athenians: To you the gain will be that by submission you will avert the worst; and we shall be all the richer for your preservation.
Melians: But must we be your enemies? Will you not receive us as friends if we are neutral and remain at peace with you?
Athenians: No, your enmity is not half so mischievous to us as your friendship; for the one is in the eyes of our subjects an argument of our power, the other of our weakness.
Over and over the Melian envoy is dismayed by his visitors’ indifference to the moral high ground. Frustrated of any concession, he resolves his embattled city to embark upon the remote hope of resistance in preference to voluntary servitude — leading the Athenians to part with this chilly sentiment:
You told us that the safety of your city would be your first care, but we remark that, in this long discussion, not a word has been uttered by you which would give a reasonable man expectation of deliverance. Your strongest grounds are hopes deferred, and what power you have is not to be compared with that which is already arrayed against you. Unless after we have withdrawn you mean to come, as even now you may, to a wiser conclusion, you are showing a great want of sense. For surely you cannot dream of flying to that false sense of honour which has been the ruin of so many when danger and dishonour were staring them in the face. Many men with their eyes still open to the consequences have found the word honour too much for them, and have suffered a mere name to lure them on, until it has drawn down upon them real and irretrievable calamities; through their own folly they have incurred a worse dishonour than fortune would have inflicted upon them. If you are wise you will not run this risk; you ought to see that there can be no disgrace in yielding to a great city which invites you to become her ally on reasonable terms, keeping your own land, and merely paying tribute; and that you will certainly gain no honour if, having to choose between two alternatives, safety and war, you obstinately prefer the worse. To maintain our rights against equals, to be politic with superiors, and to be moderate towards inferiors is the path of safety. Reflect once more when we have withdrawn, and say to yourselves over and over again that you are deliberating about your one and only country, which may be saved or may be destroyed by a single decision,
Athens wasn’t kidding.
Finding no traction with the Melian delegation, the greater power immediately besieged Melos. Thucydides recounts the Melians’ subsequent fate:
So the summer ended.
In the following winter the Lacedaemonians had intended to make an expedition into the Argive territory, but finding that the sacrifices which they offered at the frontier were unfavourable they returned home … About the same time the Melians took another part of the Athenian wall; for the fortifications were insufficiently guarded. Whereupon the Athenians sent fresh troops, under the command of Philocrates the son of Demeas. The place was now closely invested, and there was treachery among the citizens themselves. So the Melians were induced to surrender at discretion. The Athenians thereupon put to death all who were of military age, and made slaves of the women and children. They then colonised the island, sending thither 500 settlers of their own.
On top of everything else, the Athenian sack put an end to the production of Melian reliefs. (The island still had the glory of the Venus de Milo to look forward to, however.)
If there was a consolation for the scattered remains of the ruined Melian polis, it was that Athens’ cruel imperial hubris led it just months later to launch a catastrophic invasion of Sicily.
That defeat helped turn the Peloponnesian War decisively against Athens. Just eleven years after overrunning Melos, haughty Athens itself surrendered to a Spartan siege.
Thucydides, an exiled former Athenian general, deploys the classical dialogue form to great effect; his own perspective on the various arguments advanced in the Melian debate is difficult to discern with confidence. Clearly, however, it’s a topic of great interest to Thucydides, as his account dwells repeatedly on the conundrums touching justice and international relations: he’s one of the first intellectuals to explore what’s now thought of as the “realist” view of foreign policy. Compare the Melian Dialogue, for instance, to the Athenian demos‘s Mytilenian Debate; or, to the Plataean speech making a Melos-like appeal to the powerful Spartans.* And in one early passage, private Athenians appeal to Sparta and Corinth not to commence on war against the hegemony of Athens with words similar to those later used at Melos: “It has always been a rule that the weak should be subject to the strong; and besides, we consider that we are worthy of our power. Up till the present moment you, too, used to think that we were; but now, after calculating your own interest, you are beginning to talk in terms of right and wrong. Considerations of this kind have never yet turned people aside from the opportunities of aggrandizement offered by superior strength.”
At any rate, Thucydides’ proud city-empire would never recover from the inglorious fall inflicted by this war. The result was a fourth-century power vacuum which the Macedonia of Philip II and Alexander the Great eventually rose to fill.
* Thucydides also reports the Athenians hoisted by their own realpolitik when, in the Sicilian invasion, they attempt to appeal to Camarina for support. That city spurns the appeal, fearing subjugation should expansionist Athens prevail, and the revenge of their overwhelmingly powerful neighbor Syracuse otherwise.