Xenophon, Hellenika 2.3.11–56 (trans. Brownson)

Mallory Monaco Caterine
16 min readAug 17, 2017

Now at Athens the Thirty had been chosen as soon as the long walls and the walls round Piraeus were demolished; although chosen, however, for the purpose of framing a constitution under which to conduct the government, they continually delayed framing and publishing this constitution, but they appointed a Senate and the other magistrates as they saw fit. [12] Then, as a first step, they arrested and brought to trial for their lives those persons who, by common knowledge, had made a living in the time of the democracy by acting as informers and had been offensive to the aristocrats; and the Senate was glad to pronounce these people guilty, and the rest of the citizens — at least all who were conscious that they were not of the same sort themselves — were not at all displeased. [13] When, however, the Thirty began to consider how they might become free to do just as they pleased with the state, their first act was to send Aeschines and Aristoteles to Lacedaemon and persuade Lysander to help them to secure the sending of a Lacedaemonian garrison, to remain until, as they said, they could put “the scoundrels” out of the way and establish their government; and they promised to maintain this garrison at their own charges. [14] Lysander consented, and helped them to secure the dispatch of the troops and of Callibius as governor. But when they had got the garrison, they paid court to Callibius in every way, in order that he might approve of everything they did, and as he detailed guardsmen to go with them, they arrested the people whom they wished to reach, — not now “the scoundrels” and persons of little account, but from this time forth the men who, they thought, were least likely to submit to being ignored, and who, if they undertook to offer any opposition, would obtain supporters in the greatest numbers. [15]

Now in the beginning Critias and Theramenes were agreed in their policy and friendly; but when Critias showed himself eager to put many to death, because, for one thing, he had been banished by the democracy, Theramenes opposed him, saying that it was not reasonable to put a man to death because he was honoured by the commons, provided he was doing no harm to the aristocrats. “For,” said he, “you and I also have said and done many things for the sake of winning the favour of the city.” [16] Then Critias (for he still treated Theramenes as a friend) replied that it was impossible for people who wanted to gain power not to put out of the way those who were best able to thwart them. “But if,” he said, “merely because we are thirty and not one, you imagine that it is any the less necessary for us to keep a close watch over this government, just as one would if it were an absolute monarchy, you are foolish.” [17] But when, on account of the great numbers continually — and unjustly — put to death, it was evident that many were banding together and wondering what the state was coming to, Theramenes spoke again, saying that unless they admitted an adequate number of citizens into partnership with them in the management of affairs, it would be impossible for the oligarchy to endure. [18] Accordingly Critias and the rest of the Thirty, who were by this time alarmed and feared above all that the citizens would flock to the support of Theramenes, enrolled a body of three thousand, who were to share, as they said, in the government. [19] Theramenes, however, objected to this move also, saying that, in the first place, it seemed to him absurd that, when they wanted to make the best of the citizens their associates, they should limit themselves to three thousand, as though this number must somehow be good men and true and there could neither be excellent men outside this body nor rascals within it. “Besides,” he said, “we are undertaking, in my opinion, two absolutely inconsistent things, — to rig up our government on the basis of force and at the same time to make it weaker than its subjects.” [20]

This was what Theramenes said. As for the Thirty, they held a review, the Three Thousand assembling in the market-place and those who were not on “the roll” in various places here and there; then they gave the order to pile arms, and while the men were off duty and away, they sent their Lacedaemonian guardsmen and such citizens as were in sympathy with them, seized the arms of all except the Three Thousand, carried them up to the Acropolis, and deposited them in the temple. [21] And now, when this had been accomplished, thinking that they were at length free to do whatever they pleased, they put many people to death out of personal enmity, and many also for the sake of securing their property. One measure that they resolved upon, in order to get money to pay their guardsmen, was that each of their number should seize one of the aliens residing in the city, and that they should put these men to death and confiscate their property. [22] So they bade Theramenes also to seize anyone he pleased; and he replied: “But it is not honourable, as it seems to me,” he said, “for people who style themselves the best citizens to commit acts of greater injustice than the informers used to do. For they allowed those from whom they got money, to live; but shall we, in order to get money, put to death men who are guilty of no wrong-doing? Are not such acts altogether more unjust than theirs were?” [23] Then the Thirty, thinking that Theramenes was an obstacle to their doing whatever they pleased, plotted against him, and kept accusing him to individual senators, one to one man and another to another, of injuring the government. And after passing the word to some young men, who seemed to them most audacious, to be in attendance with daggers hidden under their arms, they convened the Senate. [24] Then when Theramenes arrived, Critias arose and spoke as follows:

“Gentlemen of the Senate, if anyone among you thinks that more people than is fitting are being put to death, let him reflect that where governments are changed these things always take place; and it is inevitable that those who are changing the government here to an oligarchy should have most numerous enemies, both because the state is the most populous of the Greek states and because the commons have been bred up in a condition of freedom for the longest time. [25] Now we, believing that for men like ourselves and you democracy is a grievous form of government, and convinced that the commons would never become friendly to the Lacedaemonians, our preservers, while the aristocrats would continue ever faithful to them, for these reasons are establishing, with the approval of the Lacedaemonians, the present form of government. [26] And if we find anyone opposed to the oligarchy, so far as we have the power we put him out of the way; but in particular we consider it to be right that, if any one of our own number is harming this order of things, he should be punished. [27]

“Now in fact we find this man Theramenes trying, by what means he can, to destroy both ourselves and you. As proof that this is true you will discover, if you consider the matter, that no one finds more fault with the present proceedings than Theramenes here, or offers more opposition when we wish to put some demagogue out of the way. Now if he had held these views from the beginning, he was, to be sure, an enemy, but nevertheless he would not justly be deemed a scoundrel. [28] In fact, however, he was the very man who took the initiative in the policy of establishing a cordial understanding with the Lacedaemonians; he was the very man who began the overthrow of the democracy, and who urged you most to inflict punishment upon those who were first brought before you for trial; but now, when you and we have manifestly become hateful to the democrats, he no longer approves of what is going on, — just so that he may get on the safe side again, and that we may be punished for what has been done. [29] Therefore he ought to be punished, not merely as an enemy, but also as a traitor both to you and to ourselves. And treason is a far more dreadful thing than war, inasmuch as it is harder to take precaution against the hidden than against the open danger, and a far more hateful thing, inasmuch as men make peace with enemies and become their trustful friends again, but if they catch a man playing the traitor, they never in any case make peace with that man or trust him thereafter. [30]

“Now to let you know that this man’s present doings are nothing new, but that he is, rather, a traitor by nature, I will recall to you his past deeds. This man in the beginning, although he had received honours at the hands of the democracy, was extremely eager, like his father Hagnon, to change the democracy into the oligarchy of the Four Hundred, and he was a leader in that government. When, however, he perceived that some opposition to the oligarchy was gathering, he look the lead again — as champion of the democrats against the oligarchs! That is the reason, you know, why he is nicknamed `Buskin’: [31] for as the buskin seems to fit both feet, so he faces both ways. But, Theramenes, the man who deserves to live ought not to be clever at leading his comrades into dangerous undertakings and then, if any hindrance offers itself, to turn around on the instant, but he ought, as one on shipboard, to hold to his task until they come into a fair breeze. Otherwise, how in the world would sailors reach the port for which they are bound, if they should sail in the opposite direction the moment any hindrance offered itself? [32] It is true, of course, that all sorts of changes in government are attended by loss of life, but you, thanks to your changing sides so easily, share the responsibility, not merely for the slaughter of a large number of oligarchs by the commons, but also for the slaughter of a large number of democrats by the aristocracy. And this Theramenes, you remember, was the man who, although detailed by the generals to pick up the Athenians whose ships were disabled in the battle off Lesbos, failed to do so, and nevertheless was the very one who accused the generals and brought about their death in order that he might save his own life! [33]

“Now when a man clearly shows that he is always looking out for his own advantage and taking no thought for honour or his friends, how in the world can it be right to spare him? Ought we not surely, knowing of his previous changes, to take care that he shall not be able to do the same thing to us also? We therefore arraign him on the charge of plotting against and betraying both ourselves and you. And in proof that what we are thus doing is proper, consider this fact also. [34] The constitution of the Lacedaemonians is, we know, deemed the best of all constitutions. Now in Lacedaemon if one of the ephors should undertake to find fault with the government and to oppose what was being done instead of yielding to the majority, do you not suppose that he would be regarded, not only by the ephors themselves but also by all the rest of the state, as having merited the severest punishment? Even so you, if you are wise, will not spare this Theramenes, but rather yourselves; for to leave him alive would cause many of those who hold opposite views to yours to cherish high thoughts, while to destroy him would cut off the hopes of them all, both within and without the city.” [35]

When Critias had so spoken, he sat down; and Theramenes rose and said: “I will mention first, gentlemen, the last thing Critias said against me. He says that I brought about the death of the generals by my accusation. But it was not I, as you know, who began the matter by accusing them; on the contrary, it was they who accused me, by stating that although that duty was assigned me by them, I failed to pick up the unfortunates in the battle off Lesbos. I said in my defence that on account of the storm it was not possible even to sail, much less to pick up the men, and it was decided by the state that my plea was a reasonable one, while the generals were clearly accusing themselves. For though they said it was possible to save the men, they nevertheless sailed away and left them to perish. [36] I do not wonder, however, that Critias has misunderstood the matter; for when these events took place, it chanced that he was not here; he was establishing a democracy in Thessaly along with Prometheus, and arming the serfs against their masters. [37] God forbid that any of the things which he was doing there should come to pass here.

“I quite agree with him, however, on this point, that if anyone is desirous of deposing you from your office and is making strong those who are plotting against you, it is just for him to incur the severest punishment. But I think you can best judge who it is that is doing this, if you will consider the course which each of us two has taken and is now taking. [38] Well then, up to the time when you became members of the Senate and magistrates were appointed and the notorious informers were brought to trial, all of us held the same views; but when these Thirty began to arrest men of worth and standing, then I, on my side, began to hold views opposed to theirs. [39] For when Leon the Salaminian was put to death, — a man of capacity, both actually and by repute, — although he was not guilty of a single act of wrong-doing, I knew that those who were like him would be fearful, and, being fearful, would be enemies of this government. I also knew, when Niceratus, the son of Nicias, was arrested, — a man of wealth who, like his father, had never done anything to curry popular favour, — that those who were like him would become hostile to us. [40] And further, when Antiphon, who during the war supplied from his own means two fast-sailing triremes, was put to death by us, I knew that all those who had been zealous in16 the state’s cause would look upon us with suspicion. I objected, also, when they said that each of us must seize one of the resident aliens; for it was entirely clear that if these men were put to death, the whole body of such aliens would become enemies of the government. [41] I objected likewise when they took away from the people their arms, because I thought that we ought not to make the state weak; for I saw that, in preserving us, the purpose of the Lacedaemonians had not been that we might become few in number and unable to do them any service; for if this had been what they desired, it was within their power, by keeping up the pressure of famine a little while longer, to leave not a single man alive. [42] Again, the hiring of guardsmen did not please me, for we might have enlisted in our service an equal number of our own citizens, until we, the rulers, should easily have made ourselves masters of our subjects. And further, when I saw that many in the city were becoming hostile to this government and that many were becoming exiles, it did not seem to me best to banish either Thrasybulus or Anytus or Alcibiades; for I knew that by such measures the opposition would be made strong, if once the commons should acquire capable leaders and if those who wished to be leaders should find a multitude of supporters. [43]

“Now would the man who offers openly this sort of admonition be fairly regarded as a well-wisher, or as a traitor? It is not, Critias, the men who prevent one’s making enemies in abundance nor the men who teach one how to gain allies in the greatest numbers, — it is not these, I say, who make one’s enemies strong; but it is much rather those who unjustly rob others of property and put to death people who are guilty of no wrong, who, I say, make their opponents numerous and betray not only their friends but also themselves, and all to satisfy their covetousness. [44] And if it is not evident in any other way that what I say is true, look at the matter in this way: do you suppose that Thrasybulus and Anytus and the other exiles would prefer to have us follow here the policy which I am urging by word, or the policy which these men are carrying out in deed? For my part, I fancy that now they believe every spot is full of allies, while if the best element in the state were friendly to us, they would count it difficult even to set foot anywhere in the land! [45] Again, as to his statement that I have a propensity to be always changing sides, consider these facts also: it was the people itself, as everybody knows, which voted for the government of the Four Hundred, being advised that the Lacedaemonians would trust any form of government sooner than a democracy. [46] But when the Lacedaemonians did not in the least relax their efforts in prosecuting the war, and Aristoteles, Melanthius, Aristarchus, and their fellow-generals were found to be building a fort on the peninsula, into which they proposed to admit the enemy and so bring the state under the control of themselves and their oligarchical associates, — if I perceived this plan and thwarted it, is that being a traitor to one’s friends? [47]

“He dubs me `Buskin,’ because, as he says, I try to fit both parties. But for the man who pleases neither party, — what in the name of the gods should we call him? For you in the days of the democracy were regarded as the bitterest of all haters of the commons, and under the aristocracy you have shown yourself the bitterest of all haters of the better classes. [48] But I, Critias, am forever at war with the men who do not think there could be a good democracy until the slaves and those who would sell the state for lack of a shilling should share in the government, and on the other hand I am forever an enemy to those who do not think that a good oligarchy could be established until they should bring the state to the point of being ruled absolutely by a few. But to direct the government in company with those who have the means to be of service, whether with horses or with shields, — this plan I regarded as best in former days and I do not change my opinion now. [49] And if you can mention any instance, Critias, where I joined hands with demagogues or despots and undertook to deprive men of standing of their citizenship, then speak. For if I am found guilty either of doing this thing now or of ever having done it in the past, I admit that I should justly suffer the very uttermost of all penalties and be put to death.” [50]

When with these words he ceased speaking and the Senate had shown its good will by applause, Critias, realizing that if he should allow the Senate to pass judgment on the case, Theramenes would escape, and thinking that this would be unendurable, went and held a brief consultation with the Thirty, and then went out and ordered the men with the daggers to take their stand at the railing in plain sight of the Senate. [51] Then he came in again and said: “Senators, I deem it the duty of a leader who is what he ought to be, in case he sees that his friends are being deceived, not to permit it. I, therefore, shall follow that course. Besides, these men who have taken their stand here say that if we propose to let a man go who is manifestly injuring the oligarchy, they will not suffer us to do so. Now it is provided in the new laws that while no one of those who are on the roll of the Three Thousand may be put to death without your vote, the Thirty shall have power of life or death over those outside the roll. I, therefore,” he said, “strike off this man Theramenes from the roll, with the approval of all the Thirty. That being done,” he added, “we now condemn him to death.” [52]

When Theramenes heard this, he sprang to the altar and said: “And I, sirs,” said he, “beg only bare justice, — that it be not within the power of Critias to strike off either me or whomsoever of you he may wish, but rather that both in your case and in mine the judgment may be rendered strictly in accordance with that law which these men have made regarding those on the roll. [53] To be sure,” said he, “I know, I swear by the gods, only too well, that this altar will avail me nothing, but I wish to show that these Thirty are not only most unjust toward men, but also most impious toward the gods. But I am surprised at you,” he said, “gentlemen of the aristocracy, that you are not going to defend your own rights, especially when you know that my name is not a whit easier to strike off than the name of each of you.” [54] At this moment the herald of the Thirty ordered the Eleven to seize Theramenes; and when they came in, attended by their servants and with Satyrus, the most audacious and shameless of them, at their head, Critias said: “We hand over to you,” said he, “this man Theramenes, condemned according to the law. Do you, the Eleven, take him and lead him to the proper place and do that which follows.” [55]

When Critias had spoken these words, Satyrus dragged Theramenes away from the altar, and his servants lent their aid. And Theramenes, as was natural, called upon gods and men to witness what was going on. But the senators kept quiet, seeing that the men at the rail were of the same sort as Satyrus and that the space in front of the senate-house was filled with the guardsmen, and being well aware that the former had come armed with daggers. [56] So they led the man away through the market-place, while he proclaimed in a very loud voice the wrongs he was suffering. One saying of his that is reported was this: when Satyrus told him that if he did not keep quiet, he would suffer for it, he asked: “Then if I do keep quiet, shall I not suffer?” And when, being compelled to die, he had drunk the hemlock, they said that he threw out the last drops, like a man playing kottabos, and exclaimed: “Here’s to the health of my beloved Critias.” Now I am not unaware of this, that these are not sayings worthy of record; still, I deem it admirable in the man that when death was close at hand, neither self-possession nor the spirit of playfulness departed from his soul.