Mytilene’s leaders lay chained in Athens’ prison
But Kleon told the Council, “Their deaths are not enough
If a country pardons treason then the Gods will send them traitors
Our vengeance must be written down in blood and not in bluff
I love a traitor when he’s dead and can’t rebel again
Tell the army holding Lesbos to massacre the men
So a trireme was dispatched to command the execution
But Diodotus still argued the cause for a reprieve:
“No foe will dare surrender if there is no hope of mercy,”
And while he spoke, his comrades got a trireme set to leave.
When at last the hands were shown, the decision was reversed
And the ship with their reprieve set out, one day behind the first!
So row for Lesbos, row, my heroes, row! Three hundred miles of rocky sea to go!
So bend your back till you break your heart, the ship of death had a whole day’s start
Nine thousand heads ride on your shoulders, row, my heroes, row!
Three men to an oar, that’s the way you crew a trireme
You row for one shift, rest for two, and that’s a brutal load
But two men strained at every sweep throughout that race with slaughter
While the third fed cakes and honey to his oar-mates as they rowed.
They rowed as though their task were not impossible to do:
One day to make a journey that had always taken two!
Now when good men do their utmost, their grasp can compass wonders
But miracles are for the Gods, they’re not in mortal power
Their quarry had a whole day’s lead and nearly equal oarsmen
They strove to catch that ship of death, but failed . . . by half an hour.
The order was delivered and the slaughter was prepared…
Then a ship raced into harbor crying, “Mytilene’s spared!
Now the Athens/Lesbos ferry is a roaring, fuming diesel
Its stinking smoke befouls the sky, its fuel slimes the sea
While camera-laden tourists loll to amplified bouzoukis
It thunders down the sea-roads where the triremes used to be
It rides in stench and clamor that the gods would not believe
And it’s only one hour faster than Mytilene’s reprieve!
This is the story of an event in the Peloponnesian War, as related by the historian Thucydides.
Athens regarded the Mytelene uprising as treason, punishable by execution of all adult males
and enslavement of all women and children. Cooler heads prevailed and a reprieve was issued; but in order to do any good the reprieve had to reach Lesbos *before* everyone was killed.