If your conquerors held a sword above your neck but allowed you to give you a speech that might sway them, would you be able to convince them to save your life? This was the exact situation that the ancient Plataeans faced in 427 BCE when Sparta finally defeated them on behalf of their Theban allies. Tired and starving, two Platean man, Astymachus and Lacon, stepped up and spoke. Here is what they said, as written in The Landmark Thucydides:
In the name of the gods who once presided over our confederacy, and of our own good service in the Hellenic cause, we appeal to you to relent; to rescind the decision which we fear that the Thebans may have obtained from you; to ask back the gift that you have given them, that they disgrace not you by slaying us; to gain a pure instead of a guilty gratitude and not to gratify others to be yourselves rewarded with shame.
Our lives may be quickly taken, but it will be a heavy task to wipe away the infamy of the deed; as we are not enemies whom you might justly punish, but friends forced into taking arms against you.
To grant us our lives would be, therefore, a righteous judgment; if you consider also that we are prisoners who surrendered of their own accord, stretching out our hands for quarter, whose slaughter Hellenic law forbids, and who besides were always your benefactors.
Look at the tombs of your fathers, slain by the Persians and buried in our country, whom year by year we honored with garments and all other dues, and the first fruits of all that our land produced in their season, as friends from a friendly country and allies to our old companions in arms! Should you not decide aright, your conduct would be the very opposite to ours. Consider only:
Pausanias [Spartan general] buried them thinking that he was laying them in friendly ground and among men as friendly; but you, if you kill us and make the Plataean territory Theban, will leave your fathers and kinsmen in a hostile soil and among their murderers, deprived of the honors which they now enjoy. What is more, you will enslave the land in which the freedom of the Hellenes was won, make desolate the temples of the gods to whom they prayed before they overcame the Persians, and take away your ancestral sacrifices from those who found and instituted them.
We, as we have a right to do and as our need impels us, entreat you, calling aloud upon the gods at whose common altar all the Hellenes worship, to hear our request, to be not unmindful of the oats which your fathers swore, and which we now plead. We supplicate you by the tombs of your fathers and appeal to those that are gone to save us from falling into the hands of the Thebans and prevent the dearest friends of the Hellenes from being given up to their most detested foes. We also remind you of that day on which we did the most glorious deeds by your fathers’ sides, we who now on this day are likely to suffer the most dreadful fate.
And at the same time we Plataeans, foremost among the Hellenic patriots, and suppliants to you, beseech you not to give us up out of your hands and faith to our most hated enemies, the Thebans, but to be our saviors. Do not, while you free the rest of the Hellenes, bring us to destruction.
If you were a Spartan general, would that have moved you? Would you have spared their lives even though they have put you through a costly siege that has weakened your position against Athens, the state you fight against? Here’s what the Spartans did:
The Spartan judges decided that the question, whether they had received any service from the Plataeans in the war, was a fair one for them to put; as they had always invited them to be neutral, agreeably to the original covenant of the Pausanias after the defeat of the Persians, and hand again definitely offered them the same conditions before the blockade.
This offer having been refused, they were not, they conceived, by the loyalty of their intention released from their covenant; and having, as they considered, suffered evil at the hands of the Plataeans, they brought them in again one by one and asked each of them the same questions, that is to say, whether they had done the Spartans and allies any service in the war; and upon their saying that they had not, took them out and slew them all without exception.
The number of Plataeans thus massacred was not less than two hundred, with twenty-five Athenians who had shared in the siege. The women were taken as slaves.
The city was demolished and an inn was built on top of its grounds. The lesson in this is could be that when pleading for your life, don’t bother coming up with reasons far in the past of why you should be saved. Men with swords in their hands tend to have short memories.
Read Next: The Landmark Thucydides