Now the question is: What should the Athenians do? The Athenian assembly says, “Surrender, shmender. They’re all guilty. Let’s massacre all the men and enslave the women and children.” The next morning, they have a change of heart and debate it. One hard-line speaker says, “As a matter of justice, we need to kill all of the men because they did great harm to our city.” The next speaker says, “As a pragmatic matter, we should not kill them. If we kill all their men, then future rebels will never surrender and always fight to the death.” If you lay siege to a city, the only way to win is to starve them out, which takes a long time and is hard on you. So the higher wisdom is to spare them, not because we’re humane, but because this’ll serve our purposes later.
Thucydides is telling this story because he wants the readers to see how horrifying this is. Athens has become so brutalized by war that nobody can get up to say, “This is an atrocity! We’re good guys. We don’t do things like that!”
So that’s an example of a city that sounds a lot like King’s Landing. They resisted, and then they surrendered, and then the Athenians debated what to do before deciding for pragmatic reasons not to carry out a massacre. They still end up executing 1,000 men. It’d be nice if we knew what the population of the city was at the time, but we don’t. We figure that 1,000 men is a lot—10 percent of the adult-male population, maybe 20 percent? The bottom line is that in warfare in the ancient world, even if you surrender, your future’s not going to be a happy one.
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Kornhaber: Dany might hope that her show of force will keep the other kingdoms from resisting her now. The concept of “Don’t mess with us”—of being brutal for the sake of deterrence—did it work in the ancient world?
Strauss: Sometimes yes and sometimes no. The Athenians were unpopular, and later they suffer a big defeat in Sicily. Their enemy, the Spartans, raises the flag of rebellion and many city-states rebel against Athens. Those rebels weren’t deterred.
In the case of the Romans, who were a lot more brutal than the Athenians and were able to bring much greater military power to bear, deterrence was generally more effective. But never 100 percent. Not many states are going to wake up one morning and go, “I’m sick of Rome, let’s rebel.” But if Hannibal and the Carthaginian army show up and say, “Hey, let’s rebel against Rome,” then in spite of Rome’s reputation for brutality, there are people who do rebel.
Kornhaber: Are there cases of brutality like this backfiring on conquerers because their own people decide the ruler is unjust or insane? Dany will now be seen as a mad queen and have to worry about dissent on her own side.
Strauss: Yes. Caesar is exceptionally brutal when he conquers Gaul. He ends up bragging that he killed a million men and enslaved a million civilians. One of Caesar’s political opponents at home says that Caesar’s behavior is so immoral that he should be arrested and handed over to the Gauls so they could do with him what they want. That doesn’t happen. But many Romans are convinced by Caesar’s behavior in Gaul that he’s a tyrant. At least indirectly, it’s one of the reasons why he’s assassinated in the end.