The most important event in the fourth year of the war (B.C. 428) was the revolt of Mytilene; the capital of Lesbos, and of the greater part of that island. The Athenians sent out a fleet which blockaded Mytilene both by sea and land, The Peloponnesians promised their assistance; but from various causes their fleet was unable to reach the place. Meanwhile the provisions of the town were exhausted, and it was therefore resolved, as a last desperate expedient, to make a sally, and endeavour to raise the blockade. With this view even the men of the lower classes were armed with the full armour of the hoplites. But this step produced a very different result from what had been expected or intended. The great mass of the Mytileneans regarded their own oligarchical government with suspicion and now threatened that, unless their demands were complied with, they would surrender the city to the Athenians. In this desperate emergency the Mytilenean government perceived that their only chance of safety lay in anticipating the people in this step. They accordingly opened a negotiation with Paches, the Athenian commander, and a capitulation was agreed upon by which the city was to be surrendered and the fate of its inhabitants to be decided by the Athenian Assembly.
At Athens the disposal of the prisoners caused great debate. It was on this occasion that the leather-seller Cleon first comes prominently forward in Athenian affairs. If we may trust the picture drawn by the comic poet Aristophanes, Cleon was a perfect model of a low-born demagogue; a noisy brawler, insolent in his gestures, corrupt and venal in his principles. Much allowance must no doubt be made for comic licence and exaggeration in this portrait, but even a caricature must have some grounds of truth for its basis. It was this man who took the lead in the debate respecting the disposal of the Mytileneans, and made the savage and horrible proposal to put to death the whole male population of Mytilene of military age, and to sell the women and children into slavery. This motion he succeeded in carrying and a trireme was immediately despatched to Mytilene, conveying orders to Paches to carry the bloody decree into execution. This barbarous decree made no discrimination between the innocent and the guilty; and on the morrow so general a feeling prevailed of the horrible injustice that had been committed, that the magistrates acceded to the prayer of the Mytilenean envoys and called a fresh assembly. Notwithstanding the violent opposition of Creon, the majority of the assembly reversed their former decree and resolved that the Mytileneans already in custody should be put upon their trial, but that the remainder of the population should be spared. A second trireme was immediately despatched to Mytilene, with orders to Paches to arrest the execution. The utmost diligence was needful. The former trireme had a start of four-and-twenty hours, and nothing but exertions almost superhuman would enable the second to reach Mytilene early enough to avert the tragical catastrophe, The oarsmen were allowed by turns only short intervals of rest, and took their food, consisting of barley-meal steeped in wine and oil, as they sat at the oar. Happily the weather proved favourable; and the crew, who had been promised large rewards in case they arrived in time, exerted themselves to deliver the reprieve, whilst the crew of the preceding vessel had conveyed the order for execution with slowness and reluctance. Yet even so the countermand came only just in time. The mandate was already in the hands of Paches, who was taking measures for its execution. The fortifications of Mytilene were razed, and her fleet delivered up to the Athenians.
The fate of the Plataeans and Mytileneans affords a fearful illustration of the manners of the age; but these horrors soon found a parallel in Corcyra. A fearful struggle took place in this island between the aristocratical and democratical parties. The people at length obtained the mastery, and the vengeance which they took on their opponents was fearful. The most sacred sanctuaries afforded no protection; the nearest ties of blood and kindred were sacrificed to civil hatred. In one case a father slew even his own son. These scenes of horror lasted for seven days, during which death in every conceivable form was busily at work.
The seventh year of the war (B.C. 425) was marked by an important event. An Athenian fleet was detained by bad weather at Pylus in Messenia, on the modern bay of Navarino. Demosthenes, an active Athenian officer, who was on board the fleet, thought it an eligible spot on which to establish some of the Messenians from Naupactus, since it was a strong position, from which they might annoy the Lacedaemonians, and excite revolt among their Helot kinsmen. As the bad weather continued for some time, the soldiers on board amused themselves, under the directions of Demosthenes, in constructing a sort of rude fortification. The nature of the ground was favourable for the work, and in five or six days a wall was throws up sufficient for the purposes of defence. Demosthenes undertook to garrison the place; and five ships and 200 hoplites were left behind with him.
This insult to the Lacedaemonian territory caused great alarm and indignation at Sparta. The Peloponnesian fleet was ordered to Pylus; and the Lacedaemonian commander, on arriving with the fleet, immediately occupied the small uninhabited and densely wooded island of Sphacteria, which, with the exception of two narrow channels on the north and south, almost blocked up the entrance of the bay. Between the island and the mainland was a spacious basin, in which the fleet took up its station. The Lacedaemonians lost no time in attacking the fortress; but notwithstanding their repeated attempts they were unable to effect a landing.
Whilst they were preparing for another assault, they were surprised by the appearance of the Athenian fleet. They had strangely neglected to secure the entrances into the bay: and, when the Athenian ships came sailing through both the undefended channels, many of their triremes were still moored, and part of their crews ashore. The battle which ensued was desperate. Both sides fought with extraordinary valour; but victory at length declared for the Athenians. Five Peloponnesian ships were captured; the rest were saved only by running them ashore, where they were protected by the Lacedaemonian army.
The Athenians, thus masters of the sea, were enabled to blockade the island of Sphacteria, in which the flower of the Lacedaemonian army was shut up, many of them native Spartans of the highest families. In so grave an emergency messengers were sent to Sparta for advice. The Ephors themselves immediately repaired to the spot; and so desponding was their view of the matter, that they saw no issue from it but a peace. They therefore proposed and obtained an armistice for the purpose of opening negotiations at Athens. But the Athenians, at the instigation of Cleon, insisted upon the most extravagant demands, and hostilities were accordingly resumed. They were not however attended with any decisive result. The blockade of Sphacteria began to grow tedious and harassing. The force upon it continually received supplies of provisions either from swimmers, who towed skins filled with linseed and poppy-seed mixed with honey, or from Helots, who, induced by the promise of large rewards, eluded the blockading squadron during dark and stormy nights, and landed cargoes on the back of the island. The summer, moreover, was fast wearing away, and the storms of winter might probably necessitate the raising of the blockade altogether. Under these circumstances, Demosthenes began to contemplate a descent upon the island; with which view he sent a message to Athens to explain the unfavourable state of the blockade, and to request further assistance.
These tidings were very distasteful to the Athenians, who had looked upon Sphacteria as their certain prey. They began to regret having let slip the favourable opportunity for making a peace, and to vent their displeasure upon Cleon, the director of their conduct on that occasion. But Cleon put on a face of brass. He abused the Strategi. His political opponent, Nicias, was then one of those officers, a man of quiet disposition and moderate abilities, but thoroughly honest and incorruptible. Him Cleon now singled out for his vituperation, and, pointing at him with his finger, exclaimed--"It would be easy enough to take the island if our generals were MEN. If I were General, I would do it at once!" This burst of the tanner made the assembly laugh. He was saluted with cries of "Why don't you go, then?" and Nicias, thinking probably to catch his opponent in his own trap, seconded the voice of the assembly by offering to place at his disposal whatever force he might deem necessary for the enterprise. Cleon at first endeavoured to avoid the dangerous honour thus thrust upon him. But the more he drew back the louder were the assembly in calling upon him to accept the office; and as Nicias seriously repeated his proposition, he adopted with a good grace what there was no longer any possibility of evading, and asserted that he would take Sphacteria within twenty days, and either kill all the Lacedaemonians upon it, or bring them prisoners to Athens.