After this period it was with difficulty that Pericles was persuaded by his friends to take any active part in public affairs; nor did he survive more than a twelvemonth. An attack of the prevailing epidemic was succeeded by a low and lingering fever, which undermined both his strength of body and vigour of intellect. As Pericles lay apparently unconscious on his death- bed, the friends who stood around it were engaged in recalling his exploits. The dying man interrupted them by remarking: "What you praise in me is partly the result of good fortune, and at all events common to me with many other commanders. What I chiefly pride myself upon you have not noticed--no Athenian ever wore mourning through me."
The enormous influence which Pericles exercised for so long a period over an ingenious but fickle people like the Athenians, is an unquestionable proof of his intellectual superiority. This hold on the public affection is to be attributed to a great extent to his extraordinary eloquence. Cicero regards him as the first example of an almost perfect orator, at once delighting the Athenians with his copiousness and grace, and overawing them by the force and cogency of his diction and arguments. He seems, indeed, to have singularly combined the power of persuasion with that more rapid and abrupt style of oratory which takes an audience by storm and defies all resistance. As the accomplished man of genius and the liberal patron of literature and art, Pericles is worthy of the highest admiration. By these qualities he has justly given name to the most brilliant intellectual epoch that the world has ever seen. But on this point we have already touched, and shall have occasion to refer hereafter in the sketch of Grecian literature.
In the third year of the war (B.C. 429) Archidamus directed his whole force against the ill-fated town of Plataea. The siege that ensued is one of the most memorable in the annals of Grecian warfare. Plataea was but a small city, and its garrison consisted of only 400 citizens and 80 Athenians, together with 110 women to manage their household affairs. Yet this small force set at defiance the whole army of the Peloponnesians. The latter, being repulsed in all their attempts to take the place by storm, resolved to turn the siege into a blockade, and reduce the city by famine. The Plataeans endured a blockade of two years, during which the Athenians attempted nothing for their relief. In the second year, however, about half the garrison effected their escape; but the rest were obliged to surrender shortly afterwards (B.C. 427). The whole garrison, consisting of 200 Plataeans and 25 Athenians, were now arraigned before five judges sent from Sparta. Their indictment was framed in a way which precluded the possibility of escape. They were simply asked "Whether, during the present war, they had rendered any assistance to the Lacedaemonians and their allies?" Each man was called up separately before the judgment-seat, and the same question having been put to him and of course answered in the negative, he was immediately led away to execution. The town of Plataea was transferred to the Thebans, who a few months afterwards levelled all the private buildings to the ground. Thus was Plataea blotted out from the map of Greece (B.C. 427). In recording the fall of Plataea we have anticipated the order of chronology.
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.