It’s 427 BCE and the worst internal conflict ever to occur in the ancient Greek world is in its fourth year. The Peloponnesian War is being fought between the city-states of Athens and Sparta, as well as their allies. The Athenians can’t match the formidable Spartan army on land.
So they’ve abandoned the countryside and moved inside the walls surrounding their city and port, now provisioned by a superior fleet and extensive maritime empire. The cramped conditions have taken a toll and a recent plague wiped out a third of the population.
But city life goes on. Archias and Dexileia live in the center of Athens. As a painter of high-class pottery, Archias is relatively well-off and takes great interest in the city’s affairs. Dexileia, on the other hand, can’t participate in politics or own property. The couple are grateful to the gods that three of their four children, a son and two daughters, have survived past infancy.
Many parents see daughters as a liability since they require dowries to find husbands. But Archias is confident that his wealth will allow him to make good matches for them without going bankrupt. Like many Athenians, the family owns slaves. Originally from Thrace, they were captured in war. Thratta does most of the housework and helps raise the children. Philon is a paidagôgos, who supervises the son’s education, teaching him reading and writing. Archias is up early because there’s a meeting of the Ekklêsia, the assembly of citizens, taking place at dawn.
Before setting out, he burns incense and pours a libation at the small shrine in the courtyard on behalf of his entire household. Dexileia will remain at home all day, teaching her daughters domestic skills. Later, she’ll retire to the inner courtyard for some fresh air. When Archias arrives at the agora, the civic and commercial heart of the city, he finds the square swarming with his fellow citizens, native-born adult males who have completed military training. Attached to the central monument is a noticeboard with the meeting’s agenda.
Today, there’s only one item of discussion: what to do with the people of Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos where a revolt against Athenian rule has just been put down. The meeting takes place on a hill west of the acropolis known as the Pnyx. The word means “tightly packed,” and the crowd of 5,000 citizens makes it clear why. The heralds purify the hill by sprinkling its boundary with pig’s blood and call for order.
As everyone sits on benches facing the platform, the presiding officer opens the meeting with the words: “Tis agoreuein bouleutai?” “Who wishes to address the assembly?” One by one, citizens speak, some advising mercy, others bent on vengeance. A motion is proposed to execute all the Mytileneans and enslave their women and children because they betrayed their Athenian allies during a time of war.
A majority raises their right hands in favor. Once the meeting’s over, Archias heads back to the agora to buy food and wine. Hundreds have gathered there to discuss the results, many unhappy with the decision. When Archias returns home, he tells Dexileia about the debate. She thinks that killing the innocent as well as the guilty is harsh and counterproductive, and tells him as much.
Around dusk, Archias goes to a friend’s house for a symposium. The nine men drink wine and discuss the meeting well into the night. Archias shares his wife’s opinion urging mercy, and his friends eventually agree. Before dawn, something unprecedented happens.
Heralds circulate throughout Athens announcing the council has called another meeting. The second debate is equally heated, but a new resolution, to execute only the leaders of the revolt, narrowly passes. Yet there’s a problem – a ship with orders to carry out the first resolution was dispatched the previous day. And so another ship quickly sets sail to countermand the order – a race of democracy against time.