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Ancient and modern

Would the Athenians have held a second referendum?

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

The Athenians invented the referendum: after debate in the citizens’ assembly, they voted through all political decisions by a show of hands. They could also demand a revote, as happened on a famous occasion in 427 bc, after Athens put down the revolt of the city-state of Mytilene. Does this justify the proposed second Brexit referendum?

The Athenian assembly, angered by the revolt, initially voted to execute all adult males and sell the women and children into slavery. A ship was sent to see to it. But next day, as the contemporary historian Thucydides reported, ‘the people began to think how excessively savage it was to destroy everyone, not just the guilty’. So they demanded a revote.


The argument centred on how best to preserve the Athenian empire from further revolts. Cleon, ‘a forceful, very persuasive speaker’, took a hard line. ‘The Mytileneans will not obey you just because you make concessions… inconsistency in decision-making is worst of all… humans despise leniency and respect those that stand firm.’ Diodotus responded that capital punishment never deterred anyone intent on trouble. To execute the innocent would alienate those who never opposed Athens in the first place, and would ensure full turn-outs for future revolts. Pity was irrelevant: the best long-term security was so to treat others that they would not want to revolt.

Diodotus won by a whisker. A trireme was despatched at speed to catch the earlier one, and reached Mytilene just in time to stop the massacre. Only those guilty of revolt were executed.

All very relevant to the second referendum? No. It is being proposed not by us the people but by some MPs, claiming to be terrified of leaving without a deal. We would be asked only if we wished to leave with or without one. MPs’ real aim is to stop the Brexit they promised us. So ‘Remain’ slouches ignominiously on to the ballot paper. Farewell, Athens’s democratic example.

Still, there is hope. The highly principled Gina Miller is bound to take the issue to the Supreme Court to test whether we live in a democracy or not, isn’t she? Oh. Right. Well, perhaps the PM might?


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