It is 427 BCE, and the most devastating internal conflict in the ancient Greek world, the Peloponnesian War, is entering its fourth year. The war rages on between Athens and Sparta, along with their respective allies.
Athens, unable to match the formidable Spartan army on land, has abandoned the countryside and sought refuge within the protective walls surrounding their city and port. Their superior fleet and extensive maritime empire now sustain them with provisions. However, the cramped conditions have taken a toll, worsened by a recent plague that decimated a third of the population.
Nevertheless, life in the city continues. Archias and Dexileia reside in the heart of Athens. Archias, a painter of high-class pottery, enjoys relative prosperity and takes a keen interest in the city’s affairs
On the other hand, Dexileia, restricted by societal norms, cannot engage in politics or own property.
The couple feels blessed that three of their four children, a son and two daughters, have survived infancy. In Athenian society, daughters are often seen as a burden due to the dowries required to secure suitable husbands. However, Archias is confident that his wealth will allow him to find good matches for his daughters without financial strain.
Like many Athenians, Archias and Dexileia own slaves, originally captured in war from Thrace. Thratta, a slave, tends to most of the household chores and assists in raising the children. Philon, a paidagôgos, is responsible for overseeing the education of their son, teaching him reading and writing.
Archias rises early as there is a meeting of the Ekklêsia, the assembly of citizens, scheduled at dawn. Before departing, he performs a ritual of burning incense and pouring a libation at the small shrine in the courtyard on behalf of his entire household. Dexileia will remain at home, dedicating her day to teaching her daughters domestic skills. Later, she will seek respite in the inner courtyard for some fresh air.
Upon arriving at the agora, the civic and commercial hub of the city, Archias discovers a throng of fellow citizens, native-born adult males who have completed military training. A noticeboard, attached to the central monument, displays the agenda for the meeting. Today’s sole item of discussion pertains to the fate of the people of Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos where a rebellion against Athenian rule has recently been quashed.
The assembly convenes on a hill west of the acropolis called the Pnyx. Its name, meaning “tightly packed,” becomes evident as the gathering of 5,000 citizens fills the space. Heralds purify the hill by sprinkling its boundaries with pig’s blood and call for order. Everyone takes their seats on benches, facing the platform, as the presiding officer initiates the meeting with the phrase “Tis agoreuein Bouleutai”: “Who wishes to address the assembly.”
One by one, citizens express their opinions, some advocating for mercy while others seek vengeance. A motion is proposed to execute all the Mytileneans and enslave their women and children, citing their betrayal of Athenian allies during wartime. A majority of the assembly raises their right hands in favor.
After the meeting concludes, Archias returns to the agora to purchase food and wine. Numerous individuals have gathered there to discuss the outcome, with many expressing dissatisfaction with the decision. Upon returning home, Archias shares the details of the debate with Dexileia. She believes that killing both the innocent and guilty is excessively harsh and counterproductive, conveying her thoughts to him.
As dusk settles, Archias attends a symposium at a friend’s house. The nine men engage in wine-drinking and continue their