Once a month here on the Molten Sulfur Blog, I run content taken from our book Archive: Historical People, Places, and Events for RPGs. This post is one of eighty entries in Archive, each more gameable than the last!
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The Trial of the Six Generals
The Guilty Be Damned
In 406 B.C., the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta had been raging off and on for almost three decades. The Spartans had just taken a strategically important city on the Greek island of Lesbos, prompting the Athenians to launch a hasty counterattack at sea. It failed, but the Athenian fleet managed to get word to Athens, calling for aid. When Athenian reinforcements arrived, they attacked the Spartan fleet near the Arginusae islands. Though the reinforcement ships were desperately manned with untrained and undisciplined aristocrats, foot soldiers, and slaves, the Athenians were victorious. But upon returning to Athens, some of the generals responsible for the victory faced execution instead of celebration.
During the Battle of Arginusae, approximately 25 ships either sank or were disabled. The eight Athenian generals at the battle tried to rescue the sailors but failed. Two of the generals presumably fled, as they never returned to Athens. When the six others returned, a leader of a popular political party in Athens accused one of the generals of misconduct. This started the investigation into the six generals.
During the investigation, the generals made a statement before the Council of Five Hundred, which oversaw the day-to-day affairs of the Athenian government. The generals claimed that their failure was due to the violence of a sudden storm that struck during the attempted rescue. Despite their claim, they were sentenced to imprisonment and trial before the Assembly, the voting body of all Athenian citizens. During the trial, a number of people spoke against the generals. They wanted more reasons why the generals had not handled the rescue personally. The generals were only allowed a brief amount of time to respond, but they stuck to their defense. They claimed they had assigned the rescue duty to certain captains that they deemed competent, and if any blame should fall, it should be upon them. But the generals refused to accuse the captains of any crime, as they knew it was the storm that prevented recovery. Though some of the citizens wanted bail for the generals, the Assembly decided that the matter would be postponed until the next Assembly meeting. The Council of Five Hundred would draft a proposal of how the generals would be tried.
The next meeting of the Assembly was attended by a group of people with shaved heads and draped in mourning garments. They dressed like kinsmen of those who had perished. The leader of the group supposedly bribed people, including a member of the Council of Five Hundred, to accuse and persecute the generals. The Council issued its proposal for how to try the generals: that the Assembly vote on whether the generals were guilty, and execute them if they were. Before the voting started, though, a man came before the Assembly, claiming to be a survivor of the shipwrecks. He said the generals didn’t try to rescue anyone. Then there was an uproar, as some citizens considered the Council’s proposal unconstitutional, while others maintained it was entirely appropriate.
Citizens opposing the proposal moved that the Council of Five Hundred should be put to the same life or death vote as the generals, stirring more discord. This motion intimidated the officials running the meeting, who then declined to bring the Council’s proposal to a vote. The pro-execution side retaliated by moving that the reluctant officials should be put to the same death vote. Most of the officials, fearing prosecution, agreed to move the Council’s proposal forward, except for the philosopher Socrates, who said that he would not partake in something unconstitutional. Accusations continued flying, alternative proposals were considered, but in the end, a vote on the original life or death proposal was performed. All eight of the generals that participated in the battle were condemned, and the six in Athens were executed.
Not long after, the Athenians began to regret executing the generals. They brought complaints against those who had falsely accused the generals or purposefully deceived the people. More men were put to death.
The Trial of the Six Generals in Play
Most PCs are constantly taking morally questionable actions, so there should be plenty of reasons to drag some or all of the party before a court for trial. The trial after Arginusae was a wild one, with accusations, counter-accusations, bribery, possible false witnesses, and attempts to put jurors to death. All of these moments offer opportunities for the PCs to weasel or politick out of a conviction. Indeed, they would have to; in ancient Greece, your fate lied more on your ability to persuade than to present evidence. PCs could come up with a story that would ease the masses, or they might try to flee the city. Alternately, the PCs could be citizens tasked with rooting out corruption in the Assembly and the Council of Five Hundred. They might have to use more forceful persuasion to get answers from some, but they might have the opportunity to rid the city of corrupt politicians.
Check out Shanty Hunters, my award-winning TTRPG about collecting magical sea shanties in the year 1880, then singing them at the table with your friends. The lyrics of the shanties come to life and cause problems for you and for the crew of the ship you sail aboard. It’s up to you to find clues in the song and put things right!