A modern re-enactment of the negotiations between the Athenians and the Melians as reconstructed by Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian of the Peloponnesian War (taken from The War that Never Ends, 1991, directed by Jack Gold)
This post looks at Chapters 84 through 116 of Book Five, covering what is commonly called the Melian dialogue. All quotes come from the Thomas Hobbes translation.
The island of Milos had stayed neutral during the Peloponnesian war, refusing to become a subject of Athens. As the war progressed, though, Athens encroached upon the island which responded with open hostility. In 416 BC, Athens sent Cleomedes and Tisias as commanders to bring Melos under Athenian control, whether through submission or other means.
I’ve copied the summary of the dialogue from Wikipedia to keep the post from never ending, but the text of the dialogue can be found online several places such as here or here.
The Athenians, in a frank and unpretentious manner, offer the Melians an ultimatum: surrender and pay tribute to Athens, or be destroyed.
The Melians argue that they are a neutral country and not an enemy, so Athens has no need to crush them. The Athenians counter that if they accept Melos's neutrality and independence, they would look weak: people will think they spare Melos because they are not strong enough to conquer it.
The Melians argue that an invasion will alarm the other neutral Greek states, who will become hostile to Athens for fear of being invaded themselves. The Athenians counter that the Greek states on the mainland are unlikely to act this way. It is the more volatile island states and the subjects they have already conquered that are more likely to take up arms against Athens. The Melians argue that it would be shameful and cowardly of them to submit without a fight. The Athenians counter that the debate is not about honor but about self-preservation.
The Melians argue that though the Athenians are far stronger, there is still a chance they could win. The Athenians counter that only the strong have a right to indulge in hope; the weak Melians are hopelessly outmatched.
The Melians argue that the gods will protect them because they are in the right, and that their Spartan kin will come to their defense. The Athenians counter that gods and men alike respect strength over moral arguments; the strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must. They also argue the Spartans have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by coming to Melos's defense – mere kinship will not motivate them.
The Athenians conclude the argument by saying there is no shame in submitting to a stronger enemy. The Melians do not change their minds and politely dismiss the envoys.
The blunt talk about power and empire are nothing new for Athens. The Athenian envoys who ‘happened’ to be in Sparta during their initial debate on declaring war: “So that, though overcome by three the greatest things, honour, fear, and profit, we have both accepted the dominion delivered us and refuse again to surrender it, we have therein done nothing to be wondered at nor beside the manner of men. Nor have we been the first in this kind, but it hath been ever a thing fixed, for the weaker to be kept under by the stronger.” This outlook has pretty much guided Athenian outlook and attitude throughout the war. Pericles tried to tone it down temporarily but upon his death the Athenians had followed a more aggressive interpretation of this (at least until they lost several major battles). Even the Spartan Brasidas had talked about the right of power when threatening the Acanthians: “For it is more dishonourable, at least to men in dignity, to amplify their estate by specious fraud, than by open violence. For the latter assaileth with a certain right of power given us by fortune; but the other, with the treachery of a wicked conscience.” Within this viewpoint, such expansion by force is a natural law. Melos (of course) objects, saying that Athens seeks “the point of profit in the place of justice,” although Athens explains that justice can only exist in disputes between equals.
Framing the debate in Melian terms leads us nowhere. Athens concedes that justice has nothing to do it, they are acting in their own self-interest. They also deflect the question of piety, taking the question of religion out of the equation. The Melians take several stabs at convincing the Athenians that that isn’t the case but the clearly fail to change their minds. The Athenians boil the central question down to Melian actions—do the Melians act in a manner best for their self-interest? After all attempts to persuade the Athenians otherwise, the Melians will have to concede or fight. The Melians put their trust in assistance from chance, the gods, and the Spartans…all of which let them down.
When reading this passage, a natural tendency is to compare this to other speeches. The one speech I usually see this dialogue compared to the most is Pericles’ funeral oration in which he sings the praises of the Athenian democracy but there is not necessarily a contradiction between the two passages. In that speech Pericles acknowledges that what Athens had gained, and what their ancestors handed down to them, had been obtained and enlarged by war. Pericles points out that Athenians enjoy justice under the laws, but this is a justice between equals (Athenian citizens) and within their empire. This is the part that provides the biggest contrast, however, highlighting the difference between Athens’ qualities (freedom, openness, generosity) and their actions (butchering and enslaving the Melians). The last speech of Pericles that Thucydides presents fits in with the Melian dialogue as well. In that speech, Pericles acknowledges that Athens is an empire that was unjustly taken up but would be “unsafe to lay down.” Athens must do what is best for Athens.
Maybe a better comparison would be with the speeches of Cleon and Diodotus during the debate on the fate of Mytilene. Then, as now, guilt or innocence is not the question—Mytilene and Melos are guilty in Athenian eyes. For the debate on Mytilene, the question revolves around what is the best punishment for that guilt while both speakers look at the larger issue—how does an empire deal with internal revolt? For Melos, the question revolves around the best way for them to submit to Athens—through submission or destruction and Athens put the choice in their hands. Melos says that should not even be a choice and declines Athens request for submission and Athens starts a siege. Eventually there were some within Melos “that practiced to have it given up, they yielded themselves to the discretion of the Athenians: who slew all the men of military age, made slaves of the women and children; and inhabited the place with a colony sent thither afterwards of five hundred men of their own.”
There are other echoes I find in this dialogue. One comes from Melos’ notice that fortune rises and falls, pointing out that Athens may need help from cities that are currently weak. The idea of fortune’s rise and fall has been presented several times, notably in peace negotiations between Athens and Sparta. Athens deflects this statement, noting the truth of it but saying the new power will act in its own self-interest and Athens will accept that.
Another echo comes from the battle of Delium, where both Boeotia and Athens paint the engagement as defensive and thus acceptable for preemptive action. In this case, Athens sees Melian independence as a threat to their power. Subjecting Melos would enhance their image and therefore their security. Might doesn’t necessarily make right, but might allows the city/state to pursue its self-interest.
The Melian dialogue provides a fascinating look at the clash between the political realism of Athens and the ideals of justice championed by Melos. I keep coming back to Cleon’s statements in the debate on Mytilene and how closely Athens continues to follow his advice (even though he lost that debate). During his speech Cleon championed consistency, even when such a decision is bad (it is best that bad laws be consistently followed). Another of Cleon’s points was that a democracy was incapable of governing an empire, something that Athens was learning to reconcile. I’m looking forward to the upcoming section on the debate on invading Sicily (again) and seeing how the arguments presented so far will reverberate in that debate.