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The Melian Dialogue
Thucydides (c. 460-c. 399 BCE) was elected by the Athenians to the position of army general in 424 BCE. The results of this democratic approach to warfare were not always happy, and the Athenians abandoned it to raise a professional army after heavy losses reduced their population. After Thucydides lost the city of Amphipolis, the most important stronghold in Thrace, he was banished for 20 years from Athens. During this time he wrote a history of the Peloponnesian Wars, in which he was able to describe the great skill of the general who defeated him. His work, along with that of Heroditus, formed the beginning of historical writing that sought to inquire into such information as may lead to the facts concerning the past.
The new historical writing was a process that required careful collection of information, judgment of sources, and the application of reason. That is, Thucydides attempted to develop history from a scientific rather than a mythical basis, rejecting the supernatural and composing a history that revealed underlying social pressures and political principles. He was a mature man when the Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 BCE, and realizing its importance, he kept a record of events. On these notes he based his voluminous history.
The first extract here provides the early history of Greece, as
recounted by Thucydides, writing about himself in the third person. The
Peloponnesian War started when the Spartans and their allies invaded Attica in
the spring of 431 BCE. The Athenians held a funeral at the public charge for
those who fell in the first year of the war. In extracts from the funeral oration attributed to Pericles, Thucydides portrays the Athenian democracy at its
zenith, praising the interest of Athenians in public affairs and their respect for authority and for the laws, with special regard for those protecting the injured. This last is important, because praise was also given for the Athenian s' practice of sending untrained troops into war. Eventually, they learned the truth of the observation by Confucius
s' practice of sending untrained troops into war. Eventually, they learned the truth of the observation by Confucius—that to send untrained troops into war was to throw them away.
In fact, a brutal policy of "might makes right" formed the basis of Athenian political morality in dealings with other states, just as it has for most states up to the present day, in spite of the sentiments expressed at the founding of the United Nations. The policy is expressed forcefully in extracts from a debate between envoys from an Athenian expedition to capture Melos in 416 BCE and the Melian leaders themselves. It illustrates the difficulty in developing a humanistic approach to international affairs.
1 Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war in which the Peloponnesians and the Athenians fought against one another. He began to write when they first took up arms, believing that it would be great and memorable above any previous war. For he argued that both states were then at the full height of their military power, and he saw the rest of the Hellenes either siding or intending to side with one or other of them. No movement ever stirred Hellas more deeply than this; it was shared by many of the Barbarians, and might be said even to affect the world at large. The character of the events which preceded, whether immediately or in more remote antiquity, owing to the lapse of time cannot be made out with certainty. But, judging from the evidence which I am able to trust after most careful enquiry, I should imagine that former ages were not great either in their wars or in anything else.
2 The country which is now called Hellas was not regularly settled in ancient times. The people were migratory, and readily left their homes whenever they were overpowered by numbers. There was no commerce, and they could not safely hold intercourse with one another either by land or sea. The several tribes cultivated their own soil just enough to obtain a maintenance from it. But they had no accumulations of wealth, and did not plant the ground; for, being without walls, they were never sure than an invader might not come and despoil them. Living in this manner and knowing that they could anywhere obtain a bare subsistence, they were always ready to migrate; so that they had neither great cities nor any considerable resources. The richest districts were most constantly changing their inhabitants; for example, the countries which are now called Thessaly and Bocotia, the greater part of the Peloponnesus with the exception of Arcadia, and all the best parts of Hellas. For the productiveness of the land increased the power of individuals; this in turn was a source of quarrels by which communities were ruined, while at the same time they were more exposed to attacks from without. Certainly Attica, of which the soil was poor and thin, enjoyed a long freedom from civil strife, and therefore retained its original inhabitants. And a striking confirmation of my argument is afforded by the fact that Attica through immigration increased in population more than any other region. For the leading men of Hellas, when driven out of their own country by war or revolution, sought an asylum at Athens; and from the very earliest times, being admitted to rights of citizenship, so greatly increased the number of inhabitants that Attica became incapable of containing them, and was at last obliged to send out colonies to Ionia.
3 The feebleness of antiquity is further proved to me by the circumstance that there appears to have been no common action in Hellas before the Trojan War. And I am inclined to think that the very name was not as yet given to the whole country, and in fact did not exist at all before the time of Hellen, the son of Deucalion; the different tribes, of which the Pelasgian was the most widely spread, gave their own names to different districts. But when Hellen and his sons became powerful in Phthiotis, their aid was invoked by other cities, and those who associated with them gradually began to be called Hellenes, though a long time elapsed before the name prevailed over the whole country. Of this Homer affords the best evidence; for he, although he lived long after the Trojan War, nowhere uses this name collectively, but confines it to the followers of Achilles from Phthiotis, who were the original Hellenes; when speaking of the entire host he calls them Danaans, or Argives, or Achaeans. Neither is there any mention of Barbarians in his poems, clearly because there were as yet no Hellenes opposed to them by a common distinctive name. Thus the several Hellenic tribes (and I mean by the term Hellenes those who, while forming separate communities, had a common language, and were afterwards called by a common name), owing to their weakness and isolation, were never united in any great enterprise before the Trojan War. And they only made the expedition against Troy after they had gained considerable experience of the sea.
4 Minos is the first to whom tradition ascribes the possession of a navy. He made himself master of a great part of what is now termed the Hellenic sea; he conquered the Cyclades, and was the first colonizer of most of them, expelling the Carians and appointing his own sons to govern in them. Lastly, it was he who, from a natural desire to protect his growing revenues, sought, as far as he was able, to clear the sea of pirates.
5 For in ancient times both Hellenes and Barbarians, as well the inhabitants of the coast as of the islands, when they began to find their way to one another by sea had recourse to piracy. They were commanded by powerful chiefs, who took this means of increasing their wealth and providing for their poorer followers. They would fall upon the unwalled and straggling towns, or rather villages, which they plundered, and maintained themselves by the plunder of them; for, as yet, such an occupation was held to be honorable and not disgraceful. This is proved by the practice of certain tribes on the mainland who, to the present day, glory in piratical exploits, and by the witness of the ancient poets, in whose verses the question is invariably asked of newly-arrived voyagers, whether they are pirates; which implies that neither those who are questioned disclaim, nor those who are interested in knowing censure the occupation. The land too was infested by robbers; and there are parts of Hellas in which the old practices still continue, as for example among the Ozolian Locrians, Aetolians, Acarnanians, and the adjacent regions of the continent. The fashion of wearing arms among these continental tribes is a relic of their old predatory habits. For in ancient times all Hellenes carried weapons because their homes were undefended and intercourse was unsafe; like the Barbarians they went armed in their every-day life. And the continuance of the custom in certain parts of the country proves that it once prevailed everywhere.
6 The Athenians were the first who laid aside arms and adopted an easier and more luxurious way of life. Quite recently the old-fashioned refinement of dress still lingered among the elder men of the richer class, who wore under-garments of linen, and bound back their hair in a knot with golden clasps in the form of grasshoppers; and the same customs long survived among the elders of Ionia, having been derived from their Athenian ancestors. On the other hand, the simple dress which is now common was first worn at Sparta; and there, more than anywhere else, the life of the rich was assimilated to that of the people. The Spartans too were the first who in their athletic exercises stripped naked and rubbed themselves over with oil. But this was not the ancient custom; athletes formerly, even when they were contending at Olympia, wore girdles about their loins, a practice which lasted until quite lately, and still prevails among the Barbarians, especially those of Asia, where the combatants at boxing and wrestling matches wear girdles. And many other customs which are now confined to the Barbarians might be shown to have existed formerly in Hellas.
7 In later times, when navigation had become general and wealth was beginning to accumulate, cities were built upon the sea shore and fortified; peninsulas too were occupied and walled off with a view to commerce and defense against the neighboring tribes. But the older towns both in the islands and on the continent, in order to protect themselves against the piracy which so long prevailed, were built inland; and there they remain to this day. For the piratical tribes plundered, not only one another, but all those who, without being sailors, lived on the sea coast.
8 The islanders were even more addicted to piracy than the inhabitants of the mainland. They were mostly Carian or Phoenician settlers. This is proved by the fact that when the Athenians purified Delos during the Peloponnesian War and the tombs of the dead were opened, more than half of them were found to be Carians. They were known by the fashion of their arms which were buried with them, and by their mode of burial, the same which is still practiced among them.
9 After Minos had established his navy, communication by sea became more general. For, he having expelled the pirates when he colonized the greater part of the islands, the dwellers on the sea coast began to grow richer and to live in a more settled manner; and some of them, finding their wealth increase beyond their expectations, surrounded their towns with walls. The love of gain made the weaker willing to serve the stronger, and the command of wealth enabled the more powerful to subjugate the lesser cities. This was the state of society which was beginning to prevail at the time of the Trojan War.
10 I am inclined to think that Agamemnon succeeded in collecting the expedition, not because the suitors of Helen had bound themselves by oath to Tyndareus, but because he was the most powerful king of his time. Those Peloponnesians who possess the most accurate traditions say that originally Pelops gained his power by the great wealth which he brought with him from Asia into a poor country, whereby he was enabled, although a stranger, to give his name to the Peloponnesus; and that still greater fortune attended his descendants after the death of Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, who was slain in Attica by the Heracleidae. For Atreus the son of Pelops was the maternal uncle of Eurystheus, who, when he went on the expedition, naturally committed to his charge the kingdom of Mycenae. Now Atreus had been banished by his father on account of the murder of Chrysippus. But Eurystheus never returned; and the Mycenaeans, dreading the Heracleidae, were ready to welcome Atreus, who was considered a powerful man and had ingratiated himself with the multitude. So he succeeded to the throne of Mycenae and the other dominions of Eurystheus. Thus the house of Pelops prevailed over that of Perseus.
11 And it was, as I believe, because Agamemnon inherited this power and also because he was the greatest naval potentate of his time that he was able to assemble the expedition; and the other princes followed him, not from goodwill, but from fear. Of the chiefs who came to Troy, he, if the witness of Homer be accepted, brought the greatest number of ships himself, besides supplying the Arcadians with them. In the Handing down of the Scepter he is described as, “The king of many islands, and of all Argos.” But, living on the mainland, he could not have ruled over any except the adjacent islands (which would not be many) unless he had possessed a considerable navy. From this expedition we must form our conjectures about the character of still earlier times.
12 . . . [In funeral orations] “it is difficult to avoid saying either too little or too much; and even moderation is apt not to give the impression of truthfulness. The friend of the dead who knows the facts is likely to think that the words of the speaker fall short of his knowledge and of his wishes; another who is not so well informed, when he hears of anything which surpasses his own powers, will be envious and will suspect exaggeration. Mankind are tolerant of the praises of others so long as each hearer thinks that he can do as well or nearly as well himself, but, when the speaker rises above him, jealousy is aroused and he begins to be incredulous. However, since our ancestors have set the seal of their approval upon the practice, I must obey, and to the utmost of my power shall endeavor to satisfy the wishes and beliefs of all who hear me.
13 “Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. We do not copy our neighbors, but are an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while the law secures equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is given the opportunity for public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty a bar, but a man may benefit his country whatever be the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private intercourse we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private intercourse, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for authority and for the laws, having an especial regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as to those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the condemnation of public opinion.
14 “And we have not forgotten to provide for our weary spirits many relaxations from toil; we have regular games and ceremonies throughout the year; at home, the style of our life is refined; and the delight which we daily feel in all these things helps banish melancholy. Because of the greatness of our city the fruits of the whole earth flow in upon us; so that we enjoy the goods of other countries as freely as of our own.
15 “If then we prefer to meet danger with a light heart but without laborious training, and with a courage which is gained by habit and not enforced by law, are we not greatly the gainers? Since we do not anticipate the pain, although, when the hour comes, we can be as brave as those who never allow themselves to rest; and thus too our city is equally admirable in peace and in war. For we are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in out tastes, and we cultivate the mind without loss of manliness. Wealth we employ, not for talk and ostentation, but when there is a real use for it. To admit poverty with us is no disgrace; the true disgrace is in doing nothing to avoid it.
16 An Athenian citizen does not neglect the state because he takes care of his own household; and even those of us who are engaged in business have a very fair idea of politics. We alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as a harmless, but as a useless character; and if few of us are originators, we are all sound judges of a policy. The great impediment to action is, in our opinion, not discussion, but the want of that knowledge which is gained by discussion preparatory to action. For we have a peculiar power of thinking before we act and of acting too, whereas other men are courageous from ignorance but hesitate upon reflection. And they are surely to be esteemed the bravest spirits who, having the clearest sense both of the pains and pleasures of life, do not on that account shrink from danger.
17 . . . “To sum up: I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace. This is no passing and idle word, but truth and fact; and the assertion is verified by the position to which these qualities have raised the state. . .
18 . . . The Athenians next made an expedition against the island of Melos with thirty ships of their own, six Chian, and two Lesbian, 1200 hoplites and 300 archers besides twenty mounted archers of their own, and about 1500 hoplites furnished by their allies in the islands. The Melians are colonists of the Lacedaemonians who would not submit to Athens like the other islanders. At first they were neutral and took no part. But when the Athenians tried to coerce them by ravaging their lands, they were driven into open hostilities; The generals, Cleomedes the son of Lycomedes and Tisias the son of Tisimachus, encamped with the Athenian forces on the island. But before they did the country any harm they sent envoys to negotiate with the Melians. Instead of bringing these envoys before the people, the Melians desired them to explain their errand to the magistrates and to the chief men. They spoke as follows: . .
19 Athenians: Well, then, we Athenians will use no fine words; we will not go out of our way to prove at length that we have a right to rule, because we overthrew the Persians; or that we attack you now because we are suffering any injury at your hands. We should not convince you if we did; nor must you expect to convince us by arguing that, although a colony of the Lacedaemonians, you have taken no part in their expeditions, or that you have never done us any wrong. But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.
20 Melians: Well, then, since you set aside justice and invite us to speak of expediency, in our judgment it is certainly expedient that you should respect a principle which is for the common good; and that to every man when in peril a reasonable claim should be accounted a claim of right. Any plea that he is disposed to urge, even if being off the point a little, should help his cause. Your interest in this principle is quite as great as ours. Because, if you fall, you will incur the heaviest vengeance, and will be the most terrible example to mankind.
21 Athenians: The fall of our empire, if it should fall, is not an event that we look at with dismay; for ruling states such as Lacedaemon are not cruel to their vanquished enemies. And we are fighting not so much against the Lacedaemonians, as against our own subjects who may some day rise up and overcome their former masters. But this is a danger that you may leave to us. And we will now endeavour to show that we have come in the interests of our empire, and that in what we are about to say we are only seeking the preservation of your city. For we want to make you ours with the least trouble to ourselves, and it is for the interests of us both that you should not be destroyed.
22 Melians: It may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?
23 Athenians: To you the gain will be that by submission you will avert the worst; and we shall be all the richer for your preservation.
24 Melians: But must we be your enemies? Will you not receive us as friends if we are neutral and remain at peace with you?
25 Athenians: No, your enmity is not half so dangerous to us as your friendship; for the one is in the eyes of our subjects an argument of our power, the other of our weakness.
26 Melians: But are your subjects really unable to distinguish between states in which you have no concern, and those that are chiefly your own colonies, and in some cases have revolted and been subdued by you?
27 Athenians: Why, they do not doubt that both of them have a good deal to say for themselves on the score of justice, but they think that states like yours are left free because they are able to defend themselves, and that we do not attack them because we dare not. So that your subjection will give us an increase of security, as well as an extension of empire. For we are masters of the sea, and you who are islanders—and insignificant islanders too—must not be allowed to escape us.
28 Melians: But do you not recognize another danger? For, once more, since you drive us from the plea of justice and press upon us your doctrine of expediency, we must show you what is for our interest. If it is yours as well, may hope to convince you. Will you not be making enemies of all who are now neutrals? When they see how you are treating us they will expect you some day to turn against them. And if so, are you not strengthening the enemies whom you already have, and bringing upon you others who, if they could help, would never dream of. being your enemies at all?
29 Athenians: We do not consider our really dangerous enemies to be any of the peoples inhabiting the mainland who, secure in their freedom, may defer indefinitely any measures of precaution which they take against us. Rather, it is islanders who, like you, happen to be under no control, and all who may be already irritated by the necessity of submission to our empire. These are our real enemies, for they are the most reckless and most likely to bring themselves as well as us into a danger that they cannot but foresee.
30 Melians: Surely then, if you and your subjects will brave all this risk, you to preserve your empire and they to be quit of it, how base and cowardly would it be in us, who retain our freedom, not to do and suffer anything rather than be your slaves.
31 Athenians: Not so, if you calmly reflect: for you are not fighting against equals to whom you cannot yield without disgrace, but you are taking counsel whether or no you shall resist an overwhelming force. The question is not one of honor but of prudence.
32 Melians: But we know that the fortune of war is sometimes impartial, and not always on the side of numbers. If we yield now, all is over; but if we fight, there is yet a hope that we may stand upright.
33 Athenians: Hope is a good comforter in the hour of danger. And when men have something else to depend upon, although hurtful, she is not ruinous. But . . . you are weak and a single turn of the scale might be your ruin. Do not be deluded. Avoid the error of which so many are guilty, who—although they might still be saved if they would take reasonable steps—when visible grounds of confidence forsake them, have recourse to the invisible, to prophecies and oracles and the like, that ruin men by the hopes they inspire in them.
34 Melians: We know only too well how hard the struggle must be against your power, and against fortune, if she does not mean to be impartial. Nevertheless we do not despair of fortune; for we hope to stand as high as you in the favor of heaven, because we are righteous, and you against whom we contend are unrighteous. And we are satisfied that our deficiency in power will be compensated by the aid of our allies the Lacedaemonians; they cannot refuse to help us, if only because we are their kinsmen, and for the sake of their own honor. And therefore our confidence is not so utterly blind as you suppose.
35 Athenians: As for the gods, we expect to have quite as much of their favor as you: for we are not doing or claiming anything which goes beyond common opinion about divine or human desires about human matters. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a law of their nature they will rule wherever they can. This law was not made by us, and we are not the first who have acted upon it; we did but inherit it, and shall bequeath it to all time. Moreover we know that you and all mankind, if you were as strong as us, would do as we do. . . .
As to the Lacedaemonians—when you imagine that out of very shame they will assist you, we admire the simplicity of your thought but do not envy you the folly of it. The Lacedaemonians are exceedingly virtuous among themselves, and according to their national standard of morality. But, in respect of their dealings with others, although many things might be said, a few words are enough to describe them. Of all men that we know, they are the most notorious for identifying what is pleasant with what is honorable, and what is expedient with what is just. How inconsistent is such a character with your present blind hope of deliverance!
36 Melians: That is the very reason why we trust them. They will look to their own interest, and therefore will not be willing to betray the Melians—who are their own colonists—lest they should be distrusted by their friends in Hellas and play into the hands of their enemies.
37 Athenians: But do you not see that the path of expediency is safe, whereas justice and honor involve danger in practice, and such dangers the Lacedaemonians seldom care to face?
38 Melians: On the other hand, we think that whatever perils there may be, they will be ready to face them for our sakes, and will consider danger less dangerous where we are concerned. For if they
need to act we are close at hand, and they can better trust our loyal feeling because we are their kinsmen.
39 Athenians: Yes, but what encourages men who are invited to join in a conflict is clearly not the good-will of those who summon them to their side, but a decided superiority in real power. To this no men look more keenly than the Lacedaemonians. So little confidence have they in their own resources, that they only attack their neighbours when they have numerous allies. Therefore they are not likely to find their way by themselves to an island, when we are masters of the sea.
40 Melians: But they may send their allies: the Cretan sea is a large place; and the masters of the sea will have more difficulty in overtaking vessels which want to escape than the pursued in escaping. If the attempt should fail they may invade Attica itself, and find their way to allies of yours whom Brasidas did not reach. And then you will have to fight, not for the conquest of a land in which you have no concern, but nearer home, for the preservation of your confederacy and of your own territory.
50 Athenians: Help may come from Lacedaemon to you as it has come to others, and should you ever have actual experience of it, then you will know that never once have the Athenians retired from a siege through fear of a foe elsewhere. You told us that the safety of your city would be your first care, but we remark that, in this long discussion, not a word has been uttered by you which would give a reasonable man expectation of deliverance. Your strongest grounds are hopes deferred, and what power you have is not to be compared with that which is already arrayed against you.
Unless after we have withdrawn you mean to come—as even now you may—to a wiser conclusion, you are showing a great lack of sense. For surely you cannot dream of flying to that false sense of honor that has been the ruin of so many when danger and dishonor were staring them in the face. Many men with their eyes still open to the consequences have found the word honor too much for them, and have suffered a mere name to lure them on, until it has drawn down upon them real and irretrievable calamities. Through their own folly they have incurred a worse dishonor than fortune would have inflicted upon them.
If you are wise you will not run this risk; you ought to see that there can be no disgrace in yielding to a great city which invites you to become her ally on reasonable terms, keeping your own land, and merely paying tribute. You will certainly gain no honor if, having to choose between two alternatives, safety and war, you obstinately prefer the worse. To maintain our rights against equals, to be politic with superiors, and to be moderate towards inferiors is the path of safety.
Reflect once more when we have withdrawn, and say to yourselves over and over again that you are deliberating about your one and only country, which may be saved or may be destroyed by a single decision.
The Athenians left the conference: the Melians, after consulting among themselves, resolved to persevere in their refusal.
51 Melians: Men of Athens, our resolution is unchanged; and we will not in a moment surrender that liberty which our city, founded 700 years ago, still enjoys; we will trust to the good-fortune which, by the favour of the gods, has hitherto preserved us, and for human help to the Lacedaemonians, and endeavour to save ourselves. We are ready however to be your friends, and the enemies neither of you nor of the Lacedaemonians, and we ask you to leave our country when you have made such a peace as may appear to be in the interest of both parties.
[The Athenians attacked and eventually the Melians surrendered. The Athenians put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves. They subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.]
Adapted from Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book 1, translated by Benjamin Jowett. Oxford University Press, London, 1881.
The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides translated by Richard Crawley.Selection and adaptation Copyright © Rex Pay 2000, 2005