Tues., 2:10-4:10 pm & by appt.
The Athenian position in this classic reading is often
cited as a paragon of the realist approach to international politics. It is
worth noting that this is the only "dialogue" in Thucydides History
and so there is some doubt over whether it is a more stylized account than
the others that Thucydides provides.
hISTORY of the Peloponnesian War
Trans. by Richard Crawley
Sixteenth Year of the War - The Melian Conference - Fate of Melos
10.77 THE next summer Alcibiades sailed with twenty ships
to Argos and seized the suspected persons still left of the Spartan faction
to the number of three hundred, whom the Athenians forthwith lodged in the
neighbouring islands of their empire. The Athenians also made an expedition
against the isle of Melos with thirty ships of their own, six Chian, and
two Lesbian vessels, sixteen hundred heavy infantry, three hundred archers,
and twenty mounted archers from Athens, and about fifteen hundred heavy
infantry from the allies and the islanders. The Melians are a colony of
Sparta that would not submit to the Athenians like the other islanders, and
at first remained neutral and took no part in the struggle, but afterwards
upon the Athenians using violence and plundering their territory, assumed
an attitude of open hostility. Cleomedes, son of Lycomedes, and Tisias, son
of Tisimachus, the generals, encamping in their territory with the above
armament, before doing any harm to their land, sent envoys to negotiate.
These the Melians did not bring before the people, but bade them state the
object of their mission to the magistrates and the few; upon which the
Athenian envoys spoke as follows:
THE MELIAN DIALOGUE
10.78 Athenians. Since the negotiations are not to go on before the people,
in order that we may not be able to speak straight on without interruption,
and deceive the ears of the multitude by seductive arguments which would
pass without refutation (for we know that this is the meaning of our being
brought before the few), what if you who sit there were to pursue a method
more cautious still? Make no set speech yourselves, but take us up at
whatever you do not like, and settle that before going any farther. And
first tell us if this proposition of ours suits you.
The Melian commissioners answered:
10.79 Melians. To the fairness of quietly instructing each other as you
propose there is nothing to object; but your military preparations are too
far advanced to agree with what you say, as we see you are come to be
judges in your own cause, and that all we can reasonably expect from this
negotiation is war, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to
submit, and in the contrary case, slavery.
10.80 Athenians. If you have met to reason about presentiments of the
future, or for anything else than to consult for the safety of your state
upon the facts that you see before you, we will give over; otherwise we
will go on.
10.81 Melians. It is natural and excusable for men in our position to turn
more ways than one both in thought and utterance. However, the question in
this conference is, as you say, the safety of our country; and the
discussion, if you please, can proceed in the way which you propose.
10.82 Athenians. For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious
pretences--either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew
the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done
us--and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we
hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did
not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us
no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments
of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes,
is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they
can and the weak suffer what they must.
10.83 Melians. As we think, at any rate, it is expedient--we speak as we
are obliged, since you enjoin us to let right alone and talk only of
interest--that you should not destroy what is our common protection, the
privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right,
and even to profit by arguments not strictly valid if they can be got to
pass current. And you are as much interested in this as any, as your fall would
be a signal for the heaviest vengeance and an example for the world to
10.84 Athenians. The end of our empire, if end it should, does not frighten
us: a rival empire like Sparta, even if Sparta was our real antagonist, is
not so terrible to the vanquished as subjects who by themselves attack and
overpower their rulers. This, however, is a risk that we are content to
take. We will now proceed to show you that we are come here in the interest
of our empire, and that we shall say what we are now going to say, for the
preservation of your country; as we would fain exercise that empire over
you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both.
10.85 Melians. And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as
for you to rule?
10.86 Athenians. Because you would have the advantage of submitting before
suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you.
10.87 Melians. So that you would not consent to our being neutral, friends
instead of enemies, but allies of neither side.
10.88 Athenians. No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your
friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your
enmity of our power.
10.89 Melians. Is that your subjects' idea of equity, to put those who have
nothing to do with you in the same category with peoples that are most of
them your own colonists, and some conquered rebels?
10.90 Athenians. As far as right goes they think one has as much of it as
the other, and that if any maintain their independence it is because they
are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid;
so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your
subjection; the fact that you are islanders and weaker than others
rendering it all the more important that you should not succeed in baffling
the masters of the sea.
10.91 Melians. But do you consider that there is no security in the policy
which we indicate? For here again if you debar us from talking about
justice and invite us to obey your interest, we also must explain ours, and
try to persuade you, if the two happen to coincide. How can you avoid
making enemies of all existing neutrals who shall look at this case and
conclude from it that one day or another you will attack them? And what is
this but to make greater the enemies that you have already, and to force
others to become so who would otherwise have never thought of it?
10.92 Athenians. Why, the fact is that continentals generally give us but
little alarm; the liberty which they enjoy will long prevent their taking
precautions against us; it is rather islanders like yourselves, outside our
empire, and subjects smarting under the yoke, who would be the most likely
to take a rash step and lead themselves and us into obvious danger.
10.93 Melians. Well then, if you risk so much to retain your empire, and
your subjects to get rid of it, it were surely great baseness and cowardice
in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried, before
submitting to your yoke.
10.94 Athenians. Not if you are well advised, the contest not being an
equal one, with honour as the prize and shame as the penalty, but a
question of self-preservation and of not resisting those who are far
stronger than you are.
10.95 Melians. But we know that the fortune of war is sometimes more
impartial than the disproportion of numbers might lead one to suppose; to
submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves
for us a hope that we may stand erect.
10.96 Athenians. Hope, danger's comforter, may be indulged in by those who
have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin;
but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put
their all upon the venture see it in its true colours only when they are
ruined; but so long as the discovery would enable them to guard against it,
it is never found wanting. Let not this be the case with you, who are weak
and hang on a single turn of the scale; nor be like the vulgar, who,
abandoning such security as human means may still afford, when visible
hopes fail them in extremity, turn to invisible, to prophecies and oracles,
and other such inventions that delude men with hopes to their destruction.
10.97 Melians. You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the
difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms
be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours,
since we are just men fighting against unjust, and that what we want in
power will be made up by the alliance of the Spartans, who are bound, if
only for very shame, to come to the aid of their kindred. Our confidence,
therefore, after all is not so utterly irrational.
10.98 Athenians. When you speak of the favour of the gods, we may as fairly
hope for that as yourselves; neither our pretensions nor our conduct being
in any way contrary to what men believe of the gods, or practise among
themselves. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary
law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we
were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it
existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we
do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the
same power as we have, would do the same as we do. Thus, as far as the gods
are concerned, we have no fear and no reason to fear that we shall be at a
disadvantage. But when we come to your notion about the Spartans, which
leads you to believe that shame will make them help you, here we bless your
simplicity but do not envy your folly. The Spartans, when their own
interests or their country's laws are in question, are the worthiest men
alive; of their conduct towards others much might be said, but no clearer
idea of it could be given than by shortly saying that of all the men we
know they are most conspicuous in considering what is agreeable honourable,
and what is expedient just. Such a way of thinking does not promise much
for the safety which you now unreasonably count upon.
Melians. But it is for this very reason that we now trust to their
respect for expediency to prevent them from betraying the Melians, their
colonists, and thereby losing the confidence of their friends in Hellas and
helping their enemies.
10.100 Athenians. Then you do not adopt the view that expediency goes with
security, while justice and honour cannot be followed without danger; and
danger the Spartans generally court as little as possible.
10.101 Melians. But we believe that they would be more likely to face even
danger for our sake, and with more confidence than for others, as our
nearness to Peloponnese makes it easier for them to act, and our common
blood ensures our fidelity.
10.102 Athenians. Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to is not the
goodwill of those who ask his aid, but a decided superiority of power for
action; and the Spartans look to this even more than others. At least,
is their distrust of their home resources that it is only with numerous
allies that they attack a neighbour; now is it likely that while we are
masters of the sea they will cross over to an island?
Melians. But they would have others to send. The Cretan Sea is a
wide one, and it is more difficult for those who command it to intercept
others, than for those who wish to elude them to do so safely. And should
the Spartans miscarry in this, they would fall upon your land, and upon
those left of your allies whom Brasidas did not reach; and instead of
places which are not yours, you will have to fight for your own country and
your own confederacy.
10.104 Athenians. Some diversion of the kind you speak of you may one day
experience, only to learn, as others have done, that the Athenians never
once yet withdrew from a siege for fear of any. But we are struck by the
fact that, after saying you would consult for the safety of your country,
in all this discussion you have mentioned nothing which men might trust in
and think to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the
future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those
arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious. You will therefore
show great blindness of judgment, unless, after allowing us to retire, you
can find some counsel more prudent than this. You will surely not be caught
by that idea of disgrace, which in dangers that are disgraceful, and at the
same time too plain to be mistaken, proves so fatal to mankind; since in
too many cases the very men that have their eyes perfectly open to what
they are rushing into, let the thing called disgrace, by the mere influence
of a seductive name, lead them on to a point at which they become so
enslaved by the phrase as in fact to fall wilfully into hopeless disaster,
and incur disgrace more disgraceful as the companion of error, than when it
comes as the result of misfortune. This, if you are well advised, you will
guard against; and you will not think it dishonourable to submit to the
greatest city in Hellas, when it makes you the moderate offer of becoming
its tributary ally, without ceasing to enjoy the country that belongs to
you; nor when you have the choice given you between war and security, will
you be so blinded as to choose the worse. And it is certain that those who
do not yield to their equals, who keep terms with their superiors, and are
moderate towards their inferiors, on the whole succeed best. Think over the
matter, therefore, after our withdrawal, and reflect once and again that it
is for your country that you are consulting, that you have not more than
one, and that upon this one deliberation depends its prosperity or ruin.
10.105 The Athenians now withdrew from the conference; and the Melians,
left to themselves, came to a decision corresponding with what they had
maintained in the discussion, and answered: "Our resolution, Athenians, is
the same as it was at first. We will not in a moment deprive of freedom a
city that has been inhabited these seven hundred years; but we put our
trust in the fortune by which the gods have preserved it until now, and in
the help of men, that is, of the Spartans; and so we will try and save
ourselves. Meanwhile we invite you to allow us to be friends to you and
foes to neither party, and to retire from our country after making such a
treaty as shall seem fit to us both."
10.106 Such was the answer of the Melians. The Athenians now departing from
the conference said: "Well, you alone, as it seems to us, judging from
these resolutions, regard what is future as more certain than what is
before your eyes, and what is out of sight, in your eagerness, as already
coming to pass; and as you have staked most on, and trusted most in, the
Spartans, your fortune, and your hopes, so will you be most completely
10.107 The Athenian envoys now returned to the army; and the Melians
showing no signs of yielding, the generals at once betook themselves to
hostilities, and drew a line of circumvallation round the Melians, dividing
the work among the different states. Subsequently the Athenians returned
with most of their army, leaving behind them a certain number of their own
citizens and of the allies to keep guard by land and sea. The force thus
left stayed on and besieged the place.
10.108 Meanwhile the Melians attacked by night and took the part of the
Athenian lines over against the market, and killed some of the men, and
brought in corn and all else that they could find useful to them, and so
returned and kept quiet, while the Athenians took measures to keep better
guard in future.
10.109 Summer was now over. The next winter the Spartans intended to invade
the Argive territory, but arriving at the frontier found the sacrifices for
crossing unfavourable, and went back again. This intention of theirs gave
the Argives suspicions of certain of their fellow citizens, some of whom
they arrested; others, however, escaped them. About the same time the
Melians again took another part of the Athenian lines which were but feebly
garrisoned. Reinforcements afterwards arriving from Athens in consequence,
under the command of Philocrates, son of Demeas, the siege was now pressed
vigorously; and some treachery taking place inside, the Melians surrendered
at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom
they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently
sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.