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The Melian Dialogue
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9. The Melian Dialogue

From Herodotus’s Freedom Fighters to Thucydides’ Imperialists

Thucydides’ Athenian speakers systematically dismiss or actively transgress the carefully wrought ideological poses that we find constructed for Athens in other literary texts.[1] The extreme point of Athenian Realpolitik in Thucydides, the Melian Dialogue is often analyzed as the climax of a process within the History that begins with the blunt analysis of the Athenian delegation at Sparta and evolves through the cool assessments of Perikles’ first and final speeches, and the Mytilenean debate.[2] But the context for the Melian Dialogue begins before Thucydides. In some sense, the dialogue explores at greater length the confrontations between the ruthless strong and the helpless weak that we considered in chapter 3: the Homeric Achilles and Lykaon, and Hesiod’s Hawk and Nightingale. For those wishing to assess the Athenian position, these earlier episodes are as important as the Thrasymachos of the Republic and the Kallikles of the Gorgias. Nevertheless, for all the attention that the Melian Dialogue has attracted, apart from general references to a sophistic calculus of power, very little attention has been paid to the wider cultural context in which the debate is situated.[3] How would the Athenian and Melian remarks have sounded in the fifth century?

Andrewes, in reworking Gomme’s commentary, comments on Thucydides 5.89:

The Athenians here allow that justice is a usable concept between cities on the same level of power: only in the case of disproportionate power it does not apply and never has applied, and we all know that this is so. But the open admission is abnormal, for evidence enough remains to show that the ordinary citizen, even of a great power acting arbitrarily, preferred to think that his city’s action was morally justified [italics mine].

Andrewes’s remarks are complex, for they address not only Thucydides, but the general human condition. The reader is told that, as “we all know,” the very strong, by some law of sociological physics, abuse the very weak. If, then, we do not accept the basic assumptions of the Melian debate, we as readers are presumably foolish.

Nevertheless, although anyone can point to countless instances of gross oppression, human behavior is far more complex than such simplistic maxims would suggest. Andrewes’s casual remarks are interesting because they make explicit an assumption common to many analyses of the Melian Dialogue and because they take for granted what is in fact a conclusion.[4] His assertion of universal assent is a classic case of the phenomenon that L. Althusser termed “interpellation,” a subtle appeal to an apparently universal “common sense.” [5] Thucydides differs, however, from many modern readers in that his Athenians would not have been quite so successful. Leo Strauss, for example, shrewdly emphasized that the Athenians on Melos “spoke indeed behind closed doors but to hear them one would believe that all Athenians shared their views. In fact however they spoke only for a part of Athens—for modern, innovating, daring Athens whose memory barely extends beyond Salamis and Themistokles.” [6] Some Athenians would certainly have reacted to Andrewes’s interpellating assertion with an automatic “Yes! Its true,” but a considerable (and, in my view, predominant) percentage of the Athenian population would have reacted with outrage.

Still, more needs to be said. If there are other perspectives, what precisely might they have been? Strauss distinguishes between these fifth-century “modernists” and the inhabitants of rural Attika, uprooted from their homes by war, but a simple dichotomy, of course, is not enough. Consider the following argument, which the Melians adduce at the very beginning of the dialogue. The Athenians have just established their hard rules of debate: they will refuse to listen to “fair words,” and insist that justice is not relevant when one party is vastly more powerful than another (Thuc. 5.89). To this the Melians respond:

As we think, at any rate, it is expedient (chrêsimon)—we speak as we are obliged, since you enjoin us to let right alone and talk only of interest (to sumpheron)—that you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right (dikaia), 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 meditate upon.

Critics have argued that the Melians seek here to change the rules of debate,[7] but this judgment is not strictly true. The dangers of fortune are, of course, a major theme in Thucydides—not to mention Herodotus and much of classical Greek literature. The Melians, however, take human frailty a step farther and use it as the premise for an additional conclusion: restraint in the application of power is prudent because today’s master is tomorrow’s victim. The Melians thus argue that what is just and fair (in this case, leaving the Melians in peace) is also expedient. The Melians do not abandon interest but argue that justice, fairness, and interest are all interlinked—the same argument with which Plato would shape the Republic. The underlying idea is not, however, an invention of Plato’s. Rather, Plato was attempting to give more powerful expression to a very old idea, which the Melians cite in their defence.

Consider, for example, Kroisos on the pyre—the climax of the Lydian narrative that opens and sets the tone for Herodotus’s Histories:

When Kyros heard from the interpreters what Kroisos said, he relented and considered that he, a human being, was burning alive another human being, one his equal in good fortune. In addition, he feared retribution, reflecting how there is nothing stable in human affairs. He ordered that the blazing fire be extinguished as quickly as possible, and that Kroisos and those with him be taken down, but despite their efforts they could not master the fire.

Kyros suddenly changes his mind and resolves to save Kroisos because he recognizes that he too is mortal and that he too is likely to find himself a defeated man at the mercy of his enemies. The recognition of shared human frailty was a well-known concept: Achilles turns to this concept when he accepts Priam and finally lets go of his own wrath at the end of the Iliad. The logic of “enlightened self-interest” was well known. “In looking out for that man I help myself,” Sophokles’ rather hard-boiled Oedipus cries as he resolves to ferret out the murderers of Laios (OT 141). The notoriously diffident Deianeira sees her high spirits at Herakles’ promised return evaporate as she beholds the pitiful women Herakles captured in war: she fearfully contemplates the prospect that she might find herself in a similarly grim position someday (Trach. 296ff.). Nor is this simply a reflection on Deianeira’s sympathetic, but perhaps naive, character. Odysseus, whether drawn attractively or not, is a type for the sophisticated man of affairs. The recognition of shared risk drives the Odysseus of Sophokles’ Ajax to show pity for Ajax (Aj. 121–126) and to insist on the hero’s proper burial (1332–1345).[8]

Thucydides’ Melians at 5.90 point directly to a topos that Herodotus and Sophokles put in the mouths of key figures in prominent passages.[9] The Melians are thus not simply changing the subject or altering the rules of the game. They are appealing to an established—and, to all appearances, broadly appealing, then as now—convention that equated self-interest with restraint. Of course, the principle of harming one’s enemies and helping one’s friends was important,[10] but the forbearance of Kyros and Odysseus represented a competing perspective that Herodotus and Sophokles, both contemporaries of Thucydides, took care to represent. When Thucydides’ Athenians reject this argument, they are not simply pursuing a path of least resistance, mouthing self-evident platitudes of power politics. They are brushing aside an appeal to an established posture of the great. The cost is not trivial: the game is for appearances—as the Athenians stress—but these Athenians, once again, show that they have no interest in accumulating the symbolic capital of generosity and greatheartedness. For them, fear and terror are the only symbolic forces worth cultivating.

I have used Thucydides 5.90 as a fairly straightforward example of the complex relationship between the Melian Dialogue and conventional Greek ideas. Now I will focus on a particular document. Perhaps the most important parallel, possibly even the model (or antimodel), for the Melian Dialogue appears in Herodotus—whose Histories, we must recall, are far closer in time to Thucydides than they are to the Persian Wars. The Melian Dialogue inverts the role and rhetorical stance that Herodotus attributes to Athens when it rejects an offer of friendship from Persia, perhaps its finest moment in the Histories.[11] I will return to the Melian Dialogue later because this exchange brings out a fundamental weakness in Athenian power politics. First, however, it is necessary to place this crucial section of the History more firmly in its intellectual context.

Herodotus’s Athenians and the Politics of Heroism

The Athenian reply to Mardonios has attracted far less scholarly attention than the Athenian arguments to the Melians—claims to virtue evidently have less appeal than bald assertions of ruthlessness, a phenomenon that will probably not surprise students of Thucydides. The Macedonian king Alexander quotes Mardonios quoting Xerxes with an offer of peace and friendship (Hdt. 8.140). The Athenian response (8.144) is remarkable not only for its high-minded disdain for danger and material advantage but also for its formulation of “Hellenism” as a positive value worthy of defence. Thucydides composed the Melian Dialogue in large measure to counter such flattering representations of Athens as the Athenian rejection of Xerxes’ offer in Herodotus. He hoped his audience would see in the Melian Dialogue a revised—and, in some sense, purified—vision of Athenian authority. Certainly, Thucydides’ speakers exhibit little interest and less patience for tired Athenian claims about the Persian Wars. The Athenians have scarcely begun their first speech in Thucydides before they concede that Athenian references to the Persian Wars have grown stale (Thuc. 1.73.2). The Melian Dialogue may, for all we know, constitute a conscious response to the Athenian posturing at Herodotus 8.140ff., but whatever their relationship, the two passages warrant close comparison, for they highlight the gulf between Athenian opposition to Xerxes (which Thucydides’ Athenians mention and immediately dismiss at 5.89) and Athens’s current status as turannos polis. First, the pious rejection of Xerxes’ offer and the amoral threats to the Melians are both theatrical expositions whose primary audiences are the Greeks as a whole: in framing their remarks, the Athenians, as it were, look past Alexander and the Melians to the wider Greek world. Second, in each case, the Athenians use this public forum as an arena within which to win prestige at the expense of the Spartans. The tactics are radically different—in Herodotus, the Athenians seek to outdo the Spartans in traditional virtues; Thucydides’ Athenians turn to negative tools and seek to destroy Spartan credibility—but the net effect is the same.

The Athenian answer to Alexander is, however, part of a more complex exchange. A third party, a delegation from Sparta, also participates, and the Athenians answer Alexander and the Spartans separately. In book 1 of his History, Thucydides informs us that the Athenian delegation that participated in the debate leading up to the Peloponnesian War was present by accident—it just happened to be in Sparta on other business when the discussion took place (Thuc. 1.72). In Herodotus, however, the Spartans sent this delegation specifically to confront Alexander, and the Athenians manipulated the situation to their advantage:

Moreover, it so fell out for both that they made their entry at one and the same time, for the Athenians delayed and waited for them, being certain that the Spartans were going to hear that the messenger had come from the Persians for an agreement. They had heard that the Spartans would send their envoys with all speed. Therefore it was of set purpose that they did this in order that they might make their will (gnômê) known to the Spartans.

This detail brings out the self-consciously theatrical nature of this episode. The Athenians could have answered Alexander at an earlier date, but they wanted to perform their response in front of the Spartans and thus to dramatize their constancy before a deeply engaged local audience. Furthermore, once the Spartans took part, the entire negotation became doubly open. It was no longer an, at least formally private, exchange between two parties. The exchange between Athens and Persia thus contributes to Athens and Sparta’s on-going competition for prestige within the Greek world as a whole.

The Spartan response to the Persian offer combines blame and an offer, but their overall goal from beginning to end is to place Sparta in a favorable light. The Spartans never speak on their own behalf: they urge the Athenians “to do nothing rash with respect to Hellas” (Hdt. 8.142.1). Accepting the Persian offer would “not be just (dikaion), nor would it be an ornament (kosmos) for any of the Hellenes” (142.2). If Athens wishes the world to see how nobly it resists Persian blandishments, the Spartans want to cut Athens down to size: the Athenians, they charge, caused this war, “but now it weighs against all of Hellas.” “Above all it is intolerable that the Athenians should become legally liable (aitioi) that slavery (doulosunê) should be brought upon the Hellenes” (142.3). According to the Spartans, the Persian offer pits Athens against all of Hellas. At the same time, the Spartans—now speaking entirely on their own behalf—generously offer to care for Athenian dependents for however long the war may last. Blame they offer as humble representatives of Greece (although the Athenians hold this blame against them). The offered gift, however, is Sparta’s own. Sparta lays personal and private claim to the gratitude that it deserves and to the reputation of generosity that this gesture enhances.

The Athenians’ answer to Alexander constitutes a preface to their direct answer to the Spartans, since the Spartans and, by extension, the Greek allies are Athens’s primary audience. Everything that the Athenians say responds to the tone and the challenges laid down by the Spartans. To Alexander, the Athenians flatly admit that they cannot compete with Persian force, but “nevertheless, longing for freedom (eleutheria) we will defend ourselves as best as we can” (Hdt. 8.143.1). A long as the sun remains on its present course, they will never come to terms with the Persians (143.2), and they brusquely urge Alexander to “get out of town” lest something happen to him.

Once the Athenians have established their indomitable commitment to freedom, they turn to the Spartans and lay claim to the highest ideals. There is not enough gold or land in the entire world to make Athens side with the Persians and enslave (katadoulôsai) Hellas. The Spartans had focused upon the disgrace that such a surrender would incur. The Athenians choose instead to construct a positive vision of a shared Hellenic identity on behalf of which they are determined to fight:

For there are many great reasons why we should not do this, even if we so desired: first and foremost, the burning and destruction of the cult statues (agalmata) and temples of our gods, whom we are constrained to avenge to the utmost rather than make pacts with the perpetrator of these things, and next the kinship of all Greeks in blood and language, and the shrines of gods and the sacrifices that we have in common, and the likeness of our way of life, to all of which it would not befit the Athenians to be false.

The Athenians thus portray themselves not merely as defending Hellas against slavery, but as champions of a culture that all Greeks share and that justifies any personal sacrifice. “The Athenians portray the Persian attack as an assault on their Greek identity.” [12]

Finally, they respond to the Spartan offer of assistance, adroitly demonstrating their own incomparable generosity of spirit and gaining the advantage in this exchange. They graciously acknowledge the concern (pronoia) that the Spartans had for them (Hdt. 8.144.3). The Athenians decline the Spartan offer, but “the charis has been completely filled”—that is, the Spartans will receive the full measure of charis for their generosity, even though the Athenians will not take up their offer. In the competitive struggle of gift exchange, this is a bold riposte that attests to Athenian generosity and power.

The limitations on such proud rhetoric become clear only a few pages later, when the Athenians and Spartans again clash publicly in this mannered struggle for prestige. Having extracted from the Athenians a promise that they would not make peace with the Persians, the Spartans make no move to defend Greece north of the Peloponnese. An Athenian delegation journeys to Sparta and harshly demands immediate action (Hdt. 8.7), but the Spartans put off any response for ten days. Even Herodotus casts doubt upon Spartan motives, suggesting that they had cynically offered Athens military support they never intended to provide (8.8.2). Only when their allies pointed out that Athenian help was still crucial did the Spartans send forces out of the Peloponnese (8.9–10).

Both parties use the episode to jockey for position. The Spartans do not simply come to the aid of their Athenian allies after Xerxes’ offer of peace has been rejected. Instead, after hesitating to act and goading the Athenians beyond endurance, they attempt to recoup their weakened position with showmanship. When they finally choose to act, the Spartans send a substantial force out before dawn, but the departure was secret and calculated to trap the exasperated Athenian envoys at Sparta:

So Pausanias’s army had marched away from Sparta; but as soon as it was day, the envoys came before the ephors, having no knowledge of the expedition, and being minded themselves too to depart each one to his own place. When they arrived, “You Spartans,” they said, “remain where you are! Observe your Hyakinthia and enjoy your celebrations, leaving your allies deserted. For the wrong that you do them and for lack of allies, the Athenians will make their peace with the Persians as best they can, [2] and thereafter, insofar as we will be the King’s allies, we will march with him against whatever land his men lead us. Then will you learn what the issue of this matter will be for you.”

The Spartans have manipulated their rivals with great skill. Their city in desperate straits and tormented by days of inaction, the Athenian envoys abandon their unswervingly noble posture and, in their furious indignation, threaten to side with the Persians against the Spartans.

In response to this the ephors swore to them that they believed their army to be even now at Orestheum, marching against the “strangers,” as they called the barbarians. [3] Having no knowledge of this, the envoys questioned them further as to the meaning of this and thereby learned the whole truth; they marveled at this and hastened with all speed after the army.

The Spartans are then able to cut the rhetorical legs out from under them. When the Athenians hear that a Spartan force is already en route, they forget their accusations and determine the veracity of the report. Stunned by the event, they hurry off without a word.

It is hard to overemphasize the cleverness with which the Spartans manage in the end to outmaneuver the Athenians, or the rhetorical success that they won. Even in modern times, critics have accepted the contradiction at its face value. Those who comment on the Athenian speeches at Herodotus 8.143–144 tend either to ignore the reversal at 9.11 or to elide the events of 9.1–10 that provoke this Athenian explosion. Macan, commenting on Herodotus 8.144, could not help but see in 9.11 a bitter satire directed against Athens. For Macan, the satire was unconscious—Herodotus had simply followed two separate sources and had not recognized the inconsistency. For Charles Fornara, however, in his influential book on Herodotus, the irony is intentional and bitter: “Herodotus is indeed making the Athenians contradict themselves. Even if he had not gone so far as to underscore the irony, it is clear that the brave words of the Athenians are double-edged.” [13] The change from the noble words of 8.144 to the outraged threats of 9.11 did not lack motivation, and fury against the deceitful Spartans provided at least as much cause as fear for Athens. It is hard to say whether Herodotus’s account as a whole does not weigh more heavily against the shortsighted and devious Spartans than against the desperate and victimized Athenians.

But, of course, the bitterest irony comes not from the text of Herodotus but from the historical context within which Herodotus’s Histories evolved. “Herodotus’ audience,” Kurt Raaflaub has remarked, could not “overlook the profound and tragic irony that it is the later polis turannos that is justly praised above Sparta for its decisive contribution to saving the liberty of Hellas in the historian’s famous personal statement at 7.139, and that so admirably defends those very principles in refusing the advantageous offer of a separate peace by Mardonios in the winter of 480/479 (8.136–44).” [14] Or, as Fornara, puts it, “When viewed from the perspective of Herodotus and his contemporaries, Athens made peace with Persia to gain land and gold. The burned shrines were rebuilt by Pericles with imperial revenues. Those common bonds linking Greek to Greek were snapped by the outbreak of war between them. These speeches can only be taken at face value by utterly divorcing Herodotus from his milieu and by assuming that he had no conception at all of the predictable thoughts of his contemporaries. That assumption is incompatible with the essence of his technique.” [15]

Thucydides and the Grandchildren of Salamis

From their speech in the Spartan assembly to Euphemos’s manipulative arguments at Kamarina, Thucydides’ Athenians consistently disdain the lofty rhetoric that Herodotus’s Athenians direct toward Xerxes and the Spartans, but nowhere do they carry this antirhetoric farther than in the Melian Dialogue. Herodotus’s picture of noble Athenians, refusing the Persian offers with high-minded rhetoric, had impressed itself deeply upon the Greek consciousness, and Thucydides included in the Melian Dialogue the same fundamental situation and many of the same arguments. A mighty imperial power confronts a weak opponent with an offer that it cannot refuse. The confrontation assumes a meaning beyond its immediate physical consequences and evolves into a paradigm for the nature of Athens. On the one hand, arguments rest upon the overwhelming disparity in dunamis, the conviction that an immediate victory will only put off the inevitable defeat, the ability to yield without dishonor in such a situation, and the charge that opposition at this point is a sign not of virtue but of stupidity. On the other side stand trust in the gods, shared kinship, the importance of goodwill and of symbolic capital, and faith in the institutions that held the Greek world together and gave meaning to those who lived in it. The Athenians in both feel free to draw upon traditional morality for their argumentation.

But each point of connection leads to an inversion—a Pindarist might describe Thucydides’ Athenians on Melos as the negative foil of their grandparents in Herodotus. It is as if Thucydides had chosen to endow the Melian incident with such enormous significance because the Melian Dialogue would be a simple but striking transformation of the earlier stance—another comparable massacre at Skione (Thuc. 5.32) warrants no comment at all.[16] In Herodotus, Persia attacks Athens, while in Thucydides, Athens is the superpower menacing Melos, but the arguments against resistance in both are similar:

  • Do not oppose overwhelming force. In Herodotus, Mardonios warns the Athenians of the inexhaustible dunamis at his disposal (Hdt. 8.140A.3) and that an immediate success will only bring on an invasion force many times as large. Alexander repeats this theme, declaring that “the dunamis of the Great King is beyond that of a human being” (8.140B.2).
  • There are no long-term prospects for success. Mardonios warns the Athenians: “Even if you overcome and conquer us—of which, if you are in your right minds, you can have no hope (elpis)—there will nevertheless come another army many times as great as this” (Hdt. 8.140A.3).

    The Athenians do not even allow for much in the way of short-term success for the Melians. They scoff at Spartan action against Athens: “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.… Your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious” (Thuc. 5.111.1–2).

  • There is no dishonor in yielding. Mardonios warns the Athenians: “Do not wish to make yourselves equal beside the King, and thereby lose your land and always be yourselves in jeopardy, but make peace. This you can most honorably (kallista) do, since the King is that way inclined. Remain free (eleutheroi), and agree to be our brothers in arms in all faith and honesty” (Hdt. 8.140A.4).

    The Athenians urge the Melians: “If you plan things out with self-restraint (sophronos), this is not a contest about manly valor (andragathia) on an equal footing, with honor as the prize and shame as the penalty, but a question of self-preservation (sôtêria) and of not resisting those who are far stronger than you are” (Thuc. 5.101).

  • Opposition at this point is a sign not of virtue but of stupidity. At Herodotus 8.140A.3, Mardonios berates the Athenians: “Why are you so insane (mainesthe) as to wage war against the King? You cannot overcome him, nor can you resist him forever. As for the multitude of Xerxes’ army, what it did, you have seen, and you have heard of the power that I now have with me. Even if you overcome and conquer us—of which, if you be in your right minds, you can have no hope (elpis)—there will nevertheless come another army many times as great as this.”

    At Thucydides 5.111.2, by contrast, the Athenians level similar charges against the Melians: “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 that people 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 stupidity (alogia) of judgment (dianoia), unless, after allowing us to retire, you can find some counsel more prudent than this.”

If the arguments for capitulation are comparable, so too are the positions of Herodotus’s Athenians and Thucydides’ Melians. The Melians cling to the same general beliefs as did the Athenians when they resisted the Persian offer. Both Herodotus’s Athenians and Thucydides’ Melians, for example, trust the gods to play an active role in human events. To Alexander, the Athenians proudly reply:

As long as the sun holds the course by which he now goes, we will make no agreement with Xerxes. We will fight against him without ceasing, trusting in the gods and the heroes as allies for whom he had no reverence (opis) but burned their temples and their cult statues (agalmata).

Twice the Melians make similar appeals to divine justice:

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 in the fortune that derives from the divine (hê tuchê ek tou theiou) that we will not be defeated, since we are pious (hosioi) men fighting against unjust (ou dikaioi).

This faith in divine intervention returns as one of the fundamental bases for the Melians’ final decision:

Our resolution, Athenians, is the same as it was at first. We will not in a moment deprive of freedom (eleutheria) a city that has been inhabited these 700 years; but we put our trust in the fortune derived from the divine (ek tou theiou) that has preserved it until now.

Similarly, both Herodotus’s Athenians and Thucydides’ Melians place tremendous weight on the common institutions of the Greek world. For the Athenians, Hellas itself—with its shared language, kinship, and religious sanctuaries—is the object that focuses their minds (Hdt. 8.144.2). The Melians also rely upon the interlocking web of obligations and expectations of the Hellenes as a whole that, in their minds, shape the actions of particular city-states (Thuc. 5.106), but their trust focuses upon a much narrower, better-defined, and, by traditional standards, reliable institution than a general Panhellenism:

We trust that…what we want in dunamis will be made up by the alliance of the Spartans, who are bound, if for no other reasons, to come to our aid on account of our shared kinship (suggeneia) at least and by reason of shame (aischunê). Our confidence, therefore, after all is not so utterly irrational.

Although the Athenians had already acknowledged that it would have been natural for the Melians, as colonists of the Spartans, to have campaigned at their side (Thuc. 5.89), they scorn any notion that the Spartans would feel compelled to live up to any reciprocal obligations that incur trouble or risk (5.105). The Melians do not let this argument drop, nor do they violate the Athenian injunction (5.89) that argumentation focus upon “expediency” (to sumpheron) and disregard “justice” (to dikaion). They insist that even if expediency alone counts, the Spartans must come to their aid or risk losing the confidence of others who depend upon them (5.106). Another scornful Athenian reply (5.107) still cannot quell their faith in this argument. The Melians insist that, despite Athenian command of the seas, Spartan intervention is practicable, and, again, they insist that they themselves are particularly valuable allies because of “our shared kinship” (5.108: to sungenes). Their final points in the dialogue as a whole turn upon practical measures that the Spartans can take on both land and sea, and presuppose Spartan willingness to act (5.110). In the end, they decide to resist and to rely upon divine support and “on that retribution (timôria) issuing from mortals and from the Spartans” (5.112.2).

Both Herodotus’s Athenians and Thucydides’ Melians believe that the overarching issue at hand touches upon their own worth. Capitulation does not simply mean a new administrative structure and the loss of wealth as tribute. Capitulation undermines the qualities out of which these individuals construct their self-images. Herodotus’s Athenians boast that their “spirit” (Hdt. 8.144.1: phronêma) would not let them consider the King’s offer. Everything about this scene as a whole is constructed so that the Athenians can strike the loftiest pose. Likewise, the Melians cannot bear the appearance of “worthlessness” (Thuc. 5.100: kakotês) or “cowardice” (deilia).

Both Herodotus’s Athenians and Thucydides’ Melians place a greater value on freedom (eleutheria) than on any material advantage, and even on life itself. In Herodotus, the Athenians resist because they are passionately attached to freedom (Hdt. 8.143.1: eleutheria), and the Spartans equate a settlement with slavery for all the Hellenes (8.142.2). Likewise, the Melians from the start see nothing but douleia in capitulation (Thuc. 5.86, 92, 100) and are determined to preserve their freedom (5.100, 112.2).

But at this point the situations of Herodotus’s Athenians and Thucydides’ Melians sharply diverge. In each case, the stronger party offers its opponent something, but the offers are very different. The Great King promises generous material reparations and additional land as well (Hdt. 8.140A.2). Mardonios points out that the Athenians can “reach a settlement in most noble fashion (kallista)” and even remain free (eleutheroi) (8.140A.4). The Great King himself, Alexander argues, is willing to make concessions so that he may become “a friend to the Athenians alone among the Hellenes” (8.140B.4). The Great King and his emissaries do everything they can to embed acceptance of his authority within a dignified and even affective relationship. Xerxes works hard to help the Athenians argue that they have established a new friendship and, at worst, have accepted hegemony rather than domination. An Athenian relationship with Xerxes would, of course, be open to other, less positive interpretations, but Xerxes does everything that he can to help the Athenians justify capitulation in their own minds.

The Athenians make no such handsome offers to the Melians. From the opening of the dialogue, they repeat that the issue before the Melians is self-preservation (sôtêria, Thuc. 5.87, 91.2, 101, 105.4, 111.2). Melos must serve Athens or be destroyed. In conclusion, the best they can do is present the following offer:

This, if you are well advised, you will guard against; and you will not think it dishonorable 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 (hoi isoi), who keep terms with their superiors (hoi kreissones), and are moderate toward their inferiors (hoi hêssous), on the whole succeed best.

For the Athenians, the world is a precisely hierarchical place, in which each group falls into one of three categories: equals, superiors, or inferiors. The scale is not, however, birth, mythical heritage, or even moral standing. A simple calculus of power—the lethal force that one group can project upon the other—determines rank. There are no euphemisms for the Melians, no rhetoric of friendship, no pretensions that their “freedom” will be restored or that their relationship with Athens will be a signal honor. Nothing gently mystifies the disparity in rank that would separate Athens and the Melians. The Athenians refuse to concede the Melians any but the most pitiful scraps with which to defend their self-respect.

Indeed, the Athenians, in their analysis of the Melian position, turn upside down the arguments that their grandfathers had made in 480/ 479—it is almost as if they are arguing against their own prior selves. They mock the Melians’ claim to divine support: “When you mention the favor (eumeneia) of the divine (to theion), we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither our pretensions nor our conduct being in any way contrary to mortal belief about the divine (to theion) or practice among the gods themselves” (Thuc. 5.105.1). According to these Athenians, gods and mortals alike conform to the general rule that the strong dominate the weak. Power, uninhibited by moral restraints, seeks its natural equilibrium in the divine and the mortal sphere (5.105.2).

The Athenians in Thucydides can draw upon traditional morality when it suits them, but they skillfully manipulate the old ideas to serve their own interests. They warn the Melians against reliance upon hope (elpis), a convention of archaic Greek thought:

You are weak and hang upon a single turn. Do not choose to suffer (pathein, from paschô) this nor to become like the many (hoi polloi), who, while still able to save themselves, once evident reasons for hope (phanerai elpides) have abandoned them and they are laboring, turn to hopes with no visible support (hai aphaneis), such as divination and oracles and however many other things, accompanied with hopes, inflict abuse.

The rebuke has a sharp edge to it—the Melian representatives are, we know (Thuc. 5.84.3), members of the local elite who have excluded the common people from a share in the deliberation. The Melian representatives thus define themselves as the few (oligoi, Thucydides’ term at 5.84.3) and as superior to “the many” (hoi polloi). The Athenians thus shrewdly play upon class prejudices, but they also appeal to traditional language denigrating mortal folly. Consider, for example, an argument that appears in Pindar:

She fell in love with what was distant—which sort of thing many (polloi) have suffered (pathon, from paschô). There is a most vain (mataiotaton) tribe among humans that dishonors what is at home and looks far away, hunting down empty air with hopes (elpis, pl.) that cannot be fulfilled.

In both cases, elpis is a desire for things that are not possible, a misfortune that “many” (polloi) “suffer” (pascho). Rather than focus upon what is at hand and obvious, they pursue “ elpides with no visible foundation” and “look far away, hunting down empty air with their hopes.”

The parallel with Pindar, however, only brings out more clearly the harshness of the Athenian perspective. Pindar warns against those who, dizzied by present success, let themselves become carried away. His particular exemplum is Koronis, who had slept with Apollo and conceived the child of a god, but then gave in to her passions and slept with another mortal before she became married (24–30). The Melians, however, are not basking in good fortune. Their outrageous ambition is to maintain themselves as a small but free state. The Melians do not attempt to rise above their positions as mortals, but to preserve their status as free Greeks. The Melians want nothing more than to maintain the traditional semiautonomous status that all Greek city-states expected and that was a fundamental principle in archaic Hellas. Thus even when they turn to a traditional moral argument, the Athenians twist it in ways that transgress traditional sensibilities.

Nevertheless, for all their differences, in some ways, the Athenians in Herodotus and in Thucydides are similar. Both perceive themselves as actors in a drama performed to impress a wider audience. In Herodotus, the audience (the rest of Hellas) is implicit, but fundamental. The Athenian stance justifies, in part, their leading role after Plataia. The Melian Dialogue plays a similarly fundamental role in defining Athens’s position sixty years after Plataia. Thucydides’ Athenians, however, explicitly mention the gaze of the outside world. Melos has no material consequence but is crucial as a paradeigma: “Your hostility (echthra) cannot so much hurt us as your friendship (philia) will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your hatred (misos) of our power (dunamis)” (Thuc. 5.95). The argument turns on how the other Greeks will interpret events at Melos: the Greeks will consider what is reasonable and not expect you to treat us like your own apoikoi or conquered rebels (5.96). The Athenians respond that the rest of the world thinks that power and terror (dunamis and phobos) alone constrain Athenian actions (5.97). The Melians warn that the Athenians will make enemies of all remaining neutral (5.98). The Athenians shrug this off: the Greeks on the mainland are free and have no reason to worry about the Melians; the islanders who are under the Athenian yoke are most likely to give in to desperation and attempt something rash (5.99). The Melians believe that the Spartans will have to come to their aid because those Hellenes who are friendly to the Spartans will otherwise deem them “people who do not warrant trust” (5.106: apistoi).

Similarly, different as their Athenians may be, both Herodotus and Thucydides wrote, at least in part, to illustrate a critique of the Athenians that must have been especially common in the later fifth century. We have already examined the impact that Herodotus’s account—composed in the second half of the fifth century, when the Athenian empire was at its height—must have had. Even Herodotus concedes that most of his audience in the Greek world has become hostile to Athens and resents accounts that glorify even prior Athenian virtues (Hdt. 7.139.1).

Thucydides’ Athenians, of course, have changed positions. No longer freedom fighters, they are now imperialists, and they thus undermine the moral authority that they won in opposing Xerxes. Thucydides even provides us with a glimpse of how Greeks in the later fifth century turned Athens’s behavior against Persia against it. As Sthenelaidas observes in the debate at Sparta, “If they were good (agathoi) against the Mede then, but bad (kakoi) toward us now, they deserve double punishment for having ceased to be good (agathoi) and for having become bad (kakoi)” (Thuc. 1.86.1). Athens’s noble past, now two generations old, lends to the Melian Dialogue an even more intense “profound and tragic irony” than that which readers have seen in the contrast between Herodotean Athenians and the realities of the empire.[17]

But in Thucydides’ account the Athenians are arguably not the biggest losers in terms of moral standing. They are closer to the much-admired Neoptolemos than to the calculating Odysseus of Sophokles’ Philoktetes. Neoptolemos has no qualms about using force to achieve his goals—his only objection is to deceit (Phil. 86–95). The Athenians may be harsh, but they are explicit in their goals, and they stand by their word. Neither can be said for the Spartans. When the Athenians deny—correctly—that the Spartans will aid their Melian colonists, the implications of their argument are subtle, but far-reaching. In Herodotus, the Athenian response to the Persians is part of an ongoing contest with the Spartans for prestige among the Greeks, and Herodotus does, I believe, poke some fun at Sparta’s shifty maneuvers for prestige (Hdt. 9.11), but the Melian Dialogue is more pointed. Symbolic capital depends upon a central assumption: exchanges implicate their participants in a social relationship that endures over time. One can build up such symbolic capital only if both sides believe that a present investment, namely, a good service of some kind, will be returned in the future. Thus the Spartans and Athenians struggle to increase this capital or to demonstrate their trustworthiness. The Athenian answer to the Persians itself promulgates the idea that no danger or material reward will compel the Athenians to abandon their moral commitments to the Greek world. Faced with an unbearable combination of threat and promise, the Athenians are unmoved. The Spartans attempt to undercut the Athenian position by pointing out that the Athenians are responsible for Xerxes’ invasion and by offering, as a particular gift of Sparta, aid to the Athenian dependents (Hdt. 8.142). The Athenians contrive to threaten Alexander while still parading their commitment to charis—they hope that Alexander, their friend and proxenos, should suffer nothing acharis, “lacking or contrary to that charis ”that should bind them (8.143.3). The Athenians then acknowledge the generosity of the Spartans—and trump it by giving them the charis as a gift that they chose not to accept (8.144.3–4).

If the competition for symbolic capital shapes much of what Herodotus’s Athenians say, Thucydides’ Athenians devote much of their intellectual energy critiquing such intangible wealth. For these Athenians, personal feelings such as affection, loyalty, goodwill, or the quest for moral virtue operate at the margins of human behavior and are relevant only when two parties are roughly equal in strength. Should the disparity in power grow too great, then such sentimental qualities count for nothing, as relative power seeks, by universal law, its equilibrium. Spartan ties of kinship mean nothing when set beside Athenian force. The Melians simply do not matter enough for the Spartans to incur the risks involved in confronting the Athenians (Thuc. 5.105, 107, 109, 111). If the Spartans had a tremendous material advantage, they might then perceive intervention to be in their interest (5.109). Loyalty and faithfulness can, according to these Athenians, exist only within narrow tolerances imposed by external conditions. All human virtues are, in this view, contingent. All human actions, virtues, and even feelings depend upon the given situation and must give way to external circumstances.

The Athenians in Thucydides are as concerned as those in Herodotus to publicize their consistency of purpose, but Athenian consistency in Thucydides fundamentally differs from that in Herodotus. Herodotus’s Athenians prove that they are masters of their actions—Xerxes can kill them all, but they will never surrender. Thucydides’ Athenians wish to convey the idea that they have a cool appreciation for the calculus of power and that they will impersonally pursue the course that this logic determines. Herodotus’s Athenians are reliable because they would rather die than betray Hellas and their friends. Thucydides’ Athenians are predictable because they follow the logic of any given situation. In Herodotus, the Athenians develop their internal, personal qualities. In Thucydides, they point outward toward a generalized logic of human existence. The tactics differ: Herodotus’s Athenians command admiration and loyalty; Thucydides’ Athenians exploit fear. In both cases, however, the object is the same: to enhance their standing and to give them the greatest possible leverage in the Greek world.

Thus the Athenians do more than abandon their moral authority as defenders of Greek freedom against Persian conquest. They attack the grounds on which their previous moral authority had rested, not only rejecting the role of heroic resistance but even denying the practical existence of such a role. Even if Thucydides’ Athenians were once again to become liberators, these Athenians could not deliver the speeches that we find in Herodotus 8.143–144, because they have rejected the premises on which those speeches depended. They have thus not simply exchanged roles but have redefined the rules of the game itself and rendered the old system irrelevant.

But if Thucydides’ Athenians deny much, their position is far from being entirely negative. It is not strictly true to say that the Athenians assure the Melians that “the rule of law is not applicable to them.” [18] The Athenians dismiss justice and conventional morality, but they put in their place a new, almost scientific law based on power and, as they insist, empirical truth. The breadth of vision is similar to that of Achilles when he confronts Lykaon in book 21 of the Iliad (Il. 21.54–63)—and the Athenian position is in its own way, as Brian Bosworth has most recently argued, humane (the terrified Lykaon would have been delighted to accept Athenian terms: surrender and be spared).

Even the concept of symbolic capital has not so much been abandoned as redefined. For all the talk of power politics and the concentration on force—who can deploy the most ships and men and ultimately cut the most throats—the Athenians never pretend that Melos is a materially important site. The Melians have no money, men, ships, or other tangible strength with which either to help or to hurt Athens. The Melians are important only because they have symbolic value (Thuc. 5.95). The Athenians scorn as naive any faith in human loyalty, but they take very seriously revenge and threats of force. Athens offers little in the way of friendship but seeks to represent itself as utterly reliable as an exponent of violence. The Athenians wish to conquer Melos to prove that they will always bend the weaker to their will. If the Athenians on Melos are the evil twins of their counterparts in the Persian Wars, on the one hand, and of the idealized Spartans in whom the Melians put such faith, on the other, they are the only agents in Thucydides’ bleak world who base their actions on any consistent, objectified intellectual framework. Athenian domination is the mirror of archaic generosity, and the two are linked, just as the exchange of gifts is linked with its opposite, the chain of vengeance. For all that he throws away, Thucydides and his Athenians still attempt to rebuild from the old patterns. Now let us consider the limits with which they struggled and the distinctions that the historian drew between his own voice and that of his creations.


1. This is the main theme of Strasburger 1958. [BACK]

2. This decline is a major theme of, among others, Euben 1990b, 167–201; Deininger 1987, 113; White 1984, 84; Strauss 1964, 192; Meiggs 1972, 388–389; Cogan 1981a, 92; Pouncey 1980, 84. Connor 1984, 151 n. 32, succinctly compares the language of Thuc. 1.76.1–2 with that of the Melian Dialogue. [BACK]

3. On the sophistic background, see Deininger 1987, 123–130. [BACK]

4. See, for example, a recent and provocative contribution: Bosworth 1993. Bosworth does not browbeat his readers by asserting that any reasonable person would agree with the Athenian premises, and he does maintain some distance between his own opinions and those of Thucydides. Nevertheless, he tells his readers at the outset that the Melian Dialogue “emphasizes the delusive and destructive effects of patriotic catchwords,” and the article invites its readers to accept Melian foolishness as self-evident; similarly, Connor (1984, 153) remarks that whatever we may think of the Athenians, “this does not mean that we fail to see the Melians’ folly in attempting to resist the power of Athens.” [BACK]

5. On this, see the introduction. [BACK]

6. Strauss 1964, 200. [BACK]

7. E.g., Pouncey 1980, 88–89: “They first attempt to alter the rules with some redefinition”; Bosworth 1993, 35: “Interestingly the first response of the Melians is to circumvent the rules”; the scholia on Thuc. 5.90, however, stress the connection between expediency and justice that the Melians are trying to establish. [BACK]

8. The background of Thuc. 5.90 has attracted surprisingly little attention; even de Romilly (1979, 153) considers only the parallel with Odysseus in the Ajax. [BACK]

9. The Athenians also touch obliquely upon a part of this topos: Kyros resolves to save Kroisos at least in part because Kroisos had enjoyed a comparable share of good fortune and had thus been in some sense his “equal.” The Athenians reject the Melian advice on the grounds that Sparta, as an equal of Athens, would show restraint—thus assuming that the Spartans would follow a logic similar to that of Kyros. [BACK]

10. Plato begins the Republic by confronting the idea that justice consists of helping friends and hurting enemies (331e-336a). On this principle in Sophokles, for example, see Blundell 1989. [BACK]

11. The contrast between the two has attracted relatively little attention, as scholars have focused primarily upon Thucydides in isolation; note, however, Connor 1984, 156–157. [BACK]

12. Smith 1998. On the structure of this group of speeches and Herodotus’s emphatic placement of the argument about culture, see Lang 1984. [BACK]

13. Fornara 1971b, 86. [BACK]

14. Raaflaub 1987, 239–240. [BACK]

15. Fornara 1971b, 86. [BACK]

16. The counterexample of Skione has been cited since antiquity in connection with Melos as an example both of Athenian cruelty and of Thucydidean inconsistency (e.g., Isok. 4.122, 123.4, 5.2.2, 18.8). It is worth stressing, however, that Skione was fundamentally different from Melos: Skione was an Athenian subject state that had revolted. It is thus closer to Mytilene than to Melos. [BACK]

17. The phrase is from Raaflaub 1987, 239–240. [BACK]

18. Bosworth 1993, 30. [BACK]

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