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The Melian Dialogue
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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]

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