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The Melian Dialogue
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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.

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