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Problems in the Data: Euphemos at Kamarina and the Melian Dialogue

Thucydides defies convention—modern and ancient—in selecting materials for his History. Religion, women, and kinship are only some of the elements that Thucydides pushes to the margins of his account. Nevertheless, we can still often see in Thucydides’ own text indications of the things that he has excluded.[46] It is, however, even easier to see in Thucydides’ text the limitations on that realism that his speakers so often espouse and toward which the historian’s voice aspires. Two famous passages demonstrate the fundamental problems for Athenian realism: Euphemos’s speech at Kamarina and the Melian Dialogue. Each dramatizes a major obstacle to one of the realisms that I outlined in chapter 2. Euphemos’s speech reflects the weakness of “scientific realism”: in manipulating the facts, this crafty Athenian unwittingly speaks the truth and in so doing foreshadows, with almost Oedipodean heavy-handedness, the Athenian disaster to come. The Athenians at Melos reach the limits of that “ideological realism” that seeks to charm or cozen obedience through appeals to “sweet reason.” The calculus of self-interest varies depending upon one’s subject position and upon the values that agents bring with them, and the Melians reveal the hollowness of Athenian power.

Before moving on to these two specific debates, let us consider, however, the general problem of language in Thucydides. The Athenians, for example, assume a fundamental distinction between erga, “real things,” and logoi, “words,” with the erga constituting reality and logoi a kind of secondary epiphenomenon.[47] At Corcyra, the “accustomed valuations” of words were changed so that terms for virtues were applied to vices, but this represented a perversion of language: the “real” values remained unchanged, even if the vocabulary was perverted. Or, to put it more succinctly, signifiers may shift, but that which is signified remains untouched.[48]

But speech is an act, and logoi are, of course, themselves erga—that is why the perversion of language at Thucydides 3.82 is so terrible. A hierarchical model that places one above the other is untenable. Thucydides’ narrative itself is logos, and it brilliantly records the influence of spoken logoi upon human events. Much as Thucydides strives to efface himself during the narrative portions of the History, the meanings of erga are not transparent to those who make decisions in the History. Actors in this history perceive erga through the logoi of public debate and private discussion. If the meaning of erga were perfectly transparent, then best interests would be obvious, and Athenian policy, to take one instance, would not have changed after Perikles’ death. Hence, the “objective” historian of the narrative includes a set of speeches that all argue according to similarly idiosyncratic Thucydidean principles. As Cogan argues, the speeches are there because Thucydides saw in debate a true cause for historical events. If we wish to understand why things happen, we have to know what people thought.[49]

Thucydides is acutely aware of the tension between language and the world. The speech of Euphemos at Kamarina gives bitterly ironic expression to the ambiguous ties between the two. The consequences of this ambiguity are profound: the calculus of interest depends upon a clear recognition of what is or is not advantageous. What happens to Athenian ideology, with its emphasis on “realism,” if the real is itself ambiguous? Thucydides’ History is not a celebration of realism but an arena in which many realisms compete for dominance.

At the beginning of the Sicilian campaign, the Syracusan leader Hermokrates attacks Athenian motives in a debate at Kamarina (Thuc. 6.76–80). He excoriates the Athenians as cynical hypocrites, who exploit fine concepts such as affection for their kindred (6.76.1: to suggenes kêdesthai) as a pretext (6.76.2: prophasis) to embroil themselves in Sicilian affairs. The Athenians seek only a fair-seeming justification (6.76.3: aitia euprepês) to conquer Sicily. He uses manifest Athenian hypocrisy as a tool to discredit Athens’s supposedly limited goals in Sicily and to dramatize the danger of Athenian conquest.

Euphemos, the Athenian representative who answers Hermokrates, delivers a speech that parallels—and on a number of occasion echoes—that of the Athenians at Sparta. The two clearly balance one another, and Euphemos’s speech occurs at the outset of the Sicilian expedition, just as the Athenian speech at Sparta precedes the beginning of the first phase of the war.[50]

Hermokrates played directly into Athens’s rhetorical strengths. Whatever words they may actually have expressed, Thucydides’ Athenians have little use for conventional moralizing. With the partial exception of the Funeral Oration, every Athenian speech from the beginning of the History has undercut charges of such naive hypocrisy. Euphemos thus argues that Athens’s interests pit it against Syracuse but prevent it from extending its domination to Sicily:

Besides, for a man who is a turannos or a city-state that exercises rule (archê), nothing is unreasonable if expedient (sumpheron), nor is there anything of personal interest (oikeion) that is not worthy of trust (piston). In all cases one must be a friend or an enemy in accordance at the proper time (meta kairou). Here, in Sicily, it gives us advantage (ôphelei) not if we weaken our friends, but if our enemies become lacking in power (adunatoi, lacking in dunamis) because of the martial strength (rhômê) of our friends. Why doubt this? In Hellas we treat our allies as we find them useful (chrêsimoi).

Euphemos airily dismisses all higher principles. The Athenians are like a turannos, but he argues that this is, in its own way, an advantage to third parties. Athens’s status as turannos polis makes its motives transparent. The Athenians are thus as reliable (or at least predictable) as if they adhered to a traditional code of ethics. What is expedient (sumpheron), what gives advantage (ôphelei), and what is useful (chrêsmon) absolutely constrain Athenian behavior. If something is in their interest, then it is expedient. If something touches their personal interest (oikeion), then they may be relied upon to pursue it. Euphemos perfectly expresses the logic that statesmen of the major powers openly follow. The sentiments expressed above would excite little comment if they appeared in a New York Times news analysis—except that these principles would appear so obvious that the editor would probably excise or shorten them.

The general gap between erga and their proper logoi provides the rhetorical basis for Euphemos’s argument. Objective realities determine actions, and thus the Athenians can be trusted because restraint in Sicily is in their interests. The same argument, however, also renders Euphemos’s words problematic for two reasons. First, he is lying. His admission that Athens is a turannos and pursues its interests may be true, but not in the fashion that he claims. As Strasburger pointed out a generation ago, this kind of false candor is subtle and devious, for the speaker only pretends to “lay all his cards on the table.” [51] Thucydides has left us in no doubt that the Athenians did indeed intend to conquer all of Sicily. Hermokrates’ accusations are completely correct.[52]

Second, Euphemos’s speech is bitterly ironic, for in lying Euphemos really does, at least in Thucydides’ eyes, describe Athens’s best interests. The Athenians would have been much better off if they had in fact the limited goals that Euphemos ascribes to them. Thucydides did not think it impossible for the Athenians to conquer Syracuse (Thuc. 2.65.11), but the post-Periklean Athenians were unable to achieve even this goal, and Perikles’ emphatic advice not to expand in the face of Spartan power was clearly superior (1.144.1, 2.65.7). The Syracusan demagogue Athenagoras ironically has a much clearer vision of Athenian interests than do the Athenians themselves:

Now it is not likely that they would leave the Peloponnesians behind them, and before they have well ended the war in Hellas wantonly come in quest of a new war quite as arduous, in Sicily; indeed, in my judgment, they are only too glad that we do not go and attack them, being so many and such great cities as we are.

The violent and malevolent Athenagoras, who resembles no one so much as Kleon, nevertheless grasps a central principle of Periklean strategy. One of the great ironies that runs throughout Thucydides’ History is that reality is ambiguous and that actors cannot, in fact, determine their own best interest. Even the wisest and most clearheaded planners cannot eliminate risk and anticipate the operation of chance—this is practically the first thing that Perikles says in his opening speech (Thuc. 1.140), and the plague appears as if to bring home the limits of rational planning.[53]

The idealized dominance of erga over logoi is not simply an issue of academic concern to the actors in Thucydides’ History. The calculus of power is not, in fact, natural but proceeds only insofar as participants accept it as natural. The strong can kill, but they cannot dominate without developing a consensus with the weak. In dragging the calculus of power out of the shadows, the Athenians change the system. Euphemisms and fictions limit power and protect the weak. The calculus of power eliminates ambiguities and raises the stakes for strong and weak alike—one is either equal, master, or slave. But this stark system has its own ideological logic that serves the interests of the strong. Resistance is futile. Only fools struggle. True wisdom dictates submission. The strong thus seek the same advantage that they received under a more ambiguous scheme: they provide the weak with a moral (or perhaps transmoral?) argument by which to justify their own submission.

Hence the Melian Dialogue and its prominence. This debate is not simply important because it documents the ruthlessness with which Athenians exercise their power or the worthlessness of Sparta’s commitment to even its closest allies. The debate is important because the Melians simply refuse to make their actions conform to this calculus of power. They face the full wrath of Athenian power, discuss the matter at length with implacably logical Athenians, and simply do not agree. Objective realities may dominate the fictive constructs—the desperate hopes (elpides), the wish for what is noble (to kalon), the fear of shame (aischunê), may well be poor helps. Yet the Melians stubbornly cling to these ideas, fictive constructs though they may be.

And so the Melians must die. The Athenians explain themselves clearly. The hatred of the Melians harms them less than their friendship; for friendship would imply that Athens was unable to crush the Melians, while the hatred of the Melians would be a public demonstration (paradeigma) of Athens’s dunamis to all its subjects (Thuc. 5.95). No one, according to the Athenians, pays any serious attention to justice or issues of morality:

As far as justification (dikaiôma) goes, they think one has as much of it as the other, and that if any maintain their independence, it is because of power (dunamis), and that if we do not molest them, it is because of terror (phobos); so that besides extending our rule (archê) we should gain in security by your subjection; the fact that you are islanders and weaker than others rendering it all the more important that you should not succeed in baffling the masters of the sea.

The whole Greek world fixes its gaze upon Athens. The Athenians on Melos are, as I argued above, not so different from the earlier Athenians who refused the Persian offer of peace before Plataia. Both act on their own immediate behalf, but also, and more important, both seek with their actions to impress their worth upon the Hellenes. The Athenians before Plataia will do anything to serve their objectified vision of Hellas. The Athenians on Melos are equally ready to do anything to advance their archê. The Athenians before Plataia are willing to fight to the last person; their grandchildren at Melos, to the last Melian. The Athenians may have shifted the burden, but they remain equally ruthless.

Most important, the Athenians at Melos may claim to have set aside all moral considerations, but the vision of the world they seek to advance is as artificial and, at least in its extreme form, as much an invention as the idealized Hellas of Herodotus 8.144. The Athenians at Melos claim that they must demonstrate their own strength, but in fact they need to do more. They need to convince the world that the strong really do rule the weak, that the calculus of power is a universal phenomenon, and that in yielding the weak follow a higher natural law. The Athenians have not abandoned morality. They have replaced it with a new, supposedly more sophisticated system to justify their position.

The Melians must die, but not because their defiance implies Athenian weakness—any comparison between Athenian and Melian strength is ludicrous. In this famous section of the History, the Athenians show an unease about their empire and its stability[54]—surprisingly, given that the war has, at least temporarily, come to an end. But the Athenian position has less to do with particulars of empire than with the need to impose their vision on the world. The Melians must die because they are an embarrassment to the universal calculus of power. Their resistance challenges not only the particular strength of a particular imperial power, but, more important, the fiction that all human beings recognize the “rule of the strong” as “natural.” If the Athenians can convince all of their allies that this principle is a kind of natural law, then they can argue, as they do to the Melians, that there is no dishonor—indeed, there is a kind of cool rationality—in submitting to an overwhelming force (Thuc. 5.89, 111).

The Athenian arguments at Melos are thus just as ideological as the Spartan claims to virtue. The Spartan mirage allowed other Greeks to accept Spartan leadership, because they attributed to Sparta virtues that all admired and they did not need to fear Spartan expansionism. The Greeks did not, in a sense, even follow the Spartans per se, but the nomos, “general law,” that guided the Spartans (Hdt. 7.104.4–5). The Spartans were not absolute masters, but first among equals, because—and provided that—they subordinated themselves to this overarching concept. Athens demands far more of its subordinates than Sparta did of its allies, but, if it abandons the old rhetoric, it does not abandon ideology. When the Athenians assert that the “rule of the strong” is a natural law to which all (including the Athenians) are subject, they adopt the same strategy as the Spartans before them. The Spartans and Greeks together had created the Spartan mirage, the image of Sparta as military and most widely recognized moral leader in Greece, because the Spartan mirage helped all parties justify to themselves Sparta’s leadership. Greeks did not admire the Spartans per se, but the aretê that their idealized Spartans had, at great personal cost, cultivated. The Athenians attempt to place their own much more dominant position in a similarly impersonal framework. Submission to Athens is not so much a personal surrender as the recognition of a universal truth, that the powerful dominate the weak. For the time being at least, Athens is strong, Melos is weak, and each party should recognize as simple reality the inevitable subordination of the one to the other.

Melian resistance is thus the Athenian nightmare in small. The Athenians cannot—even if they had the resources to do so—kill all of their subjects, for they function as a superpower only because the subjects are alive and, however reluctantly, choose to lend their support. The allies could always choose the alternative and resolve to “live free or die.” In this sense, rule is always a negotiation between the weak and the strong. From a practical point of view, the reductio ad absurdum is improbable—the entire archê never did rise in rebellion, and Athenian domination was not so harsh as to provoke all its subjects to risk death. Of course, the Athenians must maintain a certain level of power to balance that of their adversaries. And Athenian power is more than an illusion—as many of allies learned to their cost, when they underestimated Athens’s remaining power after the Sicilian catastrophe (Thuc. 2.65.12). Once Sparta crushes the Athenian navy at Aigospotamoi, the rest of Athenian power collapses.

Nevertheless, the calculus of power is, in the pure form that the Athenians give it, an ideological fiction that enhances Athenian control and augments the net sum of Athenian dunamis by holding back, perhaps, a few allies who might otherwise revolt. It is thus a classic example of an Althusserian ideological state apparatus that augments the power of raw force and oppression.[55] The Athenians butcher the Melians so that they can support the fiction of realism and so that such brilliant readers as de Romilly would believe that “realism becomes a moral attitude”—if Athens’s view is not “real,” then this moral attitude becomes just another self-serving posture. The clarity of purpose must seem to melt away the haze of interpretation so that “as the facts stand out in their eternal essence, we begin to see, beyond the individual whose acts are described, the naked principles of justice and force.” [56]

The Melians are the statistical outlier, the experiment that does not match the theory. The Athenians are in the end not realists. They are not even objective scientists, because they doctor the evidence to fit their own theory. The Athenians destroy the Melians as a corrupt scientist might destroy inconvenient evidence.

Thucydides’ logoi, however, changed the Melian “incident” forever, for representation can transform an event. A savage beating by Los Angeles police in 1991 would have gone unnoticed and unpunished, but it was captured on videotape, and in that vivid medium it attained a reality and exerted an impact that would otherwise never have been possible. In the Peloponnesian War, the massacre at Skione (Thuc. 5.32.1) passes with little comment. It can slide past as a grim reality, but also as an abstraction without substance for most Greeks. Skione was the cleanest demonstration of power, in that it called little attention to its grim details. The events at Melos, however, are different, because the issues are inscribed in Thucydides’ text. The arguments remain fixed forever in the public display of a text that has in fact transcended barriers of time and space. Like Sisyphos rolling his stone forever in Hades, the Athenians must forever recite their failed ideology of power to each reader who passes his or her eyes across the text. For in killing the Melians, the Athenians prove that they are wrong. The weak do not always yield to the strong.

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