This post was originally published as part of the Thucydides Roundtable project over at Zenpundit. I encourage you to read all of the posts in the roundtable.
The most famous episode in Thucydides’ History is found in its fifth book. Known as the “Melian Dialogue,” it is one of the best known statements of what we moderns call realpolitick. I read this passage long before I read any other part of Thucydides’History. It was one of the opening chapters in the ‘standard-readings-in-IR-theory’ primer assigned in my very first POSC class. It’s stature in that class is hardly unique. This episode has been picked apart, commented on, and excerpted more than any other in the book. In this roundtable it has already prompted three separate discussions. I will add yet one more here. But I suggest a different approach: to understand the themes and purpose of this dialogue, it is best to rewind.
A recurring theme of Thucydides work is the contrast between the Spartans and the Athenians. In Book V Athens launches an attack on Melos, by blood and kinship a natural friend of Sparta. The Athenians wage devastation on the Melians knowing it is not just to do so. The same book sees the Spartans waging wars—this time on Argos, by regime and belief a natural friend of Athens. Five times do Spartan armies march to the border of Argive lands. Of the five invasions, three are ended before they begin “because the sacrifices were unfavorable.” (5.54, 5.55,.5.115). One of the two times Spartans actually step on Argive soil, Spartan leadership decides to defer bloodshed for the sake of just arbitration (5.83). Only once does the attack proceed as planned, and that only when the Spartans are threatened with the specter of a second pair of long walls extending from a powerful enemy capital to the sea.
The contrast between Sparta and Athens is found in the fifth book of Thucydides’ history, but it is not obvious. To see it you must screw your eyes up and tilt your head a little bit.
Earlier juxtapositions are more difficult to miss.
Melos was not the first polis to suffer the fury of the strong. Nine years before her destruction other polis trembled in fear before the judgement of a hegemon. In Athens the polis in question was Mytilene. Her fate to be decided by a jury of the Demos, a trial not entirely different in form the sort of criminal cases Socrates’ Apology would make famous. Mytilene had rebelled. Yet before the Athenian hoplites could sack its capital, Mytilene’s ‘Many’ had removed her ‘Few,’ and surrendered their city to democrats on their doorstep. Now they waited in judgement.
A second trial would occur soon after—soon enough after that Thucydides places the stories one right after the other. Here the Spartans played the role of judge and jury, and here again the trappings of a formal trial were adopted. Standing accused were the remnants of Plataea. For four terrible years they had resisted a Theban siege. With Spartan help the Thebans were close to breaking through. But here again surrender was declared well before sacking could begin. The Plataeans turned themselves over to the Spartans and waited to see what judgement they might receive.
The Plataeans and the Mytilenians both heard a case arguing for their death, as well as one arguing for their continued survival. In the Mytilenian case, both the defendant and the prosecution were represented by Athenians. In the case of Plataea, the Plataeans were forced to speak in their own defense, with the Thebans arguing for their death. The parallel is clear. It to the arguments we turn to find the contrast between the two hegemonic powers.
The Athenians were once a people of honor. “For glory then and honor now” was the rallying cry Pericles raised to lead his people to war (2.64.6). The Athenians began this entire drama chasing it. No longer. Athenian honor died long before the war’s close. Athenian honor could not survive the plague. Then the beastly truth was revealed: honor meant nothing but scarred skin and blistered visage. Nobility brought no recompense but rotting flesh. Eat now, drink now, be merry now, for tomorrow men will die! And die, and, die, and die. Justice, integrity, honor—mere words. Where could those words be found? Buried deep in burning heaps of flesh! Abandoned in lonely, forgotten corners where none would see them croak away! Beneath blood, phlegm, pustule, and vomit! What has honor to do with Athens?
What is more, they knew it.
I have often before now been convinced that a democracy is incapable of empire, and never more so than by your present change of mind in the matter of Mytilene. Fears or plots being unknown to you in your daily relations with each other, you feel just the same with regard to your allies, and never reflect that the mistakes into which you may be led by listening to their appeals, or by giving way to your own compassion, are full of danger to yourselves, and bring you no thanks for your weakness from your allies; entirely forgetting that your empire is a despotism and your subjects disaffected conspirators, whose obedience is insured not by your suicidal concessions, but by the superiority given you by your own strength and not their loyalty…..
I therefore now as before persist against your reversing your first decision [to kill the Mytilenians], or giving way to the three failings most fatal to empire— pity, sentiment, and indulgence. Compassion is due to those who can reciprocate the feeling, not to those who will never pity us in return, but are our natural and necessary foes: the orators who charm us with sentiment may find other less important arenas for their talents, in the place of one where the city pays a heavy penalty for a momentary pleasure, themselves receiving fine acknowledgments for their fine phrases; while indulgence should be shown toward those who will be our friends in future, instead of toward men who will remain just what they were, and as much our enemies as before.
In reply, Diodotus:
To sum up shortly, I say that if you follow my advice you will do what is just toward the Mytilenians, and at the same time expedient; while by a different decision you will not oblige them so much as pass sentence upon yourselves. For if they were right in rebelling, you must be wrong in ruling. However, if, right or wrong, you determine to rule, you must carry out your principle and punish the Mytilenians as your interest requires; or else you must give up your empire and cultivate honesty without danger (3.37; 3.40).
However, I have not come forward either to oppose or to accuse in the matter of Mytilene; indeed, the question before us as sensible men is not their guilt, but our interests. Though I prove them ever so guilty, I shall not, therefore, advise their death, unless it be expedient; nor though they should have claims to indulgence, shall I recommend it, unless it be clearly for the good of the country. I consider that we are deliberating for the future more than for the present; and where Cleon is so positive as to the useful deterrent effects that will follow from making rebellion a capital offense, I who consider the interests of the future quite as much as he, as positively maintain the contrary. And I require you not to reject my useful considerations for his specious ones: his speech may have the attraction of seeming the more just in your present temper against Mytilene; but we are not in a court of justice, but in a political assembly; and the question is not justice, but how to make the Mytilenians useful to Athens….
Only consider what a blunder you would commit in doing as Cleon recommends. As things are at present, in all the cities The People is your friend, and either does not revolt with the oligarchy, or, if forced to do so, becomes at once the enemy of the insurgents; so that in the war with the hostile city you have the masses on your side. But if you butcher them, first you will commit the crime of killing your benefactors; and next you will play directly into the hands of the higher classes, who when they induce their cities to rise, will immediately have The People on their side, through your having announced in advance the same punishment for those who are guilty and for those who are not. On the contrary, even if they were guilty, you ought to seem not to notice it, in order to avoid alienating the only class still friendly to us. In short, I consider it far more useful for the preservation of our empire to put up with injustice voluntarily, than to put to death, however justly, those whom it is our interest to keep alive. (3.44; 3.47)
Behold the men of Athens! Dead to honor, to principle, to humanity. This was a people whose hearts had hardened. Nothing was left to Athens but the pursuit of power—and its cousin, profit. The only language they spoke was the language of naked interest.
That language saved the Mytilenians. They were lucky. Interest is a fickle master. The men of Melos discovered just how twisted a master it can be.
In time, so would the Athenians.
The Spartans heard a very different set of arguments. The Spartans were a very different sort of people. In time they would believe that they lost the first war because they unjustly broke the piece. Always were their actions justified in the name of Hellenic freedom. Sparta suffered no plague. He people stuck fast to her traditions to the end of her days. Knowing all of this, the Plataeans did not defend themselves in terms of interest:
“Consider also that at present the Hellenes generally regard you as a model of worth and honor; and if you pass an unjust sentence upon us in this which is no obscure cause— but one in which you, the judges, are as illustrious as we, the prisoners, are blameless— take care that displeasure be not felt at an unworthy decision in the matter of honorable men made by men yet more honorable than they, and at the consecration in the national temples of spoils taken from the Plataeans, the benefactors of Hellas…..The Thebans feared this argument. Anxious it might convince the Spartans to release their enemy, that they too rose to speak. Again, their case is argued more in terms of justice than of interest:
“Still, in the name of the gods who once presided over our confederacy, and of our own good service in the Hellenic cause, we appeal to you to relent; to rescind the decision which we fear that the Thebans may have obtained from you; to ask back the gift that you have given them, that they disgrace not you by slaying us; to gain a pure instead of a guilty gratitude, and not to gratify others to be yourselves rewarded with shame. Our lives may be quickly taken, but it will be a heavy task to wipe away the infamy of the deed; as we are no enemies whom you might justly punish, but friends forced into taking arms against you. To grant us our lives would be, therefore, a righteous judgment; if you consider also that we are prisoners who surrendered of their own accord, stretching out our hands for quarter, whose slaughter Hellenic law forbids, and who besides were always your benefactors. (3.57-3.58)
We will now endeavor to show that you [the Plataeans] have injured the Hellenes more than we, and are more deserving of punishment…..an invitation was addressed to you before you were besieged to be neutral and join neither party: this you did not accept. Who then merit the detestation of the Hellenes more justly than you, you who sought their ruin under the mask of honor? The former virtues that you allege you now show not to be proper to your character; the real bent of your nature has been at length damningly proved: when the Athenians took the path of injustice you followed them.”
….Such, Spartans, are the facts. We have gone into them at some length both on your account and on our own, that you may feel that you will justly condemn the prisoners, and we, that we have given an additional sanction to our vengeance. We would also prevent you from being melted by hearing of their past virtues, if any such they had: these may be fairly appealed to by the victims of injustice, but only aggravate the guilt of criminals, since they offend against their better nature. Nor let them gain anything by crying and wailing, by calling upon your fathers’ tombs and their own desolate condition. Against this we point to the far more dreadful fate of our youth, butchered at their hands; the fathers of whom either fell at Coronea, bringing Boeotia over to you, or seated, forlorn old men by desolate hearths, who with far more reason implore your justice upon the prisoners. The pity which they appeal to is due rather to men who suffer unworthily; those who suffer justly, as they do, are on the contrary subjects for triumph. For their present desolate condition they have themselves to blame, since they willfully rejected the better alliance.
Their lawless act was not provoked by any action of ours; hate, not justice, inspired their decision; and even now the satisfaction which they afford us is not adequate; they will suffer by a legal sentence not, as they pretend, as suppliants asking for quarter in battle, but as prisoners who have surrendered upon agreement to take their trial. Vindicate, therefore, the Hellenic law which they have broken, Spartans, and grant to us, the victims of its violation, the reward merited by our zeal. Nor let us be supplanted in your favor by their harangues, but offer an example to the Hellenes that the contests to which you invite them are of deeds, not words: good deeds can be shortly stated, but where wrong is done a wealth of language is needed to veil its deformity (3.67).
The Plataeans lost their case. Thucydides, as he is wont to do, suggests that the decision to slaughter them all was made for cold geopolitical reasons.
Perhaps it was. We cannot know for sure. The Melian dialogue may just have been, as A.E. Clark argues in his latest post, “Athen’s finest hour”—the moment when all falsehoods and posturing were laid aside, and the truth of the war was revealed for all to see. The Athenians were honest. Only the Athenians could be so honest. The Spartans did not talk about war in such terms. To the end they talked and thought and fought in a world they never stopped describing with words like justice and honor.
Maybe they were deluding themselves. But note:. it was the men of Sparta, not the men of Athens, who won the war.