The Melian dialogue is a dramatic set-piece debate inserted by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, his account of the ruinous 27-year-long struggle (431–404 BC) between the powerful Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta. It is one of the two most famous instances of fictionalized speeches in the book (the other being the defense of Athenian democracy in the funeral oration of Pericles in the beginning of the work). These speeches were not necessarily made just as written, but were inserted for literary effect, according to what Thucydides felt was "called for in the situation". The Melian dialogue takes place fifteen years into the Peloponnesian war, during the confrontation in 416–415 BC between the Athenians and the people of Melos, a small island located in the southern Aegean Sea just east of Sparta. The Athenians demanded that the Melians surrender their city and pay them tribute or face the destruction of their city. The Melians claimed their right to remain neutral, appealing to the Athenians' sense of decency and mercy toward a small, peaceful, and defenseless city. The Athenians sternly replied that questions of justice did not arise between unequal powers and proceeded to lay siege to Melos as they had threatened to do, and to starve the resisting inhabitants into surrender, slaughter the men of military age, and enslave the women and children. This act has become "famous as the worst atrocity committed by a usually decent society, but even more as one of the most famous assertions in history of the rights of unbridled power, " according to the historian Alan Ryan, who writes that, "The Athenian insistence that 'justice is what is decided when equal forces are opposed, while possibilities are what superiors impose and the weak acquiesce to' has been discussed by practical people and by philosophers ever since. Not everyone has rejected the Athenian case.". Ryan also notes that although Thucydides portrays the Melians as having always been strictly neutral and wishing to remain so, in fact, this was not true. Melos was a Spartan colony and had aided Sparta at the beginning of the war. In general, however, "the Dialogue is formally not about the morality of the eventual execution, but about the Melian response to the Athenians' first demand, that Melos should submit."
The Athenians, in a frank and matter-of-fact manner, offer the Melians an ultimatum: surrender and pay tribute to Athens, or be destroyed.
The Melians argue that they are a neutral city and not an enemy, so Athens has no need to crush them. The Athenians counter that, if they accept the Melians' neutrality and independence, they would look weak: people would think they spared Melos because they were not strong enough to conquer it.
The Melians argue that an invasion will alarm the other neutral Greek states, who will become hostile to Athens for fear of being invaded themselves. The Athenians counter that the Greek states on the mainland are unlikely to act this way. It is the more volatile island states and the subjects they have already conquered that are more likely to take up arms against Athens.
The Melians argue that it would be shameful and cowardly of them to submit without a fight. In Thucydides' account, "If such hazards are taken by you to keep your empire and by your subjects to escape it, we who are still free would show ourselves great cowards and weaklings if we failed to face everything that comes rather than submit to slavery." The Athenians counter that the debate is not about honour but about self-preservation.
The Melians argue that though the Athenians are far stronger, there is still a chance they could win. The Athenians counter that only the strong have a right to indulge in hope; the weak Melians are hopelessly outnumbered.
The Melians state that they also refuse because they believe they have the assistance of the gods. Thucydides recounts, "We trust that the gods will give us fortune as good as yours, because we are standing for what is right against what is wrong." The Athenians counter that gods and men alike respect strength over moral arguments, summarising this in the famous dictum that, "The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must."
The Melians insist that their Spartan kin will come to their defence. The Athenians argue that the Spartans have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by coming to the Melians' aid – mere kinship will not motivate them.
The Athenians then conclude the argument by saying there is no shame in submitting to a stronger enemy. The Melians do not change their minds and politely dismiss the envoys.
- Athenian: "For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must" (5.89).
- Melians: "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 that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust, and that what we want in power will be made up by the alliance of the Lacedaemonians, who are bound, if only for very shame, to come to the aid of their kindred. Our confidence, therefore, after all is not so utterly irrational."
- Athenian: "Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist forever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do" (5.105.2).
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 2.34-2.46. Greek text and English translation thereof available online at the Perseus Project.
- Alan Ryan, On Politics A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present, Vol. 1 (New York and London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2012), p. 23: Ryan, an expert on the nineteenth-century utilitarians, was Warden of New College and Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford.
- Alan Ryan, On Politics Vol 1, p. 23.
- D.M., Lewis. The Cambridge Ancient History Vol. V. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 444.
- Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 403 (5.100)
- Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 404(5.104)
- Robert B. Strassler, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, Free Press, 1996, page 352-354