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 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 quite as written, but were composed for literary effect, according to what Thucydides felt was "called for in the situation".
The Melian dialogue takes place during the period known as the Peace of Nicias fifteen years after the start of the Peloponnesian war, and represents the confrontation in 416–415 BC between the Athenians and the people of Melos, the most south-westerly of the Cyclades islands in the southern Aegean Sea to the east of the Peloponnese. 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: "But we know that the fortune of war is sometimes more impartial than the disproportion of numbers might lead one to suppose; to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect."
- Athenians: "Hope, danger's comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colours only when they are ruined; but so long as the discovery would enable them to guard against it, it is never found wanting. Let not this be the case with you, who are weak and hang on a single turn of the scale; nor be like the vulgar, who, abandoning such security as human means may still afford, when visible hopes fail them in extremity, turn to invisible, to prophecies and oracles, and other such inventions that delude men with hopes to their destruction."
- 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).
There are many rhetorical techniques in Melian Dialogue. In the debate of Melian Dialogue between Melians and Athenians, Athenians use the rhetorical techniques, such as persuasion with psychological tactics and standing in Melians' point to provide what they want, to achieve their purpose. Realism political theory is often compared with idealism, Melian dialogue reflects the dilemma between realism and idealism through a debate clearly: Whether international politics can be built on the moral standards of peace and justice or not? For Melians who hold the idealistic point of view, the choice Athenians gave to them is war or surrender. They don't want to lose their freedom, despite the fact that their military strength is weaker than Athens, but they are still ready to fight for themselves. They established their debate on the basis of appealing to justice, and refused to admit that the substance of justice is only interest. They revered the gods, appreciated honor, and said "Our weakness will be recovered by the gods supporting our just cause and the assistance from glorious Spartans." Therefore, the Melians' words reflect the idealistic world view. However, the Athenians' answer is based on some of the important concepts of realism, such as safety and power. What they focus on is not how the world should be, but how the world is for now. The Athenians asked the Melians to identify the fact that they are weak in military, to think about the possible consequences of their choice, and to consider their survival. They refused to consider the justice in the debate, but to resort to interest. They argued that "Your concession will be beneficial to both sides. You can guarantee that your country won't be devastated, and we can also gain benefit from you. You will join the Athenian Empire, and Melos will be no longer a potential threat for us." Athens claimed that, "Considering Athenian strengths and the risk of possible military action, it's foolish that you still believe Sparta will provide assistance to you. "They advised the Melians not to be misguided into persisting in a wrong concept of honor, or relying on a simple expectation, but should consider how their own country can survive under the current situation.
- Battle of Melos
- Neutral country
- The Law of the Jungle
- Mytilenaean Debate
- Realism (international relations)
- The Trojan Women, a play by Euripides, considered a commentary on the capture of Melos.
- 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
- The Dialectical Logic of Thucydides' Melian Dialogue, by Alker, Hayward R, The American Political Science Review, 09/1988, Volume 82, Issue 3