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 did not necessarily happen word-for-word as written, but were inserted for dramatic 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 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 historical background of this portion of the History of the Peloponnesian War is the invasion of the island of Melos by Athens in 416 BC during a brief lull in the Peloponnesian War. Just after the Battle of Mantinea in 417 BC, the Athenians moved on the Melians and demanded that they join the Delian League, thus effectively becoming part of their empire. The Melians had always resisted the influence of the Delian League, and resisted this invasion as well. Thucydides created the Dialogue in order to represent the actual events of the Athenians speaking to the Melians. His use of speeches in The History of the Peloponnesian War allowed readers to understand the way in which Athens created their empire. The Athenians sent the League's fleet to Melos to await the time to attack if Melos did not come to a peaceful agreement to surrender to the Athenian representatives.
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.
The Melian Dialogue opened up many arguments over what moral considerations, if any, should limit the exercise of imperial power of coercion. One historian. A.B. Bosworth, has argued that to the extent the Athenians warned the Melians of their imminent destruction and offered them a way out (namely by joining their Delian league) there was a humanitarian aspect to their handling of the arguments in the Dialogue. Thus, although the destruction of Melos was indeed brutal, the Athenian attempt to procure its surrender was at the least less inhumane than an immediate debellation would have been. Bosworth further contends that the Athenians could only confront the Melians with the reality of their position by stating it in the bluntest terms. "Harsh their language undoubtedly is, but it has a humanitarian end, to convince the Melian oligarchs of the need to capitulate and save themselves and the commons the horrors of a siege."
As for Thucydides' point of view, it is possible that he may have been biased in favor of the Melians because of bitterness over his own exile from Athens. W. Liebeschuetz argues that he depicts the Athenians as "wrong and deluded" because of their lack of morality in Melos' destruction but concedes that "the Athenians were also perfectly right that the Melians' own interest required that they should yield to the Athenians since they had not the strength to resist successfully." D. M. Lewis, however, declares that, "Thucydides, with his strong feeling for the power and glory of Athens, may have seen this differently and regarded the Melians' heroics as foolish and unrealistic; and the fact that they had been offered a relatively painless alternative might affect his view of the massacre." Lewis also questions whether Thucydides' depiction of Athenian ruthlessness was really intended to elicit such strong reactions, observing that, "The fact that Melos stands out so prominently in judgments about the Athenian Empire is certainly in large part due to the attention that Thucydides' Dialogue has focused on it, but the feeling he displays elsewhere about that empire makes it questionable if he intended to produce the revulsion which most readers of the Dialogue feel."
Though they were faced with overwhelming odds, the Melians believed that the Spartans, who were their kin, would come to their aid against Athens. Moreover, they did not want to be regarded as cowards for surrendering so easily and submitting themselves to dominance by Athens.
The dialogue does not show the Melians making any appeal to the potential counter-argument that Athens, by allowing the Melians to remain neutral, while simply continuing its empire-building around them, would show strength rather than weakness by demonstrating that Athens was so powerful that it had nothing to fear even if the Melians refused to cooperate.
The Dialogue concludes with the Melians' refusal to surrender to the Athenians, "Our decision, Athenians, is just the same as it was at first. We are not prepared to give up in a short moment the liberty which our city has enjoyed from its foundation for 700 years." They also propose to conclude a new treaty of neutrality with Athens: "‘We invite you to allow us to be friends of yours and enemies to neither side, to make a treaty which shall be agreeable to both you and us, and so to leave our country.'" Thucydides writes that the Athenians ignored this offer and immediately commenced to besiege Melos, as threatened. Although the Melians held out for a time, the Athenians eventually won after some form of unspecified treachery within the city. They then proceeded to execute all the men they took captive and to enslave the women and children, and further, they repopulated it as an Athenian colony.
Liebeschuetz notes the ironies in Thucydides' depiction of the Dialogue in the context of his History. In the Dialogue: "The Athenians look at the present and can see nothing will save Melos. They are right. The Melians look to the future. They are right too. Melos is destroyed. But [in] the very next sentence in the history [Thucydides] begins the story of the decline of Athens and the justification of the Melians." Thus, both sides, the Melians and Athenians, predict outcomes that come to pass at a later time. Athens correctly predicts that Sparta won't or can't stop the Athenian army from destroying Melos. Yet the Melians are also correct in trusting their kindred, the Spartans, to ultimately come to their aid. After the fall of their city, the Spartans resettled the surviving Melians on the mainland. Within a few years the Peloponnesian War resumed between Sparta and Athens, and the Melian community in exile raised funds to contribute to the Spartan war effort, which successfully destroyed the Athenian empire. The Spartan general Lysander then retook Melos and restored the Melians to their homeland. Overall, Melos was one of the few islands in the Cyclades that stood up for itself despite the negative repercussions.
Seaman finds it "indeed ironic to consider that it was in fact her longstanding neutrality which left Melos as prey for Athens during the Peace of Nicias." Alan Ryan, on the other hand, questions whether the Melians, despite their protestations as reported in the Dialogue, had in in fact ever really been neutral.
- 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.
- Alan Ryan, On Politics Vol 1, p. 23.
- D.M., Lewis. The Cambridge Ancient History Vol. V. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 444.
- Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1972), 400.
- Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 403 (5.100)
- Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 404(5.104)
- A. B. Bosworth (1993). "The humanitarian aspect of the Melian Dialogue". The Journal of Hellenic Studies 113: 30–44. JSTOR 632396.
- W. Liebeschuetz (1968). "The structure and function of the Melian Dialogue". The Journal of Hellenic Studies 88: 73–77. JSTOR 628672.
- Lewis, Cambridge Ancient History, 445.
- Lewis, Cambridge Ancient History, p. 446. Lewis goes on to remark that Thucydides may have been "curiously insensitive" to the effect his Dialogue might have.
- Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 407 (5.112)
- Seaman, Michael G., "The Athenian Expedition to Melos in 416 B.C.," Historia 46 (1997) pp. 418.
- Ryan, On Politics, Vol 1 (2012), p. 23.
- Robert B. Strassler, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, Free Press, 1996, page 352-354