Melian dialogue

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Melos, shown in blue, in the Cyclades, Aegean Sea

The Melian dialogue is a dramatic set-piece debate inserted by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, in which emissaries from an attacking Athenian army try to persuade the besieged city of Melos that surrender is the sensible option. 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".[1]

Historical context[edit]

In the summer of 416 BCE, fifteen years into the Peloponnesian War, Athens sent an army of 3,000 men, led by the generals Cleomedes and Tisias, to take the island of Melos. They sent diplomats to negotiate a surrender, offering to spare the Melians if they joined the Athenian-dominated Delian League and paid tribute to Athens. The Melians rejected the ultimatum. The Athenians laid siege to the city and withdrew most of their troops from the island to fight elsewhere. For months the Melians withstood the siege, but with reinforcements from Athens and the help of traitors within Melos, the Athenians took the city that winter. The Athenians executed all the adult men they caught and sold the women and children into slavery. They then settled 500 of their own colonists on the island.

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."[2] 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.[3] 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."[4]

Athens eventually lost the war. The Spartan general Lysander resettled what few Melians survived on the island.


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 Athenians do not wish to argue over the morality of the situation, because in practice might makes right (or, in their own words: "The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must.").

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 independent island states and the disgruntled subjects that Athens has 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. 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 hope is an irrational emotion when one faces poor chances of victory and utter ruin in defeat.

The Melians believe that they will have the assistance of the gods because their position is morally just. The Athenians counter that it is the natural order of things for the strong to dominate the weak, with gods as it is with men.

The Melians insist that their Spartan kin will come to their defence. The Athenians counter that the Spartans are a practical people who never put themselves at risk when their interests are not at stake.

The Athenians then conclude the argument by saying there is no shame in submitting to a stronger enemy, especially one who is offering reasonable surrender terms. The Melians do not change their minds and politely dismiss the envoys.


The following quotation from the dialogue is between unnamed Athenian envoys negotiations with unnamed Melians as recounted by Thucydides:

  • 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).[5]


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.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 2.34-2.46. Greek text and English translation thereof available online at the Perseus Project.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Alan Ryan, On Politics Vol 1, p. 23.
  4. ^ D.M., Lewis. The Cambridge Ancient History Vol. V. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 444.
  5. ^ Robert B. Strassler, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, Free Press, 1996, page 352-354
  6. ^ The Dialectical Logic of Thucydides' Melian Dialogue, by Alker, Hayward R, The American Political Science Review, 09/1988, Volume 82, Issue 3

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