Melos and the Peloponnesian War

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During part of the Peloponnesian War, Athens attacked Melos. The catastrophic results of the war on Melos were a result of what Thucydides called realism. Thucydides, often considered the father of political realism, wrote about the Peloponnesian War from the vantage point of Athens, and in The Melian Dialogue, gives his point of view on what happened when the Athenians defeated the Melians and then proceeded to kill all the men, and sell the women and children.

Thucydides wrote the Melian Dialogue to exemplify what he deemed the cause of the defeat, which he pinpointed as realism. The Peloponnesian War was an early example that exhibited the disasters, which can arise between different groups when a stronger power exerts its dominance over a weaker one.


Thucydides explains the Athenians reason for going after Melos in the following way, "By subjugating the Melians the Athenians hoped not only to extend their empire but also to improve their image and thus their security. To allow the weaker Melians to remain free, according to the Athenians, would reflect negatively on Athenian power".[1] Thucydides explains the defeat of the Melians by indicating the main cause as one relating to political realism, insofar as the Athenians were quick to be cruelly domineering and take over the island colony, belonging to Sparta, mainly because it was weak. One main idea of realism is the preface that states will act as rational actors, meaning state's actions will reflect their best interests.


According to professor of political science, Steven L. Spiegel,[2]

"The school of thought known as realism is the most venerable paradigm in international relations theory. Its roots can be traced back hundreds of years to the Greek historian Thucydides and his History of the Peloponnesian Wars"

Spiegel’s interpretation of Thucydides writings as examples of realism could be at fault when it comes to whether or not the destruction of Melos was an act attributable to realism or a barbaric act of mass murder. Spiegel, as well as other realists who see realism as the main cause of interactions between states are quick to point out Thucydides writings as the seeds upon which modern political realism grew. However, a bias also arises because of the labeling of this event and what some consider genocide, as realism. Of primary importance today is whether or not The Peloponnesian War, specifically the destruction of Melos, exemplified realism or was something far beyond that. As the defeat of Melos was deemed a result of realism, so could the Rwandan Genocide be called the same as a stronger power dominated over a weaker one. Realism might be seen in interactions involving the world economy, trade, and diplomatic relations, as well as war but an occurrence such as what happened in Melos or what happened in Rwanda, should not be deemed a result of realism. Instead, it should be far outside the scope of understanding. It was not in Athens best interest to kill the people of Melos. However, because this war, mainly the destruction of Melos, is often referred to by modern realists, its significance is abounding and the events must not be looked at parsimoniously. What happened in Melos, if an example of states acting in a realist manner, raises many questions.


According to Israel W. Charny in The Encyclopedia of Genocide:

The most frequently cited case of genocide perpetrated in antiquity is the destruction of Melos by the Athenians in 416 B.C.E. This is more probably because modern scholars have read Thucydides celebrated "Melian Dialogue" which sets out a rationale of sorts for ancient imperialism than because of their familiarity with antiquity. [3]
Not only is the destruction of Melos considered an example of realism but it is also pinpointed as an important example of genocide. This gives the impression that genocide can be explained in terms of realism. However, I find fault in this idea. Cases of genocide and realism do not generally go hand in hand. Therefore, because people are trying to find an explanation for genocide, they may turn to realism but realism as an answer leaves questions unanswered. This example of genocide is important when it comes to trying to prevent further genocides in the future and also when trying to find an explanation and solution to prevent further genocides from taking place.

Reasons Why The Peloponnesian War is Relevant Today[edit]

David Cooper explains the wars place in modern political thought in his book, The Geography of Genocide, by writing,

The Peloponnesian War occurred at the end of the fifth century B.C., and it continues to haunt students of political science who are forced to understand the realist school of politics. The savagery of the war between Athens and Sparta, in which ‘sons were killed by their father,’ reveals much about the moral foundations upon which Western civilization was built. Our primary source for understanding this conflict remains Thucydides, although more comprehensive historical analyses have been published in recent years.

[4] When looking to find examples of realism, there is a definite bias that comes into play. This is one that arises from a desire to prove realism is an always evident paradigm that can explain past and future occurrences. The problem becomes explaining how if realism is always at play, then why would Melos not have submitted. In my opinion, the most important uncertainty arising from the Peloponnesian War is why Melos took what actions it did. If this were an example of realism, Melos would have likely given in to the Athenians and saved themselves.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Thucydides. "Essentials of International Relations". Ed. Suresht Bald. Trans. Richard Crawley. New York: Norton, 1998.
  2. ^ Spiegel, Steven L., et al. World Politics in a New Era. 4th. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  3. ^ Charny, Israel W. "Encyclopedia of Genocide". Vol. 2. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1999.
  4. ^ Cooper, Alan D. "The Geography of Genocide". Lanham: University Press of America, 2009.

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