Greece and the Melian Dialogue of Thucydides (obscure)

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This was sent to me by a reader. It is from the Melian Dialogue by Thucydides.

Athens (then the big bully on block) wanted control over the little island of Melos as a strategic asset in its quarrel with Sparta. It gave the Melians an ultimatum: either submit to Athenian control or face annihilation.

The Melians chose defiance. They were crushed. Those men captured were slaughtered. The women and children were sold into slavery. But the Athenian treatment of the Melians caused horror across the Greek world; it marked the moment of Athenian overreach and the beginning of their decline, as vulnerable city states allied with Sparta to protect themselves. Athenian arrogance backfired disastrously. In the end, Melian exiles retook their island.

Here is an abridged dialogue between the Athenian envoys and the Melian council. (Thucydides was an Athenian general, but viewed the Melians as the victims of this saga.)

I have nothing further to add. Draw your own conclusions:

Athenians: For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences – 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; 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.

Melians: As we think, at any rate, it is expedient – we speak as we are obliged, since you enjoin us to let right alone and talk only of interest – that you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right. And you are as much interested in this as any, as your fall would be a signal for the heaviest vengeance and an example for the world to meditate upon.

Athenians: The end of our empire, if end it should, does not frighten us: a rival empire like Lacedaemon, even if Lacedaemon was our real antagonist, is not so terrible to the vanquished as subjects who by themselves attack and overpower their rulers. This, however, is a risk that we are content to take. We will now proceed to show you that we are come here in the interest of our empire, and that we shall say what we are now going to say, for the preservation of your country.

Melians: And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?

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