The Melian Dialogues took place during a little known interlude of the Peloponnesian War. Athens had been at war with the polis of Sparta for 15 years, and relied heavily on their vastly superior navy to maintain the upper hand. Melos was a small island in the eastern end of the Aegean Sea where they lived in secluded island bliss as one of the last remaining neutral cities.

Athens, alas, coveted the smaller polis' navy, and wished to assimilate the poor bastards into the Delian League, a large collection of cities for the most part coerced into an alliance with the far more powerful Athens. Athens considered herself to be the most culturally advanced in Greece, and one of the pillars of her supposed virtue was the strong sense of Athenian justice.

Not surprisingly, the golden spire of justice that was Athens appeared bit tarnished from the Melian end of things, considering the admirals of Athens' encroaching navy gave a single ultimatum: assimilate or be destroyed. After a very public fuss, the Athenians agreed to an indulgent series of debates regarding the justice of their action against Melos. The following is a nicely pre-packaged analysis of those debates:

As liveforever graciously informed me, a very important fact needs to be clarified here. The actual text of the Melian Dialogues owes its existence entirely to Thucydides' imagination. There was no stenographer present to "record" the position of each side. As liveforever argues, it is generally accepted that Thucydides wrote the Dialogues in order to convey his own opinions, and thus should only be interpreted as the political views of an Athenian general writing at the time of the war, and not as cold, hard fact (of which I am vaguely aware liveforever is somewhat of an adherent).-ed.

In April of 416 BC, 15 years into the Peloponnesian conflict, a contingent of the Athenian Navy sailed into port on the island of Melos to demand that the previously neutral state either join the Delian League, or be treated as an enemy of Athens. The Athenians defended their aggression with the claim that Melos was a colony of Sparta, and thus a potential enemy. The Melians, who for their part apparently valued their neutrality and current peace, responded that the charge of being a colony was too outdated to be relevant and found this intrusion to be unprovoked and unjust. Priding themselves on their democratic custom of giving everyone a voice, even those they intended to subjugate, the Athenians agreed to debate the exact meaning of justice. The so-called “Melian Dialogues” as recorded by Thucydides describe the discourse that took place between representatives of each state. It becomes immediately clear that neither the Athenians nor the Melians are under the delusion that they are debating the ideal of justice, or one that is necessarily associated with the typical idea of “fairness.” Clearly, they are both operating under the premise that they will be discussing not some abstract idea of justice, but one that is concretely “concerned with survival” (Thucydides V, 88). The definitions proposed by each side had not only radically different basic meanings, but different consequences and implications as well.

The Athenians maintain that there are two possible outcomes of this debate: one that involves the survival of Melos, and one that does not. In their position as subjugators, the Athenians contend that the freedom of the island state of Melos is a “clear proof of weakness” just as their subservience would be proof of the Athenians’ strength (Thucydides V, 95). Thus, they have no choice but to absorb Melos into the Athenian empire through main force. In accordance with the Athenian conception of justice, the Melians are offered the chance to surrender their freedom peacefully and thereby protect both themselves and the Athenians from the eventuality of war between them. Simply put, the Athenian conception of justice boils down to a matter of expediency, for the surest preservation of both subjugator and subjugated.

The Melians, on the other hand, try to convince the Athenians that the offer of peaceful surrender or forceful submission is less than expedient for both parties. The Melians quickly abandon their earlier protests against the lack of “fairness” involved in sending a fleet of ships armed for war against a neutral state, and move on to arguments closer related to the theme of “expediency” imposed by the Athenians (Thucydides V, 86). First and foremost, they contradict the Athenians’ claim that it is necessary or even expedient to subjugate Melos in order to preserve their empire. In fact, they contend that setting a precedent of aggression against neutral states will only end up “expanding the number of enemies the Athenians have already and forcing this on those who had no such intentions” (Thucydides V, 98). This Melian response is based in their definition of justice as action based in reason. It is not reasonable for the Athenians to attack Melos without provocation, nor is it reasonable to force the Melians out of neutrality when their aim is peace. According to the Melian doctrine, justice would best be served by an Athenian withdrawal from Melos. When the Athenians refuse to see things from this point of view the Melians claim that they have no other choice but to fight, because “to yield is immediately hopelessness, but in action there is still hope of bearing up” (Thucydides V, 102).

At this point the Athenians and Melians realize that they have fundamentally conflicting views on the nature of justice, and negotiation is broken off. At his point the Athenians feel they are forced to attack the city and forcefully adopt it into the empire, based on the fact that this will protect not only Athens’ reputation, but also the safety of other cities that might otherwise be incited to rebel in the near future. This is related to the Athenians’ position that justice is based on “what superiors impose and the weak acquiesce to” (Thucydides V, 89). In other words, might makes right. Concern for the preservation of their mastery guides Athenian action, rather than concern for the happiness of all involved. In order to preserve their empire, the Athenians care little what sacrifices other states might be forced to make; Athenian control is the ultimate end through which all means are justified. On the other hand, the Melians also feel obligated to fight in order to uphold their dedication to freedom and “go to every length before being enslaved” (Thucydides V, 100). In accordance with their perception of justice, the Melians defend when attacked, and attack only when threatened. The Athenians opened hostilities, and thus the Melians will fight rather than be coerced into waiving their rights to independence.

From these definitions, it is obvious how the Athenians have come to lead an empire, while the Melians are a decidedly neutral island state. For it is impossible to subjugate others without leading unprovoked attacks, and forcing to fight those who would otherwise be neutral. The Melian definition of justice is not a formula for expansion, as the Athenians’ is. Thus each state’s concept of justice can be seen in the organization of the Athens as an empire and Melos as an isolationist state.

Considering whose position was truly most just ultimately depends on one’s political philosophy, but one can clearly side with the Melians. Although the Athenians’ policy is certainly necessary for the formation and maintenance of the empire they control, I am not entirely convinced of the necessity for the existence of that empire. The Melian policy of no aggression without cause is closely aligned with my own. I believe acting in accordance to the general good of all, not just in pursuit of the glory and wealth of one nation. Thus the Athenians selfish and heavy-handed attack on the neutral Melians is unjust. Unfortunately, they become a casualty of the sort of imperialism in which the Athenians engage in pursuit of the power and money needed to maintain their empire.

Incidentally, Thucydides probably shared this view, because what he chooses to record of the Melian Dialogues clearly portrays the Athenians as the unprovoked aggressors and the Melians as the unfortunate victims of the empire. In the last part of the Dialogue, Thucydides indicates that the Athenians “immediately directed themselves towards war, since the Melians were not submitting” (Thucydides V, 114). This inevitably leaves the reader with the image of valiant resistance on the part of the Melians overwhelmed by the sheer force of Athenian numbers.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesiand War, Rex Warner Trans., (New York: Penguin Books, 2000).

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