Harrison Middleton University

The Melian Dialogue

The Melian Dialogue

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July 30, 2021

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides spends a few pages describing a conflict between the island of Melos and the Athenian superpower. After the unsuccessful attempt at diplomacy, the Athenians surround the island. The story ends with the Athenians annihilating the entire Melian population. In what is commonly referred to as “The Melian Dialogue,” Thucydides writes:

“Meanwhile the Melians in a night attack took the part of the Athenian lines opposite the market, killed some of its garrison, and brought in corn and as many useful stores as they could. Then, retiring, they remained inactive, while the Athenians took measures to keep better guard in the future.

“Summer was now over. The next winter the Lacedaemonians intended to invade the Argive territory, but on arriving at the frontier found the sacrifices for crossing unfavorable, and went back again. This intention of theirs made the Argives suspicious of certain of their fellow citizens, some of whom they arrested; others, however, escaped them. About the same time the Melians again took another part of the Athenian lines which were but feebly garrisoned. In consequence reinforcements were sent from Athens, and the siege was now pressed vigorously; there was some treachery in town, and the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves; subsequently they sent out five hundred settlers and colonized the island.”

I have read this section countless times and I cannot get over the abrupt nature of it. I cannot tell who Thucydides favors, if anyone. I cannot tell precisely what we are to learn. Why did he spend four pages describing the diplomatic dialogue only to leave us with such a sudden and slight conclusion? I wonder if he ends this so abruptly because he himself did not know what to think. That the Athenians would erase an entire population of peoples was probably not as unexpected and horrific at that time as it sounds to me today. Even still, after reading it once again, I am left with so many questions.

Are we to think that diplomacy failed? Was there ever actually an attempt at diplomacy? In fact, what does honest diplomacy look like? Due to their strength and power, did the Athenians always intend to conquer? Thucydides writes the dialogue in a manner that demonstrates a complete inability of both sides to not only compromise, but actually listen. Therefore, perhaps Thucydides wrote this dialogue as an example to demonstrate what superficial diplomacy might look like. If he intends the History of the Pelopponesian War to be educative, then this might make sense. But again, if he does intend to educate or inform with his History, then why doesn’t he offer a clear opinion? (I have to say, however, that I appreciate the fact that he lets the reader come to terms with the deeds of the past on their own.)

Another question that I have concerns the idea of the mentioned “treachery” which led to the Melians’ surrender. During our most recent Quarterly Discussion, someone proposed the idea that the Melian elite did not want to surrender to what might amount to a slavish rule or oppressive taxes. However, in light of the options at their disposal, some of the town may have embraced the Athenians’ offer if they had only known about it. Whatever the treachery, Thucydides indicates that it plays a part in the surrender. Beyond that, he does not indicate who committed treason or why. The scant amount of details puzzles me exceedingly. Perhaps the open-ended nature of Thucydides’ writing is what makes it so important and valid today. We have many lessons to learn and it pays to listen.

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