Thucydides Roundtable, Book V: Men of Honor, Men of Interest

[By T. Greer]

The most famous episode in Thucydides’ History is found in its fifth book. Known as the “Melian Dialogue”, it is one of the best known statements of what we moderns call realpolitik. I read this passage long before I read any other part of Thucydides’ History. It was one of the opening chapters in the”standard-readings-in-IR-theory” primer assigned in my very first political science class. Its stature in that class is hardly unique. This episode has been picked apart, commented on, and excerpted more than any other in the book. In this roundtable, it has already prompted three separate discussions. I will add yet one more here. But I suggest a different approach: to understand the themes and purpose of this dialogue, it is best to rewind.

…Thus as far as the Gods are concerned, we have no fear…

A recurring theme of Thucydides work is the contrast between the Spartans and the Athenians. In Book V, Athens launches an attack on Melos, by blood and kinship a natural friend of Sparta. The Athenians wage devastation on the Melians knowing it is not just to do so. The same book sees the Spartans waging wars—this time on Argos, by regime and belief a natural friend of Athens. Five times do Spartan armies march to the border of Argive lands. Of the five invasions, three are ended before they begin “because the sacrifices were unfavorable”. (5.54, 5.55,.5.115). One of the two times Spartans actually step on Argive soil, Spartan leadership decides to defer bloodshed for the sake of just arbitration (5.83). Only once does the attack proceed as planned, and that only when the Spartans are threatened with the specter of a second pair of long walls extending from a powerful enemy capital to the sea.

The contrast between Sparta and Athens is found in Thucydides’ fifth book, but it is not obvious. To see it you must screw your eyes up and tilt your head a little bit.

Earlier juxtapositions are more difficult to miss.

…We see that you are come to be judges in your own cause…

Melos was not the first polis to suffer the fury of the strong. Nine years before her destruction other polis trembled in fear before the judgement of a hegemon. In Athens the polis in question was Mytilene. Her fate to be decided by a jury of the Demos, a trial not entirely different in form the sort of criminal cases Socrates’ Apology would make famous. Mytilene had rebelled. Yet before the Athenian hoplites could sack its capital, Mytilene’s ‘Many’ had removed her ‘Few,’ and surrendered their city to democrats on their doorstep. Now they waited in judgement.

A second trial would occur soon after—soon enough after that Thucydides places the stories one right after the other. Here the Spartans played the role of judge and jury, and here again the trappings of a formal trial were adopted. Standing accused were the remnants of Plataea. For four terrible years they had resisted a Theban siege. With Spartan help the Thebans were close to breaking through. But here again surrender was declared well before sacking could begin. The Plataeans turned themselves over to the Spartans and waited to see what judgement they might receive.

…You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power…

The Plataeans and the Mytilenians both heard a case arguing for their death, as well as one arguing for their continued survival. In the Mytilenian case, both the defendant and the prosecution were represented by Athenians. In the case of Plataea, the Plataeans were forced to speak in their own defense, with the Thebans arguing for their death. The parallel is clear: it to these arguments we turn to find the contrast between the two hegemonic powers.

…What is this but to make greater enemies than you have already, and to force others to become so who would otherwise have never thought of it?

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