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Thucydides Roundtable, Book V: Debating the Dialogue

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

[by A. E. Clark]

The Roundtable moves on — we are supposed to be in Book 8, but the pace of postings evinces that “friction” of which Clausewitz wrote  — yet I would like to revisit the Melian Dialogue at the end of Book 5 and register my respectful disagreement with some of the thoughtful posts it received.

Professor Kaurin opened discussion of this celebrated passage, noting that it has been read both as a clash between Realism and the Just War theory and also as evidence that appeals to morality are the last refuge of a loser. Prof. Kaurin finds instead (I hope I am paraphrasing acceptably) that morality is an inescapable part of the framework of war, and that the Melians are calling the Athenians to account and get the better of the argument. Without repeating the points I made in an earlier post suggesting a different interpretation, I’d like to flag a couple of points which I think raise doubts about Professor Kaurin’s thesis:

The Athenians seem to be invoking the obligation (a moral term, oops!) of the Melians to preserve themselves asking why the Melians do not surrender? From the Athenian point of view, the Melian faith in the good favor of the Gods and help from the Spartans is irrational; from the Melian point of view, Athens unfairly have limited the discussion to questions of expediency only.  In short, the Athenians are arguing for Empire and the Melians for their survival.

The Athenians do not argue for their empire; they present it as a fact beneficial to themselves, and they take their intention to maintain it as the most natural thing in the world and therefore not requiring justification. They do explain the relevant mechanics of empire, namely that its continuance depends on maintaining a credible deterrent in the eyes of their subjects (5.95) — a deterrent which in this case will be established at the expense of the Melians. This I believe is the heart of the “messaging” on which Dr. Metz focused in his post

What brings the two states into conflict is not the Melians’ wish to survive, but their wish to be independent, which the Athenians will not permit them: a way of survival lies open, however, for the Athenians offer the status of tributary ally, “without ceasing to enjoy the country that belongs to you.”

The Athenians argue that by putting their hope in aid that will not come, the Melians are making a terrible mistake. This is more of the nature of a pertinent technical observation than a moral injunction. The Athenians say quite frankly that it is in their interest, as well as the Melians’, for the Melians to survive: “We would desire to exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both.” Philosophically, then, the Athenians are consistent.

The Athenians also argue that the Melians are at risk of making another terrible mistake, namely, of letting notions of honor and disgrace (“the mere influence of a seductive name”) lead them “into hopeless disaster.” The passage at 5.101 is clarifying: the Athenians are not dismissing all notions of honor (which here, as usual, denotes external honor or reputation) but stating that honor is not relevant in so unequal an encounter. 

Of course, we do not know what their fate would have been had they surrendered – the Athenians might have destroyed them anyway as deterrence or to ensure that they did not rebel at some later point in time.  

To me this is extremely doubtful. The Athenians had a reputation to keep up. With regard to “messaging,” it was almost as important for the hegemon to be known for keeping promises as it was to be known for following through on threats. Moreover, as they said, it was in their interest to secure the Melians as profitable tributaries.

Why are the Athenians even having to defend and justify their actions? If the classical Realist view holds, the conversation need not even take place and is completely pointless! Which naturally is my point: the rhetorical move whereby the Melian’s adopt the role of questioner and the Athenians as respondents is in fact an ethical move.

As I have attempted to show, (a) the Athenians are not trying to defend or justify their actions; (b) the conversation is not pointless, for the Athenians (by calling attention to resources and consequences) are trying to persuade the Melians to make, for their own survival, a decision which will also bring the optimal outcome for the Athenians.

Mr. Greer sees in the Dialogue proof that the Athenians recognized no principle but self-interest and contrasts them unfavorably with their adversaries who retained a principle of honor. To evaluate this contrast, we need to be clear what ‘honor’ meant to Thucydides’ contemporaries.

The honor about which Mr. Greer writes (in the constellation of “justice, honor, and mercy”) sounds like Victorian honor, which James Bowman, in his work Honor: a History, glosses as characteristic of the gentleman who owes allegiance to a universal and ethical standard. It represented a democratization of the honor of the Christian aristocracy, most vividly exemplified in the code of chivalry. Essential to this concept (and greatly complicating it) is a certain duality: “honor” denotes both recognition by others and one’s own inner integrity.  Tension between outward and inward honor was a frequent motif in Victorian novels. Trollope’s work often features an honorable protagonist enduring social obloquy: Phineas Finn arrested for murder and the Reverend Crawley accused of stealing a check. The inward kind of honor came to be seen as ultimately the “real” one, and to call someone an honorable man was a judgment of his inner values, not his reputation.

I doubt that anyone in the fifth century BCE would have recognized this concept. It is not what Thucydides meant by the word time. The classical Greek dictionaries make it clear that time was extrinsic honor. It was paramount in the ancient world — note that at 1.76.2 although the usual English translation (I think for the sake of tricolon crescens) is “fear, honor, and interest,” in the original, ‘honor’ comes first (Professor Morley pointed this out in his comment to Lynn Rees’s post). It remains paramount in the Muslim world, and it is close to the Asiatic concept of “face.”

It is with some unease that I point out that the meaning of ’honor’ has changed over time, because this is certainly not news to Mr. Greer. He has blogged elsewhere with erudition about the dramatic (and popularly unknown) evolution of family values, and the succession of honor, dignity, and victimhood as the changing forms of validating status in American society. Nevertheless, it seems to me that his discussion of honor in the Peloponnesian War suffers from an uncharacteristic anachronism.

Let us follow Mr. Greer into the argument over the fate of the Plataeans (3.52-68), a lengthy and emotionally arresting episode. I do not think it supports the conclusions Mr. Greer draws from it.

Knowing all of this, the Plataeans did not defend themselves in terms of interest

— but, he says, they appealed to the Spartans’ sense of justice and honor. Yet let us consider this carefully. When the Plataeans appeal to the Spartans’ sense of honor, they are referring to what people will say about you.  Look at the passage again: “most of the Hellenes regard you as a model…take care that displeasure not be felt at an unseemly [that’s closer to the Greek than Crawley’s ‘unworthy’] decision.” You will look bad!

As for the Thebans’ argument at Plataea, Mr. Greer is right that it refers often to justice and injustice; but after scrutinizing their speech I sense that the Thebans are tendentiously labeling as unjust and criminal anyone who has been on the other side in a war.  This is not unnatural: one who chooses to be on the other side harms my interests, and human beings have always tended to identify the Good with whatever is good for themselves, and Evil as whatever is harmful to themselves.  If we accepted this logic, then on the conclusion of a war every soldier on the losing side would be treated as a criminal. This may have been fair in the Theban view, but we should be clear that the Thebans are not using the word justice as we use it. And we certainly have no reason to place the Spartan and Theban decision at Plataea on a higher level, even conceptually, than the Athenians’ at Melos. The Spartans, too, were guided by their own interests, except that their calculation was based largely on the past (retribution) where the Athenians’ was based mainly on the future (keeping their empire intact).

Even if we found reason to understand the ’justice’ mentioned here as comparable to our concept, it would be rash to conclude that the Spartans were imbued with justice simply because they talked about it. This is especially true if (as I think can fairly be said) the outcome of deliberations ostensibly guided by a criterion of justice happened always to be a choice that served Spartan interests. “Rationalization” may be a modern term, but the phenomenon is very old.

It is harder to evaluate the tendency for inauspicious sacrifices or an inviolable festival to delay Spartan military campaigns. It was the perception of other Greeks that the Spartans were cautious by temperament and loath to engage in action outside their borders. This may have been because their domestic situation was always somewhat precarious, or because they — with the sobriety typical of professional soldiers — were less keen to get into wars than amateurs were. I wonder if the often-invoked auguries were not simply a face-saving way to put the brakes on. I doubt that their sense of national security ever took a back seat to piety.

The combination of an anachronistic reading of ‘honor’ and a willingness to accept rhetoric as virtue leads Mr. Greer to be rather hard on the Athenians

Behold the men of Athens! Dead to honor, to principle, to humanity. This was a people whose hearts had hardened. Nothing was left to Athens but the pursuit of power—and its cousin, profit. The only language they spoke was the language of naked interest.

while he gives the Spartans more credit

The Spartans were a very different sort of people. […] Her people stuck fast to her traditions to the end of her days. […] To the end they talked and thought and fought in a world they never stopped describing with words like justice and honor.

I, too, see much to admire in the way of Lacedaemon, but I am afraid the Spartans, like the Athenians (and every other long-lived society), underwent a moral and cultural decay. Helena Schrader, who has written a very pleasant trilogy fictionalizing the life of Leonidas, dates the commencement of that decay even before the Classical era, as the laws of Lycurgus began to be watered down or circumvented. She represents Leonidas as one of the last exemplars of the virtues of the Archaic era. Within the pages of Thucydides I do not observe consistent devotion to principle more frequently in Spartans than in others, though their military discipline was stronger. There is certainly no halo around Pausanias!

Yet in the end I am willing to draw a moral lesson, but it is that economic and political structures play an enormous role in determining moral tenor. The Athenians did not treat rebels ruthlessly because they were immoral or unprincipled. They treated rebels ruthlessly because they had an empire to preserve. Empire — that is, power without accountability to those over whom it is exercised for the purpose of extracting resources from them — necessarily involves treating certain people or communities as means, and not at all as ends. Since few wish to be treated as means, this arrangement requires coercion and (in all the cases I can think of) some degree of institutionalized cruelty. (A debate over Aristotle’s “natural slave” will await a different discussion!)  Admirers of the culture of Athens must acknowledge with regret that this was what the Athenians let themselves in for when they chose the path of Empire. The Spartans’ empire lay at home, and the krypteia marked helots, sometimes arbitrarily chosen, for murder — and in one case that Thucydides recounts (4.80.3-5), the murder occurred treacherously and on a very large scale.

It is hard to ponder the relation of morality to power, and the feasibility of remaining moral while exercising power, without thinking of Machiavelli. His work has been plausibly interpreted in such contrasting ways. Did he despise Christian morality? Did he believe that statecraft was a domain in which different rules applied, though the ultimate values were consistent with Christian morality? Was he trying to arm republicans against the wiles of tyrants — exhorting his followers to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, except that the first took precedence over the second? I find the cool pragmatism of the Athenian imperialists rooted in a worldview that is not only pre-Christian, but untouched by the implications of monotheism; and comparisons with Machiavelli are therefore likely to mislead. The Florentine, like the Platonist and the Stoic, believed — or lived in a culture that professed to believe — that all men in some sense were brothers. The Athenians did not. That is why they are closer to Darwin than to Machiavelli.

Finally, when Mr. Greer observes that after all it was the Spartans who won the war, I trust he is not suggesting that they won because they more frequently talked about justice! Their victory may defy simple explanation, or it may turn out to have been overdetermined. The subsidies from Persia should not be forgotten, as well as the elephantine folly of the Sicilian expedition. And as I have written elsewhere, by exercising empire over fellow-Greeks the Athenians chose to sail against a powerful headwind — the ideology of Greek freedom — that they had done much to create.

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

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

[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.


Thucydides Roundtable, Book V: The Melian Dialogue: Athens’ Finest Hour

Monday, November 28th, 2016

[by A. E. Clark]

This byword for stone-cold amorality was Athens’ finest hour? A provocative thesis . . . but I’ll give it a try.

First, in this episode the Athenians are entirely honest. They do not mask their intentions or weave ambiguity into their promises; they misrepresent no facts.

By contrast, much of the diplomacy in Book 5 (and almost all its talk of justice) involves fraud. As readers, we pick our way through a forest of the crooked timber of humanity. Sparta forges an “alliance” with Athens in order to have breathing space to crush Argos. Athens, at least, fulfills some of her promises; Sparta, hardly any. Corinth lies and obfuscates (5.30.2) when questioned by Sparta about its maneuvers. After the Lepraeans welsh on their debts, the Eleans back out of arbitration crying “Unfair!”, and switch alliances (5.31).

Then, while assuring the Athenians that they are trying to bring the Boeotians and Corinthians into the alliance with Athens, the Spartans secretly urge envoys from those two cities to ally with Argos and then bring Argos over to Sparta. The Spartans’ aim is to “be in a better position to resume hostilities with Athens.” (5.36) This scheme misfires somewhat comically when other members of the Boeotian government, unaware of the ephors’ double game, veto the Argos alliance out of loyalty to Sparta (5.38.3).

Athens, Sparta, and Argos thus find themselves in a triangle held together by deceptions — mostly Spartan — until the duplicitous Alcibiades tricks the Spartan ambassadors into concealing their mission and their authority . . . which leads, notwithstanding the honest efforts of the hapless Nicias, to a hasty alliance between Athens and Argos, after which a resumption of the war is inevitable.

The diplomacy of Book 5 is not merely practiced in a deceptive and insincere manner: when based on appeals to justice, it is shown to be futile:

While the Argives were in Epidaurus embassies from the cities assembled at Mantinea, upon the invitation of the Athenians. The conference having begun, the Corinthian Euphamidas said that their actions did not agree with their words; while they were sitting deliberating about peace, the Epidaurians and their allies and the Argives were arrayed against each other in arms; deputies from each party should first go and separate the armies, and then the talk about peace might be resumed. In compliance with this suggestion they went and made the Argives withdraw from Epidaurus, and afterwards reassembled, but without succeeding any better in coming to a conclusion; and the Argives a second time invaded Epidaurus and plundered the country. (5.55.1-2)

Even worse was the justice-based diplomacy of the Spartans at Plataea, where they promised a fair hearing and just treatment to trick the besieged into surrendering (3.52.2). . . and then killed them all.

Against this background, the behavior of the Athenian envoys at Melos seems a model of candor and sincerity. They define the agenda and offer the Melians two choices with different consequences. When the Melians choose to resist, the Athenians do exactly what they said they would do. There is no reason to doubt that, had the Melians chosen to comply, the Athenians would have kept their word then, too. They employ no sophistry; their rebuttal to each of the Melians’ points is cogent: in my opinion, they win the debate, and that appears to be Thucydides’ opinion, too, as Mr. Strassler suggests by citing here his later praise of Phrynicus as “a man of sense” (8.27.5). Certainly their warning that the Spartans are not to be relied on is confirmed by events.

In commending the honest dealing of the Athenian envoys, I am aware that what scandalizes most readers is the principle underlying the Athenian policy that was implemented at Melos. This is indeed problematic, but not necessarily as odious as it might first appear. I’d like to evaluate it from three angles.

1. It is tempting to discern in the Melian Dialogue fundamental issues of moral philosophy. One might say the Melians take a stand on principle (or would if the Athenians allowed them to), while the Athenians disclaim any moral principle. But this may not be quite right, if principle denotes the goal or value motivating one’s choices. A “pure principle” approach would hold that one should do the right thing irrespective of the likely outcome. The hopes of the Melians—that the gods or the Spartans will come to their aid—are a key factor in their decision. They never say, “We’ll choose certain death, in freedom, over a life of servitude.” They differ from the Athenians less in their ends than in their opinion of the efficacy of various means.

It is also not the case that the Athenian envoys have no principle. They affirm the tendency of the life-force to assert itself and to seek mastery as a ‘given’ of human nature and therefore not subject to moral choice. This is the conatus of Spinoza turbocharged with Hellenic arete. Given the pervasiveness of the evolutionary framework in much modern social science, we cannot dismiss this approach as barbaric.

What intrigues me is that the pure-principle approach–to the point of self-sacrifice–was eloquently articulated by Athenians both before and after the Peloponnesian War (Sophocles’ Antigone was produced a decade before the war and Plato’s Gorgias about two decades after its end). The best dialogue between these two approaches to morality, then, was conducted not at Melos but in Athens itself. But there is no evidence that proponents of pure principle ever had much influence on public policy. The execution of Socrates, in fact, seems a decisive rejection of their position.

2. The “submit or be destroyed” message politely conveyed by the Athenian consiglieri resembles the demand for earth and water brought by the envoys of Darius in 491. On that earlier occasion, most of the poleis had chosen to submit. But the defiance of Athens and Sparta, which became the stuff of legend, created a powerful myth of Greek liberty. By placing themselves in the position of the Persians, the Athenians ensured that an ideology which they had helped create would now work against their empire—as we see happening in the rhetoric of Brasidas (e.g., 5.9.9: “this day will make you either free men and allies of Sparta, or slaves of Athens”). It is remarkable that Pericles could call Athens the school of Hellas (2.41.1) and later confide to his fellow-citizens, “For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny.” (2.63.2) This was the worm at the heart of the golden apple of the Age of Pericles, for tyranny had gone out of style.

3. J. A. O. Larsen, in his 1962 paper “Freedom and its Obstacles in Ancient Greece,” noted the difficulties in “the common Greek view of freedom which tended to include in freedom for oneself the right to dominate others.” As I commented before, the Periclean stance invites comparison with Lincoln: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” It seems a gross inconsistency, but every inspiring ideal is fraught with conceptual and practical difficulties — perhaps especially freedom, which by its nature resists limitation and constraint.

All three themes find expression in Leonidas’ rejoinder to Xerxes at Thermopylae,

“If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life [ta kala tou biou], you would refrain from coveting others’ possessions; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race.”

Plutarch is our only source for this saying. Did Leonidas actually say it, or could such thoughts occur only to one steeped in the transcendental ideals of Middle Platonism? If Leonidas did say it, what a pity the Greeks did not pay closer heed. Perhaps the life-force wouldn’t let them.

The Thucydides Roundtable

Thursday, October 13th, 2016


  1. Announcement, by T. Greer
  2. Marching Orders, by Mark Safranski
  3. Panel of Contributors, by Mark Safranski

Book I:

  1. An introduction, by T. Greer
  2. Fear, honor, and Ophelia, by Lynn C. Rees
  3. The Broken Reedby Jim Lacey
  4. How Group Dynamics Brought Sparta and Athens to War, by Joe Byerly
  5. It Would Be A Great Warby Cheryl Rofer
  6. Knowing Thyself and Knowing the Enemyby Marc Opper
  7. Political Rhetoric in Book I: Truth or Action?, by Pauline Kaurin
  8. Failed Visions of Strategic Restraint, by Mark Safranski
  9. Reflections in a Beginner’s Mindby Charles Cameron
  10. Reflections from a Clausewizian Strategic Theory Perspective, by Joseph Guerra
  11. Honour or reputation?by Natalie Sambhi

Book II:

  1. Beware Greeks Bearing Faulty Assumptionsby Pauline Kaurin
  2. Tactical Patterns in the Siege of Plataeaby A.E. Clark
  3. When Bacteria Beats Bayonets, by Joe Byerly
  4. Everybody Wants a Thucydides Trap, by T. Greer
  5. On Pericles, Strategy and his Regime, Part Iby Mark Safranski
  6. Treason makes the historian, by Lynn C. Rees

Book III:

  1. Treatment of the Enemy in War: Cruel to be Kind?, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. The Most Violent Man at Athensby Mark Safranski
  3. The Medium of Heralds, by Cheryl Rofer
  4. A Layered Textby Joseph Guerra
  5. Understanding Stasisby A. E. Clark

Book IV:

  1. What a Man Can Do”, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. General Demosthenesby A. E. Clark
  3. History is Written by the Losers, by T. Greer
  4. Hoplite Perspectiveby Mark Safranski
  5. Devastationby A. E. Clark

Book V:

  1. What Would the Melians Do? Power and Perception in a Time of Deep Connectivity, by Steven Metz
  2. The Melian Dialogue: Athens’ Finest Hourby A. E. Clark
  3. Men of Honor, Men of Interestby T. Greer
  4. Debating the Dialogueby A. E. Clark

Book VI:

  1. The Diva and the General: Who Wins?, by Pauline Kaurin
  2. Spot the Alcibiades Pointsby T. Greer
  3. The State with the Golden Armby A. E. Clark

Book VII:

  1. Syracuse Through the Eyes of a Samurai, by A. E. Clark


  1. What Do You Mean by “We”?, by A. E. Clark

Concluding Analysis

  1. What have we learned?, by A. E. Clark


  1. Cleon Revisitedby Mark Safranski
  2. Fellow Thucydideansby Mark Safranski
  3. Hoffman on Reading Thucydidesby Mark Safranski
  4. Wyne on Revisiting Thucydides’ Explanationby Mark Safranski
  5. Thucydides Roundtable, Addendum: Steve Bannon’s interest in the Peloponnesian War by Charles Cameron
  6. Thucydides Roundtable: Daniel Bassill’s comment by Charles Cameron


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