After Melos

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been thinking about the words Thucydides assigns to the Athenians in the Melian dialogue

The strong do as they will and the weak suffer what they must

And I knew the immediate context. Militarily powerful Athenians demanded that the inhabitants of neutral Melos surrender their city and pay tribute. When the Melians refused, Athens invaded, slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children.

I didn’t however, have any broader context in which to place this episode, even though the information is readily available on Wikipedia for example, which is my source here (apologies in advance to any actual experts for inaccuracies). The story begins with the formation of the Delian League, an expression of Greek unity in the war against Persia. The Athenians used the League to supplant Sparta as the hegemon of Greece, and then to oppress the other members, leading to a series of attempted defections. In Thucydides words

Of all the causes of defection, that connected with arrears of tribute and vessels, and with failure of service, was the chief; for the Athenians were very severe and exacting, and made themselves offensive by applying the screw of necessity

Eventually, this policy lead to the outbreak of war with the Spartan-led Pelopennesian League (this war was Thucydides’ subject). The war on Melos took place during a brief period of peace about half way through the war. The war ended with Athens being utterly defeated. Only the mercy of the Spartans prevented the Athenians sharing the fate they had meted out to the Melians a decade earlier, as Sparta’s allies demanded.

Rather than extract analogies to current events, I’d like to observe that the historical setting suggests a very different reading of the dialogue to that commonly seen today. In most of the contemporary discussions I’ve read, the Athenian side of the dialogue is presented as embodying the remorseless logic of power politics. But in the light of the outcome (well known to his intended readers), it seems to me Thucydides is better read as showing the Athenians as subject to the kind of hubris that demands, and inevitably receives, punishment. By contrast, while the Melians made a bad bet in resisting, their arguments are entirely sound, and should have been convincing to a rational hegemon.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.

27 thoughts on “After Melos

  1. Fires in Greece

    I cannot find any EUROzone or EU rule which would prevent the stronger countries, particularly Germany, to provide aid from their national budgets.

    France had sent some planes, but fires burnt also in the South-East of France and in Spain.

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