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. Your punchline is ambiguous. Who is displaying evidence of madness in the contemporary Greek drama/ tragedy? I note that Varoufakis has said, that whenever he asked what were the “economic principles” underlying the Troika’s demands, he was met with blank stares: might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem, he said (hang about… Who brought the Swedes into this?). Now that’s a scene I would like to be a fly on the wall for… So who are the gods, who the maddened?

  2. @Peter Chapman

    For my 2cents: the ‘gods’ are simply the gods in the general sense (non-earth-dwelling mythical forces of fate), and those who will be destroyed are “mad” in the sense of being irrational (i.e. the Troika hardliners, such as Germany).

  3. Just the other day the ABC replayed an intriguing BBC program on Hubris and politicians.

    The program title is “Does Power Make You Mad?”

    I think this is the link

    Its very interesting in that it includes the insights of a genuine insider but one with a scientific/medical/analytical bent, David Owen, now in the House of Lords but who has returned to neuroscience and looking at this phenomenon which may explain some of the EU’s strange behaviour.

    It doesnt deal with the EU crisis as such but with the hubris of Blair and Bush and various powerful presidents and politicians who were in too long and others who managed to remain saner to a degree. The way this ‘medicalized’ hubris seems to work is that it doesnt immediately or necessarily distort the perspectives of politicians but kicks in after about 5 years with vulnerable individuals. So given their youth Syriza appear unlikely to be suffering from it. However in the case of their opposition like LaGarde or Schauble and the Eurocrats who operate in Brussells and who have been reportedly part of the ‘elite’ for many years, this critical analysis does seem consistent with what many suspect, the EU powerbrokers have become drunk on power and self delusion and there is no easy way to disconnect them from this state of mind.

    ps Apparently the opposite of hubris is ‘nemesis’.

  4. @Megan Megan, I wish you to be correct almost. For now, I think (with Varoufakis, as per New Statesman interview) that it is the Germans who see themselves as the gods, in their hubris seeking to madden and then destroy the Greeks. And in so doing, they may (as per Krugman, Wren-Lewis and many other commentators) destroy the European “project”. Switching the metaphor from the divine to the domestic, the tables may turn. Oh, and wait, it now seems the IMF is not so keen on the German solution either. What may tomorrow bring?

  5. There was a period when writers and other artists flocked to Greece to worship the sun, and feel free. For a time Gerald Durrell and Henry Miller where also enraptured with the life. .

    In “Clean Straw for Nothing” George Johnston wrote about his experiences, and those of his of his wife Charmian Clift, living the expatriat life in Greece.

    It didn’t work out.

  6. @Peter Chapman

    Using the topic at hand (Melos), I think the Germans (and pals) are the Athenians in this story and the Greeks are Melos.

    The final quote, as I take it, refers to Pandora’s box and references Longfellow. That’s how I took it.

  7. Further austerity bills just passed Greek parliament with over 200 “Yes” votes to Troika’s demands.

  8. @Megan
    The poor bloody Greek people. What a mess. Their parliament voted for the EU to asset strip the place while they go hungry. I think Varoufakis is probably correct in saying that the next election will see in Golden Dawn. BTW: the riots agin police in the streets are mostly because the fascists are entrenched within all ranks.

  9. @ Megan #6
    Longfellow got it from old Sam Johnson who got it from Pliny who got it from Euripides or someone like that. It goes back to the Greeks, anyway.
    In the present case, whatever PrQ intended, the Germans are mad. What about the 50% debt forgiveness the Bundesrepublik got in 1953?

  10. Those rumour-mongers now swamping the internet with rumours that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is NOT an Australian Citizen must cease and detist. Scientific examination of his immigration papers and naturalisation certificate CONCLUSIVELY proves him Australian by nationality and perfectly entitled to vote in this country and to stand for high office.

    Unlike US “so-called President” Obama (real name Mohammed el Sarif, born Kenya to moslem parents and registered there as Birth Religion: Moslem), Tony Abbott is a naturalised Australian whose partentage is of the highest credentials ie British/Australian breeding.

    Smears from AWU/Freemasons trying to denigrate him because of his British pedigree, Royal connections, Oxford Education, upper socio-economic class, Monarchist pride and Papist leanings are nothing more than class warfare.

    Rather we should obstruct any calls for him to reveal his passport. We dont want any “Birther” Movement muddying what must be a triumphant first term of an Abbott Government, when the normal balance is returned to our Civil Affairs (ie the betters ruling the mob). Do you agree?

  11. @John Brookes

    An almost perfect poe, but ruined right at the end through an undisciplined slip – “…betters ruling the mob” – I’ll give it a 9.9.

  12. @james wright
    As a rumour-mongrel, I must object to this accusation of “swamping”. It’s merely the occasional post here and there! I am deeply offended.

  13. Cool. I just read that “Prime Minister Tony Abbott is NOT an Australian Citizen” on the internet, so it must be true!

    As for Greece, they unfortunately are looking at being a salutary lesson on economic austerity measures and their (in-)effectiveness…one for the next set of textbooks.

  14. That Aussie connected Greek ex-finance minister said on P Adams LNL radio show that the German finance minister told him that he wanted Greece out of the Euro and that he had always wanted a Euro with more far more standardisation than just its currency.

    Jungney ,today I witnessed some elements that may arguably be seen as part fascist .They rushed a police line to get to the Reclaim Aust rally people who were only 50 m away. The part fascist police were having none of that and used their horses and spray .Violence begets violence but Im not yet convinced that racists dont have a free speech right so I dont want to get myself sprayed. There were so many police that it was hard even to see the other mob .Disconcertingly they mostly looked basically like me !

  15. @sunshine

    Disconcertingly they mostly looked basically like me !

    What? You’ve got a swastika tattooed on the back of your neck then, have you?

  16. The Greek parliament just voted to pass more austerity (including “reforms” of the judiciary and banking – especially repossession of homes):


    Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faced down a revolt by rebels in his leftists Syriza party to win parliament’s backing on Thursday for a second package of reforms required to start talks on a financial rescue deal.

    The bill – containing judicial and banking reforms – easily passed with the support of 230 lawmakers in the 300-seat parliament thanks to the support of pro-euro opposition parties.

    But 36 out of 149 deputies from his Syriza party voted against the overall bill or abstained – less than the rebellion by 39 deputies in last week’s vote on an initial set of reforms.

    Varoufakis voted “yes” this time.

  17. The Greek Parliament voted on and adopted the following measures.

    1. a code of civil protection aimed at speeding up court cases

    2. the adoption of an EU directive to bolster banks and protect savers’ deposits of less than €100,000

    3. the introduction of rules that would see bank shareholders and creditors – not taxpayers – cover costs of a failed bank


    These measures are not ‘austerity measures’ by any stretch of the imagination.

    Items 2 and 3 are Eurozone wide laws, developed after the GFC, aimed at mitigating a repetition of the modern Spartans (previously known as the masters of the universe, also known as proverbial Wall Street Bankers) to create a financial system failure which was prevented to come to full fruition only because national governments (taxpayers) acquired their mess. The idea is that shareholders and large depositors will scrutinize banking activities because their money is at stake. (I am still in favour of clawing back some wealth from the modern day Spartans by means of a Tobin type financial transactions tax – all 19 Eurozone countries would benefit.)

    Megan made a reference to home foreclosures. The Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported the above 3 items and Tsipras having stipulated that bank foreclosure on the primary residence is excluded. (I would expect he discussed this item with Eurozone member heads of government or the Head of the Eurogroup or the Head of the EUC or via the current Finance Minister. Several newspapers reported on behind the scene talks have already happened to waste no more time regarding the financial package known as ‘bail-out’.)

    The ECB has made available further ‘liquidity’ (cash) close to Euro 1bn.

    The GDP is expected to contract in 2015, after a small expansion in 2014. This was avoidable by means of not playing bluff games. IMO, whether or not Yanis Varoufakis voted or not is now totally irrelevant. One month of the peak tourist season is gone. Hoch much of August will be affected is not known yet.

  18. The BBC source you cite is silent on foreclosures, unless I missed it.

    The guardian reported live from proceedings today in Athens. They started out with Tsipras’ meeting with the heads of the banks:

    Greece’s four systemic banks have committed to put a ban on foreclosures until the end of the year but with non-performing loans now the biggest risk for the system they have also come under unprecedented pressure to tackle the issue.

    [my emphasis]

    It would be welcome news if, in fact, they have legislated/locked in no foreclosures on primary place of residence. Anyone got any evidence that they have?

  19. Leaving aside the propaganda spin version of what the Greek parliament just did….

    The full 977 pages of pdf files of the legislation can be found here (in Greek).

    I haven’t had time to translate it with google-translate yet, let alone read it!

    I wonder how many Greek parliamentarians read it before voting for it?

    Slamming through austerity legislation with a gun to your head is not my idea of democracy.

    And as for the “new” 900 million euros of extra debt the ECB just generously lobbed onto the Greek people’s credit card to pay off the troika – and the accompanying propaganda – it’s like the old saying about marketing:

    Getting you to buy stuff you don’t want,
    With money you don’t have,
    To impress people you don’t like.

    Meanwhile, in the real world far beneath the surreal imaginings of finance economics..on the streets of Greece people are dying because they can’t get insulin.

    How is the “bail-out” going to directly improve that situation immediately?

  20. Perhaps J.Q. or other supporters of “the market” can tell me how “Automobile Capitalism” was ever efficient in any sense. By “Automobile Capitalism” I simply mean the adaptation of our society, circa 1950 to the present, to entirely suit the automobile’s needs via cityscapes, roadscapes, landscapes, factories; indeed our whole built infrastructure, transport structure and production system. How was this “efficient” in any sense? (Except one trivial, worthless sense which I will come to.)

    1. Mass transit is more efficient economically and in energy/material terms.
    2. It (automobile culture) has contributed seriously to climate change.
    3. Injuries and fatalities were and are far higher than with other mass transit systems.
    4. Excessive amounts of land were and are devoted to automobile use.

    I could go on. There is no way that one can argue this was an efficient outcome unless one uses the flawed criteria that economic efficiency is building a lot of stuff with less resources than other methods whilst at the same time ignoring the needlessness, uselessness and even seriously damaging nature (to humans and the biosphere) of much of the stuff actually being built. Only by ignoring this huge flaw in its own logic can the “market economy” under really existing capitalism, claim efficiency for itself. Indeed, just about the only thing it has been efficient at is wrecking the planet and impoverishing third world people and others who suffered and suffer from imperialism and its successor systems.

  21. 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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