The Melian Dialogue

The Melian Dialogue 

In the 16th year of the Peloponnesian war, the Athenians troops besieged the small island of Melos, which was neutral in the war, and asked the Melians to become part of the Athenian empire, or to be invaded, all men killed and the women and children sold into slavery. 

The Melians argued that by the law of nations they had the right to remain neutral, and no nation had the right to attack without provocation. Having been a free state for seven hundred years, they were not ready to give up that freedom.

Here are excerpts of the famous dialogue, named the Melian dialogue, as recorded by the Greek historian Thucydides. 

Athenians: Let’s not make long speeches, let’s get straight to the point. 

Melians: You are already preparing for war, and it doesn’t really seem to matter what we say because you are the judges. 

Athenians: Stop guessing about the future and talk facts. If you are ready to talk about the safety of your city then we are ready to speak. 

Melians: We came here to talk about security, so let’s begin. 

Athenians: Let’s not make long speeches trying to convince one another. “the question of justice arises only between parties equal in strength”. We are strong and you are weak. 

Melians: Let’s not talk about justice, but instead self-interest. It is in your interest that anyone who needs help should be able to ask for it. 

Athenians: Don’t worry about us, we’ll worry about our own empire. We want you to become a part of our empire with the least amount of trouble. 

Melians: If we are speaking of interest, how can it be our interest to be slaves?  

Athenians: By giving up you won’t suffer a terrible fate and we won’t destroy you. 

Melians: Why can’t we be friends? Or at least neutral?  

Athenians: No. Being friends would be worse than being enemies. Our subjects will think we are weak if we become friends. 

Melians: Do your people not distinguish between neutral, conquered, and native people? 

Athenians: They think the only nations we do not attack we do not attack because they are strong. We will gain security by conquering you; it will set an example for other small island nations. 

Melians: Shouldn’t anyone threatened with slavery fight against it? 

Athenians: This is a question of survival, not finding honor in a fight between equals 

Melians: If we give up right now there is no chance, if we fight there is a slim chance, but a chance. 

Athenians: If you are strong and you gamble on hope you can’t lose much, but if you are weak and you gamble everything there is a higher chance of losing. So give up now and avoid suffering. 

Melians: “We are right and you are wrong”. Fortune will help us, and it is reasonable to believe this because Lacedaemon, our kinsmen, will come to our aid. They have a high sense of honor. 

Athenians: Fortune might help us because fortune usually helps the strong beat the weak. The Lacedaemonians don’t usually fight hard battles and are usually content to stay home and find honor the easy way. 

Melians: It is in the Lacedaemonians interest to help us because we use to be their colony. 

Athenians: Safety and self-interest are the same thing, and justice and honor are dangerous. 

Melians: we think they still might come. We trust that the gods will give us fortune as good as yours, because we are standing for what is right against what is wrong.

Athenians: Thus, as far as the gods are concerned, we have no fear and no reason to fear that we shall be at a disadvantage. But…your notion about the Lacedaemonians, which leads you to believe that shame will make them help you, here we bless your simplicity but do not envy your folly. The Lacedaemonians…are most conspicuous in considering what is agreeable, honourable, and what is expediently just…Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty as compared to those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious. You will therefore show great blindness of judgment unless, after allowing us to retire, you can find some counsel more prudent than this.

‘An intending ally” will usually help someone only if there is a great chance of success. 

Melians: You are opening up a can of worms and you might lose control of the sea. 

Athenians: You have failed to say anything realistic about the safety of your city. Words like “hope” and “justice” will only lead to your ruin. Athens has never before given up a siege. Don’t be fools, it is better to be a tributary ally than conquered slaves. 

“The strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must”.

The Melians chose hope and trust in the gods but were crushed. All men were killed and the women and children effectively sold into slavery.

The whole dialogue is worth reading for any state level thinker or practitioner.

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