Melian dialogue

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The Melian dialogue is a passage found in Book V (85-113) of the History of the Peloponnesian War by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. It is a classic example of the clash of liberal and realist ideas about international relations and is often paraphrased in discussions of so-called realist thought. It is an unusual piece of text, as it is written in the style of a theatrical dialogue, rather than a record of opposing speeches as Thucydides usually wrote.


The historical background of this portion of the History is the invasion of the island of Melos by Athens in 416 BC during the Peloponnesian War. The Melians had always resisted the influence of the Delian League, and resisted this invasion as well. Thucydides writes that both sides held a meeting where they presented their arguments for and against the invasion. This was held between "the governing body and the few," not before the people, leading the Athenians to imply that the Melian elite was afraid that the people might support the Athenian position. The dialogue as written in the History probably reflects Thucydides' personal view of the invasion of Melos, rather than accurately recording the specific speeches delivered at the meeting.


In the passage, the Athenians present the Melians with a choice: the island may pay tribute to Athens and thus survive, or fight Athens and be destroyed. The Melians respond by arguing that their neutrality should be respected, and that international law guarantees their right to neutrality. The Melians also present several other counter-arguments, namely that showing mercy towards Melos will win the Athenians more friends; that the Spartans will come to Melos' aid; and finally that the gods will protect the island. The Athenians, however, refuse to discuss either the justice of their demand or any substantive argument advanced by the Melians. Instead the Athenians offer a sharp, simple, and oft-quoted formula of hard realism: The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. The Athenians further suggest that the Spartans are no strangers to this principle, and thus that the Spartans will not assist the weak Melians if doing so is to Sparta's disadvantage.


Ultimately the Melians refuse to submit, saying that while they are prepared to fight, they would prefer to be "friends of yours and enemies of neither side". The Athenians, unsatisfied, immediately besiege Melos, and though the Melians hold them off for a short while, Melos is finally defeated, thanks to a combination of events: reinforcements from Athens, the (accurately predicted) lack of support by the Spartans, and treachery from within Melos. According to Thucydides' dispassionate report, the victorious Athenians execute every Melian man of military age, sell every woman and child into slavery and colonize the now-depopulated island.

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