Thucydides, the Melian Dialogue, and Keeping the (Russian) Jungle at Bay
By 416 BCE, the Peloponnesian War had raged off and on for fifteen years. Yet the fundamental dynamic remained roughly the same as was when the war began: Athens ruled the sea while Sparta ruled the land. Athenian attempts to defeat Sparta on the battlefield resulted in costly defeats at Delium (424), Amphipolis (422), and Mantinea (418). Likewise, Spartan efforts to build a fleet capable of challenging the Athenian navy also ended in embarrassing defeats at Rhium (429), Naupactus (429), and Pylos (425). As long as Athens controlled the seas, its tribute-paying allies in the Aegean could be expected to remain loyal since Sparta could offer no viable alternative.
On the other hand, Sparta’s control of the mainland remained intact. Each summer, a Spartan army arrived on schedule to ravage Attica’s countryside. And each summer, the Athenians looked on in frustration from inside their city walls. By 421, both sides were exhausted and ready for a break. The Peace of Nicias was supposed to be that break, a fifty-year treaty that would barely last six.
That’s where we find things in 416, with a precarious equilibrium still holding firm during a lull in the fighting. But not for much longer. Athens planned a new offensive to shift the war back in her favor. The target was Sicily, in what became the massive (and ultimately catastrophic) Syracuse campaign.
First, however, one bit of unfinished business remained: the subjugation of the island of Melos. In 426, Athens had sent a force of 2,000 hoplites under Nicias to bring Melos into its empire, though not much is known about this early campaign beyond Thucydides’ brief mention of it. We know that the Melians rejected the Athenian demands and retreated behind their city walls. Thwarted, the Athenians ravaged the island for a short time before departing empty-handed (Thucydides, 3.91). For the next decade, Athens left Melos alone and focused its efforts on other theaters.
To be honest, the real reasons for the Athenian preoccupation with Melos seem unclear. Melos was not a significant player in the Greek world, with a tiny military and little potential to become a rival to Athens. In any case, even as an ally, it would not have added much to the Athenian war effort. Thucydides noted twice (3.91.2; 5.84.2) that the Melians had refused to submit like the other islanders, so perhaps this refusal was seen by the Athenian Assembly as a challenge that shouldn’t be left unanswered.
Melos was unique in the Aegean for its neutrality; the other islanders were taxpaying members of the Athens-led Delian League. Sitting on the sidelines risked setting a dangerous precedent for the other members. Perhaps Athens feared Melian independence might offer a viable alternative to membership in the empire. As it was, the Melians had the best of both worlds. They could trade freely with both sides while not paying an onerous annual tribute to Athens. Needless to say, the Athenians didn’t want their allies getting any ideas that this could be an option for them as well.
If you were an islander in the Aegean or on the Ionian coast of western Asia minor, then you were on Team Athens, like it or not. There’s also evidence that Melos may have supported the Peloponnesian war effort at some point, though how much remains a mystery (Lazenby 131). If that was true, Athens might have feared having a hostile state in its backyard while it was distracted by the Sicily campaign out west. Whatever the motivation, they landed on Melos in 416, intending to bring it into the fold, one way or another.
Thucydides set the stage:
“The Athenians also made an expedition against the isle of Melos with thirty ships of their own, six Chian, and two Lesbian vessels, sixteen hundred heavy infantry, three hundred archers, and twenty mounted archers from Athens, and about fifteen hundred heavy infantry from the allies and the islanders. The Melians are a colony of Lacedaemon that would not submit to the Athenians like the other islanders, and at first remained neutral and took no part in the struggle, but afterwards upon the Athenians using violence and plundering their territory, assumed an attitude of open hostility. Cleomedes, son of Lycomedes, and Tisias, son of Tisimachus, the generals, encamping in their territory with the above armament, before doing any harm to their land, sent envoys to negotiate. These the Melians did not bring before the people, but bade them state the object of their mission to the magistrates and the few.” (5.88-92)
This was a significantly larger expedition than the last one and showed the Athenians meant to intimidate Melos into submission or conquer it outright. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides offers a notional dialogue purported to have taken place between the Athenian Delegation and Melian Council. This has come down to us the famous "Melian Dialogue." Though Thucydides almost certainly was not there to witness the exchange, his account is representative of the primary arguments and counterarguments both sides might have made.
This makes it a fascinating case study on the ethics of international relations, particularly when it comes to how stronger states ought to relate to smaller ones. Should the strong be able to prey on the weak with impunity, just because they can? That's the way it's been throughout most of history until recently. And what's to stop them if they do? Some vague idea of justice? Thoughts and prayers? Or is something more tangible required? As we've seen recently in Ukraine, these questions are as relevant today as they were 2,500 years ago. I'm going to look at the Melian Dialogue, analyze its arguments and outcome, and then discuss how this applies today, especially in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Discussion of the Melian Dialogue
The Athenians didn’t come for open-ended negotiations or to deliver eloquent speeches crafted to convince the Melian populace to join their noble cause. No, their mission was blunt and to the point. Melia had just two options: surrender to Athens and survive or resist and be destroyed. Surrender meant joining the Delian League, paying an annual monetary tribute to Athens, and following its lead in the war against the Peloponnesians. This was a problem for the Melians, who were stubbornly proud of their 700-year history of independence. For them, this kind of submission meant slavery, and that was too bitter a pill to swallow.
So what? The Athenians didn’t care about all that. They weren’t interested in hearing a lecture about justice. The asymmetric power dynamic of the current circumstance was all that mattered. That 'current circumstance' was Athens present on Melos in overwhelming force versus the much smaller Melians. The Athenians were prepared to besiege and capture the city if the talks stalled. According to them, the Melians should focus on the basic facts literally on the ground outside their walls and not pontificate about silly hopes for the future. To paraphrase George Orwell in 1984, Athenian control of the present meant they controlled the future, at least for the Melians at that place and time. Any efforts to argue this away were nothing but sophistry and doomed to fail.
The Athenian Delegation: “Our concern must rather be with the practical possibilities, based on what we each actually know. You understand as well as we do that in the human sphere judgments about justice are relevant only between those with an equal power to enforce it, and that the possibilities are deﬁned by what the strong do and the weak accept.”
The Athenians repeatedly hammer home the same point: Athens is strong and Melos is weak. In the natural order of things, the strong dictate terms and the weak must accept them, no matter how humiliating they might be. Thus it has always been, among gods and men alike, and thus will it always be.
Something else to keep in mind: the Athenian position isn’t a question of justice as we would think of it, but justice simply defined as expediency or self-interest, for the strong do what is in their best interests and the weak comply, turning the idea of impartial justice on its head.
We’re back to the exercise of naked power as the only thing that matters in questions of justice. Athens is merely acting in its own interest by conquering Melos. Given this motivation, the Melians’ best interests are served by submitting to their stronger rival’s will. What do they get out of this deal? Slavery? No, say the Athenians, they get life and safety. Is that such a bad outcome? Life and safety, the Athenians argue, are all that should matter here for the Melians because they face death and destruction if they resist. The Melians push back, angling for some rhetorical wiggle room (5.90).
What about fair play?
Maybe someday the Athenians would find themselves on the receiving end of this kind of law-of-the-jungle justice?
Might they then want the same impartial standard of justice to apply in their own moment of weakness?
Should they not consider this future potentiality now in dealings with the Melians?
“Rubbish!” comes the paraphrased reply from the haughty Athenians.
Let’s pause for a minute and dig into this Melian line of reasoning a little more.
It’s actually not a terrible argument, and probably even sounds quite reasonable to modern readers accustomed to the idea of impartial justice. No doubt it would have resonated with Thucydides’ Greek audience. One of the recurring themes in Greek culture was that hubris (reckless arrogance) was eventually paid back in full by nemesis (retribution). The universe balances itself out, and if mortal arrogance exceeds certain pre-ordained limits, you can bet a reckoning is coming.
The fifth century BC, including the decades of the Peloponnesian War, was the golden age of Greek tragedy. Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus all depicted hubris and the dramatic aftermath in many of their wonderful plays. Though Thucydides’ history ends mid-sentence in 411, we know he kept writing and editing the text after the war ended in 404 because he mentions the conflict's full length (27 years) along with some specific details of Athens’ defeat, for example, the Spartan occupation of Athens’ Long Walls and Piraeus (5.26).
I believe the Melians (via Thucydides) were appealing to this inherent Greek metaphysical sense of justice, that pride cometh before the fall, or something like that. It’s not difficult to see Thucydides as depicting the Athenian position as a bit hubristic here. After all, he knew how it all turned out, with his Melian Council’s observations foreshadowing Athens’ eventual downfall in 404.
But back on Melos in 416, this future was still nothing but an abstract hypothetical. Athens remained arrogantly powerful at this time, so we get arguments about the strong doing what they want and the weak getting along the best they can.
The Athenians again:
“This is not a test set up on equal terms to demonstrate your manly courage and save your honor; the question you must consider is rather one of self-preservation – that is, not resisting those who are far stronger than you.” (5.101)
Though they were cleverly appealing to a Greek sense of justice, the Melians were also playing a bit of a language game, but one which the Athenians were quick to dismiss. ‘Might,’ ‘should,’ ‘would,’ all of these are ways of describing future potentialities – things that might happen - but they ignore the undeniable logic of the present tense – things as they actually are right now. This is political realism in its simplest form.
To the Athenians, this conditional language is the language of weakness, used only by weaklings trying to argue themselves out of checkmate. It’s a form of wishful thinking that denies the current state of affairs. In effect, the Melians were attempting to de-emphasize the stark reality of the present (Athenian hoplites and triremes sitting outside awaiting orders) with hypotheticals (what if someday this happens to you?). For the Athenians, the present tense is all that matters in this particular situation.
Athens has a much larger army and fleet here and now. Melos doesn’t.
Athens has a mighty empire and many loyal allies here and now. Melos is alone.
Yet the Melians continue lobbing conditionals at the Athenians, which bounce off of them like ping pong balls.
Melos could appeal to the Peloponnesians for help. The sea is wide and surely Athens cannot patrol it all. Perhaps a rescue force could make it through to help the Melians? Fortune favors the bold and all that.
Well, okay, but the Athenians quickly poke holes in this fantasy.
First of all, how would the Peloponnesians even help? Melos was an island. Athens was a maritime juggernaut, and Sparta couldn’t challenge that supremacy. Not yet, anyway. So even if they wanted to help Melos – and there is no evidence that they did - they really could not.
Second, why would Sparta risk so much to help what had been up to that point a proudly neutral second-tier power? What would be the gain? The Melians were technically not an ally that Sparta was duty-bound to defend. Would they do so out of a sense of honor? Unlikely. Maybe because the Melians came from the same ancient Dorian stock as the Spartans, they would feel some affinity and come to their aid? Even more unlikely.
The Athenians mock the Melians for such naïve hopes. After all, the Athenians argue, the Spartans practice the same realpolitik as the Athenians. Self-interest and expediency drive Spartan foreign policy, not honor, no matter how much the noble Spartans might proclaim otherwise. Look at what they do, the Athenians imply, and not what they say, and you’ll see that they’re just like us: ruthless. They’re not coming. No one is coming. Submit to us, Melos!
And finally, even if everything above were possible, Sparta would never be able to arrive in time to save Melos. Athens demanded an immediate answer and wasn’t going to give the Melians any time to call for help.
Still, the Melians cling to hope, no matter how unrealistic. Maybe they would get lucky and defeat all 3,000 hoplites that Athens had on hand with their own itty-bitty army. Even though they are vastly outnumbered, who knows what can happen when the fighting starts? Every Greek knew by heart about the victories over the Persians back in the early decades of the fifth century BC. Then you had the badly outnumbered Greeks winning heroic victories over the Persians. War is an unpredictable venture and maybe the Athenians will stumble like the Great King of Persia did.
Maybe. Maybe not.
The Melian Choice for Independence (and Extinction)
The Athenian delegation withdrew so the Melian Council could deliberate. Its final decision was to reject the Athenian ultimatum and to rely on hopes and prayers instead.
Melian Council: ‘Athenians, we see no reason to change our original decision. Nor in a few short minutes are we about to deprive of its freedom a city that has now been inhabited for 700 years. Instead, we will put our trust in the good fortune we owe to the gods, which has protected our city thus far, and in the help of our fellow men, particularly the Spartans, and so seek our salvation. We call on you to let us be your friends, enemies of neither side, and to leave this land of ours after making a treaty that suits us both.’
That was the response of the Melians; and as the Athenians broke up the discussion they made this statement:
Athenian Delegation: ‘Well, to go by your decisions, you must be the only people in the world who judge that the future is clearer than what is before your eyes and who can envisage what is uncertain as a present reality just by an act of will. You have staked everything on your trust in Spartans, in chance and in hope and everything is what you will now lose.’
Or, put another way, “Good luck, Melos, you’re about to find out where those hopes and prayers get you in the end.”
With that, hostilities commenced. The Spartans didn't come to save them and the gods didn't intervene on their behalf. The Athenians built a wall that completely invested the city and then settled in to starve the Melians out. Still, Melos proved to be a surprisingly tenacious opponent. After the bulk of the invading force departed, leaving behind just enough to maintain the siege, the scrappy Melians got some punches in. They twice sallied forth, causing the besiegers all sorts of trouble, and even managed to loot the Athenian grain supplies.
As the siege dragged on, Athens sent Philocrates to hurry things up. From that point on, it was only a matter of time. Melos was doomed. With supplies dwindling, treachery from the inside forced the unconditional surrender of the town. True to their word, Athens voted to execute all the male inhabitants and sell the women and children into slavery. Athens then sent out 500 colonists to re-establish the city as a part of the Athenian empire (5.115-116).
Melos’ seven centuries of independence ended at the cemetery.
The Melians were proved right, sort of, though long after the fact. Athenian hegemony began collapsing soon after its defeat at Syracuse in 413 when a large Athenian expedition was destroyed there. The Peloponnesians pounced on their now mortally wounded opponent, spending vast amounts of Persian money to outfit their own fleets to end Athenian naval supremacy. Though the Athenians were resilient enough to win some more battles at sea in the later years of the war, the Peloponnesians won even more, especially under the remarkable Spartan commander, Lysander.
It all came to a head at the naval battle of Aegospotami in 404, where Lysander destroyed the last Athenian fleet. Defenseless and bankrupt, Athens soon after surrendered and submitted to Spartan occupation and the humiliation of watching its walls dismantled. The once-mighty Athenians were now supine at the feet of their enemies, and only a decade after destroying Melos.
That wasn’t all. Echoing the Melian argument that Athens might one day find itself weak and in need of impartial justice, the Spartans voted to execute the Athenian prisoners taken after Aegospotami; this amounted to somewhere between three and four thousand men. This wasn’t done to avenge Melos, which by then was forgotten as a casualty of a war that had already lasted far too long. Nevertheless, the mass execution of the Athenian POWs was symbolic of how brutal the conflict had become by this point. Mercy and pity were in short supply by 404, just like on Melos earlier.
Final Thoughts - The More Things Change...
Why does this matter? Because the issues raised by Thucydides over 2,400 years ago still resonate today. We have tried since 1945 to create a global community governed by standards of impartial international justice (however imperfect) and that looks out for the interests and integrity of weaker, non-aligned states. Put another way, the global order today is in a way a descendent of the arguments made by Thucydides through the mouths of the doomed Melians. We've tried to create a world where smaller polities like Melos can thrive without becoming puppets of larger ones. While this project has stumbled many times along the way, it has still fostered a world today where major interstate warfare has been the exception, at least until quite recently. So normal has this state of affairs become, that we take it all for granted. But we shouldn't.
Any so-called Melian international order - if I can call it that - is always going to be fragile. A few years back in an essay called, “The Jungle Comes Back,” Robert Kagan argued, "The liberal world order is fragile and impermanent. Like a garden, it is ever under siege from the natural forces of history, the jungle whose vines and weeds constantly threaten to overwhelm it" (R. Kagan 4).
Indeed, this is an apt metaphor. A garden is a piece of manmade order carved out of nature's chaos. It must be meticulously cared for to bear fruit, vegetables, or just beautiful blooming flowers. Anyone who has tended a garden understands that the work is well worth the reward. But make no mistake, it is hard work. Neglect and indifference let the wild creep back in and with it the chaos of raw nature where only weeds and vines thrive.
So it's been with the U.S-led liberal order since 1945. This system with its respect for human rights, equality, democracy, and capitalism is the harvest of our own garden that we've tended so meticulously. Those fruits represent today's high standards of living in developed nations, our widening of the rights umbrella to include previously marginalized groups, and our assumption that liberal democracy and freedom of thought are non-negotiables for any well-functioning society.
These are all myths, true, but they are powerfully necessary ones that have shaped our world for the better. Our ancestors could have only dreamed about the kind of world we live in today. But this liberal-democratic order only works when we tend to it like a garden. We must believe that the fruit it bears creates a better world for people and nations, both large and small, to pursue their own ends on their own terms. Yet some larger powers still make the same Athenian arguments from the Melian Dialogue, though they may do so with less crude bluntness than Athens.
But make no mistake, it’s the same message: ‘We are stronger than you. We get to decide who is in our sphere of influence. Our strength makes us justified in commanding, compelling, and coercing compliance by any means necessary.’ The weak must abide the best they can in such a world, or fight and face defeat and occupation like Belgium (1914), Czechoslovakia (1938), Poland (1939), and Finland (1940), just to name a few victims from the lost-in-the-jungle years of the early twentieth century.
The current Russian invasion of Ukraine is a reminder that this Athenian model still has a fan club among a few world leaders. Listening to Putin’s dismissive rhetoric about Ukraine echoes the smug and arrogant Athenian delegation to Melos all those centuries ago.
The jungle is indeed growing back.
But it’s not that simple this time. Media and digital technologies have altered the information landscape. Russian military vehicles and their movements are now visible through high-resolution satellite technologies. No matter how cleverly they sought to mask their deployment on Ukraine’s borders, western intelligence agencies and open source reporting called out every move along the way in the weeks before the invasion. They made sure that news sources could broadcast for all the world to see that Russia’s actions behind the scenes didn’t match its public rhetoric. This all-seeing technological Eye in the Sky has demolished the credibility of the Russian regime and its stupid justifications for war. To most people now, at least outside the Russian propaganda bubble, Putin and his cronies are liars and are assumed to be so by much of the world.
Moreover, this is the first large-scale inter-state conventional war between European powers since 1945, and much has changed in the last 80 years. No longer can war atrocities happen invisibly as they did millions of times during the First and Second World Wars. Most Ukrainians have mobile phones to record and broadcast instantaneously for the world to see every atrocity and crime committed by Russian forces. Imagine if they had that capability during the Holodomor between 1931-1934? In other words, Ukraine has 44 million potential war correspondents.
What if a cluster bomb explodes in the city center? It all gets recorded and disseminated to the world within minutes. What if an apartment building is struck by a missile that kills dozens of innocent civilians? Same thing. We’re viewing it live or soon after. The world now watches in real-time as these crimes are committed. On the other side, the world watches while Ukrainians let bewildered Russian POWs call their mothers to let them know they are okay. It’s a surprisingly devastating counter to the old way of waging war, which was in secret, behind the scenes, and away from the public's consciousness.
Autocrats like Putin must now confront the question: In the 2020s, how do you effectively wage an immoral war of choice based on lies when everything is visible on television or online? You can’t, at least if you can’t control the information being disseminated, and Russia can't control the information outside of its borders. Unlike world history before the twenty-first century, where the recording of war crimes was left mainly to the imagination, today every dead child, every murdered mother, and every errant missile slamming into an apartment building is on CNN and BBC for the world to see.
Then the question shifts subtly but profoundly. In the 2020s, how do you wage a moral war in the patriotic defense of your homeland against a much more powerful adversary when everyone – and I mean everyone - is watching and judging accordingly?
Well, the Ukrainians are trying to show us how. The blunt force trauma of the old Athenian/Russian foreign policy model doesn’t play well when the entire world becomes part of the viewing audience. Then it becomes a battle of narratives, and here Putin is at a distinct disadvantage of his own making. Putin sitting alone at the end of a cartoonishly long table with his cowed lackeys seated seven meters away at the other end is immediately contrasted with the emotional counternarrative of Ukraine’s everyman President in camouflage on the streets of Kyiv putting out personal videos, all while vowing to fight to the end for his people and do everything he can to help them. Who looks like the hero here? And the villain?
Such contrast becomes a story, and that story becomes an inspiring narrative people rally around. The isolated dictator alone at his long table dissolves into a pathetic narrative and a sad metaphor: even the most powerful and best-resourced actors on the international stage are vulnerable to losing control. This emerging decentralized power to shape the stories we tell ourselves will only grow going forward. Even the humblest citizen can now help drive the larger narratives. That Melian plea for impartial justice and fair play, so futile when they faced down Athenian might all by themselves on that tiny island so many centuries ago, now actually means something today in our hyper-connected world.
Among all the pessimism of recent years, much of it warranted, I see reasons for hope, even if everything seems bleak at the moment. You see, regular people hate war. They want to live in peace and not as pawns to Great Powers and their stupid nationalistic dreams of restored glory fueled by the ambitions of shriveled little men with far too much power. Regular people in Ukraine are showing how empowering it can be to tell the world their side of the story in real-time in their own words, allowing them to soar up and over the brazen lies and ponderous propaganda of Russian state-run media. To paraphrase George Orwell again (and with apologies to him), those who control the narrative, control the present, and those who control the present, control the future.
Putin has for the first time completely lost control of that narrative. In contrast, the Ukrainians have found a powerful counternarrative that resonates worldwide. That is the desire to be left alone to decide one's own fate and that of one's nation, without the violent meddling of powerful neighbors. That's something everyone can rally around.
Putin - “Ukraine was never a real country!”
Ukraine - “Oh, yes, we are! We are showing you how!”
The Melians might be happy to see that the cold hard facts of the present tense have shifted, that the realpolitik of verb tenses might now work in the favor of the weak over the strong.
But this is not an inevitability. Living in a more just “Melian” world is not something we can take for granted. No, it’s been the exception for much of history. The jungle is always creeping back. Few want a return to a world ruled by the intellectual descendants of those hubristic Athenians: the dictators, the autocrats, and the other suffocators of freedom that so virulently pox the pages of history.
The Ukrainians are reminding us of the stakes at play. That what we have now - democracy, a free press, and human rights for all – is not something that should be taken for granted. No, it's worth preserving and defending vigorously, here and elsewhere. It's our precious garden and it needs constant tending. That should seem obvious, but today it seems that everyone’s a dissatisfied cynic, an ironic bystander, or a tedious naysayer so utterly convinced that everything’s rotten.
How did we get to this place where there are so many negative rebels without a positive cause? What so many have forgotten is the lost art of looking around in gratitude at how far we’ve come as a civilization and how much we've accomplished in medicine, science, the arts and humanities, technology, economics, human rights, diplomacy, and in a thousand other unseen aspects of our lives that we take for granted. Only then, from a perspective of gratitude for the wider wonderful world we are a part of, do we realize that the gains we’ve made are something dear and worth preserving. But they are also precarious and fragile. By understanding that we have much to lose, we become more invested and motivated in overcoming other current challenges, some of which are immense. Otherwise, the relentless jungle creeps back and the garden slowly dies while those tedious naysayers and dissatisfied cynics simply shrug and let it happen.
There’s nothing positive about the violence going on in Ukraine today. It’s tragic. The best that can be hoped for (such a Melian word, right?) is that the brave example they are setting brings them freedom and eventual peace, that they can live their lives how they please, like us, and that the Russians finally get something better than dead-eyed dictators and plundering psychopaths for leaders, and that the war reminds the rest of us of what is at stake going forward. “Other people's problems” over there eventually become everyone’s problems over here if left unaddressed. Do we want to live again in a world where the strongest nations prey on the weakest and call it justice?
Or do we work to hold onto something better?
Kagan, Robert. Jungle Grows Back: The Case for American Power. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2018.
Lazenby, Professor J. F., and J. F. Lazenby. The Peloponnesian War: A Military Study, Taylor & Francis Group, 2003. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=182691
Thucydides, and Rex Warner. History of the Peloponnesian War. Penguin Books, 1990.