The Melian Dialogue

On Politics

The debate is artfully constructed. The Melians admit that their weakness leads them to search for whatever arguments may fend off the Athenians, but they stick tightly to the two most relevant points. One is Athenian self-interest, and the other the Athenians’ sense of justice. They tell the Athenians that they will create opposition to their empire among the independent neutral states, but the Athenians shrug off the danger; the Melians tell the Athenians that the Spartans will surely come to their aid, but the Athenians know that Sparta will not hazard its forces at a distance, and shrug off that danger. The crux is thus the patent injustice of the Athenian attempt on the independence of a small and helpless power. The Athenian view has been described: it is the law of nature that the strong do what they can and that the weak do what they must. The Melians refused to give in, the Athenians invested the island, and after a long siege and spirited resistance, the inevitable occurred. The Melians were starved into surrender, their men of military age were killed, and their women and children were sold into slavery. Five hundred Athenian colonists replaced them. It was an event that should give pause to anyone who supposes that democracies are by their nature peace-loving, humane, and just. Their capacity for mass murder should not be underestimated.


1. Ryan, Alan. On Politics. London: Penguin, 2013. Print.




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Filed under History, Notes on History, Politics

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