BACKGROUND: Athens forcibly put down a revolt, fueled
by oligarchic factions, in the city of Mytilene on Lesbos
and brought the ring-leaders back to Athens where it was
decided to put all the men of Mytilene to death and to
enslave the women and children. Having second thoughts the
next day, the Athenians convened an assembly to discuss the
matter. Thucydides' gives the speeches delivered by Cleon
(Pericles' successor) and Diodotus (an unknown). But take
note, again, of Thucydides' method with respect to
- On DEMOCRACY and EMPIRE:
- are they compatible? why or why not?
- Athen's empire is really tyranny
- stability, law, and order are preferable to
- Athenians should not be swayed by clever
orators who just like to win debates (for example, the
Sophists). BUT THINK CRITICALLY HERE--notice the
rhetoric Cleon uses in denouncing rhetoric!
- on JUSTICE and EXPEDIENCE/WHAT IS TO ATHENS'
- it is a happy coincidence that justice and
expedience coincide this time. howso?
- on CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
- avoid: pity (it is only for equals), oratory (it
is only for lesser matters), and fairness (only when it
will be advantageous).
- on DEMOCRACY and EMPIRE
- speeches and rational deliberation are
compatible with empire or not? why?
- Can EXPEDIENCE, i.e., the interests of the empire
and JUSTICE be combined here? why or why not?
- what about CAPITAL PUNISHMENT as a deterrent?
- As before, PAY ATTENTION to how speakers justify
the Athenian empire!
- Watch for Thucydidean themes
- Why do YOU think clemency prevailed?
BACKGROUND: Melos was originally a Spartan colony but
had attempted to remain neutral in the war between Athens
and Sparta (and their allies). Athenian aggression had
forced the Melians into a pro-Spartan position. When an
Athenian force arrives in 416, the two sides decide to see
if they can negotiate a settlement, but the Melians insist
that the discussion be closed (not open to the public
- You should note the form (i.e., dialogue rather
than set speeches).
- You should also note that the speakers' names are
not given: the upshot is that this reads like a debate
between personified POWER/tyranny and personified
WEAKNESS. What difference does this make?
- You should be familiar with the basic position of
each side on power and justice; know the appeal the
Melians make to the gods; know how the Athenian 'voice'
justifies empire; watch for Thucydidean themes
- the standard of justice depends on
equality of power: when one side is stronger, it
takes as much as it can get
- it's to your advantage to submit, so that
we don't squash you!
- our reputation as masters of the sea is
- what we learn from the gods is that is is
a law of nature to rule whatever one can.
- Spartans will be no help while we rule
the sea; your resources are insufficient to
- the plea of justice might prevail if the
Athenians remember that they might be the weaker
- this will make other neutrals become
enemies (i.e., justice and power coincide in
- the gods are on our side because we are
- the Spartans will help us
Immediately following the Melian Dialogue, Thucydides
introduces the Sicilian Expedition, which he calls the
greatest exercise of Athenian might but which was also the
greatest debacle in Athenian history. Notice that Thucydides
again uses placement of accounts to comment (ironically!) on
overreaching and human nature.