Throughout the Peloponnesian war, the island of Melos had managed to remain neutral, while refusing to become a subject of Athens. However, as the war progressed, Athens closed in on the island, which responded with hostility. The Athenians the in a frank manner suitable to their bold nature, offered the Melians an ultimatum that was essentially to surrender and pay tribute to Athens, or be conquered and destroyed.
Throughout the dialogue that commenced between the Melians and the Athenians, the subjects of power, justice and prudence are addressed and debated while the theories of human nature and the relationships of states come out in the conclusions of the previously mentioned subjects.
Power is a prominent and key player in the discussion that is had between the Melians and Athenians. The blunt talk about power and empire is nothing new for Athens.
Such is shown through the Athenian messengers who ‘happened’ to be in Sparta during their initial debate on declaring war: “So that, though overcome by three the greatest things, honour, fear, and profit, we have both accepted the dominion delivered us and refuse again to surrender it, we have therein done nothing to be wondered at nor beside the manner of men.
Nor have we been the first in this kind, but it hath been ever a thing fixed, for the weaker to be kept under by the stronger. ” This outlook has essentially guided the Athenian perspective and attitude throughout the war.
Melos, however, seems to lack a concern for power.
It can be seen as they first attempt to offer compromise and friendship, but are rejected by the pride of the Athenians who would consider compromise as a sign of weakness, thus, lack of power. Melos disagrees, and believes that the Athenians desire for expansion is in the place of justice. The concept of justice and reasonability, for the Athenians, is irrelevant in the case of the Melians. They believe justice can only exist in disputes between equals, and thus, they are acting in their own self-interest.
As Pericles acknowledges in his funeral oration, the Athenians enjoy justice under laws. However, this is a justice between equals and within their empire. What provides contrast is highlighted in the difference between Athens’s qualities (freedom, openness, generosity) and their actions (massacring and enslaving the Melians). This comparison supports the Athenian mentality that Athens must do what’s right for Athens. The Melians, in recognition of this Athenian mentality, continue to attempt to convince the Athenians that their interests are related.
In response to the Athenians, they say, “Here again, since you have driven us away from a plea for justice and are telling us to surrender to whatever is in your interest, we must show you what would be good for us, and try to persuade you that your interests coincide with ours” . In an effort to act and care for the future, the Melians persistently try to convince the Athenians that they are acting in a manner that is best for the self-interest of Athens. However, the results come down to the Melians having to concede or fight. They instead put their trust in assistance from chance, the gods and he Spartans… all of which let them down.
The Melian dialogue provides an explicit example of the clash between the political realism of Athens and the ideals of justice championed by Melos. As a result, the focus on power interaction and the relationship between weak and strong states has become a cornerstone of modern international relations. Realists tend to view human beings as inherently egotistic and self-interested to the extent that self-interest overcomes moral principles. As seen throughout the interactions between the Athens and Melos, the Athenians affirm the priority of self-interest over morality.
Their argument is based on key realist concepts such as security and power. The Athenians disregard any moral talk and urge the Melians to look at the reality- that is, to recognize their military inferiority, to consider the potential consequences of their decision, and to think of their own survival. The Athenian position, based on security concerns and self-interest, seemingly involves reliance on rationality, intelligence, and foresight. However, upon close examination, their logic proves to be seriously flawed. Melos, a relatively weak state, does not pose any real security threat to them at all.
Eventually, the destruction of Melos has little, if any impact on the course of the Peloponnesian War. For the Melians, who employ idealistic arguments, the choice is between war and submission. They demonstrate courage and a love for their country, and simply do not wish to lose their freedom. In spite of the fact that they are militarily weaker than the Athenians, they are prepared to defend themselves. The majority of their appeals to the Athenians are based on the concept of justice, with which they associate with fairness, thus regarding the Athenians as “unjust. They put their faith in the Gods that they believe will support their cause and compensate for their weakness, and trust that their allies, the Spartans, will help them. Hence, it can be deduced that the elements of the speech of the Melians are those of the idealistic or liberal world views: the belief that nations have the right to exercise political independence, that they have mutual obligations to one another and will carry out such obligations, and that a war of aggression is unjust.
Nevertheless, in the end, no matter the amounts of hope, the Melians lack the resources and foresight to defend themselves. As the Athenians forewarned, “People who put everything they have at risk will learn what hope is when it fails them, for hope is prodigal by nature; and once they have learned this, it is too late to take precautions for the future” .