[7] Dialogue at Melos [416 BC] Thucydides 5. 85ff.

The next summer Alcibiades sailed with twenty ships to Argos and seized the suspected persons still left of the Lacedaemonian faction to the number of three hundred, whom the Athenians forthwith lodged in the neighboring islands of their empire. The Athenians also made an expedition to the isle of Melos with thirty ships of their own, 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 this armament, before doing any harm to their land, sent envoys to negotiate. These the Melians did not bring before the people, but ordered them to state the object of their mission to the governing officers and the [oligarchic council]. The Athenian envoys spoke as follows:

Athenians.--'Since the negotiations are not to go on before the people, in order that we may not be able to speak our piece straight through without interruption, and (supposedly) thus deceive the ears of the multitude by seductive arguments which would pass without refutation (for we know that this is the meaning of our being brought before the [ruling council]), what if you who sit there were to adopt a metbod more cautious still! Make no set speech yourselves but [let us speak and] take us up at any point you dispute, and we shall settle it before going any farther. First tell us if this procedural arrangement of ours suits you.'

The Melian commissioners answered:

Melians.--'To the fairness of quietly instructing each other as you propose there is nothing to object; but your military preparations are too far advanced to agree with what you say, as we see you are come to be judges in your own cause, and that all we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is war, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, and in the contrary case, slavery.'

Athenians--'If you have come here to argue about premonitions of the future, or for anything other than to consult for the safety of your state upon the facts that you see before you, we will leave you to it; otherwise we will proceed.'

Melians.--'It is natural and excusable for men in our position to seize upon any possible advantage both in our minds and in what we say. However, the question in this conference is, as you say, the safety of our country; and the discussion, if you please, can proceed in the way that you propose.'

Athenians.-'For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with empty pretexts--either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Persians, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us--and make a long speech which would not be believed. And in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both: since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.'

Melians.-'We think, at any rate, it is expedient--we speak as we are obliged, since you order us to dispense with talk of what is right and talk only of self-interest--that you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right, and even to profit by arguments not strictly valid if they can be made acceptible in common usage. And you are as much interested in this as any, as your downfall would be a signal for the heaviest vengeance and a lesson for the world to meditate upon.'

Athenians.-'The end of our empire, if end it should, does not frighten us: a rival empire like Lacedaemon, even if Lacedaemon was our real antagonist, is not so terrible to the vanquished as subjects who by themselves attack, and overpower their rulers. This, however, is a risk that we are prepared to take. We will now proceed to show you that we come here in the interest of our empire, and that we shall say what we are now going to say for the preservation of your country; as we would prefer to exercise that empire over you without trouble and see you preserved for the good of us both.'

Melians.-'And how, pray, could it turn out as good us to serve as for you to rule?'

Athenians.-'Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you.'

Melians.-'So that you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side?'

Athenians.-'No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity [a proof] of our power.'

Melians.-'Is that your subjects' idea of equity, to put those who have nothing to do with you in the same class with peoples that are most of them your colonists, and some conquered rebels?'

Athenians.-'As far as right goes, they think one [city] has as much of it as the other, and that if any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides tending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection; the fact that you are islanders and weaker than others makes it all the more important that you should not succeed in defying the masters of the sea.'

Melians.-'But do you consider that there is no security in the policy which we indicate? For here again if you prohibit us from talking about justice and invite us to obey self-interest, we also must explain our own interest, and try to persuade you that the two coincide. How can vou avoid making enemies of all neutral parties who shall look at our situation and conclude from it that one day or another you will attack them? And what is this but to make greater the enemies that you have already, and to force others to become so who would otherwise have never thought of it?'

Athenians.-'Why, the fact is that continentals generally give us but little alarm; the liberty which they enjoy will long prevent their taking precautions against us; it is rather islanders like yourselves, outside our empire, and subjects smarting under the yoke, who would be the most likely to take a rash step and lead themselves and us into obvious danger.'

Melians.-'Well then, if you risk so much to retain your empire, and your subjects to get rid of it, it were surely great disgrace and proof of cowardice for us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried, before submitting to your yoke.'

Athenians.-'Not if you are well advised, since this is not a contest on equal terms, where honor would be the prize and shame the penalty; the issue is self-preservation and not to resist those who are far stronger than you are.'

Melians.-'But we know that the fortune of war is sometimes more impartial than numerical superiority might lead one to suppose; to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect.'

Athenians.-'Hope, danger's comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to venture their all, see it in its true colors only when they are ruined... Let not this be the case with you, who are weak and hang on a single turn of the scale; nor do as the common folk so often do, abandoning such security as human efforts may still achieve, when their last resort fails them, tum to invisible [salvation], to prophecies and oracles, and other such inventions that delude men with false hopes, leading them on to their destruction.'

Melians.-'You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust, and that what we lack in power will be made up by the alliance of the Lacedaemonians who are bound, if only by sense of shame, to come to the aid of their kinsmen. Our confidence, therefore, after all is not utterly irrational.'

Athenians.-'When you speak of the favor of the gods we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither pretensions nor our conduct being in any way contrary to what men believe of the gods, or practise among themselves. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by an inevitable law of their nature, they rule wherever they can. it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.

Thus, as far the gods are concerned, we have no fear and no reason to fear that we shall be at a disadvantage. But when we come to your notion about the Lacedaemonians, which leads you to believe that shame will make them help you, here we bless your simplicity but do not envy your folly. The Lacedaemonians, when their own interests or their country's laws are in question, are the worthiest men alive; of their conduct towards others much might be said, but no clearer idea of it could be given than by shortly saying that of all the men we know they are most conspicuous in considering whatever is to their liking to be the honorable course of action, and what is expedient, just. Such a way of thinking does not promise much for the safety which you now unreasonably count upon.'

Melians.-'But it is for this very reason that we trust to their respect for expediency to prevent them betraying the Melians, their colonists, and thereby losing confidence of their friends in Hellas and helping their enemies.'

Athenians.-'Then yon do not adopt the view that expediency goes with security, while justice and honor cannot be followed without danger; and danger the Lacedaemon generally venture into as little as possible.'

Melians.-'But we believe that they would be more likely to face even danger for our sake, and with more confidence than for others, as our nearness to Peloponnesus makes it easier for them to act, and our common blood insures our fidelity.'

Athenians.-'Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to, is not the goodwill of those who ask his aid, but a decided superiority of power for action; and the Lacedaemonians look to this even more than others. At least, such is their distrust of their home resources that it is only with numerous allies that they attack a neighbor; now is it likely that while we are masters of the sea they will cross over to an island?'

Melians.-'But they would have others to send. The Cretan sea is a wide one, and it is more difficult for those who command it to intercept others, than for those who wish to elude them to do so safely. And should the Lacedaemonians miscarry in this, they would fall upon your land, and upon those left of your allies whom Brasidas did not reach; and instead of places which are not yours, you will have to fight for your own country and your own confederacy.'

Athenians.-'Some diversion of the kind you speak of you may one day experience, only to learn, as others have done, that the Athenians never once yet withdrew from a siege for fear of any adversary. But we are struck by the fact, that after saying you would consult for the safety of your country, in all this discussion you have mentioned nothing which men might trust in and think to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious. You will therefore show great blindness of judgment, unless, after allowing us to retire, you can find some counsel more prudent than this.

You will surely not be caught by that idea of disgrace, which in dangers that are disgraceful and at the same time too plain to be mistaken proves so fatal to mankind; since in too many cases the very men that have their eyes perfectly open to what they are rushing into, let the thing called disgrace, by the mere influence of a seductive name, lead them on to a point at which they become so enslaved by the phrase as to fall wilfully into hopeless disaster, and incur disgrace more disgraceful as the companion of error, than when it is as the result of misfortune. This, if you are well advised, you will guard against; and you will not think it dishonorable to submit to the greatest city in Hellas, when it makes you the moderate offer of becoming its tributary ally without ceasing to enjoy the country that belongs to you; nor when you have the choice given you between war and security will you be so blinded as to choose the worse. And it is certain that those who do not yield to their equals, who keep terms with their superiors, and are moderate towards their inferiors, on the whole are most successful. Think over the matter therefore, after adjourn, and consider once again that it is for your country that you are consulting, and that upon this one deliberation depends its prosperity or ruin.'

The Athenians now withdrew from the conference; the Melians, left to themselves, came to a decision corresponding with what they had maintained in the discussion.

They answered, 'Our resolution, Athenians, is the same as it was first. We will not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has been inhabited these seven hundred years; but we place our trust in the fortune by which the gods bave preserved us until now, and in the help of the Lacedaemonians; and so we will try and save ourselves. Meanwhile we invite you to allow us to be friends to you and enemies of neither party, and to retire from our country after making such a treaty as shall seem fit to us both.' Such was the answer of the Melians.

The Athenians now departing from the conference said, 'Well, you alone, regard what is in the future as more certain than what is before your very eyes and what is out of sight, as already come to pass; and as you have staked most on and trusted in the Lacedaemonians, your fortune and your hopes, so will you be most completely deceived.'

The Athenian envoys now returned to the army; the Melians showing no signs of yielding, the generals at once commenced hostilities, and drew a line of vallation [a wall to prevent any help or escape] round the Melians, dividing the work among the different states. Subsequently the Athenians returned with most of their army, leaving behind them a certain number of their own citizens and of the allies to keep guard by land and sea. This force stayed on and besieged the place. ...

[Later, in winter of the year 416/15, the Melians fell victim to treachery from within, and the city surrendered. The Athenians put to death all the grown men ...and sold the women and children into slavery, and later sent out five hundred colonists to take possession.]