The Melian dialogue is misunderstood. Several years ago I had the misfortune of taking an International Relations course with a professor with a steadfast devotion to realist ideas and principles, which ideologically dominated the course. To drive her point home with regard to ethics in the international sphere, she assigned us to read a small abbreviated passage from the Melian dialogue, the entire point of the useless thought exercise was to get us to understand “the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must”. This interpretation of the Melian dialogue is flawed at best, but almost certainly meant to mislead the reader into thinking that the ancient world was governed in a realist wonderland, where states existed in a realist wonderland, where power was the deciding factor in all things. The purpose of this paper will be countering the idea that Thucydides analysis of the peloponnesian war is inherently realist, and instead takes a more nuanced, even anarchic, recount of the classical world.
The Melian Dialogue was never really a diplomatic mission, the Athenian diplomats that go to the island of Melos are accompanied by thirty ships (Woodruff pg. 102), by no means merely to warn off pirates but definitely as an intimidation tactic to make the Melians give in to their demands. The Melians attempt to work with the Athenians, putting forward much talk of neutrality, friendship, and peace, but the Athenian diplomats don’t want to hear it, instead giving the Melian councilors a dichotomous choice, either submit or die. This Athens is a far cry from the popular conception of the classical Athenian state. Athens has always been seen as a mediator, a democratic state where enlightened thinking and thoughtful action ta...
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... alike, this all changed at Epipolae. Like every other battle the Athenians opened up well, but were lured into chase of routing enemies (my guess is a false rout, devious tacticians) at which point the advantage of the hoplite was gone, the Athenian army was forced into a rout, suffering major casualties. The routing Athenians were again defeated at sea and the remainders managed to limp back to Athens.
The problems with the realist perspective on the Peloponnesian war is that the chain of events leading to the defeat of Athens, and their end as a viable power in the Hellenic world was beyond any type of human control, fate is a factor that a realist would overlook, but fate shades the whole of Thucydides account, the plague, the rout at epipolae, similar to how fate is key to understanding a Greek tragedy, fate is key to understanding this moment in Greek history.
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