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May 16, 2016

Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: Thucydides and the Gods of Melos

Thucydides paints a nuanced picture of Athens, contrasting its domestic and foreign policies.

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War contains one of the most inspiring panegyrics ever written on Athenian democracy – Pericles’ funeral oration.  As always with Thucydides,1 we do not know how far the speech reflects what the historical Pericles actually said and how much is Thucydides’ own invention; but in either case it offers a compelling portrait of the native city of both.  Here are a few distinctive passages:

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes ….

We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our [Spartan] rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger. …

[I]nstead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point …. In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian.2

But Thucydides’ History contains other perspectives on Athens, not all equally flattering.  Early in the book he has representatives from Corinth address the Spartans at a conference of Peloponnesian cities, and their remarks show what Athenian “daring” and “versatility” could look like from the outside:

The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you [Spartans] have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment …. Thus they toil on in trouble and danger all the days of their life, with little opportunity for enjoying, being ever engaged in getting: their only idea of a holiday is to do what the occasion demands, and to them laborious occupation is less of a misfortune than the peace of a quiet life. … [O]ne might truly say that they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.3

And indeed Thucydides shows us the dark side of Athens, and particularly Athenian foreign policy, at length.  Even Pericles is depicted as admitting to his people the true status of the Athenian empire:  “For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe.”4  (Thomas Jefferson famously said the same thing about American slavery.)5  And Pericles’ successor Kleon (whom Thucydides incidentally despises almost as much as Aristophanes did) makes the point still more explicitly: “your empire is a despotism and your subjects disaffected conspirators, whose obedience is ensured not by your suicidal concessions, but by the superiority given you by your own strength and not their loyalty.”6

It might seem paradoxical that a state like Athens, with so much freedom domestically (comparatively, at least), would behave so tyrannically abroad; but in fact it is not so surprising.  Domestically freer states tend to be more prosperous, and greater prosperity enables a state to sustain a more aggressive military policy.  As I’ve written elsewhere:  “Civilization is largely a process of increasing people’s options (advances in technology and advances in political freedom can both be seen in this light); but unfortunately, one of the things one is better able to do once one’s options have increased, is to decrease one’s neighbors’ options.”7  The history of United States foreign policy becomes rather clearer when viewed in this light.

Thucydides portrays Athens as capable of both vindictiveness and mercy.  For example, when the city of Mytilene revolts against Athenian rule in 427 BCE, the Athenians (at Kleon’s prompting) initially decide to respond with a massacre, and send off a ship to Mytilene with that instruction.  But the next day, feeling “repentance … and reflection on the horrid cruelty of a decree, which condemned a whole city to the fate merited only by the guilty,”8 they change their minds and send a second ship to overtake the first and rescind the order.  It succeeds in doing so (albeit just barely), because the crew of the first ship were reluctant to carry out the order, and so traveled slowly, while the crew of the second ship were eager to prevent an atrocity, and so traveled quickly.  (Typically, although Thucydides says the reversal of policy was prompted by moral and sentimental motives, the speeches he reports from the debate raise pragmatic considerations only.)

But Athens’ victims were not always so lucky.  In the so-called “Melian Dialogue,” one of the two most famous passages in the book (Pericles’ funeral oration being the other, making for an ironically contrasting pair), Thucydides deals with the Athenian punishment of the island of Melos, in 415, for maintaining a policy of neutrality between Athens and Sparta rather than taking Athens’ side.  (This, you may recall, was the incident that inspired Euripides’ Trojan Women.)9

The Athenian representatives who come demanding the Melians’ allegiance explicitly renounce appeals to morality in favour of appeals to power:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences – either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us … 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.10

When the Melians respond by praying “that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust,”11 the Athenians reply:

When you speak of the favour of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither our 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 a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And 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.

The Athenians’ appeal to Greek mythology to prove that the gods have no objection to injustice is reminiscent of the argument in Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen: “Do as the deities will. Isn’t it obvious when we pray before their effigies that they’re on the make?”12

The Melian rejoinder to the Athenian argument is that they “will not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has been inhabited these seven hundred years,” but instead choose to “trust in the fortune by which the gods have preserved it until now.”  But the gods do not intervene; nor does the Athenian assembly repeat its last-minute change of heart from twelve years before.  Instead, the Athenians “put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.”

The fate of Melos not only exposes the criminal nature of the Athenian empire, but also raises once again the question of what reason we have to be just.  Greek authors like Hesiod and Herodotus assures their readers that the gods will reward the just; but incidents like the Melian massacre seem to suggest otherwise.  And if it’s true, as the author of the Sisyphus fragment suggests,13 that the only reason we have for being just is fear of the gods – and if it is likewise true that the gods are either nonexistent (the Sisyphus’s hypothesis) or okay with injustice (the hypothesis of the Athenian spokesmen in the Melian Dialogue), thus explaining why events like the Melian massacre occur – then it would indeed seem to follow that we have no reason to behave justly, except fear of others’ ability to retaliate, so that “right … is only in question between equals in power.”

Did the Athenian representatives at Melos really offer the amoral might-makes-right arguments that Thucydides attributes to them?  There’s no way to know.  But ideas like theirs were in the air in Athenian society, as we’ll see.

Do the Athenian arguments at Melos represent Thucydides’ own views?  Surely not entirely; Thucydides plainly disapproves of the Athenian treatment of the Melians, just as he disapproved of the treatment that Kleon had proposed for the Mytileneans.  But given his general cynicism and tough-minded pragmatism, it’s hard to see what contrary arguments he could offer. 

As it happens, one of Thucydides’ contemporaries and fellow-citizens was offering just such contrary arguments. But Thucydides never mentions him.  His name was Socrates.


  1. See part 22 of this series.
  2. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley (London:  Longmans Green, 1874), II.6
  3. Thucydides, History I.3.
  4. History II.7.
  5. In letters to John Holmes (22 April 1820) and Lydia Huntley Sigourney (18 July 1824).
  6. History III.9.
  7. Roderick T. Long, “The Nature of Law, Part IV: The Basis of Natural Law,” Formulations 4.2 (Winter 1996-97).
  8. History III.9.
  9. See part 14 of this series.
  10. History V.17.
  11. Or, to quote Game of Thrones:  “And who are you, the proud lord said, that I must bow so low?”
  12. See part 20 of this series.
  13. Ibid.

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