Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 5, Chapter 17 – Sixteenth Year of the War—The Melian Conference—Fate of Melos

  1. The next summer, Alcibiades sailed with 20 ships to Argos to take suspected people from the pro-Spartan oligarchs (300 of them). The Athenians also made an expedition against the isle of Melos with 38 ships & 3000+ soldiers. Melos was a Spartan colony that wouldn’t submit to Athens. They had tried to stay neutral but after Athens had gotten violent with them, they became openly hostile back. Melos asked what the intentions of the Athenians were.
  2. Athenians – Since our negotiations won’t be public, we can speak freely without causing a panic to the public. What do you suggest the outcome of this be?
  3. Melians – Your military plans are far too advanced for us to negotiate anything other than war.
  4. Athenians – If you are worried about the future or present safety, just say so.
  5. Melians – The question of this conference is our country’s safety. So, let’s stick to the point.
  6. Athenians – We’ll spare the pretenses – either our right to our empire or out of past wrongs you’ve done to us. We all know “right” is only what’s between equal powers. The strong do what they can & the weak suffer what they have to.
  7. Melians – Anyway, we think it’s not in the interest of either one of us for Melos to be destroyed. Your actions will piss others off & lead to your destruction.
  8. Athenians – We’re not worried about the end of our empire. Our rival, the Spartans, won’t treat the vanquished so badly. We’re prepared to take that risk. We’re here in the interest of our empire. We’re now talking about what is in the best interest of your country.
  9. Melians – Why is it in our best interest to have you rule over us?
  10. Athenians – You will not be destroyed if you surrender & we won’t have to dirty our hands in doing the deed.
  11. Melians – You won’t let us be neutral – neither enemies nor allies?
  12. Athenians – Your neutrality will show our subjects that we are weak by allowing you to stand up for yourself against our power.
  13. Melians – Would your subjects really put neutral parties in the same groups as enemies or friends?
  14. Athenians – If anyone maintains independence it’s because they’re strong. If we don’t threaten or harm others, it’s because we’re afraid of them. Our empire would be more secure by your subjection.
  15. Melians – There’s no security in our neutrality? You’re stopping us from talking about justice but make us talk about your interests alone. We must explain our interests. How can you avoid pissing off neutral parties when they can look at our story with you? They’ll know that one day you’ll be coming for them – you’re essentially creating enemies.
  16. Athenians – Continental cities don’t scare us. The liberty they have will prevent them from planning anything against us. It’s you islanders who are more likely to do something stupid & lead yourselves into danger & taking us with you.
  17. Melians – If you’re risking so much just to maintain an empire, eventually your people will demand you get rid of it. We would be low & cowardly if we just submit to you without a fight.
  18. Athenians – You know it wouldn’t be an even fight, when honor is the reward for winning & shame is the penalty for losing. Resisting would be way more dangerous for you because we are so much stronger.
  19. Melians – We know that fortune of war is more impartial than the difference in our numbers. But to submit would lead to despair. Action gives us some sort of hope.
  20. Athenians – Hope can be over-indulged in by those with resources but it usually leads to extravagance. Most don’t see that until they have been ruined by hope. Let’s pray that won’t be the case with you – that you abandon security in favor of hope – & turn to invisible hopes – oracles, prophecies, etc. – that delude men with destructive hopes.
  21. Melians – We know that contending with your power will be a dangerous task, especially on unequal terms of power. But we are men fighting against injustice & what we lack in power, can be made up for by our alliance with Sparta. They are bound to us & our confidence is not crazy.
  22. Athenians – Nothing we do is unjust or contrary to law or what the gods would have us do. We didn’t invent this “might makes right” thing. We’re just carrying on the tradition. We’re not afraid of angering the gods. Your words about Sparta lead us to believe you think that Sparta would help you out of shame. When laws are in question, the Spartans are trustworthy. When it comes to other things, don’t think a simple promise from them is binding at all.
  23. Melians – We trust their respect for expediency will stop them from betraying us. It would cause problems with the rest of the alliance.
  24. Athenians – You should see expediency in maintaining security. Justice & honor can’t be followed without danger. The Spartans try to avoid danger.
  25. Melians – They’re more likely to face danger for us than for others, especially since we’re close to the Peloponnese, it makes it easier to come to our aid.
  26. Athenians – You’re not relying on Spartan good will but military superiority. Do you think they’d face the best navy in the world just to save a tiny island?
  27. Melians – They would also send others. The Cretan Sea is harder to catch people in than to lose predators in. If the Spartans fail in this, they’d end up in your territory & you’d have to face them.
  28. Athenians – You shouls know Athens has never withdrawn from a siege out of fear. You talk about the safety of your country. Your strongest arguments for your position are hope & the future. Your country has next to no resources – not enough to win against us. You’d be foolish to ignore our advice. Far too many rush into stupid actions due to the influence of honor & dishonor. It’s not dishonorable to submit to the most powerful city in Greece. You won’t have your live changed by this. Think it over. You’re debating your own prosperity or ruin.
  29. The Athenians left. The Melians thought it over & told the Athenians they weren’t going to submit & would rely on luck & Sparta’s help. We’d like to be friends with you & would like to sign a treaty to that effect.
  30. The Athenians responded that the Melians relying on the unseen & hope of the future & Sparta’s help would only lead to disappointment.
  31. The envoys went back to the army. The Melians weren’t going to back down. The generals prepared for hostilities & drew lines of circumvallation around the city. The Athenians brought their army to besiege Melos – leaving citizens to defend their city.
  32. At the same time, Argos invaded Phlius but lost 80 men in an ambush. The Athenians in Pylos plundered the Spartans in the area. The Corinthians started fighting with Athens. The rest of the Peloponnese stayed quiet. At Melos, the Melians attacks the Athenians at night while bringing in their crops to feed on during the siege.
  33. The next winter, the Spartans planned to invade Argos but the sacrifices weren’t favorable. The Argives began to suspect traitors & either killed them or drove them out. Melos made some progress against the Athenians but Athens sent some reinforcements. With them & inside treachery, the Athenians took Melos. The men were killed. The women & children were sold off as slaves. 500 Athenian colonists were sent to occupy Melos.


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