The Politics of Peace in the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

Thucydides is often labeled as the “father” of Greek historical writing due to his rigorous method of evidence collection and measured approach to the “facts”. He was also a noted (if disgraced) military general whose ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ is commonly taught in military studies and/or political science courses.  Given his personal experiences during the Peloponnesian War, there is no doubt that Thucydides knew well the realities of battle, and that may help to explain the remarkable vividness of his writing.  Especially striking are the extensive dialogues and speeches found throughout his ‘History’, wherein the writer takes much creative license in reconstructing what was said (or, rather, should/might have been declared) in particular moments of battle or legal negotiation.  We have read two of the most famous of these reconstructions for class, namely the ‘Mytilenian Debate’ (found in Book Three, chapters 36-49) and the so-called ‘Melian Dialogue’ (found in Book Five, chapters 84-114).  In these well-known set-pieces, Thucydides provides a fascinating exploration of key issues and concerns related to war and peace, such as justice, mercy, authority, violence, hate, negotiation, and surrender (etc.).  In your response, I would like you to negotiate one specific aspect (or theme) of the debate, and do so by quoting and discussing particular statements made by speakers in these sections.  More to the point, pick a quotation or two from either the ‘Mytilenian Debate’ OR the ‘Melian Dialogue’ and then enter into dialogue with the speakers and their ideas.  You might particularly address the following:  What is the central issue of your chosen lines, and what is the logic of the speaker(s) and their argument?  In turn, what do YOU think about the situation and their rationale, and why?

18 thoughts on “The Politics of Peace in the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

  1. I am choosing the Melian Dialogue. This argument or debate is between the two rivals Melians and the Athenians. The Athenians argue that the Melians should accept their rule rather than go to war. The quote that I like that stresses the power that the Athenians have is in these lines, “ the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” (Thucydides 5.89). This shows that the Athenians will not compromise and that they will destroy the Melians if they do not cooperate. The Melians wanted an alliance except the Athenians did not want their reputation ruined. The theme that this part falls under would be war and peace. This is because the Melians wanted peace and tried to convince the Athenians to act with morality instead of being inhumane and worrying just about their own reputation. The Athenians told the Melians to accept their rule and life would be easier, but since they did not war would soon happen. I think that the Athenians were right in a sense because they gave a warning to the Melians that they would destroy them so surrender when you have the chance. The Melians should have used common sense because they should have known that all the Athenians wanted was to rule and that they were not going to stop until they reach that goal. The Melians should have looked at the size of their army versus the size of the Athenian’s army. If there was any chance of the Melians to win then they should have kept trying to make peace, but in reality there was no way for them to win so they should have just surrender and make life easier for all the people.

  2. I have chosen to write about the Melian Dialogue. The Melian Dialogue is an argument between the Melians and the Athenians. The main focus of this argument is that the Athenians want to take rule over the Melians, yet the Melians are devoted to the Spartans. The Athenians argue, “Which you, if you deliberate wisely, will take heed of, and not think shame to submit to a most potent city, and that upon so reasonable conditions as of league and of enjoying your own under tribute; and seeing choice is given you of war or safety, do not out of peevishness take the worse” (Thucydides 5.111). In doing so, they are telling the Melians that if they do not come with them, there will be war. A war which they will lose. The Athenians are giving the Melians an option: come with us and be safe, or die. By this point in the argument the Athenians are tired of the Melians fight for peace, and have resulted to threatening them in order to get them to comply. I feel that the Athenians are only putting the time and effort into ruling over the Melians because they simply can. In a race to expand territory against the Spartans, they are taking the Melians only for the land. I believe that the Melians are stuck in a situation that will not end well for them either way. No matter what choice they made they were going to end up in war or dead. The Melian Dialogue is an example of the power that the Athenians had and their will to exploit it just to be better than everyone else. The Athenians did this just to protect their reputation even though the Melians were trying to get them to realize that there was a better way of going about it.

  3. The Melian Dialogue opens with a surprisingly civil discussion between the Melian commissioners and the Athenian Envoy (or at least it seems so at face value). The Athenians present the Melian representatives with an ultimatum phrased in a very respectable and practical way it appears. They make it clear that if there are certain conditions that are disagreed on, the Melians are encouraged to stop the discussion and fix the issue right there before proceeding. “Make no set speech yourselves, but take us up at whatever you do not like, and settle that before going any farther. And first tell us if this proposition of ours suits you.” (Book 5 Chapter 85) It is ironic, then, that only 4 chapters later the Athenians are proclaiming that they have the right to overtake Melos, on the sole principle that those who have power exercise it because they can and the weak suffer the consequences. It seems the Athenians are only giving the illusion of cooperation, when they already have their minds made up as to what they are going to do. The Melians anticipate this as well, saying, “as we see you are come to be judges in your own cause,” signifying that the Melians understand they really don’t have a choice in this matter. They have to pick the lesser of two evils: become overtaken and risk becoming Athenian slaves, or resist the invasion and therefore start a war. The Athenian Envoy’s argument centers entirely around pride and power, making the point that if they don’t overtake Melos they will appear weak. The Melians, in the end, decide to remain neutral, which is a fatal decision for them. The Athenians slaughter all the male subjects of Melos, enslave the women and children, and overtake the island.
    The Melians have been put in a tight position by the Athenians, and there is no straight-cut correct way they could have handled their situation. On one hand, they could have been safe and just joined the Athenian side, but that would have cost them their allegiance to Sparta, which could end up being a problem in the future. (At one point they argue Athens that Sparta will come to their aid, to which Athens rebuttals that they are not important enough to waste the resources defending. What is to say they will be important enough for Athens to defend later?) On the other hand, they would have to put up a fight against a much larger, more formidable army that there is no chance of winning against. Tough luck for the Melians to be put into such a situation like this.

  4. I chose to write about the Melian Dialogue, which is a debate or argument between the Athenians and the Melians. In this debate, they are arguing about war. In this book the council of the Melians says, “The equity of a leisurely debate is not to be found fault withal; but this preparation of war, not future but already here present, seemeth not to agree with the same. For we see that you are come to be judges of the conference, and that the issue of it, if we be superior in argument and therefore yield not, is likely to bring us war, and if we yield, servitude.” (Thucydides 5.86). They are all saying that they don’t agree with the war and how it is being prepared. Later on the Melians decide they should become neutral. This is not a good decision. It came out to be fatal for them. The Athenians were very cruel. They decided that it would be a good idea for them to kill and thats exactly what they did. They killed all the men and they enslaved all of their wives and children. After their killing spree they took over and invaded the island. The Athenians were not really smart in their decisions. If they were smart they would realize that their chances of defeating and getting power were slim to none. After all the debating the Athenians chose to ally themselves with Greece. In chapter 114 of book five it says, “The Athenians afterwards left some forces of their own and of their confederates for a guard both by sea and land, and with the greatest part of their army went home. The rest that were left besieged the place.” This is saying that the Athenians knew that the war was over and that they were in fact defeated. I think that being neutral really hurt them. I also don’t agree in that they killed men and then proceeded to enslave their wives and children.

  5. In the Mytilenian debate, Diodotus states in his speech, “But I am of opinion that nothing is so contrary to good counsel as these two, haste and anger, whereof the one is ever accompanied with madness and the other with want of judgment.” Diodotus and Cleon are both having a debate on what to do with the Mytilenians. Both of their suggestions contrast profoundly because Diodotus is against Cleon’s plan to kill every Mytilenian there is. He states that acting out hastily especially in anger is the worst thing the Athens can do. Diodotus suggests that a decision is necessary for action, opposing another one of Cleon’s declarations. Cleon is all about sticking to his “kill them all” plan. He does not want to give the enemy any pity, fairness, and especially forgiveness. He just wants one thing, for all the Mytilenian’s to perish. Diodotus claims, that he is not arguing for pity or fairness, but just for the fate of the Athens.
    I believe Cleon is out of control. Wanting to kill off an entire city is a horrible thing to do. They shouldn’t act out hastily, like Diodotus suggests, and should come to a final agreement before acting. If the Athens were to kill all the Mytilenian’s, their allies would most likely reconsider being allies. Therefore, I am against Cleon’s argument and for Diodotus’.

  6. I have chosen to write about the Melian Dialogue. This text is a debate between Athenians and Melians about going to war because the Athenians want to take rulership over the Melians. The central issue to this reading is that the Melians are reluctant to give the Athenians rulership. In Thucydides 5.92. The Melians say “But how can it be profitable for us to serve, though it be so for you to command?” to which the Athenians reply “Because you, by obeying, shall save yourselves from extremity; and we, not destroying you, shall reap profit by you.” (Thuc. 5.93). The Melians bring up a good point about not getting anything in return for this deal that the Athenians propose to them. They are saying that if they give Athenians rulership, what do they receive in return. The Athenians retaliate with a good point of their own. The Athenians say that by falling under their rulership the Melians will be saving themselves from war. I believe that the Athenians have made a better point than the Melians, because although Melians will not be in charge anymore, they will be keeping their people alive and avoiding battle with the Athenians. It would be wise to keep your people alive and fall under different rulership, rather than go to war, lose part of your army and still have the possibility of falling under different rulership.

  7. In the “Mytilenian Debate” Diodotus and Cleon discuss how the punishment of the Mytilenaeans will be carried out. Diodotus argues, “Besides, that against every city we must be at a new hazard, both of our persons and fortunes. Wherein with the best success we recover but an exhausted city and lose that wherein our strength lieth, the revenue of it; but miscarrying, we add these enemies to our former and must spend that time in warring against our own confederates, which we needed to employ against the enemies we have already.” (Thucydides 3.39) He raises a good point; attacking the Mytilenaeans would not be in the best interests of Athens itself. It would not be profitable and would add another enemy to the state rather than an ally who could assist Athens in fighting other foes (ex. Sparta). Despite this, Cleon insists that because they conspired against Athens, they must make an example of them. He also argues that taking pity and being lenient are disadvantageous to the empire. In a sense, they are both justified in their beliefs. Diodotus is more logical and ethical, choosing to take pity and acknowledge the consequences of attacking. Cleon is more authoritative, believing that the Mytilenaeans can be a threat to the empire and they must act to continue their dominion. However, realistically I see Diodotus having the better argument. Wiping out an entire city-state would be costly and ultimately wrong.

  8. In book 5 of the “Melian Dialogue,” one aspect of the debate was “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 want in power will be made up by the alliance of the Lacedaemonians, who are bound, if only for very shame, to come to the aid of their kindred. Our confidence, therefore, after all is not so utterly irrational.” In this quotation the Melian’s are saying that they understand that the Athenians are protecting their fortune and power, and that they believe that the gods will provide for them. That the Athenians still have a chance to win the war overall. The Melian’s make the point that they are not an enemy to neither side and that they are neutral overall, and that they believe the Lacedaemonians will come defend them, and that their confidence isn’t so crazy. In debate, I believe overall, that either the Melian’s are trying to talk their way out of fighting. If they do fight in the war they lose an alliance who could greatly benefit them in the later future. If the Melian’s were to fight they could lose a lot of their own people in the war. So, they could ultimately be protecting themselves in the war. I can understand where the Melian’s are coming from because they have to protecting their people first, and what benefits them in the end.

  9. In the Mytilenian Debate, Cleon and Diodotus are arguing how the Mytilene’s shall be punished. Cleon is extremely violent and sees no mercy, while on the other hand Diodotus feels there should be mercy. In section 3.39, Cleon says “Now therefore let them be punished according to their wicked dealing, and let not the fault be laid upon a few and the people be absolved.” Cleon feels as though all should suffer because if not chances are history may repeat itself. And in section 3.42 Diodotus says exactly the opposite, “But I am of opinion that nothing is so contrary to good counsel as these two, haste and anger, whereof the one is ever accompanied with madness and the other with want of judgment.” Basically, Diodotus believes in thinking before he is to act. What kind of image would that give the Athens if they go on a killing spree? I see where Cleon is coming from with abolishing their entire population because they were their own city and they honored their laws, yet they revolted against the Athens. It is a rather harsh and inhumane act, but it is like a lesson to everyone else. This is their warning to other cities not to make the same mistake. I think more cities would want to be allies with the Athens in fear for their lives.

  10. The Melian Dialogue; which main argument centers around mercy, poses what is just for the enemy at hand. Diodotus and Cleon; two power figures battle through debate on what should be done. Diodotus who favors mercy says “but if you consider what was likely they would have done to you if they had prevailed, you cannot but think them worthy the same punishment nor be less sensible, you that have escaped, than they that have conspired, especially they having done the injury first”. He says this in response of Cleon’s argument to prove that all should die. Diodotus basically tries to make their audience empathize by turning the tables around. Making them wonder “what if my beloved land was conquered” or “what if that was my life in the hands of the enemy; the enemy that dies not care if I died ” Logically he poses that murdering everyone goes against the humane way of life and their everyday morals. He wants them to have compassion for their opponent because they would have desired the same, if they were kneeling before those who had the ability to end their life immediately. I agree with Diodotus and his standpoint on what actions should be done because though there are not in their predicament, they could of have been. Plus instead of killing people, they could be use to benefit them and their land. Diodotus exposes mercy and sympathy to a bloodlust and barbaric generation by placing them in the shoes of their enemies.

  11. The Melian dialogue was centered on the people of Melos and the Athenians which was subjected around the people of Melos having to support the Athenians, or be destroyed. While the people of Melos try to speak their peace and tell the Athenians that they mean no harm and are just a neutral country. The Athenians respond saying “ No, your enmity is not half so mischievous to us as your friendship; for the one is in the eyes of our subjects an argument of our power, the other of our weakness (Thucydides 5.95). Although the people of Melos mean no harm and are completely neutral, the Athenians still see them as a threat and offer to not destroy them as long they support the Athenians. The people of Melos refused and as the Athenians told them, all the people of Melos were killed. I disagree with the Athenians decision to even worry about the Melians because they used up valuable time and resources just to show their authority. I believe taking over Melos wouldn’t matter that much because as the people of Melos stated, they were only neutral and shouldn’t have been bothered.

  12. The Mytilenian Debate is an argument between Cleon and Diodotus on how they should handle the repercussions on the Mytilenaeans. Cleon feels that the best option for punishment would be to kill all the men and take all the women and children as slaves, while Diodotus believes the people should be shown mercy for the mistakes of the others. Diodotus feels only the ones against Athens should be slain and everyone else should be spared. “Wherein with the best success we recover but an exhausted city and lose that wherein our strength lieth, the revenue of it; but miscarrying, we add these enemies to our former and must spend that time in warring against our own confederates, which we needed to employ against the enemies we have already” (Thucydides 3.39). This is Diodotus’ reasoning to Cleon saying that if they destroy the Mytilenaeans they get none of the resources from conquering them and any people that feel that was wrong of them to do so will be against Athens because of the excessive force on them. I believe there is no right answer between the two and that either way that is chosen has negative and positive outcomes. If they kill the people and take the land they expand their empire and can set up a strong hold for troops during battle and they will not have to worry if the Mytilenaeans decide to side with the Spartans, but it will anger people and make the Athenians look like violent rulers. If they allowed the people to live they could take their resources and men to fight, but they cannot take over the whole area to use for its own people and they would have to worry about revolts from the people who are still loyal towards Sparta or their land before Athens invaded. I believe their best option is to listen Cleon because they cannot risk their people’s safety and have to do what will be best for their own people and position in the war.

  13. I have decided to talk about the “Melian Dialogue”. The Melian Dialogue is an argument between the Athenians and of course the Melians. The theme of this argument is that the Athenians want to take rule over the Melians, even though the Melians object since they are dedicated to the Spartans. The Athenians state, “Which you, if you deliberate wisely, will take heed of, and not think shame to submit to a most potent city, and that upon so reasonable conditions as of league and of enjoying your own under tribute; and seeing choice is given you of war or safety, do not out of peevishness take the worse”. They are explaining to the Melians that if they do not come with them, there will be war. By this point in the argument the Athenians are tired of the Melians fight for peace. The Athenians want to overtake them because of the ease and simplicity in the action. If the Athenians were to succeed in the capture of the Melians’ partnership then they would be ahead in the race for land against the Spartans. The Athenians believe that they have enough power to accomplish the task of making the Melians join them. So they use this dialogue as an abuse of power and think that they’re better than the Spartans at everything. Melians are now then given two choices: safety or death. I personally believe that the Athenians are worthless cowards who think that threatening and getting whatever you want will lead you into a better place than someone else like the Spartans. Their rationale is somewhat logical over their love for their people, but I believe they’re highly afraid of the Spartans. They want to defeat the Spartans, but all the threats will get them no where.

  14. The Mytilenian Debate is a very famous argument about how the Mytilenian’s should be punished. This debate was between Cleon and Diodotus who had two completely different views on the topic. Diodotus believed that mercy should be given to the Mytilenians . He doesn’t want all of them to be punished for the actions and mistakes of just a few. However, Cleon disagrees with this notion. In fact, he believes the complete opposite and that they all should face the consequences. Clean even goes as far as to say, “put them to death, not only those men there present but also all the men of Mytilene that were of age, and to make slaves of the women and children” (Thucydides 3. 36). At first I sided with Diodotus saying that those individuals who weren’t directly involved should be spared. But after a little more thought I believe that Cleon has a point, they must get rid of them all. Although very cruel and brutal it may be the only thing stopping this circumstance from repeating itself in the future. If only those few were put to death then family members and friends of those individuals may ban together and strike.

  15. In the Mytilenian Debate Cleon and Diodotus are tasked with deciding the fate of the Mytilenian people. In this heated discussion Diodotus states,”..if any man be suspected of corruption, though he give the best counsel that can be given, yet through envy for this uncertain opinion of his gain, we lose a certain benefit to the commonwealth.” Cleon is not advocating this idea of showing mercy to the Mytilenian people, however, Diodotus presents a plan for this instance when he explains to Cleon that punishment for the leaders is still possible but if they were to decide to exterminate all of the people the commonwealth would see the Athenians as corrupted and excessively violent. This would in turn cause the Athenians to lose support throughout the war which they could not afford. Diodotus makes a hard decision when he chooses mercy, however, it is a necessary and intelligent one. Every action has a consequence and he was smart enough to think ahead and envision what would happen should they kill all of the Mytilenian people. Allies are sometimes a deciding factor in wars. The Athenians could not afford to lose all of theirs just to act violently upon one rebellious city. It is not always decisions involving the most aggressive violence that win the war because intelligent tactics and reasoning sometimes call for the greatest acts of mercy. In this case i believe Diodotus is right in his ideas. Mercy does not present the powerful side as weak but able and strong as well as intelligent. War is all about the plans made before the actions.

  16. The Melian Dialogue focuses on the conversation between the Melians and Athenenians on whether or not the Melians should accept the Athenenians rule or go to war. The Melians would rather remain neutral in the situation because they are already allied with Sparta. “But will you not accept that we remain quiet and be your friends (whereas before we were your enemies), and take part with neither?” (book 5 chapter 94) They don’t want to be ruled over by the Athenenians or go to war so they just want to try to stay neutral in the situation. The Athenenians did not agree with their neutrality and end up killing all of the men and enslaving the women and children. The Melians did not have a good option to go with. With whatever decision they went with the result would not have been good. They were allied with Sparta so if they would have gone under the Athenenian rule they would have survived but would have left their ally with the Spartans. The Athenians should have respected their decision to remain neutral instead of wiping out the whole island and enslaving the women and children. That decision was completely unnecessary in my opinion there was no threat from the Melians they were going to stay neutral but the Athenenians still felt threatened and went still went with their decision to kill them all.

  17. The Melian Dialogue is focused on the Athenians and Melians and the conflict between them. The Athenians give the Melians an option to join them but the Melians would rather remain neutral. “Make no set speech yourselves, but take us up at whatever you do not like, and settle that before going any farther. And first tell us if this proposition of ours suits you.”(Book 5,chapter 85) It is argued that the Athenians saw their neutral request as a threat to be allied with Sparta. The Athenians then killed every man and enslaved the women and children. The Spartans were such a threat to the Athenian people that they believed they had to commit mass murder to and enslavement of a group of people that wasn’t even involved in the war. Stories like this make you think of how brutal men can be during war.

  18. The Melian Dialogue refers to Athenian forces invading the island of Melos. The Melinians, though technically neutral in regards of the war, had an allegiance to Sparta. The Athenian troops offered the Melinians an ultimatum, side with Athens or be destroyed. What follows is a debate of logic and reason that focuses heavily on manner of power in ancient Greece.
    This entire situation is a result of pride. The Athenians refuse to back down from their assault because if they did, they would appear merciful and thereby weak. The Melinians argue that by attacking a neutral country, they will do nothing but gather more enemies because they will have pushed other countries that were previously neutral into a defensive, if not offensive state, thereby this action will bring about more bad than good. Indeed, the Melinians argue that they are a neutral country, and were not to participate in this war, and therefore the Athenians are wasting their time on them because they never presented any threat. To this the Athenians respond “Because you, by obeying, shall save yourselves from extremity; and we, not destroying you, shall reap profit by you.” In a sense, the Athenians are conducting a preemptive strike, they are attacking before they are attacked, and by this they are not only extending their power, but staying safe.

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