Intersections of War and Rhetoric: A Deconstruction of the Melian Dialogue

In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the conflict between Athens and Sparta is illustrated not only with direct, fact-based wartime accounts but also with dramatized orations and debates that are interwoven into the narrative. Through the resulting interplay of speech-giving and war-making, two activities both highly and equally valued in ancient Greek society, a striking parallel arises between these two essential modes of human communication and interaction. This binary, with speech acting as a function and extension of war, is perhaps best exemplified in the Melian Dialogue. In the passage, the two opposing sides of the dialogue are cast as representatives of contrasting political ideologies: Athenian realism, driven by the forces of empire and conquest, is juxtaposed against Melian idealism, with its bulwarks of hope and honor. Beyond the content of the actual arguments themselves, Thucydides explores power dynamics and concepts of justice through the structure and framework of the dialogue as well as through its language and rhetoric. Specifically, the Athenians use their arguments as instruments of policy, metaphorical weapons in the battlefield of speech. In controlling the nature and trajectory of the dialogue, the Athenians assert intellectual and ideological dominance, which parallels their later military triumph over the Melians but foreshadows their eventual downfall.

In the opening of the Melian Dialogue, both the Athenian and Melian representatives attempt to structure the nature and flow of the debate. Efforts by the two sides to assert control and dominance over the proceedings drive subtle shifts in power dynamics: while the Melians are the ones who start off by stipulating the audience, the Athenians soon gain the upper hand. The Melians’ attempt at structuring the debate immediately backfires as the Athenians use the Melians’ choice of audience against them: “‘So we are not to speak before the people, no doubt in case the mass of the people should hear once and for all and without interruption an argument from us which is both persuasive and incontrovertible, and should so be led astray. This, we realize, is your motive in bringing us here to speak before the few”’ (5.85-89). In this critique, the Athenians undermine the power and intellectual authority of the Melians by suggesting the Melian council’s lack of popularity with the public. They do so while simultaneously bolstering their own position, generating anticipation for their forthcoming “persuasive and incontrovertible” arguments. There is also a deliberate move on the part of the Athenians to elevate the nature of the dialogue to a level of philosophical abstraction, away from the grounded discussions that would be present in a typical negotiation:

“Then we on our side will use no fine phrases saying, for example, that we have a right to our empire because we defeated the Persians, or that we have come against you now because of the injuries you have done us – a great mass of words that nobody would believe. And we ask you on your side not to imagine that you will influence us by saying that you, though a colony of Sparta, have not joined Sparta in the war, or that you have never done us any harm.”’ (5.85)

In setting out the terms of negotiation for the dialogue that follows, the Athenians assert their dominance and pave the way for their own ideological arguments. Even before the actual arguments begin, the Athenians display their impressive oratorical abilities and their capacity to use speech as an effective instrument of policy.The subtext of power dynamics carries over from the structure of the dialogue to the actual content of the speeches. From the outset, the Melians attempt to present themselves as equals to the Athenians in both intellect and political standing. Expressing their views with clear, direct and logical rhetoric, they place themselves in the privileged position to declare that the Athenians are the ones in the wrong:

“No one can object to each of us putting forward our own views in a calm atmosphere. That is perfectly reasonable. What is scarcely consistent with such a proposal is the present threat of your making war on us. We see that you have come prepared to judge the argument yourselves, and that the likely end of it all will be either war, if we prove that we are in the right, and so refuse to surrender, or else slavery.” (5.86)

Rather than resort to the emotional arguments symptomatic of the lofty idealism they are accused of, the Melians remain focused throughout the dialogue on furthering their side with logical discourse. However, despite hints of Melian unease and discomfort at being “force[d] to leave justice out of account and to confine [them]selves to self-interest,” the Melians are relegated to an inferior position by the Athenians, who declare that “when these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept” (5.89). The upholding of this Athenian concept of justice is precisely why the dialogue never evolves into a full-fledged debate between two equal sides; as predicted by the Melians, the Athenians “have come prepared to judge the argument [them]selves,” declaring that “this is no fair fight, with honour on one side and shame on the other. It is rather a question of saving your lives and not resisting those who are far too strong for you” (5.101). Throughout the dialogue, the Athenians establish themselves as the ultimate judgers of human character, condemning hope as “by nature an expensive commodity” (103). They lecture and dispense advice, dismissing any questions or concerns posed by the Melians on the basis of their unequal status. The arguments purported by the Athenians to justify their imperialist agenda belie their hypocrisy and the point to which their ideologies have diverged and corrupted from the time of Pericles, when values like honor and courage were celebrated rather than mocked.

As a historic episode, the Melian Dialogue does not hold much significance in the wider context of the Peloponnesian war; instead, it can be interpreted and read as a treatise by Thucydides on the dynamics of power and conquest. Through the discourse of contrasting political philosophies as well as the subtext of the language and structure used to convey them, Thucydides shows how the Athenians combined both speech and war to establish hegemony in foreign nations like Melos in the building of their empire. The verbal sparring of the Melian Dialogue thus functions as both a prelude to the bloody military conflicts that follow in the course of the war and as a foreshadowing of the eventual downfall of Melos and the ultimate defeat of Athens – the final death throes of an empire at the end of its golden age.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration

In his oration, Pericles sheds new light on traditional Greek virtues by examining not only the accomplishments of the Athenian empire, but the particular qualities and institutions that have facilitated Athenian greatness. Pericles defies the traditional role of a funeral orator as historian of Athenian accomplishments in order to thoroughly redefine what makes Athens great.Pericles begins his oration by setting out the difficulty of his task: to please those in the audience who were close to the dead with tales of glory and honor without dismissing the citizens of Athens, who Pericles claims only want to hear praise of the dead so long as they can feel satisfied that they are equally great, (II.35). In light of the conflicting appetites of his audience, Pericles declares that he will forsake the funeral orator’s custom of recounting the great accomplishments of Athenian history because they are “too familiar to my hearers for me to dwell upon,” (II.36). Instead, Pericles is interested in exploring the particular spirit of Athens, and those institutions that facilitated its prosperity and greatness.In the remainder of his oration, Pericles is engaged in a characterization of the essence of Athens. He claims that the uniqueness of the Athenian constitution stems from its bold innovation. Athenians live under a rule of law that holds the many over the few, and which regards citizens as equal before the law, (II.37). Thus he claims that it is the nature of Athenian politics (i.e. the theory and practice of how to live) that has allowed it to achieve greatness. The institution of equality inherent in their democracy is, according to Pericles, what facilitates the brotherhood and friendliness that Athenians feel towards one another: “we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes,” (II.37). But this friendliness amongst citizens has not diminished the strength or esteem of Athens because all Athenians contribute to the efforts to uphold international fortitude. Pericles praises citizens for their devotion to Athens, which they love even more than money or wealth: “wealth we employ more for use than show,” (II.40). He challenges his listeners to envision a citizen more innovative, independent, and strong than the Athenian, (II.41). Having examined the particular qualities of Athenians, it appears that their ability to both rule and be ruled is what he finds most essential. For evidence of the accomplishments that Pericles attributes to the unique virtues of Athenian society, he turns to what he views as the unparalleled power of the empire. It is at this point in his oration that Pericles returns to purpose of the occasion. He implores his audience to view the death of Athenians as gallant sacrifices to a world historical regime. These men died “resisting, rather than submitting, they fled only from dishonor…[and] left behind them not their fear, but their glory,” (II.42). In this way, Pericles argues that there is something particularly honorable about a man who dies in the line of a great duty, to uphold and protect a great empire, (II.43). Furthermore, these sacrifices are not in vain because “heroes have the whole earth as their tomb;” they live on in Athenian spirit and become a part of the very fabric of Athenian society, (II.43). Finally, Pericles uses his praise to implore his listeners not to shrink from making the same sacrifice. He urges each man to consider his interests as citizen (of Athens) and individual (“father” as truly merged in the great Athens, (II.44). It is impossible to ignore the context in which Pericles apparently gives this speech. The reader cannot help but recall Thucydides’ earlier admission, that he has a habit of making the speakers in his book “say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said,” (I.22). This consideration explains the overtones of nationalist pride and manifest destiny present within Pericles’ funeral oration. Pericles wants his listeners to feel implicated in a common project of historical proportions, which unites the plights and glories of Athens with those of the Athenians themselves. It is for this reason that he puts forth the image of the people of Athens as united by trust and a desire for freedom; they submit to laws and sacrifice not simply out of duty, but because they see that it is in their best interests. Thucydides’ Pericles heeds the “demands of the time” by using this same logic to implores members of the audience to be brave in the face of sacrifice on behalf of Athens because their own future is tied up with Athens’ destiny: “judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war,” (II.43). This is perhaps an indication that Thucydides recognizes the precarious nature of power and influence, such that Athens will always As unique citizens of a great empire, Pericles urges his audience to rise to any challenge to uphold and protect Athens.

The Declining Role of Justice in Athenian Government

Thucydides set out to narrate the history of what he believed would be a great war, one requiring both great power and great leadership. Although he measured greatness through both economic and military prowess, Thucydides dictated the history of the Peloponnesian War through a multitude of magnificent speeches by major figures in Greece to show the impact of political leadership on the outcome of the war. Leadership was especially vital in Athens due to the democratic nature of its government: the city’s leaders were elected by the people and therefore reflected the mentality of the city-state and its citizens. The development of the Athenian empire marked a radical departure from Hellenistic tradition, and the construction of a powerful navy, as well as the timing of the Persian invasion, provided Athens the opportunity to become the major force in the Mediterranean. Thucydides distinctly discusses the roles of Athenian leaders in the expansion of the Athenian empire, from Pericles to Alcibiades, in order to emphasize the decline of morality and justice in Athens. Thucydides clearly points out the consequences of the weaker quality of leadership in Athens, but does not specify what sparked the moral deterioration of Athenian government. With this in mind, one must question what caused the qualitative decline of the city’s leaders. At the Second Lacedaemonian Congress, Athenians argued it was inevitable that they would seize a chance to build an empire when given the opportunity, contending, “It has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger.” (I.76.2) Nevertheless, their conclusion relating the principles and actions of an empire to Athenian morale reflected a statewide belief that “praise is due to all who…respect justice more than their position compels them to.” (I.76.3) Prewar Athens did not view an empire as just merely through the use of power; instead, they clearly distinguished between the two and believed that a powerful empire provided an opportunity for justice to reign supreme in the mindsets of its citizens. Thucydides viewed Pericles as “the best man of all for the needs of the state” because of his ability to instill this distinction in the Athenian citizens. (II.65.4) Pericles saw Athens’ wealth and power as a means for political freedom and cultural growth. By stating, “We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show,” he was able to dissuade Athenian citizens’ interest in personal gain, replacing it with interests in justice and cultural advancement. He pushed this notion even further by claiming that it was still in the interest of the wealthy to maintain democracy even when civil unrest (due to the plague) threatened to destroy Athens’ fragile political balance: I am of the opinion that national greatness is more to the advantage of private citizens than any individual well-being coupled with public humiliation. A man may be personally ever so well off, and yet if his country is ruined he must be ruined with it; whereas a flourishing commonwealth always affords chances of salvation to unfortunate individuals. Since then a state can support the misfortunes of private citizens, while they cannot support hers, it is surely the duty of everyone to be forward in her defense. (II.60.1-5) Pericles argued that the wealthy benefit from democracy and patriotism because it provided them with a sense of security: the opportunity for public greatness always existed even if one was to lose his high economic standing. By creating a link between self-interest and national greatness in democracy, Pericles was able to confine personal gain to a realm separate from but dependent on the public interests of the city. By effectively subordinating pursuits for wealth and power and successfully tying self-interest to political justice and cultural advancement, Pericles exemplified the pinnacle of Athenian greatness in the eyes of Thucydides. His ideals emanated the Athenian notion that an empire could be just, and his rule proved this to be true. After Pericles’ funeral oration, Thucydides comments on the succeeding Athenian rulers’ failure to effectively control the population and to convince them to serve the city. With regard to Pericles’ successors, Thucydides states, “Each grasping at supremacy, they ended by committing even the conduct of state affairs to the whims of the multitude.” (II.65.10) Without a leader as sophisticated and persuasive as Pericles, citizens began to yearn for their personal luxuries rather than the greatness of the state. (II.61.4)The Mytilenian Debate denoted the first step in the decline of Periclean Athens. Competing desires of power and personal interest were symbolic of the strains of war, and the speeches delivered at the debate conveyed a shift away from Pericles’ belief in the benefits of justice and democracy. Cleon, an Athenian statesman and former opponent of Pericles, denied the belief that justice is worthy of praise, and instead argued that praise is due onto those who fully utilize their power, regardless of morality. With regard to the Athenian government, he claims, “Your empire is a despotism, and your subjects disaffected conspirators, whose obedience is assured not by your suicidal concessions, but by the superiority given you by your strength.” (III.37.2) In Cleon’s conception, Athenian government only functioned because of its immense power and ability to strike fear into its citizens. Justice was of no concern to Cleon, and morality was equivalent to power itself. Although Cleon’s position did not win a majority vote in the Athenian council, it is worth noting, “the show of hands was almost equal,” proving that the Periclean mindset had been all but abandoned or tainted, and would come to slowly disappear altogether. (III.49.1)Several years later, Thucydides detailed a private debate between Athenian generals and Melian statesmen in order to determine the fate of Melos, a small island colony of Sparta. The points put forward by the Athenian generals during the debate were symbolic of the shift away from Periclean Athens, from the idealistic pragmatism of Pericles to the immoral brutal abuse of power that epitomized the latter years of the Peloponnesian War. While the idea that power is irresistible to all men remained constant, the Athenian contention 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” directly contradicted the justification for expansion put forward by the Athenian citizens at the Second Lacedaemonian Congress. (V.89) Years of war had depleted Athens’ resources and had drained its citizens of their pursuit of justice and culture; Athenian motives had undergone a complete turnaround and the beliefs that symbolized Periclean Athens had been destroyed. Power had become Athens’ main interest, and what was best for the city as a whole no longer came into consideration. “Justice and honor,” the Athenians continued, “cannot be followed without danger.” (V.107) The hardships and sufferings induced by the war resulted in the ultimate perversion of Pericles’ vision. The final crushing blow to prewar Athenian ideals can be accredited to Alcibiades, whose behavior revealed the complete dissolution of Athens’ cohesive and functional democratic community. Alcibiades’ opinions in favor of self-indulgence and personal advancement was a complete inversion of the logic presented in Pericles’ funeral oration, and the insinuations put forth by Alcibiades’ statements worked against democracy and the original vision of an empire for the advancement of justice and culture. When faced with the threat of punishment, Alcibiades fled to Sparta to become an advisor to the Spartan oligarchy. Because his campaign in Syracuse had failed, Alcibiades saw his betrayal of Athens as an opportunity to reestablish his own power and wealth. The repercussions of Alcibiades’ defection to Sparta were drastic: his avocation to send the Peloponnesian navies into battle resulted in Athens’ failure in the Sicilian Expedition. (VI.92) Alcibiades, in truth, had no loyalty to Athens at all and instead used his citizenship as a means for attaining power and wealth. It became clear that personal advancement had become the central sentiment in Athens when Alcibiades was elected general (before he fled to Sparta) by the same democratic system he had blatantly corrupted through treason earlier in his political career. Athens had become a city fixated on private interest, and Alcibiades was the epitome of this mentality. Thucydides wrote, “In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better sentiments…but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants and so proves a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes” (III.82.2). This was precisely the change Athens underwent, and the cause of its eventual demise. Prewar Athens viewed its empire as an effective tool for implementing justice and expanding cultural awareness, but with its economic growth and its leaders’ abuse of power came a people obsessed with self-interest.Works cited: Thucydides. The Landmark Thucydides A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. New York: Free Press, 1998.