History of the Peloponnesian War
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 Praise of Democracy
Pericles’s famous funeral oration is, without a doubt, one of the greatest speeches passed down in history, yet there is dispute as to the true meaning of democracy put forth. Most believe that Pericles was praising Athenian democracy, yet some claim that he was, in fact, downplaying the importance of democracy. If Pericles was applauding Athenian democracy, it was in an effort to rouse the spirit of the people, to convince them that the sacrifices were worthy. However, if Pericles was drawing a line between the democratic and aristocratic features of the Athenian constitution, then it was done so with the intent to harvest talent. By applauding Athenian democracy, citizens would feel a sense of inclusion in their love for Athens and strive to protect their city. On the other hand, by dividing democracy and aristocracy, theoretically, Pericles would also be able to “create the impression that the democracy is an aristocracy of talent.” Overall, while there is reason to believe that Pericles praised a mixed constitution, it is more plausible that the oration was purely praising Athenian democracy.
One reason as to why Pericles praised Athenian democracy was to inspire citizens to continue to defend Athens-to rouse up the spirit of the people. With the situation of the Peloponnesian War looking grim, a gifted speaker was almost desperately needed to raise the morale. “Our system of government…being a model to others…” Pericles places Athens in a superior position compared to the rest of the world, and specifically, their enemy-Sparta. “There is a great difference between us and our opponents, in our attitude towards military security.” He forces the people to realize the juxtaposition between Athens, where the people are carefree, and Sparta, where the focus on military endeavors takes over all aspects of life. However, he continues to emphasize that this does not make Athens inferior to Sparta at all-in fact it gives Athenians advantages in many ways. “Discuss the spirit in which we faced our trials and also our constitution and the way of life which has made us great.” By highlighting the various ways in which Athens excels over Sparta concerning not only military proficiency but also regarding individual satisfaction and happiness, Pericles demonstrates that Athens is the pinnacle of perfection and that every citizen should be willing to fight to protect the essence of democracy.
In addition, Pericles paints Athenian democracy in a positive light to honor the dead and prove to the people that they died for a good cause. “These men have shown themselves valiant in action, and it would be enough, I think, for their glories to be proclaimed in action…” Through the use of syntax and diction, Pericles points out the gallant and glorious men who have died in the war, essentially saying that they died for a just cause. He believes, and tries to convince the audience, too, that their lifestyle is vastly superior to Sparta’s, and that it is worth dying for. Furthermore, he believes that even those who have lost a loved one in the war should be honored, as seen by his comments towards the elderly and the bereaved. “One’s sense of honor is the only thing that does not grow old”. He tells the elderly that although they have lost their children, they should be honored that they died in the line of combat to protect Athenian democracy. “All the same, those of you who are of the right age must bear up and take comfort in the thought of having more children.” He also tells those who are young to continue to produce children in order to supply Athens with more fighting force if necessary. Thus, Pericles fundamentally believes that no sacrifice is too small for the sake of keeping democracy safe.
Furthermore, Pericles attempts to convince the Athenians that death is preferable to dishonor and that an honorable sacrifice will be looked upon with reverence. He calls for those who are well off to join the battle, knowing that they will be the least likely to throw away their good fortune. “But this is good fortune for men to end their lives with honor…”. His choice of words convince the Athenians to fight for their democracy and the city they love. “The people who have the most excuse for despising death are not the wretched and unfortunate…but those who run the risk of a complete reversal in their lives…” Also, Pericles attempts to convince the citizens that there should be no fear of death if one already has an honorable life, as they would be forever respected after their death. Thus, he is saying that those who are healthy and able should be rejoiced in fighting for democracy.
One might argue that Pericles was praising a mixed constitution that involved both Athenian democracy and an aristocracy. After all, throughout the speech, he seems to refer to only those who are well off, never mentioning those who are not citizens or even the poor. When mentioning those who should go off to war, he says that only those who are well off should not be afraid of dying; the unfortunate in life should be fearful of death, as they cannot improve their circumstances. Furthermore, there is also a sense of inequality regarding election to office in that “everyone is not as good as his neighbor”. Last but not least, he continually praises the advantages Athenian democracy holds over Sparta, but only those who are citizens enjoy the full benefits of that democracy, not to mention that a limited part of the population were citizens.
Although it is true that Pericles seems to refer to only those who are well off in society, he includes everyone by continuously saying that those who are patriots and love Athens will fight for the city. Although those who were not citizens would not love the city as much as those who were, the overwhelming sense of patriotism would ensure that even those who were not citizens would be swept along. Secondly, even those who were not citizens had relatives-husbands, sons, and fathers who were, and that alone would convince them to love the democratic Athens as well.
One might also say that Pericles’s view of democracy isn’t exactly a democracy in the sense that it establishes a patriarchal society. When he refers to women, he says that they should stay at home and take care of the house. “And the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men”. Not only does he talk about them at only the very end of his speech, but he also seems to give them a menial task, while giving the glory and honor to the men. Furthermore, women were not included as citizens in Athens, which would further destroy the idea of a democracy.
Despite seemingly promoting a patriarchy, Pericles does his utmost to include women in the higher plan. By sending all the men off to war, only the elderly and women are left back at home. The task of keeping the home is not an easy one, and this tremendous responsibility is heaped upon the shoulders of the women. Even though women were not citizens, the fact that they had a greater responsibility at home could cover their lack of political opportunities. The separation of tasks and roles in society was critical in the development of Athenian democracy.
In conclusion, the view of democracy that Pericles puts forth in his funeral oration is flawed and outdated. Although Pericles himself seemed to firmly believe in the advantages of Athenian democracy to the point that he advocated it as the flawless system of government, there were minute flaws that contrast it to today’s democracy. Despite the extremely limited citizen population in Athens, Pericles overflows with patriotism, leading one to contrast it to the United States today. Pericles proclaimed “We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it.” These democratic values eventually led up to modern society.