Amidst an interlude in the fierce struggle for power between the two dominant Greek poleis, Athens and Sparta, the Peloponnesian war, there was unrest. Despite the Peace of Nicias, belligerence between the two states did not cease, but rather took on a new face. While careful to remain within the parameters set several years before in the peace treaty, Athens moved cautiously, but aggressively in establishing alliances, albeit coerced, and strengthening its empire. It was at this juncture that it made its move toward securing the small, weak island-state of Melos, which in its neutral independence suggested danger to the Athenian empire.
In a move not of fairness, but of survival, Athens offered the Melians an ultimatum: to be subjugated under Athenian rule as a colony, or be utterly destroyed. It is the Melian dialogue which follows and presents the presumed diplomatic debate between the two nations; the Melian people’s argument for their own neutrality, and the Athenian people’s attempt to persuade them to submit. The issue which arises in light of the events at Melos remains to be whether it is the people of Melos’ views of justice which is correct, or if it is Athens’ definition which is truer.
By examining each city-state’s contributions to the Melian dialogue, each respective interpretation becomes clear, enabling further judgement on the event’s outcome. The Athenians offer the Melians a choice in their own fate, both of which result in Athens’ domination; essentially, this boils down to the Athenian’s definition of justice lying in expediency for those in power. Not a question of fairness, for them, justice lies in survival, and that which results in the most certain preservation of both the subduer and the subdued is just, “… t would involve your submitting before suffering the worst possible fate, and we would profit from not destroying you,” (Thuc, V, 91). For the Athenians, their own pursuit of power, and that which enables its acquisition, is paramount to survival, and as heirs to this mentality, they believe it only natural and therefore not reprehensible, “divinity… and mankind… are under an innate compulsion to rule wherever empowered. Without being either the ones who made this law or the first to apply it after it was laid down, we applied it as one in existence… and one that will endure for all time,” (Thuc. V, 105). The Athenians see no injustice in doing simply as their nature impels them to do. In fact, the Athenians see their offer of subjugation to the Melian people as more than reasonable, “What we will demonstrate is that we are here to help our empire and that there is salvation for your city in what we are now about to say, since we hope to rule over you without trouble and let both parties benefit as you are saved,” (Thuc. , V, 91). Following their belief in doing what is necessary to strengthen themselves, even at the expense of others, is what brings Athens to Melos.
The Melians, contrarilly, see justice as grounded in fairness. They contend that action based in reason is the true definition of justice. “There is every advantage in your not destroying a universal benefit, but that at all times there be fairness and justice for those in danger,” (Thuc. ,V, 90). This belief in abstinence from aggression without cause is what defines the fundamental differences in the Athenian’s and the Melian’s philosophies. As a neutral state, Melos remained impartial up until it was confronted by Athens, and it is this confrontation which violates the Melian definition of justice.
Having not been harmed by the Melians, nor threatened, they had no right, in the Melian’s eyes, to act toward them with hostility. Desiring only to be left alone, the Melians wanted Athens to accept their neutrality and depart, “You would not tolerate our staying neutral, friends not enemies, but allies of neither side? ” (Thuc. , V, 94). According to the Melian definition of justice, Athens has no reason or right to inflict any harm upon them, nor to coerce them into the loss of their independence.
Having had no desire to take part in the war between Athens and Sparta, Melos’ conception of justice was disregarded as Athens imposed their own definition of justice upon the island-state, at which point, Melos was forced to fight. The results of Athenian’s view on justice are exemplified its being an empire state holding power over many and acting with aggression when the opportunity for greatness is before it. Holding justice to be that which benefits the strong, the building of an empire serves to allow the mother nation-state to collect monetary benefits and resources from those states which it dominates.
This collection enables the powerful polis to become more so and then further its sphere of influence. Additionally, this definition of justice permits an ambitious city-state to spread, conquering not only the states which stand in direct opposition, but also any that could serve as a barrier to reaching absolute greatness. The Melian’s definition of greatness, likewise, serves to explain its position as an isolationism island city-state. In order to act justly, in accordance with Melian belief, a nation-state must act with aggression only in instances where it is necessary for the safety and welfare of its citizens and only as defensive.
Justice would require the respect of a peaceable state’s existence, and the humane treatment of all wartime participants. A just state could not openly provoke another state without cause, nor upset its independence. Ultimately, it was not only a question of justice which lead to the genocide at Melos, but also one of power. It was the Athenian’s drive for power, especially control over others, which lead to its provocation of the Melians, and in fact, their definition of justice nearly demanded it.
Under the belief in that which served its own benefit as justice, Athens was spurred toward the indispensable pursuit of power, specifically power over the Melians. The Melian philosophy of neutrality and fairness is in direct opposition to this bellicose ideology. At its heart, the fundamentals of Melian justice conflict with the pursuit of power, i. e. , dominance over others and therefore with Athens, resulting in an insurmountable discrepancy over which their negotiations are futile to transcend.
Though the Melian dialogue is a primarily fictional account of a conversation written by a former Athenian, it is clear that the definition of justice that is favored in Thucydides’ account is that of the Melians. Logical and noble, it is the Melian’s defenses of their own interests that wins out as the stronger, while leaving the Athenians’ assertions of justice sounding brutish, pessimistic, and altogether contrary to modern conceptions of justice. It is the Melian’s definition which wins out as truly virtuous and altruistic, exactly what justice should be.