February 26, 2024


Entertain Reaching Stars

The Melian Dialogue

5 min read

I was once asked to study and discuss the opposing views of Athens does Thucydides present in “Pericles’ Funeral Oration” and “The Melian Dialogue?” As I began to study the matter, I wondered why he presented such contrasting views. A focused reading of Thucydides’ “Pericles’ Funeral Oration” and “The Melian Dialogue” uncovers two obviously contrasting views of the ancient city of Athens. The former, being a funeral oration, depicted Athens as the model city-state, worthy of emulation, while the latter shows the less flattering picture of arrogant, Athenian military aggression.

I believe one of the keys to understanding this contrast lies in the following portion of the funeral oration:

“For there is justice in the claim that steadfastness in his country’s battles should be as a cloak to cover a man’s other imperfections; since the good action has blotted out the bad, and his merit as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual.” (Thucydides 3)

Thucydides shows each side of the workings of this ‘cloak’ in these two pieces. As the fallen war heroes are eulogized before the city in “Pericles’ Funeral Oration”, their valiant actions, typical for any Athenian, are justified and extolled as he outlines the four ‘habits’ that have caused Athens to achieve and maintain such greatness. These habits, the young orator, Pericles, son of Xanthippus, rhetorically identifies as the cause of Athens’ success, “But what was the road by which we reached our position, what the form of government under which our greatness grew, what the national habits out of which it sprang;” (Thucydides 2) Athens is thus, presented as a prototype city.

“The Melian Dialogue,” however, reveals what imperfections and demerits are laying beneath its habits and victories. In these two pieces we see Athens, the virtuous city and Athens, the neighborhood bully. The steadfastness and sacrificial valiance of the fallen soldiers is contrasted with the aggressive, colonialism of Athens. Certainly Athens was an envied city, but perhaps she was not as virtuous as she appeared in her own eyes.

Beginning on page two of the translation of “Pericles’ Funeral Oration,” Pericles, son of Xanthippus, outlines four habits that have resulted in Athens’ success. These being: their laws, their balance of work and pleasure, their military policy, and lastly, and their high culture. A brief sampling of each from the text will suffice herein.

The first habit consists of the superior laws and government of Athens. The Athenians were proud that their constitution did not copy the laws of neighboring states; they were rather. Its administration favored the many instead of the few and they felt that this was why it was a democracy. Upon looking at their laws, they found that they afforded equal justice to all men.

Next, the leisurely pleasures that Athens afforded its citizens was vital to their success. They provided plenty of means for the mind and body to be refreshed from the stress of business affairs. They celebrated games and sacrifices throughout the year, and the elegance of their many private establishments formed a daily source of pleasure for Athenians.

Continuing, Athens’ military might was an important aspect of their society. “If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing… ” (Thucydides 2) Interestingly, Pericles positions Athens as the protagonist who is simply defending herself from the ‘antagonists’. Later, he employs the word assailants as well. This time, he admits that Athens, herself, also plays the role of the antagonist, “For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted… ” (Thucydides 3)

Finally, the culture of Athens was highly sophisticated one. “Nor are these the only points in which our city is worthy of admiration. We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show… Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with their pursuits, are still fair judges of public matters.” (Thucydides 3)

Far removed from the proud citizens of Athens finest, Thucydides turns our attention to the front lines of battle in “The Melian Dialogue.” Here we see a glimpse of what Pericles would never share with the distinguished citizens of Athens. Simply stated, the Athenians came to the island of Metos to enslave, or to kill the Melians.

The first peek behind their honorable cloak of steadfastness in one’s country’s battles is the sheer magnitude of their army. They overwhelmed the Melians with a show of force. The Athenians also made an expedition against the isle of Melos with thirty ships of their own; sixteen hundred heavy infantry, three hundred archers, and twenty mounted archers from Athens, and about fifteen hundred heavy infantry from the allies and the islanders. They intended to force the Melians into servitude. This is a stark contrast to “We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing… ” (Thucydides 1)

Actually, the real mindset of the Athenians viewed the Melians as inferior. They saw them as islanders and weaker than others rendering it all the more crucial that they not succeed in defeating “the masters of the sea.” (Thucydides 2) In the remainder of this conference, The Athenians go on to deride the Melians’ hope, strength and even their trust in the gods. This is the ugly side of Athens. Perhaps the fifth habit responsible for Athens’ success was her aggressive military conquests.

Why did Thucydides present such contrasting views in a simple funeral oration and “The Melian Dialogue”?

Undoubtedly, he was privy to much of the inner workings of Athenian politics, scandal, and hypocrisy. He wanted to savage nature of Athens’ success to be seen and judged in the same light as its finer attributes. He wanted to expose the realities that came with a democracy that favored the many instead of the few. He understood the dangers of elevating the beloved, hidden ‘imperfections’ of the state at the expense of human life and dignity. He wanted his readers to understand these things equally as well.

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