Does Might Make Right? The Melian Dialogue of Thucydides

Thucydides’ account of the confrontation between Athens and Melos poses the question, does might make right?

May 8, 2024By Alexander Gale, MA Applied Security & Strategy, BA History

melian dialogue thucydides


For his seminal work, The History of the Peloponnesian War, the ancient Greek writer Thucydides is heralded as the father of scientific history. Unlike earlier historians, who based their accounts on legends, hearsay, and divine intervention, Thucydides’ historiographical approach was modeled on impartiality, evidence, and analysis. Moreover, Thucydides remains relevant today in the fields of International Relations and political philosophy. His analysis of the Peloponnesian War raises questions about the nature of international politics that remain important today. One episode, the Melian Dialogue, poses the question: does might make right?


Context of the Melian Dialogue: The Peloponnesian War

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Pericles Gives the Funeral Speech, Philipp von Foltz, 1852. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Peloponnesian War was a conflict that engulfed the Greek world between 431 and 403 BCE. The war was fought between the two most powerful Greek city-states, Athens and Sparta and their allies who belonged to the Delian League, led by Athens and the Peloponnesian League,  led by Sparta.


The war was characterized by long periods of stalemate, largely owing to the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. Athens held supremacy at sea, guaranteed by its capable navy, whereas Sparta enjoyed the military advantage on land, secured by its formidable army of professional citizen soldiers. The war impacted almost every corner of the Greek world which sprawled across the Mediterranean. For instance, Athenian forces ventured as far West as Sicily, where they suffered a crushing defeat in 413 BCE. Meanwhile, Spartan forces embarked on an expedition to the northeast where they captured Byzantium in 411 BCE.


In the final phase of the war, between 414 and 404 BCE, the Persians, who had grown wary of Athens’ maritime power, granted Sparta financial support which enabled the Spartans to build a capable fleet of their own. In 405 BCE, under the skilled Spartan Admiral Lysander, the Spartans sailed to the Dardanelles to cut off Athens from vital grain shipments. The Athenian navy was forced to pursue but was decisively defeated at the Battle of Aegospotami. Without the ability to import food, the Athenians were forced to surrender, and the war ended with the Peloponnesian League victorious.

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The Siege of Melos

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precarious geostrategic position of Melos during the Peloponnesian War. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In the summer of 416 BCE, Athens invaded Melos, an island in the Aegean Sea. The events that would transpire there would be among the most infamous in the war. The Melians, a Doric people, shared ancestral ties with Sparta but maintained neutrality during the war.


Nevertheless, the Athenians demanded that Melos submit and pay tribute to Athens. The Melians, not wanting to give up their political autonomy and freedom, refused, and thus, the Athenians besieged the island’s capital city. The Melians surrendered in the winter, but the Athenians showed them no mercy. All the adult men were put to the sword and the women and children were enslaved.


The Melian Dialogue 

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Left: Bust of Thucydides, c. 100 CE Roman copy of a Greek original, c. 4th century BCE. Right: A statue of Thucydides in front of the Austrian Parliament Building. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Thucydides’ telling of the confrontation between Athens and Melos in The History of the Peloponnesian War is heavy with pathos. The Melian Dialogue occurs before the siege itself when the Athenians are trying to persuade the Melians to submit to their power. The Melians refuse, and the dialogue consists of the back-and-forth arguments made by both sides.


In the words of Felix Martin Wassermann, “One of the main purposes of the Melian Dialogue is to make clear that both sides have a point. Its dramatic power is increased by the presentation of two opposite though complementary political ideals and attitudes.”


It is for this reason that the Melian Dialogue has enduring appeal and importance, not only to historians but to scholars and practitioners of International Relations, geopolitics, and military theory.


The Melian Argument

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Hoplites in battle depicted on red-figure pottery, c. 520-510 BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons


When confronted by the Athenian ultimatum, the Melians make an appeal to justice and morality. They tell the Athenians: “we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust.” Such an argument speaks to a sentiment that there is a natural sense of justice that underpins the fates of nations and men.


The Melians also present more grounded arguments in terms of cause and effect. They assert that the unjust attack of the Athenians upon a neutral city-state would compel others to react, namely the Spartans who shared kinship with the Melians and were already at war with Athens. The Melians declared 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.”


The Athenian Argument

battle of marathon georges rochegrosse 1859
Battle of Marathon, Georges Rochegrosse, 1859. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In Wassermann’s estimation, “It is a typical aspect of Athenian character that even at this moment of strength, and, as the latter treatment of the reluctant island shows, supreme ruthlessness, the Athenians try not only to conquer, but to convince.” To this end, the Athenians urge the Melians to think of self-preservation and surrender to the more powerful force.


trireme replica
Functional replica of an ancient Greek Trireme. Source: Hellenic Navy/Wikimedia Commons


From the outset, the Athenians banish all moral sentiments from their arguments, saying to the Melians: “since you know as well as we do 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.” In other words, the Athenians have a right to treat the Melians however they so wish because they enjoy greater power over them. It is the argument that might makes right.


“The Strong Do What They Can and the Weak Suffer What They Must…”

hoplites black figure pottery
Hoplites at war depicted on black-figure pottery, The Eagle Painter, c. 530-520 BCE. Source: the British Museum


The arguments presented by both sides in the Melian Dialogue transcend the boundaries of the Peloponnesian War and pose questions about the inherent nature of international politics itself. The Athenian approach to foreign affairs, which is rooted in security and power, closely mirrors the tenets of realism in International Relations theory. Owing to his presentation of Athenian foreign policy, Thucydides is sometimes credited as the father of realist political thought.


Realist theory supposes that in international politics, there is no moral authority above the state, which leads to a situation of anarchy. In this anarchic landscape, all states are motivated by fear and mutual distrust and must therefore seek power and security to safeguard their continued existence. In the words of the realist thinker Hans Morgenthau, a statesman necessarily “thinks in terms of interest defined as power.” Similarly, in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, John J. Mearsheimer wrote, “The sad fact is that international politics has always been a ruthless and dangerous business, and it is likely to remain that way.”


These sentiments can clearly be identified in the Athenian argument. W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz asserts that “Since such an authority above states does not exist, the Athenians argue that the only right in the world of anarchy is the right of the stronger to dominate the weaker.” In such a world, the appeal of the Melians to justice matters not, as indeed the Athenians “explicitly equate right with might, and exclude considerations of justice from foreign affairs.”


Realism and the Peloponnesian War

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Frieze from the Nereid Monument, c. 390-380 BCE. Source: the British Museum


The tenants of realism can be identified elsewhere in the work of Thucydides. His assessment of the cause for the war is often cited as a classical example of realist thought and the balance of power theory. According to Thucydides, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”


The balance of power theory posits that states ensure their survival by preventing any single state from acquiring overwhelming military power. When one state becomes significantly stronger, the theory predicts that it will exploit weaker neighbors, compelling them to form a defensive coalition. From this perspective,


Evidently, Sparta was concerned with the balance of power in the Greek world. The continued growth of the Athenian empire was perceived as a threat to Spartan security and other city-states, such as Corinth, also feared that they would be unable to protect their interests if the Athenians grew too powerful. These anxieties made a war with Athens “inevitable” as Thucydides put it.


The Thucydides Trap

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USS Nimitz, 2010. Source: United States Navy


Given the value of Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War and his insights into the nature of the beast that is international politics, it is perhaps unsurprising that modern scholars and strategic practitioners are keen to study his work for lessons about the present and future.


One such scholar is the American political scientist Graham T. Allison who coined the term “Thucydides Trap”. Allison was keen to examine why there is a tendency for emerging powers and great powers to go to war, especially when there is a risk that the latter will be displaced by the former. Allison arrived at that famous quote by Thucydides “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”


Almost 2,500 years later, this one sentence written by Thucydides could apply to a myriad of conflicts — one only has to swap out the names Athens and Sparta for it to be applicable. A study conducted by Allison at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs found that out of 16 historical cases in which an emerging power rivaled an established great power, 12 of them resulted in conflict.


In recent years, the term has attracted a tremendous amount of buzz in discussions concerning the rise of China and the challenge it could pose to the United States as the world’s ruling hegemon. More broadly, a spate of wars across the world and pervasive global instability have highlighted the enduring importance of Thucydides’ work.

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By Alexander GaleMA Applied Security & Strategy, BA HistoryAlexander is an analyst focusing on geopolitics and defense. He is especially interested in WWI and how contemporary strategic practitioners can learn from military and political history. Alexander earned a BA in History and International Relations and an MA in Applied Security and Strategy at the University of Exeter.