The rape of Melos: Thucydides as great thinker

Thucydides

One of the most important dialogues in all of literature, all of history and all of political philosophy (and yes, I am aware that this is a bold statement) is the so-called “Melian dialogue”. Its subject is power.

Its author was Thucydides (above), whom I’ve introduced before. He was a contemporary of Socrates, a general in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and of course the preeminent historian of that war. He is also considered the world’s first Realist.

I’m using that word in the context of International Relations and Political Science, as distinct from Idealism. All later Realists, from Thomas Hobbes to Machiavelli and Henry Kissinger, owe an intellectual debt to Thucydides.

So the purpose of this post is:

  1. to include Thucydides in my pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers, and
  2. to try to give you a short and easy intro to that famous dialogue.

1) Background

The dialogue is supposed to have taken place in 416 BCE, roughly in the middle of the long war between Athens and her allies (mostly the islands and ports around the Aegean) and Sparta and her allies (mostly the land-locked cities of the Peloponnese).

One life time earlier, the Athenians, Spartans and other Greeks together had kicked out several huge Persian invasion armies. This was the beginning of Athens as a superpower. Democratic and idealistic at first (parallels?), Athens quickly became nakedly self-interested and arrogant and dominated its allies as though they were vassals. That alliance was called the Delian League but was really an Athenian Empire. Here is a map of it, before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War:

Athenian Empire.svg

If you click through to enlarge the map, you will see the tiny island of Melos in the southern Aegean, just outside the line demarcating the Athenian Empire. Melos was a Spartan colony but otherwise neutral. It was, in short, a tiny Switzerland. It wanted to stay out of the troubles.

The premise of the dialogue, then, is simple: The Athenians send a fleet to Melos and flatly demand that Melos bow to Athenian power and become a vassal or else be ethnically cleansed. (!)

The Melians appeal to higher ideals (hence Idealism) such as justice.

In the course of the dialogue, excerpts of which I am about to give you, the Athenians and Melians use all the arguments that Realists and Idealists have been using ever since.

And then, Thucydides ends with one of the most abrupt–but, I believe, intentional and genius–codas in literature. But let’s wait till we get to that.

2) The dialogue

Notes:

  • You can read the full version here, but I have cut it for ease of use
  • Glossary: Lacedaemon = Sparta. (Laconia is the area around Sparta, whence “laconic”, since the Spartans didn’t apparently say more than necessary.)

Athenians: … we shall not trouble you with specious pretences … and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying … that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; 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.

Melians: … you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right….

Athenians: … We will now proceed to show you that we are come here in the interest of our empire, and that we shall say what we are now going to say, for the preservation of your country; as we would fain exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both.

Melians: And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?

Athenians: Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you.

Melians: So that you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side.

Athenians: No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power.

Melians: Is that your subjects’ idea of equity, to put those who have nothing to do with you in the same category with peoples that are most of them your own colonists, and some conquered rebels?

Athenians: As far as right goes they think one has as much of it as the other, and that if any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection…

Melians: … if you debar us from talking about justice and invite us to obey your interest, we also must explain ours, and try to persuade you, if the two happen to coincide. How can you avoid making enemies of all existing neutrals who shall look at case from it that one day or another you will attack them? …

Athenians: … it is rather islanders like yourselves, outside our empire, and subjects smarting under the yoke, who would be the most likely to take a rash step and lead themselves and us into obvious danger.

Melians: … it were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried, before submitting to your yoke.

Athenians: Not if you are well advised, the contest not being an equal one, with honour as the prize and shame as the penalty, but a question of self-preservation and of not resisting those who are far stronger than you are.

Melians: … to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope

Athenians: Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources … [But] you, who are weak … hang on a single turn of the scale…

Melians: You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust…

Athenians: When you speak of the favour of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither our pretensions nor our conduct being in any way contrary to what men believe of the gods, or practise among themselves. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do

Melians: … we now trust to [the Lacedaemonians’] respect for expediency to prevent them from betraying the Melians, their colonists, and thereby losing the confidence of their friends in Hellas and helping their enemies.

Athenians: Then you do not adopt the view that expediency goes with security, while justice and honour cannot be followed without danger; and danger the Lacedaemonians generally court as little as possible.

Melians: But we believe that they would be more likely to face even danger for our sake … as our nearness to Peloponnese makes it easier for them to act, and our common blood ensures our fidelity.

Athenians: Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to is not the goodwill of those who ask his aid, but a decided superiority of power for action; and the Lacedaemonians look to this even more than others. … now is it likely that while we are masters of the sea they will cross over to an island?

Melians: But they would have others to send…

Athenians: … we are struck by the fact that, after saying you would consult for the safety of your country, in all this discussion you have mentioned nothing which men might trust in and think to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious. … Think over the matter, therefore, after our withdrawal, and reflect once and again that it is for your country that you are consulting, that you have not more than one, and that upon this one deliberation depends its prosperity or ruin.

With that the Athenians left the Melians to make their decision. Let’s just summarize the dialogue briefly:

  1. A: Cut through the crap: might makes right. Don’t waste our time. M: We have a right to invoke justice!
  2. A: We would prefer to let you live, so submit! M: How exactly would submitting be in our interest?
  3. A: Were you not listening? Because you would live! M: Why can’t we be neutral? We would not bother you.
  4. A: Somebody somewhere might think we are weak. M: If you exterminate us, all other neutrals will hate you.
  5. A: Let us worry about that. M: We are not cowards and we want to stay free.
  6. A: For you it’s not about freedom but survival. M: We still have hope.
  7. A: Hope is for the powerful. And you are not. M: The gods are on our side because our cause is just.
  8. A: The gods are just like you and us: They do what power lets them. M: The Spartans will come to our aid.
  9. A: No, they won’t. They know they would lose at sea. M: We think they would send somebody.
  10. A: Enough of this silly nonsense. You make up your mind. Submit or die.

The Melians decided not to submit and to fight. Thucydides then describes at some length the Athenian siege. Eventually, the Athenians overpower the Melians.

And then, in perhaps the most abrupt final sentence in literature, Thucydides simply informs us that the Athenians

put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.

3) Exegesis

  • Style: Thucydides writes the dialogue (admittedly, with my cutting I have accentuated this) a bit as Hemingway does: This is a staccato back-and-forth, not a treatise. We are not teasing out a subtlety of argumentation here. We simply have two sides who are talking past each other, and one side has power whereas the other does not.
  • Style: Any modern editor would have forced Thucydides to provide more “color” at the end, to make the true horror of the extermination more vivid. Thucydides has none of that. He wants the atrocity to be a mere afterthought. This is the way the world is, he is saying.
  • Content: Does Thucydides approve of the Athenians? We have no idea. Probably not. Who cares?, he is saying. This is reality.


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Can a storyteller make stuff up?

Truman Capote making stuff up

Truman Capote making stuff up

The book manuscript that I’ve just sent off to my editor at Riverhead happens to fall into the genre of “creative non-fiction.” It is a story built on actual lives–ancient ones and modern ones–that illustrate various themes around the great mystery of success and failure in life, including yours and mine.

The job of creative non-fiction, as Ira Glass would agree, is to make true stories riveting and small stories grand. It is, in short, simply good story-telling.

Still, you would have to lack all sense of irony not to smirk at that phrase. Creative non-fiction. Say what?

Creative means making stuff up. Non-fiction means not making stuff up. The very notion would seem to be an oxymoron. Or perhaps not?

Herodotus and Thucydides walk into a bar….

This particular question happens to be the oldest controversy in non-fiction writing. Recall that Herodotus believed in embellishing history to make it more palatable and (ironically) realistic, whereas Thucydides took him to task for telling lies and promised to stick to just the facts, ma’am. But even Thucydides then found that he had to “make stuff up” to get at the actual truth, because if he had used only, for instance, dialogue that he himself had actually overheard (while taking notes), he would have painted the wrong picture of the Peloponnesian War altogether.

By the time, we get to the era in which my main characters–Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio–lived, Polybius is the one who tries to stick to just the facts (but again doesn’t quite manage), whereas Livy is the one who says ‘Oh Heck’ and just tells a good yarn. By the time we get to Plutarch, we essentially throw out the rule book and just enjoy–even as we, paradoxically, come away with the impression that we have finally gotten closer to the truth of the characters involved. And so the controversy bubbles on, down the ages.

… and Truman Capote serves them a drink

Jean Ku, a friend of ours, just passed on a fascinating essay on the topic by her writing teacher, David Schweidel, the author of two books. Schweidel begins his history of creative non-fiction more recently. One strand, which Schweidel calls reportage, started with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and continued with Tom Wolfe and The New Journalism. The other is memoir.

So what makes reportage creative non-fiction? Schweidel thinks that

Creative nonfiction, I’d say, attempts to convey the feeling as well as the facts. Clearly, Truman Capote does a lot of work to convey feeling.

It does this by using the techniques of fiction, which are

  • dramatized action
  • dialogue
  • the point of view of a participant
  • the presentation of specific details, … such as gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, ….

And what makes memoirs creative non-fiction? Well, the fact that they

are works of memory. Memory is selective, self-serving, often mistaken. People lie to make themselves look better. Sometimes people lie to make themselves look worse… Or simply misremember. Most readers understand that story-tellers, especially when they’re telling stories about themselves, take such liberties. In the words of Grace Paley: “Any story told twice is fiction.”

And so, concludes Schweidel,

In theory, creative nonfiction has to be an oxymoron. Creative means made up, and nonfiction means not made up. Hence, oxymoron. In practice, though, creative nonfiction is a redundancy. Why? Because virtually every work of nonfiction is creative.

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Livy

I left off my series on the bibliography for my book with a long post on Polybius. Polybius, as I said, was one of the greatest historians ever, but most of his books were lost. This means that for the history of Hannibal’s war against Rome we have to rely heavily on another ancient source. And that is Titus Livius, or Livy in English.

There are big problems with Livy. He lived a century and a half after Hannibal’s war. Polybius had interviewed eye witnesses and traveled Hannibal’s route, but Livy did not even attempt any such research. Instead, he merrily plagiarized Polybius (and mentions him only once, by my count). At least we can take comfort from knowing that he had all of Polybius available to him, as well as other sources lost to us, such as Roman documents.

The next problem is that Livy had an agenda other than telling the best and purest history. Like his contemporary Virgil, Livy was writing under the reign of the emperor Augustus, who “restored” Rome’s republic after the long civil wars by replacing it with a monarchy in all but name.

Virgil responded by writing an epic poem, the Aeneid, placing Augustus in the context of a noble unfolding of destiny. A literary masterwork, but somewhat close to brown-nosing the great emperor. Livy sort of did the same, only in prose. So he starts his “history” with Aeneas’ flight from Troy, his journey to Italy, Romulus and Remus and so forth.

Aeneas flees burning Troy

Aeneas flees burning Troy

In general, Livy always makes the Romans look good and their enemies look bad. So the Gauls are unreliable and lazy brutes. The Greeks are savvy but slimy know-it-alls. The Carthaginians are either cruel or cunning or miserly or deceitful. Much of Livy is propaganda. Awfully entertaining propaganda, as it happens.

So if Polybius clearly emulated his fellow Greek Thucydides in trying to stay close to facts and analysis, Livy takes Herodotus as his example and embellishes and invents freely for the sake of a cracking good read. At that, he succeeds.

When the Europeans woke up at the end of the Middle Ages and rediscovered the classics, Livy became one of their favorites.

Personally, I couldn’t care less about Livy’s shortcomings. I’m in it for the stories, the characters, the scenes that I need to tell the story that I want to tell, which involves so many other people. More to come soon.


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Polybius

First off in this series of posts about the bibliography for my book–in the category of ancient sources–is, of course, Polybius. His life is one of the most fascinating ever lived, and his importance to us–especially to us Americans, as I will explain in the follow-up post–is enormous.

Let me lead up to Polybius in three short steps:

Herodotus

Herodotus

1) The first “historian” in history was a Greek writer named Herodotus. He lived during the fifth century BCE, the golden age of classical Greece, and wrote what he called “enquiries”, or histories in Greek. So that’s where we got the word! The main matter he was “enquiring” into was the glorious victory of the Greeks over the Persians, which forever changed world history.

In style, Herodotus was a genius story-teller, and I love him for that. But he was, shall we say, liberal with the facts and the truth. He tells us that Ethiopians have black semen, and so forth. He did not lie, but he embellished. But what the heck! He was the first.

Thucydides

Thucydides

2) Next up, one generation after Herodotus, was another Greek (it’s pretty much all Greeks from here on for a few centuries), named Thucydides. He was critical of Herodotus’ methods and wanted to bring a more factual, rigorous and scholarly style to history-writing. And I love him for that just as much as I love Herodotus! Together, Herodotus and Thucydides gave us history, my passion, just as Plato and Aristotle, another pair of Greeks one generation apart, gave us philosophy.

Thucydides had another war as his subject, as important to world history as the Greco-Persian wars. He wrote about the Peloponnesian war between Athens and her allies and Sparta and her allies. As the the Greek victories over the Persians had made the Greeks (even though there was no country called Greece) preeminent in the known world, the fratricidal war among the Greeks prepared their political decline. It was a tragedy.

In the process of describing this tragedy, Thucydides brought an analysis to bear that is also considered the foundation of all International Relations, and in particular of Realism in world politics (think Kissinger). That was my subject in graduate school, in case you care.

3) Next up were several other Greeks, including Xenophon, who would be giants in their own right were they not wedged between Thucydides and our guy, Polybius. So, because this is along post already, we will skip over them.

4) And now: Polybius.

He was a Greek. No surprise. In style he took clearly after Thucydides rather than Herodotus, which is to say that he believed in facts, research, cross-examination of eye witnesses, and above all in travel. Polybius  personally traced the route of Hannibal in order to write about his war.

Polybius was born about two centuries after Thucydides died, so the Mediterranean had changed completely. The Greek city states had declined in power after the tragedy that Thucydides described and then been swallowed up by Macedonia and Alexander the Great. Then Alexander died and his generals carved up the eastern Mediterranean into huge monarchies. In the western Mediterranean, Carthage was still the superpower.

But–and this is the phenomenon that Polybius tried to explain in his Histories–all that changed during his life time. Rome survived its war against Hannibal and Carthage by a hair. Then it turned east toward the Greek world until it dominated the whole Mediterranean. Polybius wanted to explain how and why Rome was able to do all that.

The circumstances in which he did his research would make a thriller all by themselves. He was a Greek aristocrat and when the Romans got around to his part of Greece they decided to send 1,000 hostages back to Rome just to keep the Greeks well-behaved. Polybius was one of them. He went to Rome as a prisoner for sixteen years!

But the Romans had a very nuanced and complex relationship towards Greeks. They dominated them politically and militarily but they admired and envied them culturally. A big historical thesis is that Rome was both captor (militarily) and captive (culturally).

Polybius’ fate shows that. He wasn’t thrown into a dungeon in Rome but became the guest and teacher in the household of the great Scipiones. Yes, that’s the family of great Scipio, Hannibal’s nemesis. So he had access to all the family archives. He and the younger Scipiones became very close, and some scholars say that this may have biased him towards their role in the Hannibalic war. Personally, I don’t care.

Polybius also stood next to a Scipio (the adopted grandson of Scipio the Great) when the Romans finally burnt and razed Carthage to the ground.

As a practical matter, Polybius then had to tell the story of all three wars between Rome and Carthage leading up to this moment. And for that, he talked to people who had known Hannibal, to veterans on both sides, crossed the Alps and so forth. This is why he is my, and everybody’s, first and best source.

Now, there is only one huge problem with Polybius. It is this: Most of his writing was lost. You may have other things to worry about in life, but I actually cringe when I think of what that means.

In practical terms, it means that we need a few other sources. Next, After the follow-up: Livy.


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