Military history


This first series of extracts is drawn from the earliest accounts of warfare that have come down to us, but is particularly concerned with war between different cultures - Greeks against Persians, the Romans against the British and the Jews, Muslims against Christians in the Mediterranean world, Europeans against Native Americans. The theme of this section is to illustrate how various are the forms which war may take, and to emphasize that the modern world’s understanding of what motivates men and states to war was not necessarily shared by peoples of the past. Modern man sees war as a political or economic necessity. It is important to be reminded that, to our ancestors, war might be seen as a duty owed to the gods, or to the concept of tribal or personal honour, quite as much as to material dictates.


The Melian Dialogue

Thucydides (c.460 — c.400 BC) is regarded as the first modern - and perhaps still the world’s greatest - historian, for his history of the Peloponnesian War (431-421 and 421-404). He was not only a chronicler of the conflict but also fought in it, eventually as the commander of an Athenian fleet in the campaign against the Spartan invasion of Thrace in 424-423 BC. For his failure to prevent the Spartans from capturing the city of Amphipolis, though he succeeded in preventing the port of Eion from falling to them, he took exile from Athens and did not return for twenty years. It was in those years that he composed his history, though he appears to have conceived the idea of writing it at the war’s outbreak. His account, in eight books, ends at 411. His original intention had been to carry it on to the war’s end.

The Peloponnesian War, which fell into two parts, was a contest for mastery in the Greek world between the city states of Sparta (Lacedaemon) and Athens, and their respective allies. Sparta and Athens had together led the other Greeks in the long struggle (499-448 BC) against the Persian emperors’ efforts to make them subjects. Victory, however, glorious though it was, brought dissent. The contribution made by Athens to victory was in large measure a maritime one, and led to that city state strengthening its position in the island region of the Aegean that was the gateway to its colonies on the coast of Asia and in the Black Sea. Sparta was a land power, the most military in Greece, with a military aristocracy that repressed its own peasantry and increasingly oppressed its neighbours who had helped in victory over the Persians. When Athens began to fortify its positions on the mainland north of the Peloponnese, to make a better base for its fleet, Sparta felt its land power challenged. When Athens, which despised the undemocratic nature ofSpartan government, fell into conflict with Sparta’s Peloponnesian neighbours, war broke out. It was a paradoxical conflict. Athens, the centre of the principle of democracy in Greek city-state life, sought to crush the independence of smaller city states which would not join it in the war against Sparta. Sparta, a ruthless dictatorship of warriors over the low-born at home, became the champion of the smaller Peloponnesian states’ autonomy.

The philosophical issue came to a head in 416 BC when the island of Melos, south-east of the Peloponnese, was challenged by Athens to declare its position. Historically a Spartan colony, Melos was vulnerable to Athenian naval power. Required to choose their overlord by an Athenian diplomatic mission, the Melians tried to declare neutrality. The Athenians would have none of it. Melos, to them, was a necessary island link in their chain of bases that led from their home base in Greece to the source of their corn supply in Asia Minor.

In ‘the Melian Dialogue’, Thucydides contrives a debate between the Athenian emissaries and the Melian leaders. It is much more than the report of a diplomatic mission, however; it is widely regarded as an analysis of the universal value of the place of force in relations between states that are guided by self-interest. The Athenians put self-interest first. They tell the Melians that Athens must take possession of Melos if the other islands they have conquered, and which they need for their security, are to remain under their control. The Melians first ask why they cannot merely become friendly neutrals. When told that such neutrality does not satisfy the Athenians’ needs, they advance the argument that it would be dishonourable to break with Sparta, which they trust to come to their help if they are threatened. The Athenians reply that force, not trust, is what counts in war, and that honour is a costly position unless it can be defended with arms.

The Melians nevertheless refused to surrender their freedom. War broke out and, as the Athenians had warned, ended in the Melians’ utter defeat.

Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century English philosopher of state power, translated Thucydides and used the Melian Dialogue in particular to illustrate the debt the weak owe to the strong. Thucydides’s history became, in the nineteenth century, a key text in the education of the British ruling class, at a time when their country’s naval power was its principal instrument in the creation of a world empire.


84. The next summer the Athenians made an expedition against the isle of Melos. The Melians are a colony of Lacedaemon that would not submit to the Athenians like the other islanders, and at first remained neutral and took no part in the struggle, but afterwards, upon the Athenians using violence and plundering their territory, assumed an attitude of open hostility. The Athenian generals encamped in their territory with their army, and before doing any harm to their land sent envoys to negotiate. These the Melians did not bring before the people, but told them to state the object of their mission to the magistrates and the council; the Athenian envoys then said:

85. Athenians:‘As we are not to speak to the people, for fear that if we made a single speech without interruption we might deceive them with attractive arguments to which there was no chance of replying - we realize that this is the meaning of our being brought before your ruling body - we suggest that you who sit here should make security doubly sure. Let us have no long speeches from you either, but deal separately with each point, and take up at once any statement of which you disapprove, and criticize it.’

86. Melians:‘We have no objection to your reasonable suggestion that we should put our respective points of view quietly to each other, but the military preparations which you have already made seem inconsistent with it. We see that you have come to be yourselves the judges of the debate, and that its natural conclusion for us will be slavery if you convince us, and war if we get the better of the argument and therefore refuse to submit.’

87. Athenians: ‘If you have met us in order to make surmises about the future, or for any other purpose than to look existing facts in the face and to discuss the safety of your city on this basis, we will break off the conversations; otherwise, we are ready to speak.’

88. Melians: ‘In our position it is natural and excusable to explore many ideas and arguments. But the problem that has brought us here is our security; so, if you think fit, let the discussion follow the line you propose.’

89. Athenians: ‘Then we will not make a long and unconvincing speech, full of fine phrases, to prove that our victory over Persia justifies our empire, or that we are now attacking you because you have wronged us, and we ask you not to expect to convince us by saying that you have not injured us, or that, though a colony of Lacedaemon, you did not join her. Let each of us say what we really think and reach a practical agreement. You know and we know, as practical men, that the question of justice arises only between parties equal in strength, and that the strong do what they can, and the weak submit.’

90. Melians: ‘As you ignore justice and have made self-interest the basis of discussion, we must take the same ground, and we say that in our opinion it is in your interest to maintain a principle which is for the good of all - that anyone in danger should have just and equitable treatment and any advantage, even if not strictly his due, which he can secure by persuasion. This is your interest as much as ours, for your fall would involve you in a crushing punishment that would be a lesson to the world.’

91. Athenians:‘We have no apprehensions about the fate of our empire, if it did fall; those who rule other peoples, like the Lacedaemonians, are not formidable to a defeated enemy. Nor is it the Lacedaemonians with whom we are now contending: the danger is from subjects who of themselves may attack and conquer their rulers. But leave that danger to us to face. At the moment we shall prove that we have come in the interest of our empire and that in what we shall say we are seeking the safety of your state; for we wish you to become our subjects with least trouble to ourselves, and we would like you to survive in our interests as well as your own.’

92. Melians: ‘It may be your interest to be our masters: how can it be ours to be your slaves?’

93. Athenians: ‘By submitting you would avoid a terrible fate, and we should gain by not destroying you.’

94. Melians: ‘Would you not agree to an arrangement under which we should keep out of the war, and be your friends instead of your enemies, but neutral?’

95. Athenians: ‘No: your hostility injures us less than your friendship. That, to our subjects, is an illustration of our weakness, while your hatred exhibits our power.’

96. Melians: ‘Is this the construction which your subjects put on it? Do they not distinguish between states in which you have no concern, and peoples who are most of them your colonies, and some conquered rebels?’

97. Athenians: ‘They think that one nation has as good rights as another, but that some survive because they are strong and we are afraid to attack them. So, apart from the addition to our empire, your subjection would give us security: the fact that you are islanders (and weaker than others) makes it the more important that you should not get the better of the mistress of the sea.’

98. Melians:‘But do you see no safety in our neutrality? You debar us from the plea of justice and press us to submit to your interests, so we must expound our own, and try to convince you, if the two happen to coincide. Will you not make enemies of all neutral Powers when they see your conduct and reflect that some day you will attack them? Will not your action strengthen your existing opponents, and induce those who would otherwise never be your enemies to become so against their will?’

99. Athenians: ‘No. The mainland states, secure in their freedom, will be slow to take defensive measures against us, and we do not consider them so formidable as independent island powers like yourselves, or subjects already smarting under our yoke. These are most likely to take a thoughtless step and bring themselves and us into obvious danger.’

100. Melians:‘Surely then, if you are ready to risk so much to maintain your empire, and the enslaved peoples so much to escape from it, it would be criminal cowardice in us, who are still free, not to take any and every measure before submitting to slavery?’

101. Athenians:‘No, if you reflect calmly: for this is not a competition in heroism between equals, where your honour is at stake, but a question of self-preservation, to save you from a struggle with a far stronger Power.’

102. Melians: ‘Still, we know that in war fortune is more impartial than the disproportion in numbers might lead one to expect. If we submit at once, our position is desperate; if we fight, there is still a hope that we shall stand secure.’

103. Athenians: ‘Hope encourages men to take risks; men in a strong position may follow her without ruin, if not without loss. But when they stake all that they have to the last coin (for she is a spendthrift), she reveals her real self in the hour of failure, and when her nature is known she leaves them without means of self-protection. You are weak, your future hangs on a turn of the scales; avoid the mistake most men make, who might save themselves by human means, and then, when visible hopes desert them, in their extremity turn to the invisible - prophecies and oracles and all those things which delude men with hopes, to their destruction.’

104. Melians: ‘We too, you can be sure, realize the difficulty of struggling against your power and against Fortune if she is not impartial. Still we trust that Heaven will not allow us to be worsted by Fortune, for in this quarrel we are right and you are wrong. Besides, we expect the support of Lacedaemon to supply the deficiencies in our strength, for she is bound to help us as her kinsmen, if for no other reason, and from a sense of honour. So our confidence is not entirely unreasonable.’

105. Athenians:‘As for divine favour, we think that we can count on it as much as you, for neither our claims nor our actions are inconsistent with what men believe about Heaven or desire for themselves. We believe that Heaven, and we know that men, by a natural law, always rule where they are stronger. We did not make that law nor were we the first to act on it; we found it existing, and it will exist for ever, after we are gone; and we know that you and anyone else as strong as we are would do as we do. As to your expectations from Lacedaemon and your belief that she will help you from a sense of honour, we congratulate you on your innocence but we do not admire your folly. So far as they themselves and their national traditions are concerned, the Lacedaemonians are a highly virtuous people; as for their behaviour to others, much might be said, but we can put it shortly by saying that, most obviously of all people we know, they identify their interests with justice and the pleasantest course with honour. Such principles do not favour your present irrational hopes of deliverance.’

106. Melians: ‘That is the chief reason why we have confidence in them now; in their own interest they will not wish to betray their own colonists and so help their enemies and destroy the confidence that their friends in Greece feel in them.’

107. Athenians: ‘Apparently you do not realize that safety and self-interest go together, while the path of justice and honour is dangerous; and danger is a risk which the Lacedaemonians are little inclined to run.

108. Melians: ‘Our view is that they would be more likely to run a risk in our case, and would regard it as less hazardous, because our nearness to the Peloponnese makes it easier for them to act and our kinship gives them more confidence in us than in others.’

109. Athenians:‘Yes, but an intending ally looks not to the good will of those who invoke his aid but to marked superiority of real power, and of none is this truer than of the Lacedaemonians. They mistrust their own resources and attack their neighbours only when they have numerous allies, so it is not likely that, while we are masters of the sea, they would cross it to an island.’

110. Melians: ‘They might send others. The sea of Crete is large, and this will make it more difficult for its masters to capture hostile ships than for these to elude them safely. If they failed by sea, they would attack your country and those of your allies whom Brasidas did not reach; and then you will have to fight not against a country in which you have no concern, but for your own country and your allies’ lands.’

111. Athenians: ‘Here experience may teach you like others, and you will learn that Athens has never abandoned a siege from fear of another foe. You said that you proposed to discuss the safety of your city, but we observe that in all your speeches you have never said a word on which any reasonable expectation of it could be founded. Your strength lies in deferred hopes; in comparison with the forces now arrayed against you, your resources are too small for any hope of success. You will show a great want of judgement if you do not come to a more reasonable decision after we have withdrawn. Surely you will not fall back on the idea of honour, which has been the ruin of so many when danger and disgrace were staring them in the face. How often, when men have seen the fate to which they were tending, have they been enslaved by a phrase and drawn by the power of this seductive word to fall of their own free will into irreparable disaster, bringing on themselves by their folly a greater dishonour than fortune could inflict! If you are wise, you will avoid that fate. The greatest of cities makes you a fair offer, to keep your own land and become her tributary ally: there is no dishonour in that. The choice between war and safety is given you; do not obstinately take the worse alternative. The most successful people are those who stand up to their equals, behave properly to their superiors, and treat their inferiors fairly. Think it over when we withdraw, and reflect once and again that you have only one country, and that its prosperity or ruin depends on one decision.’

112. The Athenians now withdrew from the conference; and the Melians, left to themselves, came to a decision corresponding with what they had maintained in the discussion, and answered, ‘Our resolution, Athenians, is unaltered. We will not in a moment deprive of freedom a city that has existed for seven hundred years; we put our trust in the fortune by which the gods have preserved it until now, and in the help of men, that is, of the Lacedaemonians; and so we will try and save ourselves. Meanwhile we invite you to allow us to be friends to you and foes to neither party, and to retire from our country after making such a treaty as shall seem fit to us both.’

113. Such was the answer of the Melians. The Athenians broke up the conference saying, ‘To judge from your decision, you are unique in regarding the future as more certain than the present and in allowing your wishes to convert the unseen into reality; and as you have staked most on, and trusted most in, the Lacedaemonians, your fortune, and your hopes, so will you be most completely deceived.’

114. The Athenian envoys now returned to the army; and as the Melians showed no signs of yielding the generals at once began hostilities, and drew a line of circumvallation [i.e. surrounded with defensive fortifications] round the Melians, dividing the work among the different states. Subsequently the Athenians returned with most of their army, leaving behind them a certain number of their own citizens and of the allies to keep guard by land and sea. The force thus left stayed on and besieged the place.

115. Meanwhile the Athenians at Pylos took so much plunder from the Lacedaemonians that the latter, although they still refrained from breaking off the treaty and going to war with Athens, proclaimed that any of their people that chose might plunder the Athenians. The Corinthians also commenced hostilities with the Athenians for private quarrels of their own; but the rest of the Peloponnesians stayed quiet. Meanwhile the Melians in a night attack took the part of the Athenian lines opposite the market, killed some of its garrison, and brought in corn and as many useful stores as they could. Then, retiring, they remained inactive, while the Athenians took measures to keep better guard in future.

116. Summer was now over. The next winter the Lacedaemonians intended to invade the Argive territory, but on arriving at the frontier found the sacrifices for crossing unfavourable, and went back again. This intention of theirs made the Argives suspicious of certain of their fellow-citizens, some of whom they arrested; others, however, escaped them. About the same time the Melians again took another part of the Athenian lines which were but feebly garrisoned. In consequence reinforcements were sent from Athens, and the siege was now pressed vigorously; there was some treachery in the town, and the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took and sold the women and children for slaves; subsequently they sent out five hundred settlers and colonized the island.

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