Classics Politics

Geopolitics and the Melian Dialogue

In sticking with the theme of geopolitics which I have already discussed, I wish to segway into the Melian Dialogue by way of geopolitics. Alongside Pericles’ “Funeral Oration,” the Melian Dialogue is the most famous of dialogues (or orations) in Thucydides’ masterpiece. Most people who have never read the entirety of Thucydides have probably read or are familiar with this dialogue. It is also a classical case-study in international realism in political studies.

Geography, geopolitics, is intimately tied to the discourse on the law of the nature that the Athenians and Melians engage in. The Melians, in refusing the Athenian alliance, explain that they are following the law of nature which is self-itself. The Athenians retort that while self-interest is tied up with the law of nature, the Melians have only grasped at the periphery of the law of nature. The law of nature is self-preservation, and self-preservation is bound up with power.

When the Melians fall back on the backing of the gods for their protection the Athenians mock them and remark that the gods favor the strong. And it is precisely the law of strength that is the law of nature which compels the Athenians into action. Athens is upfront with Melos in declaring their intentions; if the Athenians let Melian neutrality to remain they will look weak in their eyes of their allies and their enemies. This they cannot abide by. The Athenians, then, are acting in perfection union with the law of nature by demanding Melos open their port to the Athenians and to join them. The law of nature demands this of them.

Unconvinced, the Melians rebuff the Athenians and remain convinced that the gods will protect them and that the Spartans will come to their aid. The Melians even appeal to the “whole world is watching” motif, “And this is a principle which affects you as much as anybody, since your own fall would be visited by the most terrible vengeance and would be an example to the world.” The Melians believe that if Athens assaults them, the Athenians will be exposed as naked brutes to the world. But the logic of the Melians is contorted and confused.

The Athenians have acknowledged the law of nature is based on power which manifests itself in the bid for self-preservation. The attack on Melos would not expose anything; it would, on the contrary, show the Athenians to be great. The Athenians would be, in their destruction of Melos—which they achieved—embodying the law of nature to the nth degree.

Relating back to the issue of geography, the Melians are an island polity. They are a maritime civilization; the same as Athens. The illogic of the Melians becomes more visible from the geopolitical lens. The Melians are aware that the law of nature entails self-interest. Self-interest is the contingent outgrowth of self-preservation. The Melians, however, are unable to make the connection between their self-interest to self-preservation as meaning that they should be aligned with Athens even though everything pushes them in this direction. Athens is the great sea power of Greece. Melos is a sea power. The Athenians possess the strongest navy in the Mediterranean; the Spartans would need to break the Athenian navy in order to help Melos—something that is not only unpractical but impossible. Self-interest dictates that Melos embody her nature as a maritime polity and align with Athens. In doing so they would have made the connection of self-interest to self-preservation; the real axis of the law of nature.

The Athenians, knowing this, came to Melos with an offer of submission rather than destruction. If Melos had accepted the Athenian offer Melos would have been sparred; though admittedly added under Athenian hegemony. This returns us to the lesson the Corcyraeans awoke to when they petitioned Athens for help in overthrowing their Corinthian overlords. As a seafaring state the Corcyraeans admitted their policy of isolation was wrongheaded. Isolation is a perfectly acceptable policy to hold as a land power, but it is untenable as a sea power. Sea power is predicated on openness, trade, and expansion. Isolation is the opposite of all three features of maritime nature. The Melian policy of isolation does not fit with their nature as a maritime polity.

Melos, then, had to be destroyed because it was a maritime power aligned with the continental power: Sparta. The Athenians were forced into their action by the law of geopolitical determinacy.

*This is part three of a four part series examining Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. You can find part one, two, and four by clicking on their respective links.


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