The Melian Dialogue, with its fascinating insights into the dynamics of power imbalances and issues of might versus right, is one of the best-known episodes in Thucydides’ account, and continues to be drawn upon as a source of insight into contemporary events. Few people know that this is, strictly speaking, the second Melian Dialogue. Just over seventy-five years earlier, in 481, in the middle of the Persian Wars, a delegation from Melos had arrived in Athens and demanded to speak to representatives of the Greek alliance against Persia. In the standard version of Thucydides’ text, this event is mentioned only in passing, as it appears to have had no lasting consequences; however, one manuscript variant includes a more extensive account of the ensuing discussions, with some surprising echoes of the later episode – some of which may help explain the brusque response of the Athenians to certain Melian arguments in 416.
ATH: This isn’t really the best time – you know, major military threat from the East, refugees from Ionia, economic crisis, that sort of thing – but we’re always willing to talk to our allies. What can we do for you?
MEL: We want to leave the alliance. You jack-booted bureaucratic imperialists.
ATH: Okay… What exactly is the problem?
MEL: You take all our money and then order us around.
ATH: Well, every state pays a proportionate contribution to the defence of Greece against the Persian threat, and we reach collective decisions about strategy that we’re all expected to obey.
MEL: Just like we said. What do we get out of it? And don’t give us any of that nonsense about preserving peace or protecting workers’ rights or supporting scientific research. We don’t care about your values and ideals.
ATH: All right, if you insist on framing this purely in terms of expediency, would you not accept that there are benefits for all of us from solidarity and collective action?
MEL: What benefit is there for us in being your slaves?
ATH: But you’re not… Mutual support and security? Pooling of resources? The powerful are always going to try to do exactly what they want; the weak need to band together to become strong.
MEL: Are you suggesting that we’re too small and weak? Are you? Melos is Great. Melos is Strong and Uniquely Inventive and the Envy of the Aegean. We’re not being dictated to by a bunch of rootless cosmopolitan owl-huggers.*
ATH: All right, what about a looser form of alliance, in which you don’t have to do anything you really don’t want to do, so long as it doesn’t damage the rest of us?
MEL: Tyranny! Dictatorship! We might as well be in Persia!
ATH: Have you really thought this through? The risks in what you propose to do are considerable…
MEL: PROJECT FEAR!!!
ATH: You are going to need allies.
MEL: Everyone will want to be our friends once we’re free from your tyranny. Including you. Because we’re better than everyone else. And the gods will be on our side.
ATH: Hope is always a good thing, but if it’s all you’ve got…
MEL: It’s all we need – that, and our freedom from this imperialistic alliance of independent sovereign states that is oppressing us! Melians never shall be slaves! It’s time to take back control!
[At this point the manuscript breaks off…]
* Word otherwise found only in fragment of Aristophanes. Presumed sexual reference.