Yves here. John Helmer turns to Thucydides for a lesson on what happens when a confident superior power sets out to slaughter and thoroughly subjugate an enemy. It didn’t work out in not even the long run, but the medium term, for Athens.
By John Helmer, the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and an advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. He is the first and only member of a US presidential administration (Jimmy Carter) to establish himself in Russia. Originally published at Dances with Bears
Religious fundamentalists think that because God is on their side – more, that God has Chosen Them to be His People — they can leave it to Him to keep tabs on history, remember the lessons of the past, count the years, tote up the gains, costs, and losses. So long as God doesn’t issue any red alerts or insolvency notices during their prayers, when the Chosen People get up they can concentrate their minds and resources on preparing for the future. When the murder of a million or two Palestinians is the future which the Israelis and Americans are concentrating on now, it’s obvious that they and their God have not been re-reading the Melian Dialogue, if He did in the first place.
That’s Sections 84 to 116 of Book Five of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, which he wrote over twenty years of the war, from 431 to 411 BC, leaving off before Athens and its army were defeated and lost everything they thought they had won.
It was in 416 that the Athenian army laid a starvation siege to Melos; then when the Melians surrendered, the Athenians murdered every man and enslaved every woman and child. After that, the Athenian empire of Melos lasted just eleven years before the Athenians were driven off the island by a Spartan force the Hellenes had become too weak to resist. The German empire of the island didn’t murder as many; they were driven off after just two years, from 1943 to 1945.
What Thucydides has reproduced in his book is the argument for genocide if you think you are strong enough to get away with it.
Its main point — the most remembered today of the lines from the book — is the Athenian declaration: “When these matters are discussed by practical people, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they must.”
This is what US President Joseph Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are insisting upon. It’s what Biden means to demonstrate with his fleets in the eastern Mediterranean, northern Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf.
This is slaughter of everybody in Gaza because the Americans and the Israelis have the power, for the time being.
Practical people is the phrase Thucydides put in the mouth of the Athenian side in the dialogue.
Left to right: Olaf Scholz (Germany), Joseph Biden (US), Rishi Sunak (UK), Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel).
These days it means politicians running for election. They are Vladimir Putin in March 2024; Olaf Scholz in June 2024; Biden in November 2024; Rishi Sunak in January 2025; the French election is in 2027 but Emmanuel Macron cannot run for a third term. Netanyahu’s term is likely to run out as soon as the war against the Palestinians of Gaza ends. If all of them are dead or gone, Netanyahu may win.
The only certain winner on this list of practical people is Putin; he has now agreed with the Russian Army to concentrate their force against the US on the Ukrainian battlefield. The terms of this agreement can be found on, and also between, the lines of Putin’s speech of October 30. Read between the lines here.
In Thucydides’s reconstruction and dramatisation of the negotiations between the attacking and the defending sides, the Melians acknowledged it was pointless appealing to commonly held ideas of justice, morality, and fair play because the Athenians made clear they didn’t share them. Worse, the Athenians said they were convinced that only by demonstrating their superior force against the weaker Melians could they deter others, including their own critical and restive fellow citizens at home. “It is not so much your hostility that injures us,” the Athenians said. “It is rather the case that if we were on friendly terms with you, our subjects would regard that as a sign of weakness, whereas your hatred is a sign of our power.”
So the Melians tried arguing instead that there were common and shared political and economic interests which should spare them from the Athenians’ liquidation plan. “If yours and ours happen to coincide, we must try to persuade you of the fact. Is it not certain that you will make enemies of all states who are at present neutral, when they see what is happening here and naturally conclude that in the course of time you will attack them too?”
Forget it – there is only the present for you, leave the future to us, the Athenians replied. “This is no fair fight , with honour on one side and shame on the other. It is rather a question of saving your lives and not resisting those who are far too strong for you.”
Death-dealing is the power – for those who are victims, and even more for those who are witnesses. Hope for another outcome which the Melians expressed, “is by nature”, said the Athenians, “an expensive commodity, and those who are risking all on one cast find out what it means only when they are already ruined.”
The Melians tried the Chosen People line. That wasn’t because they were Semites, although God had sailed westward from ancient Palestine to make landfall on the island. The Phoenicians, a Semitic people but not a Jewish one, had established trading posts on Melos and intermarried with the Caucasian arrivals from Sparta, on the Hellenic mainland. The Athenians dismissed the theology – God, like history and warfare, chooses winners, not losers. “So far as the favour of the gods is concerned, we think we have as much right to that as you have,” the Melians were told. “Our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one can.”
An Israel Air Force strike on October 10 destroyed this mosque in Khan Younis, Gaza.
The Melians then tried to argue that if they fought on for long enough, their ethnic allies, the Spartans, would come to their rescue, break the Athenian siege, defeat Athens. “Where danger is concerned,” came the Athenian reply, “the Spartans are not as a rule very venturesome.”
The force calculus would prevail on the Spartans, the Athenians were confident – Melos was too small and was surrounded, so a Spartan relief operation was out of the question. “What is looked for is a positive preponderance of power in action. And the Spartans pay attention to this point even more than others do.”
Inferiority wasn’t so dishonourable, the Athenians offered as they prepared to wind up the talks. “There is nothing disgraceful in giving way to the greatest city in Hellas when she is offering you such reasonable terms – alliance on a tribute-paying basis and liberty to enjoy your own property…And when you are allowed to choose between war and safety…this is the safe rule – to stand up to one’s equals, to behave with deference to one’s superiors, and to treat one’s inferiors with moderation.”
Left to right: Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif, and Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.
The two sides then adjourned for internal consultations; later they returned to the table for the last round. The Melians said they had decided not to surrender their seven-hundred year old city state. “We put our trust in the fortune that the gods will send and which has saved us up to now, and in the help of men — that is of the Spartans; and so we shall try to save ourselves.” They added they were still open to negotiating terms of “a treaty which shall be agreeable to both you and us”. One condition was non-negotiable — the Athenians must “leave our country”.
The Athenian negotiators stood up. “As you have staked most on and trusted most in Spartans, luck, and hopes, so in all these you will find yourselves most deluded.”
The Athenian army built a new wall completely cutting off the Melians inside their city from the outside. Several months of siege followed while the Athenians withdrew their heavy forces to fight elsewhere. The Melians made sallies to capture food. Then the Athenians returned in force; but even then they didn’t risk a frontal assault. Instead, they bribed several Melians inside the city to betray the others. “As there was also some treachery from inside,” Thucydides concluded his account without more detail, “the Melians surrendered unconditionally to the Athenians, who put to death all the men of military age whom they took, and sold the women and children as slaves. Melos itself they took over for themselves, sending out later a colony of 500 men.” Book Five ends at this point.
That was almost two thousand five hundred years ago.
It’s near-certain that Biden and Netanyahu haven’t read the Melian Dialogue. If men like US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jacob Sullivan were required to read the book during their undergraduate studies at Harvard and Yale, they have forgotten that after the genocide of the Melians, the Athenians were defeated – first their army and foreign empire, then their domestic democracy.
These practical men can hear the political clock ticking. They can’t hear the gods counting down.