The Limits of International Law

By Jack L. Goldsmith; Eric A. Posner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
A THEORY OF INTERNATIONAL
RHETORIC

During the sixteenth year of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, an Athenian force landed on the island of Melos, a Spartan colony and a neutral in the war. Thucydides recounts a dialogue between Athenian envoys and Melian leaders. In a famous passage, the Athenians demand that the Melians submit to their rule:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pre-
tenses—either of how we might have a right to our empire
because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you be-
cause of wrong that you have done us—and make a long
speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope
that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you
did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or 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 will
and the weak suffer what they must. (Thucydides 1982, 5.89)

This passage is striking because the Athenians make no attempt to mask their imperialistic aims behind “specious pretenses.” They simply assert that they have an interest in ruling the Melians and will achieve this end because they are more powerful. As one historian has noted, if these and related passages in The Peloponnesian War are accurate, “the Athenians of the fifth century were… a very remarkable, if not unique, people in admitting openly that their policy was guided by purely selfish considerations and that they had no regard for political morality” (Jones 1957, 66).

-167-

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