Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

AS the USA considers its impending assault on Iraq, von Rumsfeld would do well to ponder Thucydides' Melian debate. Athens was at war with Sparta, and in 416 Bc decided to attack the island of Melos, which was populated by colonists from Sparta but, unlike the other islanders, had remained strictly neutral in the war, helping neither side. Before Athens did so, however, it sent a deputation, and the contemporary historian Thucydides records the ensuing debate:

Melians: Such is your state of mind, it is clear that the result of the discussions will be either war or our own enslavement by you.

Athenians: There will be no point in continuing with these talks if you are simply going to speculate about the future and not face up to the real issue, i.e. how you can save your city from destruction. Melians: We get the point.

Athenians: We are not going to say we have any right to control this part of the world; nor will it do you any good to say that you have remained neutral. The point, as you well know, is that when these matters are discussed by practical people, right is in question only between those who are equal in power, and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept whatever they have to accept. …

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