Peter Jones

Thucydides on Greece’s choice

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In 416 bc, the island of Melos, neutral in the war between Athens and Sparta, was confronted with a choice by the Athenians: yield to us or else. The contemporary historian Thucydides relates an instructive dialogue between the sides. In the following extracts, the Athenians have been amusingly replaced by the EU, the Melians by the Greeks, who agree their survival is the issue:

EU: We shall not claim that we have the right to rule or that we are now seeking retribution for some wrong done to us. But you know very well that, on the human plane, questions of justice arise only when there is equal power to compel: in terms of practicality, the dominant exact what they can and the weak concede what they must.
Greeks: To our way of thinking, at any rate, there is advantage (and we must speak of advantage, since you have put justice to one side and made expediency the basis of discussion) — there is advantage in your preserving the principle of the common good: that is, that any­one who finds himself in danger should receive fair and equitable treatment, and be able to improve his position if he can make a strong case for something less than the full rigour of what could happen to him. 
EU: Yes, but what we shall say, though in the interests of our own empire, is designed to save your city. Our desire is to take you under our rule without trouble: it is in both our interests that you should survive.
Greeks: But it would be complete dishonour and cowardice if we who are still free do not go to any lengths rather than submit to slavery. 
EU: Not if you take a sensible view. You are not in an equal contest, so questions of honour maintained or shame avoided have no relevance. You should be thinking more of survival, and that means not resisting a much stronger force. There is no disgrace in yielding to a great community which offers you moderate terms. The general rule of success is to stand up to equals, respect superiors, and treat inferiors with moderation. So please come to a more sensible conclusion...