Critical Essays When Plato Was a Child


When Plato was a child, the war into which he had been born turned its brazen face to the insignificant little island of Melos, which had been colonized by Spartan colonists who, by definition, owed their allegiance to Sparta. These colonists, who were governed by an oligarchy, had steadfastly tried to maintain their neutrality during the struggle to the death between the two great powers of Athens and Sparta. The story of tiny Melos, related by Thucydides in his Peloponnesian War, may be compressed in American English into a précis, which is my simple intent. It is my hope that any reader might take himself or herself to Thucydides' book itself for the wisdom and pathos it exhibits. The story of Melos is a melancholy footnote in mankind's tragic history.

In 416 b.c., an Athenian fleet augmented by allies from Chios and Lesbos attacked the people on the island of Melos. The Athenians maintained that it was not their intent to ravage the island; instead they wanted to court its allegiance to their cause; hence, before the Athenians devastated the island, they talked to the Melians.

The Athenians said that they knew why the Melian leaders would not let the Athenians talk to the whole populace; it was because the people would see that they were hopelessly outnumbered, and that they had no chance. So, the Athenians said, we are not here to deliver any sort of speech. We are here to ask you people some questions to which you had better give the correct answers.

The Melians said that they understood that they had two chances: slim and none; and that the outcome of the talk would be that they were to be slaves or to be dead.

The Athenians said that the Melians would do well to worry about the present and not borrow trouble worrying about the future. The Melians responded by saying that people facing death or slavery often have dreams of salvation.

The Athenians said that they knew that the Melians were Spartans, and that it was no good pretending that the Melians had not already been involved in the war, because of the simple fact that they were Spartans. And, they said, the Melians should not expect justice, because justice existed only between equals: The truth of the world is that the strong take what they want and the weak give up what they must.

The Melians replied that the Athenians might find themselves facing the same unhappy truth; if Sparta won the war, would she not pay back Athens for what she was about to do to Melos? The Athenians replied that it was known that Sparta did not ravage states whom she conquered; besides, they said, our purpose here is to save you, not destroy you. We need your city.

The Melians said that they understood that the Athenians enjoyed mastery, but the Melians had no interest in being slaves. They enjoyed being free people. And besides, the Melians said, could they not live as neutrals in the war and be friends to both sides?

No, the Athenians replied, too many of our allies think that we are letting you live in peace because we are afraid of you, when the truth is that you are weak and we are taking over your little island, since we are already masters of the sea. So you had better surrender to our wishes or die.

The Melians said that they were not cowards and that brave men fought for freedom and hated slavery, to which the Athenians replied that it was not a case of honor but of prudence, and that the Melians had best understand that might makes right, and Athens is mighty.

The Melians then argued that the fortunes of war are sometimes governed by the gods, and that as free people who had done no wrong they were in the right and the Athenians, though mighty, were in the wrong. And perhaps the Spartans from Sparta might help them. To which the Athenians replied that the Melians might look to heaven for help or they might look to Sparta for help, but no help was coming from either place.

After some more talk to no avail, the Athenians assured the Melians that their cause was hopeless. So the Athenians left the Melians that they might decide their own fate.

The Melians met and decided and then told the Athenians that they chose to die as free men fighting for their freedom.

So the Athenians built a wall around the city of Melos, provisioned it, set up a naval blockade, and proceeded to starve the Melians into submission. The Athenian troops and the Melians fought small fights throughout that summer. In the following winter, some of the Melian citizens betrayed their little island, and the Athenians attacked in overwhelming force. The Melians surrendered; they had no choice. The Athenians killed all Melian men and boys who were old enough to fight, and they made slaves of all the women and children.

Thus was justice served.