Definitions of Justice in the Melian Dialogue

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Amidst an interlude in the fierce struggle for power between the two dominant Greek poleis, Athens and Sparta, the Peloponnesian war, there was unrest. Despite the Peace of Nicias, belligerence between the two states did not cease, but rather took on a new face. While careful to remain within the parameters set several years before in the peace treaty, Athens moved cautiously, but aggressively in establishing alliances, albeit coerced, and strengthening its empire. It was at this juncture that it made its move toward securing the small, weak island-state of Melos, which in its neutral independence suggested danger to the Athenian empire. In a move not of fairness, but of survival, Athens offered the Melians an ultimatum: to be subjugated under Athenian rule as a colony, or be utterly destroyed. It is the Melian dialogue which follows and presents the presumed diplomatic debate between the two nations; the Melian people’s argument for their own neutrality, and the Athenian people’s attempt to persuade them to submit. The issue which arises in light of the events at Melos remains to be whether it is the people of Melos’ views of justice which is correct, or if it is Athens’ definition which is truer. By examining each city-state’s contributions to the Melian dialogue, each respective interpretation becomes clear, enabling further judgement on the event’s outcome. The Athenians offer the Melians a choice in their own fate, both of which result in Athens’ domination; essentially, this boils down to the Athenian’s definition of justice lying in expediency for those in power. Not a question of fairness, for them, justice lies in survival, and that which results in the most certain preservation of both the subduer and the subdued is just, “...it would involve your submitting before suffering the worst possible fate, and we would profit from not destroying you,” (Thuc, V, 91). For the Athenians, their own pursuit of power, and that which enables its acquisition, is...
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