Modern readers are often shocked to learn that the Athenians—citizens of a free city who defeated the Persians when they invaded Greece, built the Parthenon, and staged the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles—also massacred the citizens not of an enemy state but of a neutral power. Ancient readers were also shocked when they learned this story from the same source: Thucydides, the exiled general who recorded the atrocity, and the dialogue that preceded it, in an account that is in many ways the model for all subsequent western histories of high politics and war.
The drama is riveting. In 431 BC a conflict now called the Peloponnesian War had erupted between two sets of cities, one led by Athens and one by Sparta. It had raged for 15 years when the Athenians demanded the allegiance of the heretofore neutral Melians, whose city traced its origin to Sparta. The Melians balked, and at their request, the leaders of the two sides held a private conference.
The Athenians spoke first. With breathtaking frankness they dismissed considerations of justice as irrelevant. Justice could obtain only between equals. "For ourselves," the Athenians said, "we shall not trouble you with specious pretences … 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 can and the weak suffer what they must."
The Melians claimed the right to hope that they could resist the Athenians' overwhelming power and that the gods might support them. The Athenians responded with contemptuous clarity: "Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can." When the Melians refused to submit, the Athenians, helped by local traitors, besieged and captured the city. They executed all adult males, sold the women and children into slavery, and sent out colonists of their own to repopulate the island.
Powerfully written scenes like this one have fascinated, excited, and worried readers for two millennia and more. One critic, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, insisted that the Athenians' words "were appropriate to oriental monarchs addressing Greeks, but unfit to be spoken by Athenians to the Greeks whom they liberated from the Medes." Modern readers continue to feel the illuminating and frightening power of this great history, and they still try to use it to understand the present. When American soldiers destroyed villages in Vietnam, protesters at universities in the States bitterly recalled what the citizens of democratic Athens said and did at Melos.
What lesson or lessons did Thucydides hope to teach? And did his desire to draw lessons conflict with his professed belief that historians should tell the truth? Over the centuries, scholarship has grown like kudzu over the text. Older generations collated Thucydides' work with other sources and debated the order in which parts of it were composed or revised. More recently, scholars have updated an approach put forward by F.M. Cornford in 1907. They have taken the existing text as a coherent whole and used literary techniques to analyze it. From this standpoint, it looks as if when Thucydides composed the Melian dialogue, he modeled history partly on tragedy. Did he mean this distinctive episode as a comment on the war as a whole?
The literary approach is one of many that Donald Kagan does not take in his eloquent new study of Thucydides —just as the Melian dialogue is one of many passages that he does not analyze (even though he notes its suggestive power). That Kagan admires the Greek historian is clear. He argues, at length, that Thucydides invented real history. Unlike his predecessors, Thucydides believed that history must be true to be instructive,and did systematic research. Unlike them, too, he believed that men made their own history, without divine intervention, in a world ruled by force and fear. Kagan emphasizes, and shows sympathy for, Thucydides' claim that his book would offer indispensable guidance for those engaged in future wars, for centuries to come. But he argues that we should not trust Thucydides too far—not, in fact, very far at all—when it comes to understanding the Peloponnesian War.
A long-serving professor at Yale and a pre-eminent modern historian of fifth-century BC Greece, Kagan has mastered every source, from the contemporary comedies of Aristophanes and inscriptions that recorded treaties and tribute payments to the later biographies of Plutarch, that can confirm or qualify Thucydides' account. He mobilizes all of these resources to support what he presents as a revisionist approach to Thucydides. The Greek historian, Kagan notes, was not a disinterested observer but a participant in the events he described. A member of the Athenian elite, he served as a military commander, and the city sent him into exile when he failed to protect Amphipolis, a strategically valuable colony. When he began to write, he had an agenda of his own.