What does the Athenian/Melian encounter tell us about the Athenians, who prided themselves on their democracy and sense of fairness?
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The Melian debate is one of the more interesting episodes in The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. It is often taught in parallel with the Mytilenian debate. In both, the essential question is to what degree Athens can legitimately exert hegemony over poleis that wish to remain neutral in the Peloponnesian wars. Several interesting questions follow. First, it makes us asks whether force is in fact effective in cowing potential opponents or is it more likely to create enemies out of people or states previously neutral. Second, because it was the extreme democratic party (especially Cleon, in the case of the Mytilenian debate) which was advocating for destruction of Melos. Thucydides certainly seems to imply that democratic governments, subject to the "tyranny" of mob rule, can be just as immoral and likely to act out of intemperate pride and anger as actual tyrannies. Finally, it problematizes modern tendencies to equate internal democracy and a sense of fairness to one's own citizens to a similar sense of fairness to foreigners.
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