Bosworth’s take on the Melian Dialogue: A provocation too far?
by Sophia Nugent-Siegal ©
The Melian Dialogue is a Thucydidean passage which inspires passion and provocation, if not actual moral horror. Bosworth’s reading of it as sympathetic to the Athenians’ stark international amoralism has been influential, but it has inspired equally violent disagreement. It is perhaps interpretation of the Melian Dialogue which should indicate whether Thucydides was a precursor of Tacitus (whose moral bleakness results from measuring characters against high moral standards) or of Machievelli (whose moral bleakness results from his realization that Christian morality is inapplicable to political life). If Bosworth is right, Thucydides is much more in the latter camp. However, is Bosworth right? In investigating this question, one must engage with Thucydides’ attitude toward direct speech and his use of a unique format for the Melian-Athenian debate. To explore the intention behind the Dialogue, one must also consider the attitude of Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the Greek cultural context. It emerges from this investigation that both “sides” of the debate have to be read together, because “right” is vested unequivocally in neither: philosophically, the Dialogue reveals the inevitable tragedy of human life; practically, the Dialogue endorses the incompatibility of the useful and the honourable. Bosworth’s contribution is a valuable reminder of the convincingness of the Athenian case—nevertheless, a synchronic reading is superior.