The Peloponnesian War

Intersections of War and Rhetoric: A Deconstruction of the Melian Dialogue College

In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the conflict between Athens and Sparta is illustrated not only with direct, fact-based wartime accounts but also with dramatized orations and debates that are interwoven into the narrative. Through the resulting interplay of speech-giving and war-making, two activities both highly and equally valued in ancient Greek society, a striking parallel arises between these two essential modes of human communication and interaction. This binary, with speech acting as a function and extension of war, is perhaps best exemplified in the Melian Dialogue. In the passage, the two opposing sides of the dialogue are cast as representatives of contrasting political ideologies: Athenian realism, driven by the forces of empire and conquest, is juxtaposed against Melian idealism, with its bulwarks of hope and honor. Beyond the content of the actual arguments themselves, Thucydides explores power dynamics and concepts of justice through the structure and framework of the dialogue as well as through its language and rhetoric. Specifically, the Athenians use their arguments as instruments of policy, metaphorical weapons in the battlefield of speech. In controlling the nature and trajectory of the...

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