The validity of Thucydides’ arguments in explaining the actions of Athens in the war

The History compiled by Thucydides as the former Athenian general who was accused of losing some of the battles and exiled from his native country remains the main source of historical records on the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens accompanied with their allies.

Though the manner of the presentation the historical data by Thucydides is affected by his Athenian background, his attempts to make his works objective allow the modern historians to evaluate the validity of the arguments provided by the various sides in the Mutilenian debate and the Melian dialogue regardless of the author’s personal views of them.

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The Mytilenian debate taking place in Athens in 427 BC was focused on choosing the punishment for the revolt in the city-state of Mytilene located on the island of Lesbos. The two contradicting argumentation lines discussed by Thucydides were presented by Cleon who insisted on putting all the Mytilenian adult male population to death and Diodotus who claimed that it would be unwise and offered softer measures (Freeman 1999, 206).

Though the Diodotus’ offer was supported by the Athenians, the final remark made by Thucydides concerning the Mytilenians’ escape demonstrates that the historian did not entirely agree with the final solution (Thucydides 2011, 10).

Regardless of Thucydides’ claim that his representation of the historical data was unbiased due to his exile, certain moment in his works unveil his prior involvement into the events and a definite position concerning the Athens choices and implemented war strategies. The historian provides a detailed description of the Cleon’s argumentation line (Bolotin 1987, 22). The main arguments outlined by Cleon included the criticism of the debate in general which resulted in the delay of the punishment for the revolt.

Moreover, this speaker claimed that the minor procrastination was to the benefit of the guilty party (Thucydides 2011, 6). Another Cleon’s argument concerned the underlying causes of the Mytilenian revolt. Cleon noted that it was not even a revolt but rather planned aggression which had to be punished respectively (Freeman 1999, 206). Cleon continued that the soft punishment of the Mytilenian population will result in negative implications from the side of the rest of the Athenians’ allies.

Cleon’s argument was that the failure to punish the planned and aggressive revolt can cause the growth of revolts in other allies which would not be afraid to doubt the authority of Athens. In general, summing Cleon’s major arguments up, it can be stated that the speaker’s main claim is that the death penalty is the only possible punishment for the revolt of the ally (Bury & Meiggs 1975, 261).

To emphasize the importance of supporting his motion, Cleon even goes as far as raising the questions of Athens’ strategies in general, admitting that softening the punishment for Mytilenians would mean justifying them, whereas justifying them would imply disapproval of the Athenians’ power and implied strategies in general.

As to the argumentation line developed by Diodotus, it should be noted that it was not only more humane, but also more persuasive which resulted in the public approval (Ehrenberg 1973, 367). The major arguments of this speaker were addressing Cleon’s points with the aim of proving the inappropriateness of Cleon’s method to the wide audience.

Diodotus’ argumentation line was based upon the assumption that killing the innocent population would not only keep all the allies in fear, but also show them that their condition is desperate which can result in more accurate preparations of their future revolts (Thucydides 2011, 9).

Thus, in contrast to Cleon’s argumentation line which was limited with the assumption that the utmost severity is the only possible way of establishing authority, Diodotus obtained a wider view of the possible consequences of implementing the unjust punishment for Mytilenians.

Analyzing Cleon’s arguments from a modern perspective, it can be stated that the he as an orator used specific techniques intended to increase the persuasiveness of his speech, whereas most of his arguments can be defined as invalid.

There are even particular logical fallacies which can be found in Cleon’s speech, such as the established links between not killing the peaceful population which was not involved into the revolt and the possible revolts in other allies threatening Athenians’ authority in general. As to Diodotus’ arguments, these were much more valid and it is significant that it was the strategy adopted by the majority.

The Melian dialogue dated back to 416/5 BC concerned the submission to the Athenian empire of the island of Melos which was traditionally recognized as one of the Spartan allies.

Regardless of Thucydides’ claim of making the representation of the historical data in is works objective and unbiased, through the analysis of the separate episodes of this dialogue and the chosen argumentation line, the historian’s Athenian background becomes obvious (Murray 1986, 196). In Fine (1983: 490), it was noted that reproducing the Melian dialogue, Thucydides seems to accept the Athenians’ arguments concerning the moral bleakness as the only possible pattern of interstate relations as axioms.

The claim that justice is possible only between the equals, while the more powerful states are free to use their might whenever they would like to, is obviously invalid, but blindly accepted by the historian. Not expressing any shades of attitudes directly, Thucydides constructs the dialogue according to his personal priorities. Thus, the largest part of the dialogue is devoted to the argument of the Athenian spokesmen, whereas the assumptions of the Melian leaders are brief though much more valid.

The main argument of the Athenian spokesmen concerns the doctrine based on the domination of the stronger state as the only possible doctrine. Thus, proclaiming the principles of democracy inside of their state, Athens rejected the mere possibility of establishing the relationships of equality with their allies. Recognizing their power, Athens do not agree to the offer made by Melians that the island Melos should be on friendly terms with Athens but should not be an enemy to any of the sides in the Peloponnesian war (Thucydides 2011, 15).

Thus, due to the invalidity of the Athenians’ spokesmen and their unwillingness to listen to consider the assumptions of their opponents made the Melian dialogue ineffective. After the end of the negotiations, neither of the sides changed its position and it can be stated that it was rather the exchange of speeches between the Melian and Athenian leaders, whereas nobody considered the assumption of the opposite side and was not going to reach a compromise.

Regardless of the fact that Thucydides’ representation of the historical data still contains certain signs of his personal bias, it can be stated that the historian’s attempts to make his works objective were rather successful, allowing the contemporary critiques to evaluate the validity of the arguments provided by the various sides of the dialogues.


In general it can be concluded, that disregarding Thucydides’s acceptance of the Athenians’ arguments as undeniable axioms, modern critiques can adequately evaluated the invalidity of Cleon’s claims in the Mytilenian debate and the assertions made by the Athenian spokesmen in the Melian dialogue.

Reference List

Bolotin, D. 1987. “Thucydides”. In L. Strauss & J. Cropsey (eds.) History of political
philosophy (pp. 7-32). 3rd edition. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

Bury, J.B. & Meiggs, R. 1975. A history of Greece, to the death of Alexander the Great. 4th edition. (1st edition, 1900.) Basingstoke & London: Macmillan.

Ehrenberg, V. 1973. From Solon to Socrates. Greek history and civilisation during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. 2nd edition. London: Methuen.

Fine, J. V. A. 1983. The ancient Greeks: A Critical history. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Pp. 470-74, 490-91.

Freeman, C. 1999. The Greek achievement: The foundation of the western world. London: Penguin. Pp. 2-3, 206-7.

Murray, O. 1986. “Greek Historians” (Chapter 8). In J. Boardman, J. Griffin and O. Murray (Eds.) The Oxford history of the classical world. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. Pp. 195-97

Thucydides. 2011. History of the Peloponnesian war extracts. Melbourne: Trinity College Foundation Studies.


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