A foreign delegation representing a powerful alliance confronts a small Mediterranean country with an ultimatum. Either join our alliance, pay ruinous dues and cede your national sovereignty, or you will be destroyed. Unwilling to allow the delegation to present its case to their fellow citizens, the country’s political elite tries to buy time. But appeals to reason, pragmatism and common decency fail to budge the visitors. When the elite finally replies that it is not prepared to surrender its nation’s freedom, the delegation withdraws and, true to its threat, crushes the rebellious country.
Sound familiar? Apart from a few details, the situation resembles the present standoff between Greece and the European Union. Yet this particular scene took place 2,500 years ago. Then, too, Greece was the arena, with the powerful city-state of Athens pitted against the small island of Melos. In his magnificent history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recreates, or perhaps created, the encounter in 416 B.C. between the commanders of an Athenian fleet and leaders of the small island polis of Melos. There are sobering parallels between then and now that may offer insight into our current predicament.
During their war against Sparta, the Athenians demanded that Melos join the Delian League. Originally a defensive alliance that Greek city-states had created following the second Persian invasion, the league had become a tool of Athenian imperialism. Member states, unable to secede, were subject to Athenian dictate and forced to pay annual tribute. Their complaints were met with Athens’s reply that the alliance, whether or not the members agreed, was for their own good. The democracy Athens practiced at home, in short, did not extend to the governance of its league.
What historians call the Melian Dialogue is Thucydides’s depiction of the endgame to this policy — what Victor Davis Hanson has called Athens’s “reign of terror.” The war between Athens and Sparta was already nearly two decades old, yet no end was in sight. With its citizens weary and restless, Athens adopted a brutal political calculus, declaring that those city-states not with them were, quite simply, against them. They threatened a neutral Melos with physical destruction if it refused to join the Delian League.
Of course, the parallel falls short in many ways. Melos was a neutral state, while modern Greece not only joined the European Union but over the years merrily plundered its treasury. And Melos did not invite an unprecedented sovereign debt crisis or engage in unsustainable social policies as Greece did over the last decade and more.
But what was at stake then and now is, first of all, the issue of national sovereignty versus supranational organizations. “Europe” was born, in part, of the fear of Stalin’s Russia, no less threatening and grim than Xerxes’ Persia. But, like the Delian League after the evaporation of the Persian threat, the original basis for unthinking allegiance to Europe disappeared with the Soviet Union’s disintegration. (The Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras’s recent fruitless meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin echoes the Melian hope that Sparta would fly to their rescue.)
More recently, though, the prospect of a different kind of autocratic rule has unsettled a growing number of Europeans. Looming behind the euro has been the blunt fact of Germany’s strict monetary and economic policies, the edginess of a European Central Bank preoccupied by the specter of inflation and the eagerness of the European Union’s Council of Ministers to make policy in what is the near-total absence of democratic process.
As a result, twined with the financial debt facing Greece is Europe’s notorious “democratic deficit.” Several years ago the historian Tony Judt observed that there was “a sense that decisions were being taken ‘there’ with unfavorable consequences for us ‘here’ and over which ‘we’ had no say.” That more or less accurate perception has only grown since he wrote those words.
In this respect, Brussels bureaucrats are little different from the Athenian delegation: Both come making offers their friends can’t refuse. When Europe’s leaders insist that Greece belongs to the European “homeland” whether it likes it or not, ignore the growing social unrest and political paralysis in Greece, and refuse to reconsider the austerity package they previously negotiated with Athens’s former governing coalition, we are not that far from the Athenian claim at Melos that “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” In this light, the resistance of today’s Greece on behalf of freedom and dignity recapitulates the earlier response of the Melians. The difference, perhaps, is that force then came with phalanxes and triremes, not economic diktats and monetary threats.
When Thucydides declared his work was “a possession for all time,” he meant that its relevance was as fixed and unchanging as was human behavior. Like his friend, the tragedian Sophocles, he would not be surprised that the blindness and hubris that undid ancient Athens remain with us today, and that the noble and humanist aims that once animated the European project have given way to unbending technocratic impulses. The ironist in Thucydides would appreciate that the very monuments in Athens, largely funded by its imperial mastery, might end up as collateral offered to new imperial masters by its battered and bemused descendant.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston and the author, most recently, of Boswell’s Enlightenment.