Thucydides and International Law


Mosaic of Thucydides, Jerash, Jordan (now held at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum), 3rd century CE

From the Dublin Review of Books:

In the sixteenth year of the war between Athens and Sparta (416/15 BC), the Athenians attacked the island of Melos, a Spartan colony that wished to remain neutral and avoid becoming part of the Athenian empire. The so-called Melian dialogue which took place came down to an ultimatum: become subject to Athenian power or resist and face annihilation. The island was laid siege to and, after surrendering, all the men were put to death and the women and children sold into slavery. Sparta had behaved in a similar way with the small town of Plataea, following a travesty of a trial, and the Mytileneans on Lesbos would have met the same fate were it not for a change of mind, or heart, in the Athenian assembly the day after it had voted for the death penalty (the Mytilenaean Debate). A trireme carrying the rescission set off on a dramatic race to reach the town before the first order was carried out.

Right-wing strategists and statesmen weaponise Thucydides to rationalise their world views and foreign policies, but they tend not to dwell on the collateral damage in the shape of mass slaughters. Their perspective understands international relations in terms of power – obtaining, keeping, defending, fearing it – and they look to Thucydides to endorse what they see as a realistic take on the world.

It is true to say that the ancient Greek world did not have an understanding of what is now understood by international law, but there were unwritten norms regarding warfare. Heralds and diplomats had immunity – witness the story in Herodotus of some Spartans killing Persian ambassadors and the subsequent dispatch of two volunteers offering their lives in reparation to Xerxes, the barbarian king of Persia. When they reach the Persian capital, Xerxes refuses to have them killed, saying that “he would not be guilty himself of the same crime they had committed”. There were also commonly accepted laws of war when it came to religious customs and the protection of sacred places. Greek religion, however, has the distinction of being divorced from ethics and the kind of humanitarian standards we like to think are now taken for granted were singularly absent in ancient Greek culture. Helping friends and hurting your enemies was a sine qua non; killing of prisoners of war was well accepted; and non-combatants were not accorded the rights we might expect.

“Hard Power”, Sean Sheehan, Dublin Review of Books


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