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Singapore, the accidental nation

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The Peloponnesian War was a war fought between Athens, leading the Peloponnesian League, and Sparta, leading the Delian League. It stretched from 431BC to 404BC, and included what has come to be known as the famous Siege of Melos.

Melos is an island in the Aegean Sea more than 100km to the east of mainland Greece. It was a prosperous island. The Melians were of the same ethnic group as the Spartans, but they chose to remain neutral in the war. Athens invaded Melos and asked Melos to pay tribute to Athens. The Melians had never paid tribute to Athens before, and refused to do so now.

Thucydides, the Athenian historian, wrote about what has come to be known as the Melian Dialogue. It describes the negotiations between Athens and Melos. The Athenians' approach was to appeal to the Melians' sense of pragmatism, pointing to the Athenian army's overwhelming strength and their "reasonable" terms for surrender. The Melians, on the other hand, appealed to the Athenians' "sense of decency". Whether or not Melos was truly neutral, ships could freely resupply there; this made Melos strategically important for Athens. On the other hand, subduing Melos would reduce the reach of Sparta's navy.

In substance, the Melian Dialogue went as follows: Athens: Surrender and pay tribute to Athens, or be destroyed.

Refusing to argue with the Melians on questions of morality, the Athenians simply assert: "The strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept." Melos: We are a neutral city, not an enemy, so there is no need to conquer us in your war with Sparta. Athens: If we accept your neutrality and independence, we would look weak. Our people would think that we have left you alone because we are not strong enough to conquer you. Melos: If you invade us, it will alarm the other neutral Greek states, who will then turn against you lest the same fate befalls them. Athens: The Greek states on the mainland are unlikely to act this way. Melos: It would be shameful and cowardly for us to submit without a fight. Athens: It is only shameful if there is a reasonable chance of defeating the attacker. There is no shame to submit to a superior opponent. Melos: Although you are much stronger, we would regret not trying to fight as there could still be a chance to win. Athens: This is a foolish hope. It does not come from rational analysis and is just an emotional response. Melos: The gods will help us because our position is morally just. Athens: The gods will not intervene. It is natural that the strong dominate the weak. Melos: Sparta will help defend us. Athens: Sparta are a practical people. They will not put themselves at risk when their interests are not at stake. Besides, we have the stronger navy. There is no shame in submitting to a stronger enemy offering reasonable terms. What makes sense is to submit to superiors, stand firm against equals and be moderate........

© The Straits Times