As performed by members of Studiospace at Foyle’s, Cabot Circus, Bristol on Sunday 10th November as part of the University of Bristol’s Thinking Futures and Inside Arts festivals of ideas; I hope to find time in the near future to talk a bit about the ideas behind this adaptation.
REPORTER: The state of war has already lasted for more than a decade; even when there has been little open fighting, its effects continued to spread throughout the world. Each superpower seeks to extend its influence in regions of strategic importance – which of course means almost everywhere – and so more and more countries are drawn into the confrontation and forced to choose a side. The Athenian fleet has arrived now at the small island of Melos, and presented its leaders with a simple ultimatum: surrender your independence, or be destroyed.
The Conference Room: the two sides confront one another across a large table. They are clearly distinguishable: not necessarily in costume, let alone ethnicity – they’re all Greeks, after all – but in manner. The Athenians are self-confident and condescending; the Melians are defiant but scared.
1st ATHENIAN: What do you say to our proposal? We’re happy to discuss any individual points that concern you.
1st MELIAN: How can we talk about these issues properly when your fleet is just outside our city?
2nd MELIAN: You’re holding a gun to our heads. If we win this debate and refuse to submit, you’ll destroy us; if we submit, we become your slaves.
2nd ATHENIAN: We see little mileage in a discussion of hypotheticals. You are here to face the facts and negotiate to save your city.
MEL 1: (after a brief consultation) All right, if that’s how you want to proceed.
ATH 1: We’re not going to dress this up in fancy rhetoric, claiming that we have the right to rule because of our track record in spreading freedom and promoting civilisation. And you shouldn’t bother trying to win us over by arguing that you’ve never done us any actual harm.
ATH 2: We are concerned simply with the facts on the ground. You know as well as we do that arguments about justice are relevant only between those with matching power.
ATH 1: Reality is defined by what the strong do and what the weak accept.
MEL 1: If you insist on framing this discussion in terms of expediency rather than justice…
ATH 1: That’s the way the world is.
MEL 2: Then we would note that there is real, practical advantage in not ignoring the general good. That’s not just for our benefit: your power won’t last for ever, and then the retribution will be so much greater because of the example you’ve set others.
MEL 1: They’ll say that you had it coming.
ATH 2: Hypotheticals again. We’ll take that as it comes.
ATH 1: In any case, the Spartans and other major players aren’t the real threat to us; that’s our present subjects, if they ever had the power to take us on. That’s not your problem.
ATH 2: We’re here to discuss the security of our empire, which also has a bearing on your own safety. Bottom line: you submit, you don’t cause us any trouble, and that benefits both of us.
MEL 1: The advantage to you is obvious. How are we going to benefit from becoming your slaves?
ATH 1: You get to live.
MEL 1: We would be more than happy to remain completely neutral: friends rather than enemies, but allied to neither side.
ATH 1: Not an option. Reaching an agreement with you would be seen by our subjects as a sign of weakness; the more you hate us, the more it shows our strength.
MEL 2: Surely your subjects are capable of recognising genuine neutrality, rather than confusing that with successful defiance of your power?
ATH 2: Our subjects would say that there are arguments on both sides, but, when you come down to it, it’s power that allows domination, and only fear that deters us from aggression. So, crushing you would not just allow us to expand our empire, it would enhance our security.
MEL 1: Except that you would be making an enemy of every neutral, when they look at this situation and conclude that it’s only a matter of time before you move against them as well.
MEL 2: How does alienating the rest of the world enhance your security?
ATH 1: Not every enemy is an equal threat to our interests. We’re not too bothered about those on the mainland who will be slow to get involved and can’t do much to harm us anyway.
ATH 2: We’re a naval empire; our power rests on free movement and communication. What concerns us is islanders like you and like our restive subjects, in locations of strategic importance, who might start doing something stupid.
ATH 1: Why risk a crisis that could have been foreseen and prevented?
MEL 2: If you’re prepared to take such risks to defend your empire, you must understand why those of us who are still free would be despicable cowards not to do everything to avoid enslavement.
ATH 2: Open your eyes, kids. This isn’t a pissing match where you get to show off your manly courage and defend your honour. It’s a simple matter of self-preservation: don’t resist those who are far stronger than you.
MEL 1: War is never predictable. The odds can be more even than you’d expect from the relative strength of the two sides. If we surrender now, we give up all hope; as long as we resist, we still have something to hope for.
The Athenians laugh.
ATH 1: Hope? Always a great comfort in danger. I guess it’s not too dangerous if you have other resources to fall back on, but if all you’ve got is hope…
ATH 2: Your lives are in the balance here. Your hope could lead you into disaster.
MEL 2: We’re aware of our situation. But we trust that the gods will not place us at a disadvantage, since we are righteous men confronting a force of evil.
MEL 1: More practically, we trust that the Spartans, our old allies, will come to our aid, as a matter of honour. So you see that our hope is not altogether unfounded.
ATH 2: The gods on your side? Why should they favour you rather than us? It’s clearly a law of nature that whenever someone has the upper hand they’ll take full advantage.
ATH 1: We didn’t invent that law. We found it well established; we follow it, knowing that you and anyone else would do the same if you could; and it’ll still be true long after we’re gone.
ATH 2: As for your faith in the Spartans and their honour, well, it must be nice to have such an innocent view of the world, but I don’t envy you the consequences.
ATH 1: The Spartans are men of great virtue and integrity when it comes to their own affairs. In dealing with others, they’re pretty good at seeing justice and honour in terms of what furthers their interests. That’s not going to help you.
MEL 2: No, that’s exactly why they’ll help us.
MEL 1: They’re not going to betray us, their long-standing allies, and so lose the trust of their friends and at the same time benefit their enemies.
ATH 2: You just don’t get it. Self-interest is about security. The Spartans are the last people to stick their necks out for justice and honour. Even when they do get involved, they rely on a whole coalition of allies rather than risking their own resources – and that’s when they’re attacking their own neighbours overland, rather than venturing overseas.
MEL 2: Then there will be other people they can send to help us. It’s a big sea; they can evade your patrols easily enough.
MEL 1: And even if that fails, they can strike against your territory elsewhere, and against your allies, and you’ll be desperately trying to hold on to what you’ve already got rather than trying to seize what doesn’t belong to you.
ATH 2: Hey, shit happens. But you’d better remember that we have never abandoned a mission through fear of some third party consequences.
ATH 1: We agreed to discuss your safety. I don’t think I’ve heard anything that would reassure your citizens about their chances of survival. Hope. That’s all you have to offer.
ATH 2: You know, people in your situation can be completely aware of all the dangers they face, and still fall under the power of a word – this thing we call ‘dishonour’ – and sign their own death warrants. But what could be more dishonourable than falling into irreversible disaster through your own folly? There’s no loss of face in submitting to a great power that’s offering reasonable terms.
ATH 1: There’s one sure recipe for success in this world: stand up to your equals, defer to your superiors and be moderate towards your inferiors. And keep in mind that you just have the one homeland, and it will be saved or destroyed by a single decision.
REPORTER: With that, the Athenians withdraw, and the Melians discuss their decision.
MEL 1: We are not, in a few minutes, going to sign away the freedom of a city that has been been proudly independent for more than 700 years.
MEL 2: We will trust in the gods and in our fellow men, especially the Spartans.
MEL 1: We make one last appeal: let us be your friends, enemies of neither side, and let us reach an agreement that suits us both.
ATH 1: You must be the only people on earth who think the future is clearer than what’s right in front of you.
ATH 2: You’ve staked everything on your trust in the Spartans, in chance, and in hope. And you’re going to lose everything.
REPORTER: We have breaking news: Melos has fallen. In line with Athenian threats, the men have been killed; the women and children will be sold into slavery, and the city repopulated with Athenian colonists. The wider war continues.
Thucydides, loosely adapted by Neville Morley