Atlas   Rules   Resources   Adventures   Stories       FAQ   Search   Links

Melian Dialogue

by James Ruhland

Shortly following the invasion of Bellissaria the Alphatians encountered the Melians. Most of the other small communities of Bellissaria submitted or fled without much fuss. The Melians are a colony of the Thonians [Sparta] that would not submit to the Alphatians [Athenians] like the other islanders, and at first remained neutral. But upon the Alphatians using violence and plundering their territory, the Melians assumed an attitude of open hostility towards the Alphatians.

The Melians sent a couple of envoys to negotiate with the Alphatian generals, upon which the Alphatians spoke as follows:

Alphatians: "Since the negotiations are not to go on before the people of Melos, in order that we may not be able to speak without interruption, and deceive the ears of the multitude by selective arguments which would pass without refutation (for we know that this is the meaning of our being brought before the few), what if you who sit there were to pursue a method more cautious still! Make no set speech yourselves, but question whatever we say that you do not like, and settle that before going any farther [in other words, a dialogue]. And first tell us if this proposition of ours suits you."

The Melian commissioners answered:

Melians: "To the fairness of instructing each other as you propose we do not object; but your military preparations show you are not here to talk, as we see you are come to be judges in your own cause, and that all we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is war, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, or if we surrender, then enslavement by you."

{from now on the Alphatian/Athenians will be designated by "A", the Melians by "M"}

A: "If you have met to reason about presentiments of the future, or for anything else other than to discuss the safety of your state upon the facts that you see before you [the Alphatian army], we will cease talking; otherwise, we will go on."

M: "It is natural and excusable for men in our position to turn more ways than one both in thought and utterance. However, the question in this conference is, as you say, the safety of our country, and the discussion, if you please, can proceed in the way which you propose."

A: "For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences -- either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Yaniffey, or that we are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us. We will not make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, arguing the real interests of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."

M: "We think it is expedient -- we speak as we are obliged, since you enjoin us discuss moral right alone and want us to talk only of interest -- that you should not destroy what is our common protection, namely the privilege of being allowed when in danger to invoke what is fair and right, and even to profit by arguments that are not strictly valid if they can be persuasive. And you are as much interested in this as any, as your Empire's fall would be a signal for the heaviest vengeance and an example for the world to meditate upon."

A: "The end of our empire, if end it should, does not frighten us. The possibility of a rival empire is not worse than the likelihood of the vanquished subjects who would revolt and overpower us, their rulers, if we showed weakness. This, however, is a risk that we are content to take. We will now proceed to show you that we have come here in the interest of our empire, and that we shall say what we are going to say, for the preservation of your country; as we would desire to exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you are preserved for the good of us both."

M: "And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve you as for you to rule us?"

A: "Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain slaves by not destroying you."

M: "So you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, even your allies?"

A: "No; for your hostility cannot hurt us much while your friendship in a state of independence will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power will inspire them to revolt."

M: "Is that your subjects' idea of equity, to put those who have nothing to do with you in the same category with people that are mostly your own colonists and conquered slaves?"

A: "As far as right goes they think anyone has as much of it as the other, and that if any maintain their independence from us it can only be that they are strong enough to do so, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection; the fact that you are Mystarans and weaker than us rendering it all the more important that you should not succeed in thwarting the masters of Air magic in gaining anything they desire."

M: "But do you see that there is no security in the policy which you indicate? For here again if you bar us from talking about justice and invite us to obey your interest, we must also explain ours, and try to persuade you, that our interest and yours are the same. How can you avoid making enemies of all existing neutral peoples who shall look at our cause and conclude from it that one day or another you will attack them? And what is this but to make greater the enemies that you have already, and to force others to become so who would otherwise never have opposed you?"

A: "Why, the fact is that the distant Mystarans generally give us little to fear; the liberty which they enjoy will prevent them from taking precautions against us; it is rather nearby Bellissarian islanders such as yourselves, outside our empire, and subjects smarting under our yoke, who would be the most likely to take a rash step and lead themselves and us into obvious danger by opposing us."

M: "Well then, if you risk so much to retain your empire, and your subjects would prefer to be free of it, it would surely be great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried before submitting to your yoke."

A: "Not if you are smart and realise that the contest is not equal, with honour as the prize and shame as the penalty, but in fact a question of self-preservation and not resisting those who are far stronger than you are."

M: "But we know that the fortune of war is sometimes more impartial than the disproportion of numbers might lead one to suppose; to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand on our feet rather than serve on our knees."

A: "Hope comforts the brave, and it may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without lose, at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to stake their all upon hope see its worthlessness only when they are ruined; but so long as they never face the test that would enable them to guard against it, hope springs eternal. Don't this be the case with you, who are weak and hang on a single turn of the scale; nor be like the vulgar, who, abandoning such security as human means may still afford, when visible hopes fail them in extremity, turn to the invisible, to prophets and clerics, and other such inventions that delude men as they march to their own destruction."

M: "You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and magic, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the Immortals may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against the unjust, and that what we lack in power will be made up by the alliance of the Mystaran nations, who are bound, if only for very shame, to come to the aid of their kindred. Our confidence, therefore, after all is not so utterly irrational."

A: "When you speak of the favour of the Immortals, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither of our pretentious nor our conduct being in any way contrary to what men believe of the Immortals, or practice among themselves. Of the Immortals we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist forever; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, if they had the same power as we have, would do the same as we do. Thus, as far as the Immortals are concerned, we have no fear and no reason to fear that we shall be at a disadvantage. But then we come to your notion about the Mystaran nations, which leads you to believe that shame will make them help you, here we bless your simplicity but do not envy your folly. The Mystarans, when their own interests or their nation's survival are in question, are the worthiest barbarians alive; of their conduct towards others much might be said, but no clearer idea of it could be given than by shortly saying that of all the men we know they are the most conspicuous in considering what is agreeable to them honourable and what is expedient just. Such a way of thinking does not promise much for the safety which you now unreasonably count upon.

M: "But it is for this very reason that we now trust to their respect for expediency to prevent them from betraying us, their compatriots, and thereby helping you, their enemies, in conquering Mystara."

A: "Then you do not adopt the view that expediency goes with security, while justice and honour cannot be followed without danger; and danger the Mystaran nations generally court as little as possible."

M: "But we believe that they should be more likely to face even danger for our sake, and with more confidence than if they had to face your armies in their own lands; And our common blood insures our fidelity."

A: "Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to is not the goodwill of those who ask for his aid, but a decided superiority of power for action; and the Mystarans look upon us and see that we are stronger. Now, is it likely that while we are masters of magic they will cross over the sea to help you?"

M: "But they would have numbers to send, and would overwhelm you."

A: "Some diversion of the kind you speak of you may one day experience, only to learn, as others have done, that the Alphatians never once yet withdrew from a battle for fear of any. But we are struck by the fact, that after saying you would consult for the safety of your country, in all this discussion you have mentioned nothing which men might trust to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope, moral justice, and future danger to us, and your own resources are too scanty as compared to ours for you to resist us. You will therefore show great blindness of judgement, unless, after allowing us to retire, you can find some council more prudent than this. If you are well advised, you will not think it disgraceful to submit to the greatest Empire, when it makes you the moderate offer of becoming its living slaves, still living in the land you love; nor, when you have the choice given you between death and slavery, will you be so blinded as to choose the worst. Think over the matter therefore after our discussion, and reflect once and again that it is for your country that you are consulting, that you have not more than one, and that upon this one deliberation depends its survival or ruin."

(Adapted from "The Landmark Thucydides," pp.351-356 edited by Robert B. Strassler.)