SIEGE OF MELOS
This is an extract from the Wikipedia
The Siege of Melos occurred in 416 during
the Peloponnesian War, fought between Athens and Sparta. Melos is an island in
the Aegean Sea roughly 110 km east of mainland Greece. (It is actually south
but east of Lyconia)
Though the Melians had ancestral ties to Sparta, they chose to remain neutral
in the war. Athens invaded Melos in the summer of 416 and demanded that the
Melians surrender and pay tribute to Athens or face annihilation. The Melians
refused, so the Athenians laid siege to their city. Melos surrendered in the
winter, and the Athenians executed their men and enslaved their women and
children. This siege is best remembered for the Melian Dialogue, a
dramatization of the negotiations between the Athenians and the Melians before
the siege, written by the contemporary Athenian historian Thucydides. In the
negotiations, the Athenians offered no moral justification for their invasion,
but instead bluntly told the Melians that Athens needed Melos for its own ends
and that the only thing Melians stood to gain in submitting was
self-preservation. It is taught as a classic case study in political realism to
illustrate the ultimately selfish and pragmatic concerns that motivate a
country at war.
The Peloponnesian War lasted from 431 to 404 BC. The war was fought between the
Peloponnesian League, an alliance of Greek cities led by Sparta, and the Delian
League, an alliance led by Athens. Athens had the superior navy and controlled
nearly all the islands in the Aegean Sea. (it is actually south of the main
Melos was the only significant island in the Aegean Sea that Athens did not
control. The people of Melos were of the same ethnic group as the Spartans
(Dorians; the Athenians were Ionians)[ but were independent of the Spartan
empire. In general, the Melians sought to remain neutral in the war, although
there is archaeological evidence that sometime between 428 and 425, the Melians
donated at least twenty minas of silver (about 12½ kg) to the Spartan war
effort. In 426, Athens sent an army of 2,000 men to raid the Melian
countryside, but the Melians would not be bullied into submission. In 425 or
424, Athens demanded of Melos a tribute of fifteen talents of silver (roughly
390 kg). This sum could have paid the wages of a trireme crew for 15 months, or
bought 540 metric tons of wheat, enough to feed 2,160 men for a year. Given the
relative size of Melos, this suggests that it was a prosperous island. Melos
refused to pay.
In the summer of 416, during a truce with Sparta, Athens sent an army of at
least 3,400 men to conquer Melos: 1,600 heavy infantry, 300 archers, and 20
mounted archers all from Athens, plus 1,500 heavy infantry from other Delian
League cities. The fleet that transported this army had 38 ships: 30 from
Athens, 6 from Chios, and 2 from Lesbos. This expedition was led by the
generals Cleomedes and Tisias. After setting up camp on the island, the
Athenians sent emissaries to negotiate with the rulers of Melos. The emissaries
demanded that Melos join the Delian League and pay tribute to Athens or face
destruction. The Melians rejected the ultimatum. The Athenians laid siege to
the city and withdrew most of their troops from the island to fight elsewhere.
The Melians made a number of sorties, at one point capturing part of the
Athenian circumvallation, but failed to break the siege. In response, Athens
sent reinforcements under the command of Philocrates. The Athenians also had
help from traitors within Melos. Melos surrendered in the winter.
The Athenians executed the adult men and sold the women and children into
slavery. They then settled 500 of their own colonists on the island. In 405, by
which time Athens was losing the war, the Spartan general Lysander expelled the
Athenian colonists from Melos and restored the survivors of the siege to the
island. The once-independent Melos became a Spartan territory, which would mean
that it had a Spartan garrison and a military governor (a harmost).
The Melian Dialogue:
In History of the Peloponnesian War (Book 5, Chapters 84116), the
contemporary Athenian historian Thucydides included a dramatization of the
negotiations between the Athenian emissaries and the rulers of Melos.
Thucydides did not witness the negotiations and in fact had been in exile at
the time, so this dialogue paraphrases what he believed was discussed.
The Athenians offer the Melians an ultimatum: surrender and pay tribute to
Athens, or be destroyed. The Athenians do not wish to waste time arguing over
the morality of the situation, because in practice might makes rightor,
in their own words, "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what
The Melians argue that they are a neutral city and not an enemy, so Athens has
no need to conquer them.
The Athenians counter that if they accept Melos' neutrality and independence,
they would look weak: Their subjects would think that they left Melos alone
because they were not strong enough to conquer it.
The Melians argue that an invasion will alarm the other neutral Greek states,
who will become hostile to Athens for fear of being invaded themselves.
The Athenians counter that the Greek states on the mainland are unlikely to act
this way. It is the islands in the Aegean Sea that are more likely to take up
arms against Athens.
The Melians argue that it would be shameful and cowardly of them to submit
without a fight.
The Athenians counter that it is only shameful to submit to an opponent whom
one has a reasonable chance of defeating. There is no shame in submitting to an
overwhelmingly superior opponent like Athens.
The Melians argue that though the Athenians are far stronger, there is still a
chance that the Melians could win, and they will regret not trying their luck.
The Athenians counter that this argument is emotional and short-sighted. If the
Melians lose, which is highly likely, they will come to bitterly regret their
The Melians argue that they will have the assistance of the gods because their
position is morally just.
The Athenians counter that the gods will not intervene because it is the
natural order of things for the strong to dominate the weak.
The Melians argue that their Spartan kin will come to their defense.
The Athenians counter that the Spartans don't have enough at stake in Melos to
risk an intervention, noting that Athens has the stronger navy. The Athenians
express their shock at the Melians' lack of realism. They reiterate that there
is no shame in submitting to a stronger enemy, especially one who is offering
The Melians do not change their minds and politely dismiss the envoys.
Thucydides explained that the purpose of conquering Melos was to demonstrate
the strength and sternness of Athens so as to discourage its island territories
from defecting. Whether it was effective at discouraging rebellion is
uncertain. Just a few years after the conquest of Melos, Athens suffered a
devastating defeat in a military expedition to Sicily, after which rebellions
happened throughout the empire. Whether Melos was truly neutral is sometimes
debated by scholars. Thucydides wrote that after the raid by Nicias in 426, the
Melians assumed "an attitude of open hostility", but neither
Thucydides nor any other writer of the era mentioned any specific offence that
Melos committed against Athens.
There is archaeological evidence that Melos once donated some money to Sparta
(at least twenty minas of silver), but it's uncertain whether this donation
preceded or followed the raid by Nicias. Melos is typically regarded by
scholars to have been an innocent victim of Athenian imperialism. The islands
of the Aegean Sea provided valuable tax revenue for Athens, but what was
probably more vital was their ports. Warships of the era (triremes) could carry
little in the way of supplies and had no sleeping space for the crew, and thus
needed to stop in port on a daily basis to buy supplies, cook meals, and camp
for the night. Triremes were also not particularly seaworthy and thus needed
harbors to shelter from rough weather. A trireme could normally travel around
80 km in a day whereas a trip from Athens to Asia Minor is roughly 300 km.
Thus, in order to control the Aegean, Athens needed to secure exclusive access
to the islands' ports for its navy. If Melos was neutral, Spartan ships could
resupply there, so Athens had to capture it to deny it to the Spartans.
The Athenians had shown mercy to their defeated enemies in the earlier years of
the Peloponnesian War, and in preceding wars. For instance, after putting down
the rebellious city of Potidaea in 429, the Athenians spared the surviving
Potidaeans and allowed them to leave the city. As the war dragged on, the
Athenians came to feel that leniency made them look weak and encouraged
The rising brutality of the Athenians was also a response to Spartan brutality,
which had been extreme from the beginning. In particular, it was after the
massacre committed by the Spartans at Plataea in 429 that the Athenians
habitually massacred their own prisoners. Even so, the massacre of the Melians
shocked the Greek world, even in Athens. The Athenian rhetorician Isocrates, in
his apologia for Athens' conquests, explicitly mentions the massacre at Melos
as a major point of criticism against Athens, but he argues that it had been
necessary and that the other warring states were just as brutal.
The Athenian historian Xenophon wrote that in 405, with the Spartan army
closing in on Athens, the citizens of Athens worried that the Spartans would
treat them with the same cruelty that the Athenian army had shown the Melians.
There is circumstantial evidence that suggests that the Melians surrendered
only after enduring extreme starvation: the expression "Melian
famine" entered the Greek language as a metaphor for extreme starvation.
The first known appearance of this phrase is in Aristophanes' play The Birds
(414 BC), and its usage seems to have lasted well into the Byzantine era as it
is mentioned in the Suda, a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia.
In March 415, the Athenian playwright Euripides premiered a play called The
Trojan Women, which explores the suffering of the inhabitants of a conquered
city. Although Melos isn't explicitly mentioned (the setting is the Trojan
War), many scholars regard it as a commentary on the massacre at Melos, but
this is unlikely. Euripides was probably developing his play before the siege
of Melos even began, and he had only a month or two after its fall to make
revisions. It's also unlikely that Euripides would have dared to offend his
Athenian audiences given how expensive the production was.
It is uncertain whether the fate of Melos was decided by the government of
Athens or the Athenian generals on Melos. A historical speech falsely
attributed to the Athenian orator Andocides claims that the statesman
Alcibiades advocated the enslavement of the Melian survivors before the
government of Athens. This account gives no date for the decree, so it could
have been passed to justify the atrocities after the fact. Thucydides made no
mention of any such decree in his own account.
Constantakopoulou, Christy (2007). The Dance of the Islands. Oxford University
Press. ISBN 9780199215959.
Crane, Gregory (1998). Thucydides and the Ancient Simplicity: The Limits of
Political Realism. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520918740.
Gardner, Percy (1918). A History of Ancient Coinage. Oxford at the Clarendon
Hanink, Johanna (2019). How to Think about War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign
Policy. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691193847.
Hanson, Victor (2005). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans
Fought the Peloponnesian War. Random House Publishing Group. ISBN 1400060958.
Herodotus (1998) [440 BC].
Dewald, Carolyn (ed.). The Histories. Translated by Waterfield, Robin. Oxford
University Press. ISBN 9780192126092.
Hultsch, Friedrich (1882). Griechische und Römische Metrologie [Greek and
Roman Metrology] (in German) (2nd ed.). Weidmannsche Buchhandlung.
Law, Helen H. (Dec 1919). "Atrocities in Greek Warfare". The
Classical Journal. 15 (3): 132147. JSTOR 3287836.
Loomis, William T. (1992). The Spartan War Fund: IG V 1, 1 and a New Fragment.
Franz Steiner Verlag. ISBN 9783515061476.
Meiggs, Russell (1972). The Athenian Empire. Oxford University Press Inc., New
Meritt, Benjamin Dean; McGregor, Malcolm Francis (1950). The Athenian Tribute
Lists. 3. ASCSA. ISBN 9780876619131.
Oleson, John Peter (2008). The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in
the Classical World. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199720149.
Rawlings, Louis (2007). The Ancient Greeks At War. Manchester University Press.
Renfrew, Colin; Wagstaff, Malcolm, eds. (1982). An Island Polity: The
Archaeology of Exploitation in Melos. Cambridge University Press. ISBN
Missing or empty |title=(help)
Ringer, Mark (2016). Euripides and the Boundaries of the Human. Lexington
Books. ISBN 9781498518444.
Seaman, Michael G. (1997). "The Athenian Expedition to Melos in 416
B.C.". Historia. Franz Steiner Verlag. 46 (4): 385418. JSTOR
de Ste. Croix, Geoffrey Ernest Maurice (1954). "The Character of the
Athenian Empire". Historia. Franz Steiner Verlag. 3 (1): 141. JSTOR
Smith, William; Wayte, William; Marindin, G. E., eds. (1890). A Dictionary of
Greek and Roman Antiquities. John Murray (Albermane Street, London).
Thucydides (c. 400 BC). History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by
Crawley, Richard (1914). The Melian Dialogue (original Greek) The Melian
Dialogue (Rex Warner translation) The Melian Dialogue (Benjamin Jowett
Tritle, Lawrence A. (2002). From Melos to My Lai: A Study in Violence, Culture
and Social Survival. Routledge. ISBN 9781134603640. Winiarczyk, Marek (2016).
Diagoras of Melos: A Contribution to the History of Ancient Atheism. Walter de
Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. ISBN 9783110447651.
Zimmern, Alfred (1961). The Greek Commonwealth: Politics and Economics in
Fifth-Century Athens (5th ed.). Oxford University Press.