The Siege of Melos occurred in 416 BC during the Peloponnesian War, a war fought between Athens and Sparta. Melos is an island in the Aegean Sea roughly 110 km east of mainland Greece. At the time it was populated by Dorians. Though the Melians were of the same ethnic group as the Spartans, they chose to remain neutral in the war. Athens invaded Melos in 416 BC and demanded that the Melians surrender and pay tribute to Athens, or face annihilation. The proud Melians refused, and after a siege the Athenians captured their city, slaughtered the men, and enslaved the women and children.
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- Lead up
- The Siege
- Restoration by Sparta
- The Melian Dialogue
This siege is best remembered for the Melian Dialogue, which is a dramatization of the negotiations between the Athenians and the Melians before the former launched the siege. It is taught as a classic case study in political realism to illustrate that selfish and pragmatic concerns ultimately motivate a country at war.
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The Peloponnesian War lasted from 431 to 404 BC. On one side was the Peloponnesian League, an alliance of Greek cities led by Sparta. On the other side was the Delian League, a similar alliance led by Athens. The people of Melos were Dorians, the same ethnic group as the Spartans, but were independent of any of the mainland empires. In 427 BC the Melians donated at least twenty Aeginetan minae (roughly 12½ kg of silver) to the Spartan war effort. Otherwise, the island remained neutral in the war. In 426 BC, Athens sent an army of 2,000 men led by Nicias to raid the Melian countryside, but the Melians refused to do battle and Nicias withdrew because he lacked the resources for a siege.
In 425 or 424 BC, Athens formally 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. Only the islands of Paros and Thasos were assessed for more at 30 and 60 talents respectively. This is evidence that Melos was a prosperous island. Melos had never paid tribute to Athens before, and they refused to pay now.
In the summer of 416 BC, 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 Athenians' lines, but failed to break the siege. Athens sent reinforcements under the command of Philocrates. The Athenians also had help from traitors within Melos. Melos surrendered in the winter of 416 or 415 BC.
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.
Restoration by Sparta
In 405 BC, with Athens losing the war, the Spartan general Lysander expelled the Athenian settlers from Melos and restored the survivors of the original Dorian colony to the island. The once-independent Melos became a Spartan territory. It now had a Spartan garrison and a military governor (a harmost).
The Melian Dialogue
In History of the Peloponnesian War (book 5, chapters 84–116), the contemporary Athenian historian Thucydides inserted a dramatization of the negotiations between the emissaries of the Athenian invaders and the rulers of Melos. Thucydides did not witness the negotiations and in fact had been in exile at the time, so this dialogue only captures the substance of what he believed was discussed.
In summary, the Athenian emissaries appealed to the Melians' sense of pragmatism, citing the Athenian army's overwhelming strength and their "reasonable" surrender terms, whereas the Melians appealed to the Athenians' sense of decency. Neither side was able to sway the other and the negotiations failed. This dialogue is frequently cited by political scientists and diplomats as a classic case study in political realism. It demonstrates the foolishness of pride and hope, and that selfish and pragmatic concerns drive wars.
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 right—or, in their own words, "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must".
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 independent island states and the disgruntled subjects that Athens has already conquered 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 at least a slim chance that the Melians could win, and they will regret not trying their luck. The Athenians counter that this argument is purely emotional and not a rational risk-benefit analysis. If the Melians lose, which is highly likely, they will come to bitterly regret their foolish optimism.
The Melians believe 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 are a practical people who never put themselves at risk when their interests are not at stake, and rescuing Melos would be especially risky since Athens has the stronger navy.
The Athenians express their shock at the Melians' lack of realism. They say that there is no shame in submitting to a stronger enemy, especially one who is offering reasonable terms. They also argue that it is sensible to submit to one's superiors, stand firm against one's equals, and be moderate to one's inferiors. The Melians do not change their minds and politely dismiss the envoys.
Warships of the era (triremes) could carry little in the way of supplies, and thus were heavily dependent on friendly and neutral ports where the crew could purchase food and other necessities on a daily basis. Whether or not Melos was truly neutral, Peloponnesian ships could freely resupply there, which made it strategically important. Capturing Melos thus reduced the combat radius of the enemy's navy.
The mercilessness which the Athenian invaders showed to the Melians was exceptional even for the time and shocked many Greeks, even in Athens. These may have included the Athenian playwright Euripides, whose play The Trojan Women is widely regarded as a commentary on the razing of Melos. The historian Xenophon wrote that in 405 BC, 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. The Athenian rhetorician Isocrates was a proud patriot but accepted that the razing of Melos was a stain on Athens' history.
The razing of Melos is regarded by some modern historians as an act of genocide: With its menfolk all slain and the rest taken away as slaves, the intent of the Athenians may have been to outright destroy the Melians as a people. The island communities of the Aegean Sea tended to have distinctive cultures due to their relative isolation, so the extermination of the Melian population would have erased their cultural distinctiveness from the world. Melos had been known for its terracotta reliefs, but production of these sculptures ended with the siege. Melos once issued its own coinage, struck according to the Milesian weight standard (the stater weighing just over 14 g) and bearing the name of their people: ΜΑΛΙΟΝ (Malion) or some abbreviation thereof. When Athens conquered Melos, most of its coins were melted down, making them rare, and after its annexation by Sparta, Melos adopted the Rhodian weight standard (the tetradrachm weighing 15.3 g). Melos had its own variant of the ancient Greek script that was of a more archaic style exhibiting Cretan and Theraic influences, but it was discarded after 416 BC.
It is uncertain whether the fate of Melos was decided by the government of Athens or the Athenian generals on Melos. An 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.
The phrase "Melian hunger" became a byword for extreme starvation. Starvation is a normal goal of sieges and the ancient Greeks had much experience with them, so this suggests that the Melian experience was extreme. The earliest known reference to the starvation of the Melians is in Aristophanes' play, The Birds, which was first performed in 414 BC. Its usage lasted well into the Byzantine era, as it is mentioned in the Suda, a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia.