Siege of Melos

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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 (68 mi) east of mainland Greece. 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 Melians refused, and after a siege the Athenians captured their city, slaughtered the men, and enslaved the women and children.

This siege is best remembered for the Melian Dialogue by Thucydides, which is a dramatization of the negotiations between the Athenians and the Melians before the siege. 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.


Melos (indigo), the Delian League (orange), and the Peloponnesian League (green).

The Peloponnesian War lasted from 431 to 404 BC, between the Peloponnesian League, an alliance of Greek cities led by Sparta, fighting against the Delian League, an alliance led by Athens. Athens had the superior navy and controlled nearly all the islands in the Aegean Sea. The Spartans by contrast controlled few islands, but they dominated most of mainland Greece and had a superior army.[1]

The people of Melos had ancestral ties to Sparta[2][3] but were independent.[4] In 427 BC the Melians donated at least twenty Aeginetan minae[5][6] (roughly 12½ kg[7] of silver) to the Spartan war effort. Otherwise, the island remained neutral in the war.[8]

In 426 BC, Athens sent an army of 2,000 men led by Nicias to raid the Melian countryside,[9] but the Melians refused to do battle and the Athenians were not willing to mount a siege.[10] In 425 or 424 BC, Athens formally demanded of Melos a tribute of fifteen talents of silver[11][12] (roughly 390 kg[13]). This sum could have paid the wages of a trireme crew for 15 months,[14] or bought 540 metric tons of wheat, enough to feed 2,160 men for a year.[15] Only the islands of Paros and Thasos were assessed for more at 30 and 60 talents respectively.[16] This is evidence that Melos was a prosperous island. Melos refused to pay.[17]

The siege[edit]

Melos, and the approximate location of the ancient city.[18]

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 hoplites, 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.[19] 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' siege lines, but failed to break the siege. Athens sent reinforcements under the command of Philocrates. The Athenians also had help from traitors within Melos.[20] Melos surrendered in the winter of 416 or 415 BC.[21]

The Athenians executed the adult men[22] and sold the women and children into slavery. They then settled 500 of their own colonists on the island.[20]

Restoration by Sparta[edit]

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.[23][24] The once-independent Melos became a Spartan territory. It now had a Spartan garrison and a military governor (a harmost).[25]

The Melian Dialogue[edit]

In History of the Peloponnesian War, 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.


This synopsis of the Melian Dialogue is based on Book 5, Chapters 84–116 of History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.

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".[a]

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. (see below)

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 emotional and short-sighted. 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 pragmatic 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 reiterate 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.


The primary motive of the Athenians in conquering Melos, as explained by Thucydides, was to demonstrate the strength of Athens so as to discourage rebellions in its island territories. Preemptive action such as this was a popular Athenian strategy for maintaining control. The motive could not have been for profit, for the tax revenue gained from the Athenian colonists who settled on Melos after the siege could hardly have made up for the expense of the siege itself.[26]

Another possible motive for attacking Melos was to safeguard Athens' islands from Spartan attack. Warships of the time (triremes) could carry little in the way of supplies, and thus needed to stop in port on a daily basis to buy food and other necessities.[27] As Melos was neutral, Spartan ships could freely resupply there.[28] Had the Spartans ever decided to attack Athens' island possessions, Melos would have been an essential resupply point for the Spartan navy. By capturing Melos, Athens made it more difficult for Sparta to attack its island possessions.[29]

The razing of Melos was part of a trend of increasing mercilessness practiced by both sides in the Peloponnesian War. The Athenians had often shown mercy to the defeated parties in the earlier years of the war: for instance, after putting down the rebellious city of Potidaea in 429 BC, the Athenians spared the surviving Potidaeans and allowed them to leave the city.[30] As the war dragged on, the Athenians came to feel that leniency made them look weak and encouraged revolts.[31] The rising brutality of the Athenians was also a response to Spartan brutality, which had been evident since the outset of the war.[32] In particular, it was after the massacre committed by the Spartans at Plataea in 429 BC that the Athenians habitually massacred their own prisoners.[33]

The mercilessness which the Athenian invaders showed the Melians shocked many Greeks, even in Athens.[34] 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.[35] The Athenian rhetorician Isocrates was a proud patriot but accepted that the razing of Melos was a stain on Athens' history.[36][37]

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.[38] This account gives no date for the decree, so it could have been passed to justify the atrocities after the fact.[39] Thucydides made no mention of any such decree in his own account.

The phrase "Melian hunger" became a byword for extreme starvation. Its usage lasted well into the Byzantine era, as it is mentioned in the Suda, a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia.[40] The starvation of the Melians is referenced in Aristophanes' play, The Birds, which was first performed in 414 BC.[41]


  1. ^ This is Crawley's translation. Warner translated this line as: "the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept". Jowett translated this line as: "the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must". Thomas Hobbes translated this as: "they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get".
  1. ^ Hanson (2005)
  2. ^ Herodotus. The Histories, 8.48: "The Melians (who are of Lacedaemonian stock) [...]"
  3. ^ Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.84: "The Melians are a colony of Lacedaemon [...]"
  4. ^ Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), p. 49: "The start of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC saw Melos and Thera still independent..."
  5. ^ Geoffrey Ernest Maurice de Ste Croix (1954). "The Character of the Athenian Empire". An essay originally published in Historia 3, republished in Low (2008): "Epigraphic evidence allows us to go further still: it puts the original Athenian attack on Melos in quite a different light. The inscription found near Sparta [...] records two separate donations by Melos to the Spartan war-funds, one of twenty Aeginetan minae [...] The other figure has perished. The donors are described, it will be noticed, as toi Malioi, 'the Melians'. [...] This shows that the Melian subscription was an official one. [...] there is good reason to think these gifts to Sparta were made in the spring of 427."
  6. ^ Inscriptiones Graecae V 1, 1: "The Melians gave to the Lacedaimonians twenty mnas of silver." See also Loomis (1992), p 13
  7. ^ According to Hultsch (1882), an Aeginetan mina weighed 605 grams. Smith et al. (1890) estimates a weight of 630 grams. Gardner (1918) writes it weighed exactly 9,600 grains, which is about 622 grams.
  8. ^ Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.84: "[The Melians] at first remained neutral and took no part in the struggle, but afterwards upon the Athenians using violence and plundering their territory, assumed an attitude of open hostility."
  9. ^ Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 3.91
  10. ^ Meiggs (1972), p. 322
  11. ^ Zimmern (1961), p 440
  12. ^ Brian Sparkes, in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982): "They were assessed at the figure of fifteen talents [...]"
  13. ^ The mass of an Attic talent was 26.196 kg according to Hultsch (1882), and 25.992 kg according to Dewald (1998).
  14. ^ Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 6.8: "Early in the spring of the following summer the Athenian envoys arrived from Sicily, and the Egestaeans with them, bringing sixty talents of uncoined silver, as a month's pay for sixty ships, which they were to ask to have sent them."
  15. ^ Brian Sparkes, in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), p 277–278: "[...] the assessed Melian tribute of 390 kg of silver would buy wheat sufficient to feed 2,160 men for one year. [...] 390 kg of silver would have bought, as calculated above, 540,000 kg of wheat in 425/424 BC."
  16. ^ In 425 or 424 BC, the government of Athens drew up a list of its client cities and the tributes it expected from each according to their respective wealth. This list was inscribed on marble slabs that were publicly displayed in Athens. The Athenians had hundreds of such presumptuous donors. A few these, taken from tables appearing in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), Meritt & McGregor (1950), p. 349, and Zimmern (1961) and Attic Inscriptions Online, include:
    Thasos — 60 talents
    Paros — 30 talents
    Andros — 15 talents
    Melos — 15 talents
    Naxos — 15 talents
    Ceos — 10 talents
    Chalcis — 10 talents
    Kea — 10 talents
    Tenos — 10 talents
    Siphnos — 9 talents
    Kythnos — 6 talents
    Karystos — 5 talents
    Thera — 5 talents
    Mykonos — 2 talents
    Seriphos — 2 talents
    Ios — 1 talent
    Syros — 1 talent
  17. ^ Brian Sparkes, in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982)
  18. ^ Brian Sparkes, in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982).
  19. ^ Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. 5.84
  20. ^ a b Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. 5.116
  21. ^ Thucydides' account suggests the siege lasted only from summer to winter of 416 BC. Barry Strauss in Sabin et al. (2008) wrote that it lasted one year. The official tourism website of Melos says it lasted two years.
  22. ^ Some translators such as Rex Warner used the phrase "men of military age". The key word in the account by Thucydides is hebôntas (ἡβῶντας), which generally describes people who have passed puberty and in this context refers to the men as Thucydides described a different fate for the women and children. Another possible translation is "men in their prime". Thucydides made no specific mention of what happened to the elderly males.
  23. ^ Xenophon. Hellenica, 2.2.9: "Meantime Lysander, upon reaching Aegina, restored the state to the Aeginetans, gathering together as many of them as he could, and he did the same thing for the Melians also and for all the others who had been deprived of their native states."
  24. ^ Plutarch. Life of Lysander, 14.3: "But there were other measures of Lysander upon which all the Greeks looked with pleasure, when, for instance, the Aeginetans, after a long time, received back their own city, and when the Melians and Scionaeans were restored to their homes by him, after the Athenians had been driven out and had delivered back the cities."
  25. ^ Brain Sparkes, in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), p 50
  26. ^ Hanson (2005), p. 178
  27. ^ Hanson (2005): "[...] triremes could venture out for only a few hours each day. They were entirely dependent on friendly shores to provide food and water each evening. There was very little room to stow food and water in the ships, given the number of rowers and the need for spare rigging and parts. [...] every captain had to berth his trireme each night someplace where fresh water was abundant. [...] To travel even short distances, triremes needed safe ports at intervals of fifty miles or so, where ships could find food (barley bread, onions, dried fish, meats, fruit, and olive oil), water, wine, and shelter for their crews to sleep in. [...] Much of Athenian foreign policy, including its efforts to maintain an ochapteras empire in the Aegean, cultivate allies such as Argos and Corcyra, and establish dependencies at distant Amphipolis and Potidaea, was predicated on just the need to create permanent bases to facilitate long-distance cruises."
  28. ^ Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), p. 49: "...[Melos'] harbour was doubtless useful to either side…"
  29. ^ Constantakopoulou (2007), p. 87
  30. ^ Hanson (2005), p. 172
  31. ^ Hanson (2005), p. 186
  32. ^ Hanson (2005), p. 185: "In the Athenian mind, the Spartans had initiated the cycle of executing surrendering citizens at the very outset of the war, and had continued that policy throughout the first decade of the fighting."
  33. ^ Hanson (2005), p. 182: "Lining up and murdering the surrendered adult Greek male population was still rare before the Peloponnesian War, and such slaughter became habitual only after the siege of Plataea."
  34. ^ Winiarczyk (2016)
  35. ^ Xenophon. Hellenica, 2.2.3: "There was mourning and sorrow for those that were lost, but the lamentation for the dead was merged in even deeper sorrow for themselves, as they pictured the evils they were about to suffer, the like of which they themselves had inflicted upon the men of Melos, who were colonists of the Lacedaemonians, when they mastered them by siege."

    This event takes place after the people of Athens learned of their navy's final defeat at the Battle of Aegospotami.
  36. ^ Isocrates. Panegyricus, 100: "Now up to this point I am sure that all men would acknowledge that our city has been the author of the greatest number of blessings, and that she should in fairness be entitled to the hegemony. But from this point on some take us to task, urging that after we succeeded to the sovereignty of the sea we brought many evils upon the Hellenes; and, in these speeches of theirs, they cast it in our teeth that we enslaved the Melians and destroyed the people of Scione."
  37. ^ Isocrates. Panathenaicus, 62–63: "But I think that, while those who find these words distasteful to listen to will not deny that what I have said is the truth nor, again, will they be able to cite other activities of the Lacedaemonians through which they brought to pass many blessings to the Hellenes, yet they will attempt—as is ever their habit—to denounce our city, to recount the most offensive acts which transpired while she held the empire of the sea, to present in a false light the adjudication of lawsuits in Athens for the allies and her collection of tribute from them, and above all to dwell on the cruelties suffered at her hands by the Melians and the Scionians and the Toronians, thinking by these reproaches to sully the benefactions of Athens which I have just described."
  38. ^ Andocides (pseudo). Against Alcibiades, 22: "[The youth of Athens] take Alcibiades as their model, Alcibiades who carries his villainy to such unheard-of lengths that, after recommending that the people of Melos be sold into slavery, he purchased a woman from among the prisoners and has since had a son by her, a child whose birth was more unnatural than that of Aegis"
  39. ^ Tritle (2002)
  40. ^ The Suda. The relevant entry is Λιμὸς Μηλιαῖος (Fames Meliæa).
  41. ^ Aristophanes. The Birds, line 186 (translated by Ian Johnson, 2008): "Then you'd rule all men as if they're locusts and annihilate the gods with famine, just like in Melos."


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Coordinates: 36°41′N 24°25′E / 36.683°N 24.417°E / 36.683; 24.417