Siege of Melos
The Siege of Melos occurred in 416 BC during the Peloponnesian War, which was a war fought between Athens and Sparta. Melos is an island in the Aegean Sea roughly 110 km east of mainland Greece. Though the Melians had ancestral ties to Sparta, they were neutral in the war. Athens invaded Melos in the summer of 416 BC 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 the men of Melos and enslaved the 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 classical 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 without a fight was self-preservation. It is taught as a classic case study in political realism to illustrate that selfish and pragmatic concerns 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. Melos was the only significant island in the Aegean Sea that Athens did not control. The people of Melos were Dorians, the same ethnic group as the Spartans, but they were independent of the Spartan empire; the Athenians were Ionians. In general, the Melians sought to remain neutral in the war, although there is archaeological evidence that sometime between 428 and 425 BC, the Melians donated at least twenty minas of silver (about 12½ kg) to the Spartan war effort.
In 426 BC, 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 BC, 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 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 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.
In 405 BC, 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 84–116), 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 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 other Greek states on the mainland are unlikely to act this way, because they are free and independent and thus loath to take up arms against Athens. What worries Athens is potential rebellions in its empire from disgruntled peoples they have already conquered. Conquering Melos will demonstrate Athens' strength and discourage rebellions.
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 foolhardiness.
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 reasonable terms. 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 rebelling. 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. Whatever benefit the conquest of Melos produced was wiped away by the disaster that happened in Sicily.
Whether Melos was truly neutral is sometimes debated by scholars. Thucydides wrote that after the raid by Nicias in 426 BC, 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 12½ kg silver), but it's uncertain whether this donation happened before or after 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 capturing it denied 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 BC, 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 revolts. 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 BC 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 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.
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 BC, 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.
- Crane (1998), p. 61-65
- Seaman (1997), p. 412
- Brian Sparkes, in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), p. 45
- Herodotus. The Histories, 8.48: "The Melians (who are of Lacedaemonian stock) [...]"
- Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.84: "The Melians are a colony of Lacedaemon [...]"
- Brian Sparkes, in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), p. 49: "The start of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC saw Melos and Thera still independent..."
- 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."
- Estimates of the weight of an Aeginetan mina:
605 g (Hultsch (1882), p. 502)
630 g (Smith et al. (1890), p. 448)
622 g (Gardner (1918), p. 114)
623.7 g (Oleson (2008), p. 764)
- de Ste. Croix (1954): "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'. [...] there is good reason to think these gifts to Sparta were made in the spring of 427."
- Loomis (1992), p. 74: "The Melians might have had a strong motivation to contribute to the Spartan war effort either in response to Nikias' attack, i.e. in 426 or 425, or, as independent Dorian islanders alarmed at Athenian control of the Aegean, they might have contributed earlier, perhaps in 428 or 427, and hence provoked the attack."
- Inscriptiones Graecae V 1, 1: "The Melians gave to the Lacedaimonians twenty mnas of silver."
- Seaman (1997), p. 387
- Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 3.91
- Meiggs (1972), p. 322
- 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), 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
Estimates of the weight of an Attic talent:
26.196 kg (Hultsch (1882), p. 135)
25.992 kg (Dewald (1998), p. 593)
26.2 kg (Oleson (2008), p. 764)
- Rawlings (2007), p. 114: "Each trireme had a crew of 200 [...] In good times, such as the early years of the Archidamian War, rowers could receive as much as a drachma per day. At this rate each ship would cost one talent per month to crew."
- 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."
- 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."
- Malcolm Wagstaff and John F. Cherry in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), p. 140: "The tribute payable by Melos was fixed by the 425/424 BC reassessment decree at fifteen talents, which to judge from the payments made by islands of other sizes was about twice what might have been expected. Although this may be related to the Melians' ability to produce silver from their own resources, it could be taken as an indication of a densely settled island, with correspondingly high levels of productivity and surplus"
- Brian Sparkes, in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), p. 49
- Brian Sparkes, in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), p. 53-55
- Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.84-116
- The word by which Thucydides referred to the executed is hebôntas (ἡβῶντας), which generally means people who have passed puberty and in this context refers to the men as Thucydides described a different fate for the women and children. Rex Warner translated this as "men of military age". Another possible translation is "men in their prime". Thucydides made no specific mention of what happened to the elderly males.
- Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.116
- Brian Sparkes, in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), p. 49-50: "Melos thus passed from Athenian to Spartan control, and the Melians who returned found a government of ten established, made effective by the presence of a Spartan garrison and of a harmost or military commander."
- 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."
- 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."
- Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.89
Original Greek: δυνατὰ δὲ οἱ προύχοντες πράσσουσι καὶ οἱ ἀσθενεῖς ξυγχωροῦσιν
William Smith (1831): "in what terms soever the powerful enjoin obedience, to those the weak are obliged to submit."
Richard Crawley (1910): "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must"
Rex Warner (1954): "the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept".
Benjamin Jowett (1881): "the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must".
Thomas Hobbes (1629): "they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get".
Johanna Hanink (2019): "Those in positions of power do what their power permits, while the weak have no choice but to accept it."
- Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. 5.84
- Meiggs (1972), p. 385: "Specific Athenian charges against Melos should have figured prominently in the talks; Thucydides ignores them."
- Seaman (1997), p. 413-414: "There is no solid evidence for a special charge brought against the Melians in 416 and there is no compelling reason to presume one. If there was an antecedent quarrel that provoked the attack, it probably would not have remained hidden in the sources but would have surfaced, if not in Thucydides or Xenophon, then certainly in the writings of the fourth century Attic orators who defended the expedition."
- Crane (1998), p. 61-65
- Constantakopoulou (2007), p. 87
- Rawlings (2007), p. 118-120
- Hanson (2005), p. 258-260: "[...] 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 overseas 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."
- Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), p. 49: "...[Melos'] harbour was doubtless useful to either side..."
- Hanson (2005), p. 172
- Hanson (2005), p. 186
- 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."
- 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."
- Winiarczyk (2016), p. 53: "The actions of the Athenians were condemned throughout Greece and in the 4th century BC Athenian rule was associated with the capture of Melos"
- Law (1919), p. 146: "Isocrates does not attempt to deny these charges but uses the Tu quoque argument to Sparta. Sparta's treatment of subject cities has been worse than that of Athens; Sparta has laid waste large and flourishing cities; the Athenians were within their rights in punishing revolting colonies."
- Isocrates. Panegyricus, 100-102, 110
- Isocrates. Panathenaicus, 62–63
- 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.
- Aristophanes. The Birds, line 186 (translated by George Murray): "You'll rule mankind like gnats and cockchafers, and with a Melian famine starve the gods!"
- Winiarczyk (2016), p. 53
- A translation of the relevant entry from the Suda is available from Suda On Line (section lambda 557).
- Ringer (2016), p. 165
- 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"
- Tritle (2002), p. 121
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