Athens and Melos

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Athens and Melos

In the summer of 416 bce an Athenian naval force attacked the small island of Melos, with the intention of coercing it into their alliance. The Melian government refused to cooperate, and the city came under siege. It held out until the winter, when starvation and internal dissidence forced the defenders to unconditional surrender. Then, according to the contemporary historian Thucydides, the Athenians "killed all of the adult Melian men whom they had captured and enslaved the children and women. They settled the place themselves, subsequently sending out five hundred colonists" (Strassler, 1996, p. 357).

One can to some degree delve beneath this bald statement. In the first place Melos was a small community, even by Greek standards. The surface area of the island is a mere fifty-nine square miles. Its total population in antiquity could not have been much more than three thousand, and its military forces were insignificant. Against an expeditionary force of three thousand fighting men, more than its entire male population, Melos had no chance of survival, unless there was outside intervention. That was the nub. The Melians claimed to be related to the Spartans and, unlike the vast majority of Aegean islands, had held aloof from the Athenian alliance. For Thucydides that was the sole motivation for the Athenian aggression. Some modern commentators have argued that the attack was provoked by the Melians, in that the state had contributed money to the Spartan war fund some ten years previously, but the dating of the document in question is very uncertain and it probably dates to a much later period. The Athenians did claim suzerainty, and in 425 they demanded tribute from Melos (along with many other states that they did not, in fact, control). But Melos was not annexed or forced into alliance. A perfunctory operation occurred in 426, when the Athenians ravaged Melian land and quickly withdrew to another theater. At that time they were at war with Sparta and might reasonably have been uncomfortable with Melian neutrality. The invasion of 416, by contrast, took place within the context of a general peace, when Melian sympathies for Sparta were in no sense a threat to Athens, and there is every reason to believe that the motive for the attack was imperial expansion.

Thucydides considered that the Melians had no hope of survival and set on record the famous Melian Dialogue, in which the Athenians and the Melian government exchange views, and the Athenians attempt to coerce their interlocutors to surrender immediately. This is a very elaborate and difficult passage, and it is clearly not a verbatim report of proceedings. However, one cannot dispute that the Athenian generals made representations to the Melian government, and that Thucydides gives the substance of what he believes was said. At the very least, his writings reflect contemporary thinking. In the dialogue the Athenians justify their actions in the most brutal terms. The Melians' very weakness forces them to attack. Their own credibility would suffer if they allowed the Melians to remain neutral. They have no hope of assistance, for the Spartans would not jeopardize the peace they had signed with Athens only five years previously. The only sensible course was to surrender and avoid destruction. If the dialogue does represent the arguments that were actually voiced, then the Melians were threatened with extermination before the siege began, but chose to resist and placed their hopes in the Spartans and divine providence.

There can be no doubt that the Athenians were by any standards violating the norms of civilized behavior, as Thucydides makes them admit in the dialogue: They are not going to make specious claims of justice, for matters of justice are decided when the compulsion on both side is equal. Otherwise, the strong do what they can and the weak concede. Following this logic, the extermination of Melos was a guarantee against resistance elsewhere, and it was appropriate retribution for its government's obstinacy. Other mass killings had more justification. Scione, a city in the north of Greece, suffered the same fate as Melos, but it was already an ally of Athens and had revolted. Scione was explicitly excluded from the peace of 421, in which the Athenians were given a free hand to dispose of it. Similarly, the city of Mytilene in Lesbos had revolted against Athens and, like Melos, surrendered unconditionally after internal dissent. In this case the Athenian assembly voted to kill all males of military age, but retracted the decree the following day. Even so, over one thousand Mytileans were executed as instigators of the revolt. In contrast, the Melians were not in any sense in rebellion. They were attacked in peacetime and their crime was simply resistance, their punishment exemplary. The Athenians at first appear to have been indifferent. Shortly afterward the comic poet Aristophanes in the Birds made a callous joking reference to "Melian starvation." The Athenians may have treated it as a joke, but they recognized the enormity of their action. In 405, when it was apparent that they would be forced to capitulate, they felt they would suffer what they had inflicted on others; the treatment of the Melians is first on the list of atrocities that are mentioned. It was a repeated accusation against Athens throughout the next century, and the orator Isocrates can only echo Thucydides' dialogue and offer the lame excuse that other states would do the same and worse.

The killing did not result in extermination. It is clear that many Melians survived and lived elsewhere as exiles. One actually served as a commander in the Spartan navy that won the decisive victory over the Athenians, and there were enough Melians left to form a viable community on Melos after the Athenian colonists were expelled in 404. Thereafter Melos continued its history as a small independent state, and there is an epigraphic record that exists of the settlement of a land dispute that it had with its even smaller neighbor Cimolus. This leads one to question how systematic the killing had been. Thucydides himself notes that only those whom the Athenians had captured were put to death. Others presumably escaped during the course of the siege, which did witness a few localized Melian victories. Events at Mytilene may provide a parallel. There, once the city had surrendered unconditionally, its fate was decided by the Athenian assembly, as was that of the Melians, and an interval of a week or fortnight must have elapsed before the decree was received by the fighting force. During that time there would have been ample opportunity for Melian prisoners to escape. The commanders on the scene may well have felt some political sympathy for the democratic faction there, given that the city had been driven to resistance by what Thucydides regards as its pig-headed oligarchic government, and some Melians at least had made overtures to the Athenians before their surrender. Whether (as has been argued) they felt any affinity with imperial Athens is dubious, but they were not dogmatically set on resistance at any price. A number of them may have been allowed to disappear before the order for execution was given. That being said, Athens' actions fall squarely within the terms of Article 2 of the Genocide Convention, in that they were intended to destroy a national group (as the Melian city-state could be defined) "in whole or in part," and they were largely successful in achieving that end.

By any standards the treatment of the Melians was a crime against humanity. The crux is not the enslavement of women and children. However repugnant to modern sentiment that may be, it was acknowledged contemporary practice. According to Xenophon in Cyropaedia (7.5.73), "it is a universal and eternal law that in a city taken during a war everything, including persons and property, belongs to the victor." In his Politics, Aristotle was to agree, claiming that the "law" was in fact a convention, a general agreement. The Athenians themselves were threatened with collective enslavement when they surrendered in 404, but were saved by their reputation (and no doubt the logistics of justifying such vast numbers). There can have been little quarrel with the enslavement of captives after capitulation. However, the killing of combatants who had thrown themselves on the victor's mercy was a different matter. It amounted to violation of the rights of the suppliant. For Thucydides, admittedly in a tendentious passage (3.58.2), "it is law for the Greeks not to kill such people," (Thucydides 3.58.3) and it seems to have been a general principle as well as logical practice to spare the lives of opponents who surrendered unconditionally. Otherwise, there was nothing to gain by surrender. The killing of the Melians was compounded by the circumstances of the attack, which was an unashamed exercise in imperialism, and it is rightly seen as the most flagrant and unjustified act of repression carried out by the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War.

SEE ALSO Armenians in Ottoman Turkey and the Armenian Genocide; Enver, Ismail; Talaat


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A. B. Bosworth