The Melian Dialogue Thesis Statement

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.

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 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.


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, an alliance led by Athens. The people of Melos had ancestral ties to Sparta[1][2] but were independent.[3] In 427 BC the Melians donated at least twenty Aeginetan minae[4][5] (roughly 12½ kg[6] of silver) to the Spartan war effort. Otherwise, the island remained neutral in the war.[7]

In 426 BC, Athens sent an army of 2,000 men led by Nicias to raid the Melian countryside,[8] but the Melians refused to do battle and the Athenians were not willing to mount a siege.[9] In 425 or 424 BC, Athens formally demanded of Melos a tribute of fifteen talents[10][11] of silver (roughly 390 kg[12]). This sum could have paid the wages of a trireme crew for 15 months,[13] or bought 540 metric tons of wheat, enough to feed 2,160 men for a year.[14] Only the islands of Paros and Thasos were assessed for more at 30 and 60 talents respectively.[15] This is evidence that Melos was a prosperous island. Melos had never paid tribute to Athens before, and they refused to pay now.[16]

The siege[edit]

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.[18] 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.[19] Melos surrendered in the winter of 416 or 415 BC.[20]

The Athenians executed the adult men[21] and sold the women and children into slavery. They then settled 500 of their own colonists on the island.[19]

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.[22][23] The once-independent Melos became a Spartan territory. It now had a Spartan garrison and a military governor (a harmost).[24]

The Melian Dialogue[edit]

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".[25]

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 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 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 needed friendly and neutral ports where the crew could purchase food and other necessities on a daily basis.[26] Whether or not Melos was truly neutral, Peloponnesian ships could freely resupply there, which made it strategically important to the enemy.[27] Capturing Melos reduced the reach 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.[28] 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.[29] The Athenian rhetorician Isocrates was a proud patriot but accepted that the razing of Melos was a stain on Athens' history.[30][31]

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.[32] This account gives no date for the decree, so it could have been passed to justify the atrocities after-the-fact.[33] 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.[34] Its usage lasted well into the Byzantine era, as it is mentioned in the Suda, a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia.[35]

See also[edit]


  • Constantakopoulou, Christy (2007). The Dance of the Islands. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-921595-9. 
  • Gardner, Percy (1918). A History of Ancient Coinage. Oxford at the Clarendon Press. 
  • Hanson, Victor (2011). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. Random House Publishing Group. ISBN 978-1-58836-490-6. 
  • Herodotus (1998) [440 BC]. Dewald, Carolyn, ed. The Histories. Translated by Waterfield, Robin. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-212609-2. 
  • Hultsch, Friedrich (1882). Griechische und Römische Metrologie [Greek and Roman Metrology] (in German) (2nd ed.). Weidmannsche Buchhandlung. 
  • Loomis, William T. (1992). The Spartan War Fund: IG V 1, 1 and a New Fragment. Franz Steiner Verlag. ISBN 978-3-515-06147-6. 
  • Low, Polly, ed. (2008). Athenian Empire. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-3124-7. 
  • Meiggs, Russell (1972). The Athenian Empire. Carendon Press. 
  • Meritt, Benjamin Dean; McGregor, Malcolm Francis (1950). The Athenian Tribute Lists. 3. ASCSA. ISBN 978-0-87661-913-1. 
  • Michell, Humfrey (1964). Sparta. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-09219-7. 
  • Midlarsky, Manus (2005). The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-139-44539-9. 
  • Renfrew, Colin; Wagstaff, Malcolm, eds. (1982). An Island Polity: The Archaeology of Exploitation in Melos. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23785-8. 
  • Sabin, Philip; van Wees, Hans; Whitby, Michael, eds. (2008). The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare, Volume 1: Greece, the Hellenistic World and the Rise of Rome. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-78273-9. 
  • 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 Richard Crawley (1914).
  • Tritle, Lawrence A. (2002). From Melos to My Lai: A Study in Violence, Culture and Social Survival. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-60364-0. 
  • Winiarczyk, Marek (2016). Diagoras of Melos: A Contribution to the History of Ancient Atheism. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. ISBN 978-3-11-044765-1. 
  • Zimmern, Alfred (1961). The Greek Commonwealth: Politics and Economics in Fifth-Century Athens (5th ed.). Oxford University Press. 


  1. ^Herodotus. The Histories, 8.48: "The Melians (who are of Lacedaemonian stock) [...]"
  2. ^Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 5.84: "The Melians are a colony of Lacedaemon [...]"
  3. ^Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), p. 49: "The start of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC saw Melos and Thera still independent..."
  4. ^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."
  5. ^The evidence is an inscription (Inscriptiones Graecae V 1, 1) which reads: "The Melians gave to the Lacedaimonians twenty mnas of silver." See Loomis (1992), p 13
  6. ^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.
  7. ^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."
  8. ^Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 3.91
  9. ^Meiggs (1972), p. 322
  10. ^Zimmern (1961), p 440
  11. ^Brian Sparkes, in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982): "They were assessed at the figure of fifteen talents [...]"
  12. ^The mass of an Attic talent was 26.196 kg according to Hultsch (1882), and 25.992 kg according to Dewald (1998).
  13. ^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."
  14. ^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."
  15. ^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
    Carystos — 5 talents
    Thera — 5 talents
    Mykonos — 2 talents
    Seriphos — 2 talents
    Ios — 1 talent
    Syros — 1 talent
  16. ^Brian Sparkes, in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982)
  17. ^Based on an essay by Brian Sparkes, published in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982).
  18. ^Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. 5.84
  19. ^ abThucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. 5.116
  20. ^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. Several online sources, such as the official tourism website of Melos, say it lasted two years.
  21. ^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.
  22. ^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."
  23. ^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."
  24. ^Brain Sparkes, in Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), p 50
  25. ^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".
  26. ^Hanson (2011): "[...] 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."
  27. ^Renfrew & Wagstaff (1982), p. 49: "...[Melos'] harbour was doubtless useful to either side…"
  28. ^Winiarczyk (2016)
  29. ^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.
  30. ^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."
  31. ^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."
  32. ^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"
  33. ^Tritle (2002)
  34. ^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."
  35. ^The Suda. The relevant entry is Λιμὸς Μηλιαῖος (Fames Meliæa).

Coordinates: 36°41′N24°25′E / 36.683°N 24.417°E / 36.683; 24.417

Melos, and the approximate location of the ancient city.[17]

The leaders of Melos faced a terrible choice: Have their Countrymen die as free men or live as slaves. The powerful Athenian generals and their fleet of 38 ships carrying heavy infantry and archers waited at the shores of Melos ready for action as the Melians deliberated.


It was the sixteenth year of the Peloponnesian War, but for the last six years the two great feuding empires headed by Athens and Sparta (Lacedaemon) had avoided open hostile action against each other. Ten years into the War, they had signed a treaty of peace and friendship; however, this treaty did not dissipate the distrust that existed between them. Each feared the others' hegamonic designs on the Peloponnese and sought to increase its power to thwart the subversion to strengthen itself and weaken its rival. This struggle for hegemony by Athens and Sparta was felt most acutely by small, hitherto 'independent' states who were now being forced to take sides in the bipolar Greek world of the fifth century B.C. One such state was Melos.

Despite being one of the few island colonies of Sparta, Melos had remained neutral in the struggle between Sparta and Athens. Its neutrality, however, was unacceptable to the Athenians who, accompanied by overwhelming military and naval power, arrived in Melos to pressure it into submission. After strategically positioning their powerful fleets, the Athenian generals sent envoys to Melos to negotiate the island's surrender.

The commissioners of Melos agreed to meet the envoys in private. They were afraid the Athenians, known for their rhetorical skills, might sway the people if allowed a public forum. The envoys came with an offer that, if the Melians submitted and became part of the Athenian empire, their people and their possessions would not be harmed. The Melians argued that by the law of nations they had the right to remain neutral, and no nation had the right to attack without provocation. Having been a free state for seven hundred years, they were not ready to give up that freedom. Thucydides, an Athenian historian, captures the exchange between the Melian commissioners and the Athenian envoys:


: "...all we can reasonably expect from this negotiation is war, if we prove to have right on our side and refuse to submit, and in the contrary case, slavery."


: "...we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses---either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of the wrong that you have done us---and make a long speech that would not be believed; and in return, we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although they are colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, ...since you know as well as we do the right, as the world goes, is only in question between equal power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."2

The Melians pointed out that it was to the interest of all states to respect the laws of nations: "you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right...." They reminded the Athenians that a day might come when the Athenians themselves would need such protection.

But the Athenians were not persuaded. To them, Melos' submission was in the interest of their empire, and Melos.


: "And how pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?"


: "Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you."


: "So [that] you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side?"


: "No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness and your enmity of our power."

When the Melians asked if that was their 'idea of equity,' the Athenians responded:

"As far as right has as much of it as the other, and if any maintain their independence, it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them, it is because we are afraid..."4

By subjugating the Melians, the Athenians hoped not only to extend their empire, but also to improve their image and thus their security. To allow the weaker Melians to remain free, according to the Athenians, would reflect negatively on Athenian power.

Aware of their weak position, the Melians hoped that the justice of their cause would gain them the support of the gods, " and what we want in power will be made up by the alliance with the Lacedaemonians who are bound, if only for very shame, to come to the aid of their kindred."


: "...Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made; we found it existing before us, and will leave it to exist forever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else having the same power as we have would do the same as we do. Thus, as far as the gods are concerned, we have no fear and no reason to fear that we shall be at a disadvantage. But...your notion about the Lacedaemonians, which leads you to believe that shame will make them help you, here we bless your simplicity but do not envy your folly. The Lacedaemonians...are most conspicuous in considering what is agreeable, honourable, and what is expediently just...Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty as compared to those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious. You will therefore show great blindness of judgment unless, after allowing us to retire, you can find some counsel more prudent than this."5

The envoys then left the conference giving the Melians the opportunity to deliberate on the Athenian offer and decide the best course for them to follow.


Adapted from Thucydides, The Pelopponesian War (New York: Random House, 1951), by Suresht Bald, Williamette University.

Thucydides, The Pelopponesian War (New York: Random House, 1951), p. 331.

Ibid, p 331.

4.  Ibid, p 332.

5.  Ibid, p 332.

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