During the Greek-Persian Wars, the people of Milos fought on the side of the Athenians and against the Persians in the naval battle of Salamina and the battle of Plataion (479 B.C.). During the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) Milos attempted to stay neutral and repeatedly refused to join the Athenian alliance. So in 426 B.C. the Athenians set out to subjugate the Milians. Sixty triremes with two thousand fighting men under the command of General Nikias, pillaged the island, but the inhabitants did not submit. Nikias therefore withdrew empty-handed with his fleet.
In 416 B.C. a new Athenian offensive set out for Milos, with thirty-eight triremes and 3,020 men led by Kleomidis and Tisias. They realised that it would not be easy to conquer the Milians in war and therefore tried to persuade them to surrender. A dialogue thus ensued between the Athenians and the Milians who eloquently expressed their right to freedom and autonomy, but refused to submit to the Athenians. Hence the city was besieged. Twice the Milians broke out heroically to secure food supplies. The Athenians sent reinforcements under the command of Philocratis, and at the beginning of 415 B.C., thanks to betrayal, they managed to destroy the city. In an act of extraordinary brutality, they then killed the adult men, and sold the women and children into slavery.
The Milians who had survived the slaughter, returned to their island only after the Athenian defeat by the Spartans at the naval battle of Aegospotami in 405 B.C. They extradited the 500 Athenian cleruchs, who had settled on the island and began rebuilding their city. The destruction of Milos was condemned by the Athenian intellectuals of the time, who were horrified by this inhuman act.
The dialogue, reported by Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, Chapter V, para. 84-116), is often characterised as the most famous invented dialogue in a historical work. Thucydides regards as Hybris (insult) the exercise of one's might and superior advantage to enforce its will on a weaker opponent.
Athenians: Well, then, we Athenians will use no fine words; we will not go out of our way to prove at length that we have a right to rule, because we overthrew the Persians; or that we attack you now because we are suffering any injury at your hands. We should not convince you if we did; nor must you expect to convince us by arguing that, although a colony of the Lacedaemonians, you have taken no part in their expeditions, or that you have never done us any wrong. But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.
Milians: Well, then, since you set aside justice and invite us to speak of expediency, in our judgment it is certainly expedient that you should respect a principle which is for the common good; and that to every man when in peril a reasonable claim should be accounted a claim of right, and any plea which he is disposed to urge, even if failing of the point a little, should help his cause. Your interest in this principle is quite as great as ours, inasmuch as you, if you fall, will incur the heaviest vengeance, and will be the most terrible example to mankind.
Athenians: The fall of our empire, if it should fall, is not an event to which we look forward with dismay; for ruling states such as Lacedaemon are not cruel to their vanquished enemies. And we are fighting not so much against the Lacedaemonians, as against our own subjects who may some day rise up and overcome their former masters. But this is a danger which you may leave to us. And we will now endeavor to show that we have come in the interests of our empire, and that in what we are about to say we are only seeking the preservation of your city. For we want to make you ours with the least trouble to ourselves, and it is for the interests of us both that you should not be destroyed.
Milians: It may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?
Athenians: To you the gain will be that by submission you will avert the worst; and we shall be all the richer for your preservation.
Milians: But must we be your enemies? Will you not receive us as friends if we are neutral and remain at peace with you?
Athenians: No, your enmity is not half so mischievous to us as your friendship; for the one is in the eyes of our subjects an argument of our power, the other of our weakness.
Milians: But are your subjects really unable to distinguish between states in which you have no concern, and those which are chiefly your own colonies, and in some cases have revolted and been subdued by you?
Athenians: Why, they do not doubt that both of them have a good deal to say for themselves on the score of justice, but they think that states like yours are left free because they are able to defend themselves, and that we do not attack them because we dare not. So that your subjection will give us an increase of security, as well as an extension of empire. For we are masters of the sea, and you who are islanders, and insignificant islanders too, must not be allowed to escape us.
Milians: Surely then, if you and your subjects will brave all this risk, you to preserve your empire and they to be quit of it, how base and cowardly would it be in us, who retain our freedom, not to do and suffer anything rather than be your slaves.
Athenians: Not so, if you calmly reflect: for you are not fighting against equals to whom you cannot yield without disgrace, but you are taking counsel whether or no you shall resist an overwhelming force. The question is not one of honor but of prudence.
Milians: But we know that the fortune of war is sometimes impartial, and not always on the side of numbers. If we yield now, all is over; but if we fight, there is yet a hope that we may stand upright.
Athenians: Hope is a good comforter in the hour of danger, and when men have something else to depend upon, although hurtful, she is not ruinous. But when her spendthrift nature has induced them to stake their all, they sec her as she is in the moment of their fall, and not till then. While the knowledge of her might enable them to beware of her, she never fails. You arc-weak and a single turn of the scale might be your ruin. Do not you be thus deluded; avoid the error of which so many are guilty, who, although they might still be saved if they would take the natural means, when visible grounds of confidence forsake them, have recourse to the invisible, to prophecies and oracles and the like, which ruin men by the hopes which they inspire in them.
Milians: We know only too well how hard the struggle must be against your power, and against fortune, if she does not mean to be impartial. Nevertheless we do not despair of fortune; for we hope to stand as high as you in the favor of heaven, because we are righteous, and you against whom we contend are unrighteous; and we are satisfied that our deficiency in power will be compensated by the aid of our allies the Lacedaemonians; they cannot refuse to help us, if only because we are their kinsmen, and for the sake of their own honor. Therefore our confidence is not so utterly blind as you suppose.
Athenians: As for the gods, we expect to have quite as much of their favor as you: for we are not doing or claiming anything which goes beyond common opinion about divine or men's desires about human things. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a law of their nature wherever they can rule they will. This law was not made by us, and we are not the first who have acted upon it; we did but inherit it, and shall bequeath it to all time, and we know that you and all mankind, if you were as strong as we are, would do as we do. So much for the gods; we have told you why we expect to stand as high in their good opinion as you. And then as to the Lacedaemonians, when you imagine that out of very shame they will assist you, we admire the simplicity of your idea, but we do not envy you the folly of it. The Lacedaemonians are exceedingly virtuous among themselves, and according to their national standard of morality. But in respect of their dealings with others, although many things might be said, a word is enough to describe them, of all men whom we know they are the most notorious for identifying what is pleasant with what is honorable, and what is expedient with what is just. But how inconsistent is such a character with your present blind hope of deliverance!
Milians: That is the very reason we trust them; they will look to their interest, and therefore will not be willing to betray the Milians, who are their own colonists, lest they should be distrusted by their friends in Hellas and play into the hands of their enemies.
Athenians: Help may come from Lacedaemon to you as it has come to others, and should you ever have actual experience of it, then you will know that never once have the Athenians retired from a siege through fear of a foe elsewhere. You told us that the safety of your city would be your first care, but we remark that, in this long discussion, not a word has been uttered by you which would give a reasonable man expectation of deliverance. Your strongest grounds are hopes deferred, and what power you have is not to be compared with that which is already arrayed against you. Unless after we have withdrawn you mean to come, as even now you may, to a wiser conclusion, you are showing a great want of sense. For surely you cannot dream of flying to that false sense of honor which has been the ruin of so many when danger and dishonor were staring them in the face. Many men with their eyes still open to the consequences have found the word honor too much for them, and have suffered a mere name to lure them on, until it has drawn down upon them real and irretrievable calamities; through their own folly they have incurred a worse dishonor than fortune would have inflicted upon them. If you are wise you will not run this risk; you ought to see that there I can be no disgrace in yielding to a great city which invites you to become iher ally on reasonable terms, keeping your own land, and merely paying tribute; and that you will certainly gain no honor if, having to choose be-Itween two alternatives, safety and war, you obstinately prefer the worse. To maintain our rights against equals, to be politic with superiors, and to be moderate towards inferiors is the path of safety. Reflect once more when we have withdrawn, and say to yourselves over and over again that you are deliberating about your one and only country, which may be saved or may be destroyed by a single decision.
The Athenians left the conference: the Milians, after consulting among themselves, resolved to persevere in their refusal, and answered as follows, "Men of Athens, our resolution is unchanged; and we will not in a moment surrender that liberty which our city, founded 700 years ago, still enjoys; we will trust to the good fortune which, by the favor of the gods, has hitherto preserved us, and for human help to the Lacedaemonians, and endeavor to save ourselves. We are ready however to be your friends, and the enemies neither of you nor of the Lacedaemonians, and we ask you to leave our country when you have made such a peace as may appear to be in the interest of both parties."
Such was the answer of the Milians; the Athenians, as they quitted the conference, spoke as follows, "Well, we must say, judging from the decision at which you have arrived, that you are the only men who deem the future to be more certain than the present, and regard things unseen as already realized in your fond anticipation, and that the more you cast yourselves upon the Lacedaemonians and fortune, and hope, and trust them, the more complete will be your ruin."
The Athenian envoys returned to the army; and the generals, when they found that the Milians would not yield, immediately commenced hostilities. They surrounded the town of Melos with a wall, dividing the work among the several contingents. The place was now closely invested, and there was treachery among the citizens themselves. So the Milians were induced to surrender at discretion. The Athenians thereupon put to death all who were of military age, and made slaves of the women and children. They then colonized the island, sending thither 500 settlers of their own.
The rise of the brilliant but unscrupulus Alcibiades in Athenian politics around 417 B.C. resulted in a resumption of the policy of conquest, and nowhere opened so fair a field as prosperous Sicily. In 416 B.C., around the time of the Milian expedition, Segesta, a Sicilian ally, asked Athens for protection against Selinus, and promised to pay the expenses of an expedition. This was a pretext for an invasion of Sicily, and its powerful Dorian state Syracuse. Nicias, Alcibiades' political rival, strenuously opposed the undertaking. His contention was that Athens needed all her strength for restoring and maintaining her empire, and for her own defense against Thebes and the Peloponnesus. Furthermore, even if Sicily could be conquered, it would be impossible to hold that great island in subjection. Alcibiades urged war, hoping that it would yield him the mastery of Athens. As a last resort, Nicias tried to dissuade the Athenians by magnifying the size of an expedition needed to conquer Sicily, but the Athenians replied by granting all that he asked.
No armament so magnificent or costly, says Thucydides, had ever been lent out by any single Hellenic power. On the fleet the greatest pains and expense had been lavished by the captains and the state. Men were quite amazed at the boldness of the scheme and the magnificence of the spectacle, which were everywhere spoken of, no less than at the great disproportion of the force when compared with that of the enemy against whom it was intended. Never had a greater expedition been sent to a foreign land; never was there an enterprise in which the hope of future success seemed to be better justified by actual power.
All the financial reserves of Athens were devoted to the expedition. The fleet consisted of 134 triremes, with 130 supply boats. Over 5,000 hoplites, 1,300 light-armed troops, and 30 cavalry comprised the army. Counting the crews, at least 27,000 men made up this vast armada. The Athenians had placed three generals in charge, Alcibiades, Nicias, and Lamachus, a fighter of the old school. Shortly before the departure the Athenians were horrified one morning to find that the Hermae in front of their doors had all been mutiliated. The people were seized with terror lest, as a step toward overthrowing the democracy, a band of conspirators had attempted to deprive the city of her divine protectors. In a panic the citizens assembled on the Pnyx and voted immunity and rewards to any one who gave information against the perpetrators. No one came forward, however, for the deed had probably been committed by drunken youths; but it was revealed that certain persons, among them Alcibiades, had once profaned the Eleusinian mysteries by parodying them at private gatherings in the presence of the uninitiated. Democratic politicians, opposed to Alcibiades, schemed to prosecute him for the sacrilege, and he demanded an immediate trial. But, appreciating his popularity with the soldiers and sailors, they delayed till the expedition had sailed. An indictment for sacrilege was then voted against Alcibiades, and the Salaminia, the state trireme, sailed to Sicily to order his return. On the homeward voyage Alcibiades made his escape to the Peloponnesus, and finally took up his residence at Sparta. There he betrayed Athens by providing counsel to its enemy.
In Sicily, the Athenian commanders, disagreeing as to plan, frittered away nearly a year in petty undertakings, wasting their resources, discouraging their own men, and exciting contempt in the minds of the Sicilian Greeks. The following year, 414 B.C., they besieged Syracuse.
An eclipse of the Moon occurred on Aug. 27, 413, and the superstitious Nicias accepted his soothsayers' advice to delay setting out. The Syracusans soon afterward forced the surrender of the Athenian forces, including Nicias, whom they executed.