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Attack on Melos

In 416 an Athenian force beseiged the tiny city-state on the island of Melos1 situated in the Mediterranean south of the Peloponnese, a community sympathetic to Sparta2 that had taken no active part in the war, although it may have made a monetary contribution to the Spartan war effort. In any case, that Athens considered Melos an enemy had been made clear earlier when Nicias had led an unsuccessful attack on the island in 426.3 Now once again Athens in 416 demanded that Melos support its alliance voluntarily or face destruction, but the Melians refused to submit despite the overwhelming superiority of Athenian force. When Melos eventually had to surrender to the beseiging army, its men were killed and its women and children sold into slavery.4 An Athenian community was then established on the island. Thucydides portrays Athenian motives in the affair of Melos as concerned exclusively with the amoral politics of the use of force, while the Melians he shows as relying on a concept of justice to govern relations between states. He represents the leaders of the opposing sides as participating in a private meeting to discuss their views of what issues are at stake. This passage in his history5, called the Melian Dialogue, offers a chillingly realistic insight into the clash between ethics and power in international politics.

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