Milos or Melos (Greek: Μήλος Ancient Greek: Μῆλος) is a volcanic Greek island in the Aegean Sea, just north of the Sea of Crete. Milos is the southwesternmost island in the Cyclades group.
The island is famous for the statue of Aphrodite (the “Venus de Milo”, now in the Louvre), and also for statues of the Greek god Asclepius (now in the British Museum) and the Poseidon and an archaic Apollo in Athens.
Obsidian from Milos was a commodity as early as 15,000 years ago. Milos natural glass used for razor sharp “stone tools” was transported well before farming began and later: “There is no early farming village in the Near East that doesn’t get obsidian”. The material was transported for thousands of miles.
The position of Milos, between mainland Greece and Crete, and its possession of obsidian, made it an important centre of early Aegean civilization. Milos lost its arms-making importance when bronze became the preferred material for the manufacture of weapons.
The first settlement at Phylakopi (Greek Φυλακωπή) arose in the Bronze Age, flourishing as the extraction of obsidian was in the decline. The first settlers were tuna fishermen. Lying on the north-east coast, excavations by the British School of Archeology revealed a town wall and a Minoan-inspired structure, dubbed the Pillar room, which contained fragments of vivid wall paintings. The famous fresco of the flying fish was found in the ruins of the Pillar room and was executed with delicate coloring and graphic observation of nature in the graceful movement of a fish. The stylistic similarities to Minoan frescoes are suggested and it could perhaps have been the work of a Cretan artist. Part of the site has been washed away by the sea.
The antiquities found at the site covered three major periods, from the Early Cycladic period to the Mycenaean period Mycenaean age of Greece. At the site much pottery was excavated, with several changing styles and influences over the sites long occupation. In the early occupation of the site, there are many similarities and imports from other Cycladic islands and the settlement was very small. During the Middle Bronze Age however the site expanded significantly and the expansion of Minoan Crete saw an influx of Minoan pottery into the Cyclades, particularly at Akrotiri on Thera, though much found its way to Phylakopi. The quantities found at the Cycladic sites have been taken to suggest a Minoan control over the region, though it could also be the consumptive nature of the islanders adopting in vogue fashions. There is more than just pottery at Phylakopi however, the eruption of the Thera volcano saw a reduction in Minoan presence in the Cyclades and it is at this time that Mycenaean involvement on the islands increases.
At Phylakopi (and unprecedented in the rest of the Cyclades) was found a Megaron structure, which is typically associated with the Mycenaean palaces, such as those at Tiryns, Pylos and Mycenae. This has been taken to suggest that the Mycenaeans conquered the settlement and installed a seat of power for a governor. The evidence is not clear, though again it could be a legacy of the islanders adopting foreign elements into their culture. Particularly unexpected was the discovery in the 1970s of a shrine at the site, which contained many examples of Aegean figurines, including the famous “Lady of Phylakopi”. The shrine is unprecedented in the Bronze Age Cyclades and has provided a valuable insight ito the beliefs and rituals of the inhabitants of Phylakopi. The site was eventually abandoned and was never reoccupied.
In historical times, the island was occupied by Dorians from Laconia. In the 6th century BC, it again produced a remarkable series of vases, of large size, with mythological subjects and orientalizing ornamentation, and also a series of terra-cotta reliefs (Melian Reliefs).
Conflict with Athens
The Greek historian Thucydides wrote in his History of the Peloponnesian War of how, in 416 BCE, Athens attacked Melos for refusing to submit tribute and refusing to join Athens’ alliance against Sparta.
The invasion of Melos occurred during the second phase of the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BCE). The Melians claimed Spartan descent but had remained neutral throughout this conflict. In 426 BCE, Athens had prosecuted a brief perfunctory operation on the island but had withdrawn quickly because they were at the time involved in open conflict with Sparta. In 425 BCE Athens claimed suzerainty over Melos and had demanded tribute. The second attack on Melos occurred five years after Athens and Sparta had signed a peace agreement and some historians like Bosworth believe that Athens’ campaign against Melos in 416 BCE was motivated by imperial expansion.
In the summer of 416 BCE the Athenians landed an army of over 3,000 soldiers on the island, led by the generals Cleomedes and Tisias. They sent diplomats to negotiate a surrender, offering to spare the Melians if they joined the Athenian-dominated Delian League and paid tribute to Athens. The Melians rejected the ultimatum. The Athenians laid siege to the city and withdrew most of their troops from the island to fight elsewhere. For months the Melians withstood the siege, but with reinforcements from Athens and the help of traitors within Melos, the Athenians took the city that winter. In the aftermath, as was common in ancient history with resisted sieges, the Athenians executed all the adult men they caught, and sold the women and children into slavery. They then settled 500 of their own colonists on the island.
The next year, the Athenian tragedian Euripides wrote Trojan Women, which explored the hardships of conquest on women, set in the legendary past of the Trojan War.
When Athens was defeated by Sparta at the end of the Peloponnesian War, the Melian survivors, who had been resettled by Sparta, were restored to their homes by the Spartan general Lysander.