Obsidian from Milos was a commodity as early as 13,000 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. However the mining of obsidian did not lead to the development of permanent habitation or manufacturing on the island. Instead, those in search of obsidian arrived by boat, beaching it in a suitable cove and cutting pieces of the volcanic glass from the quarries.
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 palace with some important and very interesting wall paintings. "The famous fresco of the flying fish found in the ruins of the principal house or palace at Phylakopi, with its delicate coloring and graphic observation of nature in the graceful movement of the fish, seems to be the work of a Cretan artist, who probably was summoned to Milos for the purpose." Part of the site has been washed away by the sea.
The antiquities found were of three main periods, all preceding the Mycenaean age of Greece. Much pottery was found, including examples of a peculiar style, with decorative designs, mostly floral, and also considerable deposits of obsidian. There are some traditions of a Phoenician occupation of Milos.
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.