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The Graeco-Persian Wars: The Ionian Revolt

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The Graeco-Persian Wars
The Combatants | The Ionian Revolt | The Battle of Marathon | The Battle of Thermopylae | The Battle of Salamis | The Battle of Plataea | The Battle of Mycale

The Ionian revolt can be considered the prelude to the Graeco-Persian Wars, since it was partly due to some of the Greek mainland cities' involvement that the king of Persia decided that the Greek threat had to be neutralised. Ionia was the name given to a small area of land on the western coast of Asia Minor (now modern Turkey) where there had been Greek colonies for centuries before the war. Although most of the cities there were of Greek1 origin, it had been many years since they had been under their own government. A succession of conquerors emerged from the rest of Asia to impose themselves on the rich cities of Ionia, and since 546BC the region had been part of the massive Persian Empire. They were often regarded with bewilderment by the Persians, since it seemed to them that they did nothing but quarrel. Compared to the supremely stable system of government the Persians had developed, the Ionian system caused nothing but trouble. It seemed they could unite in nothing.

The greatest city of Ionia was Miletus. As well as being a major trade centre, it was the birthplace of Thales, who was widely acknowledged as the first modern philosopher. The city, and its tyrant2 ruler Histiaeus, enjoyed a special relationship with Persia due to its massive trade income and well-fortified harbours. In 513BC, Darius, Great King of Persia, returned with his army from his first campaign in Europe, conquering Thrace and Macedonia. Histiaeus was rewarded for his support of the expedition with the rule of Myrcinus, a region of Thrace rich in raw materials, and a very desirable prize. However, the King's advisers warned him that a Greek like Histiaeus could not be trusted with such power. Since it would reflect badly on Darius to withdraw his gift, he decided to also bestow upon him the title of 'Royal Table-Companion'. Since this required him to stay in the Darius' retinue, he left for the Persian capital of Susa in 511BC, successfully prevented from causing any trouble. He was succeeded in Miletus by his nephew Aristagoras.


In 502BC, the Aegean island of Naxos revolted. Naxos was the largest and richest of the islands known collectively as the Cyclades. The exiles of the former regime turned to Aristagoras for help. They promised him that once the island was retaken it would become Milesian territory.

At the time Miletus was a rather volatile place. The recent establishment of a democracy in Athens led the Milesians to demand a similar arrangement for the government of their own city; and there were also calls for an end to Persian rule. Aristagoras was in a precarious position, but the potential gains from the enterprise were huge.

Aristagoras agreed to help, but decided that he could not take the island alone. He appealed to Artaphernes, the Persian satrap of Lydia, (and a brother of High King Darius I), for men and ships to help in the invasion. Since Persia was considering an invasion of Greece even then, this seemed an ideal chance to gain a stepping-stone in the Aegean. Artaphernes therefore agreed to supply a fleet of ships. Sources differ, but it is generally agreed that the fleet would have contained between 100 and 200 ships. It was commanded by Megabates, one of the king's cousins and a general of some repute. However, Aristagoras had to make some concessions to secure Persian men and resources. He agreed to giving a portion of the spoils from Naxos to Persia, and also promised to continue his campaign and take the rest of the Cylades, and perhaps even Euboea3. So it was absolutely vital that this first campaign was a success. It was also commanded that Megabates was to remain in full control of the Persian force.

Aristagoras appears to have been a belligerent man, and quite capable of offending people. Though we do not know how, (perhaps because Aristagoras had been hoping to command the Persian fleet as well), he offended Megabates badly enough for the Persian general to sabotage the mission completely. He informed the Naxians of the coming invasion, so they had time to prepare. When the fleet arrived in Naxos it met such resistance that what had been envisaged as a speedy subjugation turned into a war of attrition. After four months of fighting, Aristagoras's funds (and probably his men) were exhausted, and in 499BC they retreated.

The Revolt

The defeat was a huge embarrassment for Artaphernes, who had been promised an easy victory by Aristagoras. It had cost them a lot financially as well. Plus, Aristagoras had boasted of the ease with which he would win the whole Aegean, and was now in a position where he could not repay Artaphernes. His life was in serious danger.

Taking appropriately desperate measures for the times, Aristagoras decided that Ionia would shake off the yoke of Persian rule. The Empire, which he had once hoped would be his close ally, was now his enemy. He stepped down as tyrant and set up a democracy, of which he was elected general. This move gained him a lot of support among the population of Miletus and the other Ionian cities.

The Revolt Spreads

Once Aristagoras lit the fire, the flames were quick to catch. There were a number of reasons why the other Ionian cities were so eager to gain their independence. The most obvious reason was the oppressive nature of Ionian society under Persian rule. When the region was conquered, pro-Persian tyrants were installed to rule the captured cities. Naturally, this might have vexed the population slightly, and when the chance was offered to get rid of them, they took it.

The population was also very heavily taxed. The tribute was set at 400 talents a year, which was a very considerable sum, and also one that the Persians reviewed after the revolt to make the people a little happier. Ionians also fought in the armies of Persia. Though there is no evidence that this was a particular grievance to them, there was probably a certain degree of resentment at the conscription of Ionian Greeks to fight in battles in places they had never even heard of.

Freedom for the Ionians

Aristagoras called upon the Ionian cities to depose their tyrant rulers, and most, if not all, did so. A Commonwealth of Ionians was established: this was quite an achievement considering the usually divisive nature of the Ionians and the Greeks in general. One of the reasons of the eventual failure of the revolt was the divisions within the Ionian camp. Within a short time they had complete freedom, so that Ionia could no longer be considered a Persian dominion. Of course, the Persian Empire was hardly going to allow this to happen.

Aristagoras knew that he would eventually have to fight a Persian army coming to reclaim the region, and so he was soon churning out audacious plans to defeat them. In the winter of 499BC, an Ionian posing as a Persian loyalist travelled to where the Persian fleet was docked north of Miletus and, persuading the Ionians serving there to join the rebellion, stole the lot. Now the Ionians had a formidable navy. Meanwhile, Aristagoras travelled to Greece to drum up support for his cause. Sparta was a powerful force he would certainly have wanted to ally to, but the isolationist tendencies of the city meant he did not succeed. However, he did gain the support of Eretria (a city on Euboea) and Athens. The latter perhaps felt obliged to help since Athenians and Ionians were of similar descent, and had strong cultural links. Whatever the reasons, 20 ships from Athens and five from Euboea sailed across the Aegean (probably far fewer than Aristagoras had hoped for).

Athens was treading a particularly dangerous path. In 507 BC, they had made the symbolic gift of earth and water to Persia, in return for support in a conflict with Sparta. The Athenians did not see the gift as anything important, but the Persians considered this as base treachery. This may have been one of the reasons that Sparta refused to help Ionia. Athens was its rival in Greece and it saw no reason to help it in the war. However, Athens was buoyed with confidence, knowing it was the only democracy in Greece, and proud to be fighting to establish it in Ionia.

The Fighting Begins

In 496BC, when Aristagoras returned with these reinforcements, he found Miletus already under siege. Despite this, the revolutionary spirit had spread across Asia Minor, and many non-Ionian Greek cities had deposed their Persian overlords. Aristagoras decided that, rather than attack the Persian army besieging Miletus, he would take them by surprise and attack the capital of the Lydian satrapy, Sardis. He sailed to Ephesus, and, after organising his army with new Ionian soldiers, marched on the city. It had only a few defenders and fell quickly, but Artaphernes had enough men to hold the citadel against them. The Greeks still had control of the town, and during the pillaging fires broke out, burning it to the ground. Darius was said to be furious after the humiliating sack of his provincial capital, one of the greatest cities of the world in terms of cultural splendour and economic power. He swore vengeance on the Athenians, tasking a servant to remind him three times each day of his vow.

The Ionian victory was short-lived. The Greek force had to retreat from Sardis since new Persian armies were advancing, and on the way back to Ephesus they were forced to turn at bay and fight. The Greek force was heavily defeated, its line shattered by the fast attacks of Persian horsemen and the hail of arrows, and the Athenian and Eretrian forces fled to their ships and back to mainland Greece. The Athenians soon realised that the Persians were not the pushover Aristagoras had portrayed them as, and from then on would coldly refuse any of the pleas for help from across the Aegean.

Even after this setback, more and more Persian-controlled cities joined the revolt. Byzantium and the area around it was, according to the historian Herodotus, 'gained control of' by the Ionians. This phrase suggests a measure of force was required to get the support of the Greeks in the area. In other areas people joined the revolt more freely. Some of the Persian-controlled islands like Cyprus readily deposed their rulers, and the non-Greek Carians in the south-east of Asia Minor were 'won over'. Again, Herodotus's language suggests the Carians were not as enthusiastic as some. Nonetheless, the spread of the rebellion was making life increasingly difficult for Artaphernes.

The rebellion of Cyprus was a major blow to the Persians. From Cyprus the Ionians had a base where they could attack Phoenicia or Egypt, or incite rebellion there. A Persian army under a man named Aritbus was sent to bring the island back under Persian control. Onesilus, the new ruler of Salamis, the island's chief city, sent a message to Ionia for help, and it came - in some considerable strength, according to Herodotus. The two sides fought a battle at sea, and the Ionians, aided by their fellow revolutionaries from other parts of Asia Minor, defeated the Persian fleet (which was, as usual, made of up mostly Phoenician warships). However, a Persian force also landed on Cyprus, and attacked the Cypriot land army. A number of Cypriots defected to the Persian side, either through bribery or because they preferred the regime of the previous tyrant, and the rebels were crushed. The victorious Ionian fleet could still have saved the day if they had landed and attacked the Persians on the island, but they had no orders to do so, and so they sailed home. This lack of initiative was one of the key factors in their eventual defeat.

Persian forces in Ionia were also making inroads. One of Darius's sons-in-law, Daurises, led an army to the Hellespont and, if we are to believe Herodotus, subjugated the area in five days (probably through careful application of bribes rather than fighting major battles). This was the clear cost of forcing the Greeks of the region to revolt in the first place: they just did not have the enthusiasm.

As Daurises was finishing off the last of the resistance there, he heard of a large force of Carians on the march, and he met them at the Marsyas river in Caria. He defeated the rebels heavily, though both sides took heavy losses (10,000 Carians and 2,000 Persians are said to have died). After receiving Ionian reinforcements, the Carians attacked again, and were once more repulsed. Finally, the remaining Carian rebels ambushed Dauris's army at night, and destroyed it. Dauris was killed, but Herodotus never mentions the Carians again after this point. Whether this is because they were so severely weakened after the three battles that they could not hope to retain their freedom, or simply because Herodotus did not consider them important enough to record their exploits in detail, we do not know.

The Battle of Lade and the End of the Revolt

Aristagoras began to realise at this point that the revolt could not succeed. Ionian men and resources were running low and the heavy hoplites4 were no counter for Persian cavalry, while new Persian armies were constantly arriving from the rest of the Empire. Soon Miletus stood almost alone, and even it was under siege. The Ionian fleet was still strong, but there were no allies to supply men and reinforcements from the sea. Aristagoras journeyed to Thrace and Histiaeus's fiefdom and Myrcinus, searching for timber for ships and silver for mercenaries. Unfortunately, the Thracians were not exactly sympathetic to his cause and decided to rid themselves of their Ionian overlord. Aristagoras was knifed to death, and with him died the last hope of Ionian freedom. Belligerent, and occasionally rash Aristagoras may have been, but he had also been the charismatic leader of, and the driving force behind, the rebellion.

Now the revolt was without any form of overall leadership, and the general disorganisation among the Ionians grew. They fell back into old habits and started quarrelling among themselves, helped along by Persian gold and the whisperings of Persian agents and spies. With 350 ships still moored off Miletus, that was a force to be reckoned with. In 494BC the Persians put together a vast fleet5 to neutralise this threat, and the Ionian navy met it at Lade, the port city of Miletus. Everything was staked on this final throw by the leaders of the rebellion.

On one side, freedom - on the other slavery, and the slavery of runaways, at that. - Herodotus.

As well as this accurate summary of the Ionian situation at the time, Herodotus gives us a detailed list of the parts of the Ionian fleet. The main contingents were from Miletus, Chios, Samos and Lesbos (Ephesus, once a major player in the revolt, appears to have returned to the Persian fold by this time, voluntarily or otherwise). The constant bickering among the different factions from the Ionian cities meant great difficulty in choosing a leader for this force, but in the end a compromise was made. The leader was not from one of the major cities, nor one with any great experience. Dionysius of Phocaea was not really the best choice for commander, but that was who they chose.

The Ionian fleet waited at Lade, but nobody came to fight them. The Persians were waiting for further in-fighting to weaken the Ionians. Dionysius ordered a programme of physical exercise to keep the men occupied, but this made him very unpopular. Morale sank lower and lower.

When the Persian fleet finally attacked, the battle was a disaster. Against 600 Persians ships there were only 350 Greek vessels, and all of those from Samos (49 in total) changed sides as soon as the battle started. Those from Lesbos (70 vessels) appeared suddenly struck by despair at this defection, and fled. Outnumbered by over two to one, the Ionian fleet was torn apart. The Chians are given a special mention by Herodotus for their great courage. They managed to break through the Persian line and escape to Ephesus. The Ephesians are said to have attacked and killed them all, to stop them being dragged back into the war. Later, they claimed they assumed the Chians were coming to attack Ephesus, but this is doubtful.

After the disaster at Lade, Miletus fell quickly to the Persian onslaught. Some of the Samians escaped to Sicily, and a new tyrant, Aeaces, was installed in Samos. The Persians wintered in Miletus and then subjugated the remaining cities which had joined the revolt in 493BC. The land the war left behind was utterly devastated.


After the revolt, Persian policy was significantly changed in Ionia. Artaphernes called regular assemblies of the heads of the Ionian states so they could air their grievances to him, and the burden of tribute was reduced. Another of Darius' relatives, Mardonius (who would later command Persian forces in later battles of the Graeco-Persian Wars), later deposed the tyrants, (with the aid of a substantial number of soldiers, of course), and set up democracies. So, despite the overall failure of the revolt, Ionian life was, in many ways, better after it.

Once Asia Minor was secure again, Darius turned his gaze west, across the Aegean. He had obviously not forgotten the vow he made after the sack of Sardis.

1Athens and Ionia shared common blood. Many Ionian cities were founded as Athenian colonies in the centuries after the Trojan War.2The original Greek meaning of the word is different to our own. In this case a tyrant was simply someone who had overthrown the government of a city-state (often with the support of the population) to establish himself as a dictator.3A large island just off the eastern Greek mainland, just a few miles away from Athens.4Soldiers in heavy chest, leg and head armour with large shields, javelins, heavy swords and spears.5Almost from scratch, due to the loss of most of their ships at the start of the revolt.

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