The Ionian Revolt

written by Jacob Davis '22
edited by Nicole Stark '22 & Wendy Zhen '22

Writing nearly two and a half millennia ago, in the year 430 B.C. (all further dates are in B.C.), Herodotus describes in wandering prose the outbreak of the great Greco-Persian conflict. His work, titled The Histories, is widely considered to be the first work of in the genre history, thus bestowing him with the affectionate sobriquet of the Father of History. His account was written a mere two decades after the triumphant band of Greek city-states freed much of Ionia and forced the Persians into agreeing to the Peace of Callias. The Histories, ‘historiai’ meaning ‘enquiries’ in ancient greek, is the only textual primary source we have for the period besides the archaeological remains of Persian monuments found throughout their expansive empire.

The Ionian Revolt serves as the initial tussle of the larger battle between the Greeks and the Persians known as the Greco-Persian War. Aristagoras, one of the leaders of the revolt, convinced some of the mainland Greek city-states to assist in the conflict, most notably the Athenians. Although the revolt was not successful in freeing the Greeks, the Ionian campaign razed Sardis, a regional capital of the Persians. This enraged Darius, prompting him to have his servants remind him of Athens three times a day until he sought retribution.[1] This promise is said to have initiated the Greco-Persian War in which Darius, and then his successor Xerxes, invaded Greece forcing the Greek poleis to band together in alliance against a common foe. It was in this chronicled war that the 300 Spartans (plus some 3,000 often overlooked Peloponnesians) valiantly lost attempting to defend the pass at Thermopylae and the fleet of Athens cunningly outmaneuvered the larger Persian fleet in the Battle of Salamis.

It is important to familiarize oneself with the broader geography and context of the Ancient World in order to better understand the roots of the struggle. The Greeks categorized themselves into four main quasi-ethnic groups: the Dorians, Aeolians, Achaeans, and Ionians. As Herodotus avers, “Athens aside, [the Ionians] could not boast a single city of any consequence,” and further relates that the twelve cities on the opposite side of the Aegean sea are of Ionian descent.[2] The time period of the Ionian diaspora was likely during what is known as the Greek Dark Ages between the fall of the Mycenaean civilization and the development of the Greek city-states. The Aegean islands and the Anatolian coast were the primary regions of settlement by the Ionians during this era.[3]

In what is modern day Iran, the Persian Empire was based in the glorious capital of Susa. It was led by the Achaemenid dynasty which was founded around 550 by Cyrus the Great and his subsequent military domination of Lydia and the Medes, both of which further strengthened the numbers of the Persian forces. In 513, Darius the Great, a usurper of the throne but still a member of the Achaemenid family, used his wieldy force to set out on a military campaign in Scythia, a region above the Black Sea occupied by the nomadic Scythians. The Scythians were known for their prowess on horseback but when facing the large Persian army, they simply evaded battle in the hope that the Persians would eventually give-up. This strategy annoyed Darius and after a long, mainly fruitless foray into Scythian territory, he decided to head back to Persia. However, to return to Persia he needed to cross the Istros, now known as the Danube. In order to ford the Istros, Ionian ships were employed to effectively create a temporary bridge. The tyrants who ruled the Ionian cities were left in charge of guarding the bridge, and as a result they had the opportunity to strand Darius in Asia and declare independence from Achaemenid rule. The Scythians sent the tyrants a message prompting this course of action which one of them, Miltiades, was in favor of. However, he was unanimously overwhelmed by opposition once Histiaeus claimed that Darius was the reason that they were the potentates of their cities in the first place. Histiaeus then told the Scythians that they agreed to their plan and would strand the Persians with the real hope being to potentially lull the Scythians into a battle with Darius. So the bridge constructed of boats was kept intact and Histiaeus was summarily rewarded with possession of Myrcinus, a settlement built by the Ionians during the Scythian campaign, once Darius heard of his loyalty.

A little while later, Darius was alerted by his general Megabazus that Histiaeus was fortifying Myrcinus, which was a strategically important trading city in addition to containing resources such as silver and timber. Darius then decided to request Histiaeus to come with him to Susa under the pretense of acting as a councillor but really to keep him under his watch. Histiaeus could not refuse this offer without appearing more suspicious, so he went with Darius, instead placing his nephew and son-in-law Aristagoras in charge of Miletus (Histiaeus’s original domain) while a deputy was likely in charge of Myrcinus.[4] It has been suggested that Megabazus fabricated the tale to sequester Histiaeus and gain influence since jealousy between Persian and Greek officers is a recurrent theme in The Histories.[5]

According to Herodotus, Histiaeus is disgruntled with his life in Susa and decides to foment a rebellion in Ionia. He sends a slave to Aristagoras, the ruler of Miletus in place of Histiaeus, bearing the message of revolt. Aristagoras then abdicates his position as ruler, therefore creating a pseudo-democracy and winning over the Milesians to his side. He continues to depose tyrants throughout Ionia, restoring freedom to his cities while convincing them to join the revolutionary cause.[6] Next, he pleads for military help from the Lacedemonians (i.e. Spartans) and the Athenians, the latter of which send him 20 ships worth of warriors. Although they find early success with the burning of Sardis, the insurgents are soon on the defensive and, following a decisive naval defeat at the Battle of Lade in 494, the Ionians resubmit to Persian rule.

Amongst modern scholars it is generally accepted that the role of Histiaeus in the rebellion was exaggerated or even made-up due to the implausibility of the story.[7] However, some believe that Herodotus underestimates the cunning of Histiaeus’s actions.[8] I hold that it is quite possible, if not likely, that Histiaeus was actually in agreement with Miltiades about abandoning the Persians at the Istros, but instead used his anti-Persian sentiment as a way to secure a reward from Darius for illuminating the traitor in his midst. This would explain his attempt to fortify Myrcinus in preparation for a revolt as well as his later action of sending a messenger to prompt Aristagoras to incite the rebellion. His actions fit the form of guileful insurgent, looking to consolidate power for himself through ingratiating himself with Darius before pouncing on his opportunity to rebel. In addition, the two cities under his direct rule, Miletus and Myrcinus, were prosperous coastal trading settlements that would have the coffers to sponsor such an ambitious uprising.

The attempt by Histiaeus and Aristagoras to lead an alliance of Greeks against the incursions of the Achaemenids was, by many measures, ahead of its time. For it would take an invasion by Darius, and later Xerxes, to unite the mainland Greeks in opposition to Persian domination. However, it was the actions of Histiaeus, Aristagoras, and the Athenians that set the scene for the Greco-Persian War soon to follow and the beginning of the ideological antagonism, often leading to armed conflict, that has characterized the relationship between the East and the West for over two millennia.

[1] Herodotus, The Histories, Book V, Chapter 105.

[2] Ibid., Book I, Chapter 143.

[3] Robert Garland, Wandering Greeks: The Ancient Greek Diaspora from the Age of Homer to the Death of Alexander the Great (Princeton University Press, 2016), 34.

[4] The Histories, Book V, Chapters 23-25.

[5] J. A. S. Evans, “Histiaeus and Aristagoras: Notes on the Ionian Revolt,” The American Journal of Philology 84, no. 2 (1963): 117.

[6] The Histories, Book V, Chapters 37-38.

[7] Vanessa B. Gorman, Miletos, the Ornament of Ionia: A History of the City to 400 B.C.E (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 135.

[8] Mabel Lang, “Herodotus and the Ionian Revolt,” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 17, no. 1 (1968): 25.