Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Ionian Revolt

August of 2020 marks the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Leading up to that anniversary, I am providing a series of posts on key events and personalities relevant to that historical event.
 Today I continue the series with a brief summary of the Ionian Revolt -- the incident that triggered the first Persian invasion of 490 BC. 

The revolt of Greek city-states of Ionia against the might of Persia triggers analogies with Star Wars. Modern (Western) sympathy is immediately drawn to the underdog -- the rebels -- fighting a presumably "evil" empire. But history is rarely as neat and unequivocal as Hollywood.

The Ionian Revolt was the child of a certain Aristagoras of Miletus, a tyrant who owed his position of privilege to Persia. Aristagoras, not content with ruling the wealthy city of Miletus, was tempted by prospects of even greater wealth when Naxian exiles requested his assistance in being restored to their wealth and positions. Thinking that by assisting them he could put himself in power in Naxos, Aristagoras sought Persians support for the expedition and received no less than 200 "Persian" triremes (i.e. ships manned by client-states) under a Persian commander. The attack began in 499 -- and was a miserable failure. The Naxians were intelligent enough not to try to fight 200 triremes at sea. They withdrew behind their walls and after 4 months the large expeditionary force was out of supplies. In the face of failure, no one had the resources to pay for the ships, crews, and troops, who they had expected to reward with loot.

Aristagoras feared Persian retribution for luring them into this debacle and, to save his own skin, decided to foment revolt among all the Greek cities of the Eastern Aegean then living under Persian rule -- after obtaining promises of aid from the still independent Greek cities. He went first to Sparta, where he tried to win King Cleomenes (known as unstable and inclined to foreign adventures) to the cause. Herodotus famously describes how he sought to ignite Cleomenes' greed with a map of the world in which Sparta is a tiny dot at the fringe and the Persian Empire stretches from edge to edge. All this would be his, Aristagoras suggested to Cleomenes. Hearing, however, that it was a three-month march from the sea to the Persian capital of Susa, Cleomenes indignantly dismissed Aristagoras and ordered him to leave Lacedaemon. When Aristogoras resorted to promises of up-front cash payments, Cleomenes' daughter Gorgo intervened saying: "Father, you had better go away, or the stranger will corrupt you." [Herodotus, Book Five: 51]

Aristagoras went next to Athens where he spoke before the entire Assembly. Again he conjured up images of Persia's immense wealth and assured the Athenians they could triumph because the Persians had become soft and effeminate. The Athenian Assembly made up of thousands of presumably educated (as well as uneducated) adult males proved easier to bamboozle than one Spartan girl. The Athenians agreed to send 20 triremes to assist the rebels with an unknown number of marines (hoplites) on board. (The usual number was 20 per trireme or in this case 400 hoplites.) The only other city on mainland Greek to provide assistance was Eretria, which committed five triremes to the common cause.

These forces proved sufficient for a daring attack overland on the Lydian capital of Sardis (present-day Sartmustafa in Western Turkey) in the spring of 498. The move was so unexpected, they caught the defenders flat-footed. The latter offered no resistance and fled to the acropolis. Then, whether intentional or accidental, the Greeks set fire to the city. The Persians and residents fled to the open market to escape the flames and there, allegedly, their numbers intimidated the Greeks into returning to their ships -- or, possibly, the Greeks had no stomach for the senseless slaughter of women and children after achieving the objective of destroying the city and its sanctuary.

This striking success rapidly encouraged other Greek cities to join the revolt. From the Bosporus to Cyprus cities declared their independence from Persia. This, of course, begs the question 'why?' While Aristagoras' motives for revolt were self-serving and Athenian Eretrian motives were venal, these subject city-states must have been driven to rebellion by other considerations. 

Suggestions that the cities were bled dry by Persian "tribute" or economically ruined by Persian trading monopolies won't wash; the archaeological evidence shows that these cities were building monuments and accumulating reserves of silver coinage. In short, they appear to have prospered under Persian rule. References to loss of liberty or independence, on the other hand, are a bit too vague to justify such a risky venture as revolt. 

The real issue appears to have been Persian settlers/colonists that took land from locals, and -- emotionally more explosive -- conscription.  Peter Krentz in his excellent monograph on the Battle of Marathon notes that the Persian invasion of Scythia had entailed the conscription of tens of thousands of Greek sailors, and the Naxos fiasco had required as many as 40,000. [Peter Kretz, The Battle of Marathon, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) 70.] The Greeks on the Ionian islands and coast along with those in Cyprus may have believed that these demands were only the beginning. They may also have feared that the next target of Persian aggression was likely to be other Greeks. They may have wanted to avoid a fratricidal war fought in the interests of distant Susa. Then again, fratricidal war was the order of the day throughout most of ancient Greek history. Maybe they were simply swept away by the prospect of jumping on what appeared to be a winning bandwagon.

Whatever their reasons, joining the revolt was a mistake. Persia was a huge, centralized Empire. Like a supertanker turning, it took a little time to react, but once it was on course it was a juggernaut. 

The Persians caught up with the rebel raiding force at Ephesus and defeated it with heavy Greek losses. The survivors, however, managed to escape in their ships.  In Cyprus, this pattern was repeated, the rebels lost the land battle and the Ionians sailed back to their own cities leaving the Cypriot cities to face the Persians alone. One by one the Persians battered the Cypriot cities into submission by siege. Siege ramps and tunnels testify to the intensity of these sieges, and the loss of life must have been considerable, as the evidence suggests these sieges lasted for months.  The last stronghold fell in 496.

Meanwhile, after their retreat from Cyprus, the remaining rebels engaged in no further joint campaigns on land. Instead, the Persians started to pick off the rebel cities one at a time. In 495 the target was Miletus, where it had all begun, and the remaining rebels rallied to fight a naval battle. They pulled together 353 triremes off the coast of Miletus and in the Battle of Lade went down in ignominious defeat -- each blaming the others for turning tail and running first. Miletus fell in 494, and the other islands went down one by one until by the end of 493 there were no rebels left.

The Persians did not go gentle with rebels that resisted to the end. At each island, the victors formed a human chain and walked from one side of the island to the other collecting all the survivors. According to Krentz, "they castrated the best-looking boys, took the prettiest virgins for the king, and burned the cities and their sanctuaries." Those of either sex not pretty enough for "special treatment," were simply sold into common slavery. 

Unsurprisingly in light of this treatment, many islands capitulated on terms. These city-states avoided complete destruction and enslavement. However, the tribute owed to Persian was re-assessed and, tellingly, the cities were forced to agree to submit all future disputes to Persian arbitration. Darius apparently blamed the incessant Greek rivalries (the exiled Naxians who had talked Aristagoras into supporting a restoration attempt?) for the problems.

Darius also blamed the Athenians and Eretrians for meddling. Allegedly, he ordered a servant to whisper to him three times whenever he sat down to dinner: "Master, remember the Athenians." [Herodotus, Book Five: 106] Darius didn't. In 490, he sent an expeditionary force to punish both Eretria and Athens for the impudence of fostering rebellion in Ionia. But that is the subject of next month's post.

Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:


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