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The Ionian Revolution


The account of the Ionian revolt has been surrounded by a lot of controversies concerning its causes and people who were involved, its leaders. This confusion can be entirely attributed to the lack of clear documentation of this historic event. Its recording might have been done approximately two generations after the real revolt and in addition to this delay in recording, the vagueness of this account can also be attributed to the radical difference between the situations in which the revolt occurred and the situation in which it was recorded.

The Ionians had been loyal colonies of the Persians and were always ready to join them in all their expeditions against their neighbors such as Thrace, Nexa and Scythia. However, the problem broke up when the outcome of the Thrace and Scythian expedition did favor them. The Ionians expected to strengthen their bonds with the colonies in Thrace and Scythia such that they had to react when they realized that Persians had consolidated their position in these cities. It is from this sense of dissatisfaction that the Ionians rebelled against the Persians at the end of the Scythian expedition. As opposed to the Persians' imposition of a governor in Thrace, the Ionians wished to have an absolute freedom in their business dealings with the Thracians. The Persian governor was, therefore, perceived as the Persians’ intention of interfering with this business freedom.

The first sense of the revolt was felt on the fleet to Naxian expedition when Aristagoras disapproved of the Persian Commander, Megabates’ way of treating one of the Myndian captains. Having felt discontent with the commander’s punishment to the captain, Aristogoras openly intervened in an argument which led to a bitter quarrel between him and the commander. However, some historians have translated this as just an Aristagoras’ issue, but it was a good highlight of the friction between the Ionians and their Persian officers.

In spite of the many cities that formed Ionia and the intensity of the revolt that took place between 500 BC and 495 BC, just a few poleis such as Chios, Samos and Miletus were at the core of it. The reaction of Chios by arresting Histiaeus, who was seen as an ardent tyrant and loyalist of King Darius, signified their great take in the entire Ionian revolt. On their part, Miletus being closely associated with Aristagoras, the leader and author of the revolt, puts them at the very core of this insurrection. Other cities such as Lebos and Byzantium were also involved, though not totally. Lebos got less enthusiastic may be as of a result of the Histiaeus’ promise of negotiating peace for them between 496 and 495 BC.

The revolt was mainly led by Aristagoras, though Histiaeus was suspected to be in support of it. Aristagoras was the tyrant of Myrcinus, of which he took over from Histiaeus who was ruling over Miletus, but at the time of the revolt, he was called to Susa as the King’s adviser. This, therefore, means that Aristagoras remained in charge of Miletus, which became the center of the Ionian revolt. The real plans of the revolt was launched immediately after the Naxian expedition when Aristagoras called together a group of men he deemed to be loyal to him and trustworthy. He then revealed his revolt plan and his plan of action. However, a deep surprise came when Hecataeus, one of the men thought to be a supporter of the rebellion, advised against it. Aristagoras then stimulated the council by disclosing his disaffection in the fleet after which the council resolved to try the revolt.

The next step, in 499/498 BC, was sending Iatragoras to successfully raise the fleet and seek allies, persuading them to join the revolt. The following was a full-blown rebellion led by Aristagoras. The main strategy was to win popular support and unite their naval forces. So, they opted not to seize the Branchidae’s temple treasures, as was suggested by Hecataeus. The council considered such act as a subject to being highly condemned as sacrilege and possibly could taint the positive intentions of the revolt. By 498BC, the Caria soldiers joined the rebelling group in the victory at Pedasus where they took control of the entire Hellespont. More other allies joined, such as Cyprus in 497 BC. This weakened the Persian limited forces which, therefore, granted the early victory.

The revolt was characterized by capturing of the unpopular puppet tyrants and handing them over to their own cities in which most of them could be let go into exile in 499 BC while the unfortunate tyrants could face severe treatments. Coes, the tyrant of Mytilene, happened to be one the most hated tyrant by his former subjects. As a form of revenge, he was stoned to death by his citizens. As support to this, Aristagoras also relinquished his own tyranny.

However, the victory of the Ionians was short-lived. By 496 BC, the Persians won over Cyprus at the sea and consequently, to the Greeks’ failure, a group of Persian commanders successfully got hold of Hellespont, the northwestern Asian Minor and the southern part of the Caria. The failure of the Ionians continued even after the deaths of Daurises and Hymaiese. Otanes took over the operations to ensure that Ionian rebels were confined and isolated. By 495 BC, the Ionians had almost lost the ground completely and were being pushed towards the sea in which they only managed to remain in control of four main peninsulas: Phocaea, Erythrae, Priene, and Miletus.


Through Histiaeus, Aristagoras was brought in to the Ionian lamplight as Myrcinus tyrant, taking over from his father-in-law, Histiaeus, in 500 BC. It was after this shift, when Histiaeus was going to Susa, that Aristagoras got the command to help in reinstalling the Naxian exiles. As such, he got the opportunity to take part in the failed Naxian expedition. Despite the failure of the Ionian-Persian expedition, Aristagoras made his first and great impact during this expedition. Here he showed open disapproval of the Persian commander, a relationship that led to the Ionian revolt.

To his advantage of advancing his leadership in Miletus, this open disapproval of the Persian commander, Megabates, made Aristagoras more of an Ionian national hero than a puppet tyrant that the Persians wanted. Besides his strong personal motives for the rebellion, he was also as inclined to nationalist feeling as any other Greek, an attribute that was not expected among the Persian tyrants.

He, therefore, used this influence to mobilize not only Miletus, but also a great number of the Ionian cities into the revolt. This made him stood out more as revolutionary leader than Histiaeus would have imagined. He rapidly organized the Ionian cities and became very successful in recruiting Athenian aid. This fostered a much longer and bitter rebellion than what would have been expected of the ever loyal Ionians.

Aristagoras left Miletus for Myrcinus just before the revolt was over, a time when the Ionian position concerning the revolt became almost hopeless. Some historians attribute this as his strategy of winning personal military prestige and securing revenues from the gold mines in Myrcinus, while others, like Herodotus, suggest that he went there to find refuge for his fellow rebels in case of losing Miletus. By the time of his departure, the Persians’ position in Thrace must have collapsed completely. Aristagoras retired from Myrcinus around 496 or late 497 BC, after which he died while fighting Edoni.

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According to Herodotus, Histiaeus took some part in authoring of the Ionian revolt, though it began when he was in Susa, as the King Darius’ adviser. The suspicious nature of Histiaeus’ actions made him to be cherished by the revolting Ionians as they believed he was behind the revolt. However, his total allegiance to Darius was first expressed at the Danube Bridge, where he reminded the Ionian tyrants that their positions rested on the support of Darius, whom he referred to as the Great King. He appeared to believe that without the King Darius’ support, all the tyrants could be deposed.

The friction between Histiaeus and the Ionians was further bolster by his move to Susa as the representative of the unpopular system of puppet tyrannies. So, as much as Histiaeus would try to convince the Ionians of his support for the revolt, he could not come clear of suspicion and reflection of the unwanted Persian dominion. However, Histiaeus came clear as having been in support of the revolt when he was arrested by the Chians. At this moment, Histiaeus could still be taken as just trying to save his life from the hands of the Chians since he had been loyal puppet tyrant of Darius. So, to be in good terms with the revolting Chians, he had to convince them that he had been in support of the insurrection.

In an effort to salvage the situation in the Ionian revolt, Histiaeus together with his Lesbian forces sailed to Chios and seized it. However, most of the scholars have considered this move by Histiaeus as a hunt for power and glory as can be witnessed in his move to Thasos. It is suggested that his move to Thasos was attracted by the possibility of taking control of the gold mines and his determination of enlarging his sphere of influence earlier before Phoenicians could move there.

Histiaeus’ loyalty to the Persian King and his failed rebellion against Artaphernes totally changed his relationship with the Ionians. When he tried to return to Miletus, a sharp rejection arose amongst his former subjects to the extent of wounding him when he tried to make a forceful entry into the Miletus city. The rejection was even extended in Chios, in which he sought refuge. In his hunt for power, he went to Mytilene where he was accepted and received eight ships.

Herodotus records that Histiaeus then sailed to Byzantium, in which he seized all the ships that were sailing from the North, with the exception of those that promised to remain loyal to him. This struggle for power seems to have characterized Histiaeus’ life, and most definitely, the real reason for his close association and almost absolute obedience to the dominion of the Persian King. Finally, Histiaeus found himself in the hands of his old enemies, the Artaphernes, who executed him before the King Darius could intervene.

The Artaphernes were not only jealous of his influence with Darius, but also suspicious of him. Histiaeus met this last misfortune at the moment when he ran out of supply to pursue Phoenician fleet for peace negotiation, which would have preserved his own position and brought Ionian under Persian control without further bloodshed. He was of the opinion that revolt was unnecessary, but being a nationalist, he also had sympathy for his fellow Ionians.

Leadership struggle

As other scholars, such as Manville, have cited the relationship between Aristagoras and Histiaeus as a reflection of power struggle; it is healthy to look at the two not purely in terms of their leadership roles, but the motives for their actions should be observed. The first leadership struggle was witnessed between Miltiades and the King Darius, when Miltiades became rebellious about the King Darius’ order asking them (Ionians) to join him in the Scythian expedition. Miltiades tested his powers by discouraging his fellow tyrants from yielding to Darius’ order, and asked them to break up the bridge of boats over the Danube so as to leave Darius and his army vulnerable to the Scythians.

Ambiguously enough, Herodotus records Histiaeus as having denounced Aristagoras as having acted on his own authority when he was suspected by Darius. Here, Herodotus presents the leadership struggle between Aristagoras and Histiaeus. Even though Histiaeus is at Susa with the King, he is expected to be in charge of Miletus, where Aristagoras is already in charge. In the same breadth, the leadership issues between Megabazos and Histiaeus can be gauged, especially over the leadership of Myrcinus. The King Darius gave Histiaeus to be the tyrant of Myrcinus as a reward for his loyalty, an idea that didn’t go well with Megabazos.

Instead of giving up the leadership of Myrcinus, Histiaeus left Aristagoras to rule in his place, while ruling the Miletus and being Darius’ adviser in Susa. The hunger of power by Histiaeus could be linked to the trust and loyalty he had shown to the King Darius. Even after leaving Aristagoras to rule over Myrcinus, Darius kept him accountable of Aristagoras’ actions.

Being a symbol of power conscious leader, Megabazos took the opportunity to rebel against the King Darius on his order to organizing a second conquest to Thrace. Instead, Megabazos saw that an opportunity in the readiness of the Thracian (both Greek and non-Greek) to follow a leader. Therefore, the availability of resources that could be used in war, such as timber for shipbuilding, made him go for power against Darius’ will.

Herodotus and Aenas Tacticus

As the only available and relatively reliable sources of information about the scarcely recorded Ionian revolt, Herodotus and Tacticus provide us with more questionable information that calls for thorough analysis before making any substantial conclusions about the events that surrounds the entire Ionian revolution. Though his account of the Ionian revolt has been cited as unsatisfactory due to its insufficient and fragmented flow of facts, Herodotus’ has remained to be the only extant account of the Ionian revolt. He integrates his recordings of events with almost contemporary evidences that give his account of the revolt sound as historical reconstruction.

The records of Tacticus, as a famous historian of his time, reveals more about the Ionian revolt compared to Herodotus, though he left out all the historical details. Herodotus is severally cited by modern historians as having been very biased towards the Ionians and does not meet the consistency required in a useful history as this.

The failure of the Ionian revolt

Lateiner attributes the failure of the Ionian revolt partly to the lack of support from its neighbors such as Corinth, Sparta, and Aegina. For the Spartans’ support, Lateiner says that supporting the Ionians in the revolt would have been a poor investment, especially in knowledge of slim chances of the revolts’ success. Aeginetans, on their part, were in the first place commercial rival of the Ionian poleis such as Samians, Chians, and Milesians. It, therefore, came out that the Ionians could not be perpetually supported except at an acceptable cost.

The second reason for the Ionians’ failure was due to the low number of their soldiers as compared to the Persians soldiers. Lateiner asserts that Persians’ 600 ships outnumbered the Greeks’ 353 ships. Besides their few numbers, the Greeks were not as united as it might have been thought. Right from the conception of the revolt idea by Aristagoras, some of them, like Hecataeus, rejected the idea. The Persians then took advantage of this Greek’s disunity by applying political warfare approach to break up the already fragile alliance of the Ionians, and the final outcome was the defeat of the Ionians in the major sea battle at Lade.

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