Ionian Revolt

The Greek city-states of Ionia in Asia Minor revolted against their Persian rulers, an event that was the opening chapter of the Greco-Persian War, a war in which the Greeks were ultimately victorious.

Summary of Event

Ionia, in western Asia Minor (now Turkey), was made up of independent Greek-speaking city-states. The city-state, or polis, was the basic form of political, social, and economic organization in the Greek world, which included Ionia, the Aegean islands, and the Greek mainland. However, in the mid-sixth century b.c.e., Cyrus the Great established the Persian Empire, which expanded to include Asia Minor. By the end of the sixth century b.c.e., the city-states of Ionia had been under Persian rule for several decades, and some of the Aegean islands had recently come under Persian control. The cities in mainland Greece were still beyond the borders of Persia’s ever-expanding empire. Aristagoras
Cyrus the Great
Histiaeus of Miletus
Cleomenes I

In 499 b.c.e., a revolt against Persian domination began in Ionia, the beginning of a two-decade conflict between the Persians and the Greeks. The major historical source for the Greco-Persian War, including the Ionian Revolt, is the Greek historian Herodotus. Some of the stories he relates seem problematic, but whatever his limitations as a historian, all subsequent histories of the Greco-Persian War must by necessity rely on Herodotus.

The Persians governed the Ionian cities through tyrants, or dictators. Individual tyrants could be either good or bad, but what all tyrants had in common was that they were above any laws, ruling without the legal consent of the populace. Miletus, located in the southwest coast of Asia Minor, was the largest and richest polis in Ionia. Its ruling tyrant was Aristagoras, the major figure in Herodotus’s account of the Ionian Revolt and, according to the historian, the primary cause of the conflict. However, there were other causes. Some Ionians resented the Persian-backed local tyrants; others the military conscription policies of the Persian army. The high taxes that Persia imposed on the Ionian cities was also a factor. More generally, all Greeks shared a broad cultural distrust of and bias against non-Greeks, which included the Persians, and the individual poleis prized their freedom above all else.

According to Herodotus, exiles from the Aegean island of Naxos approached Aristagoras, requesting his support in overthrowing the island’s ruling regime and enticing Aristagoras with the role he might play after the exiles were restored. Aristagoras was eager, but believing his Miletian forces insufficient, requested additional military support from Artaphernes, the Persian satrap, or governor, of Asia Minor and brother of Darius the Great, the Persian king. Aristagoras promised to reward Artaphernes personally with Naxos’s wealth and claimed that control of Naxos would facilitate further Persian expansion in the Aegean. Darius gave his approval, and authorized two hundred ships to take part in the Naxos expedition. Although Aristagoras had intended to lead the attack, command was given to Darius’s nephew, Megabates. Friction developed between the leaders, and Herodotus states that after a confrontation, Megabates secretly warned the Naxos defenders of the impending invasion. After an unsuccessful four-month siege, Aristagoras was forced to call off the assault.

Fearing disgrace and possible punishment for his failure to fulfill his promises to the Persians, Aristagoras turned to rebellion, a decision that was supported secretly by Histiaeus, the former tyrant of Miletus and Aristagoras’s uncle and father-in-law, who was then residing in the Persian capital of Susa. Those with whom Aristagoras consulted were supportive of the revolt, with the exception of the historian Hecataeus, who claimed that Persian power was too great. He said that the only chance of Ionian victory was to seize the treasury of a prominent religious temple and use the wealth to build a fleet to resist the Persians. Hecataeus’s proposal was rejected, perhaps in fear of religious consequences.

To gain support, Aristagoras resigned his position as tyrant and encouraged other Ionian cities to rid themselves of their tyrants. Cognizant of Ionian military weakness, Aristagoras journeyed to Sparta, located in Greece’s Peloponnese, to appeal for assistance to free the Ionians from the Persian yoke. Oligarchic Sparta was famed for its phalanx army of hoplite warriors, the best in the Greek world, but its king, Cleomenes I refused to aid the uprising, arguing that the Persian Empire was too extensive to be defeated. In addition, the Spartans were Dorian Greeks rather than Ionian Greeks; the Ionian-Dorian divide was one of the traditional causes of rivalry in the Greek world. Aristagoras then turned to democratic Athens, the largest and richest polis in Greece, and the Athenians promised to send twenty ships in support of their fellow Ionians. Five ships were also contributed by Eritrea. Aristagoras undoubtedly hoped for more than those twenty-five.

In 498 b.c.e., the rebels, mainly Miletians, Athenians, and Eretrians, sailed from Miletus to Ephesus, Ionia’s second-largest city. Joined by the Ephesians, they marched to Sardis, the Persian administrative center of Asia Minor. Most of Sardis was captured and burned, including a temple of the goddess Cybele, which led to later accusations of sacrilege, but Artaphernes, controlling the Sardis acropolis, or citadel, held out. During the Greek retreat from Sardis, the Persians inflicted a severe defeat on the Ionians. In the aftermath, the surviving Athenians and Eretrians abandoned the Ionian cause and sailed back to Greece, taking no further part in the Ionian stage of the Greco-Persian War.

The revolt spread, and several non-Greek cities joined the uprising, some perhaps unwillingly. An Ionian fleet sailed north, seizing the Hellespont, the body of water dividing Europe from Asia Minor, and the polis of Byzantium, thus threatening Persia’s link to its European province of Thrace. Onesilus, a ruler on the island of Cyprus, embraced the rebellion, but because of its close proximity to the Near East, the Persians reacted quickly. Although the Ionian fleet was victorious on the sea, on land the Persian army quickly quelled the Cyprus rebellion, in part because of treachery and divisions within the Greek-Cypriot contingent.

The tide turned against the rebels. Persian armies, led by sons-in-law of Darius, were sent to crush the rebels in Ionia. The Hellespont region was successfully retaken, and Ionian resistance began to weaken elsewhere. In 496 b.c.e., Aristagoras fled Miletus and later died in battle in European Thrace, leaving a vacuum of leadership among the Ionians. Hisiataeus, having abandoned the Persians, failed in his attempt to regain power in Miletus.

The final battle took place at Lades, an island near Miletus. A Persian fleet of six hundred ships was assembled, many of them Phoenician, whose people were formidable seafarers. By 494 b.c.e., many of the Greek poleis had abandoned resistance, intimidated by Persian power, bribed by Persian wealth, or succumbed to the perennial inter-Greek rivalries. Herodotus reported that only nine cities provided ships at Lades, with 100 ships from Chios and 80 from Miletus forming the largest contingents, for a total of 353 ships. Ephesus did not join the last Ionian resistance. The Persians wisely moved only slowly to battle. Divisions and rivalries occurred among the Ionians, and they lost faith in their commander, Dionysus of Phocae. The ships from Samos deserted to the Persians, possibly the result of Persian bribery, and the ships from Lesbos fled at the beginning of the battle. Persia was victorious. Miletus, under Aristagoras, began the Ionian Revolt in Ionia, and after the Persian naval victory at Lades, the city was destroyed and its population killed or enslaved and removed to the mouth of the Tigris River, or modern Iraq.


The failure of the Ionian Revolt led to such grief in Athens that the dramatist Phrynichus was fined and his play about the capture of Miletus was banned for the sorrow it caused. The road to the Greek mainland was open, and in 492 b.c.e., Darius the Great invaded Greece but suffered defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490. After his death, his son Xerxes I invaded Greece in 482. A Spartan army of seven hundred was defeated at Thermopylae, Athens was sacked, but the Greeks triumphed at the naval battle of Salamis and the land battle at Plataea. The Ionian Revolt was a disaster, but the Greco-Persian War ended in 479, with a glorious victory for the Greek city-states.

Further Reading

  • Burn, A. R. Persia and the Greeks: The Defense of the West. 2d ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1984. The classic account of the Persian-Greek confrontation.
  • Davis, Victor Hanson. The Wars of the Ancient Greeks. London: Cassell, 1999. One of the foremost military historians of ancient Greece and expert on its military culture writes about the Greek wars, including the Ionian Revolt.
  • Gillis, Daniel. Collaboration with the Persians. Wiesbaden, Germany: Steiner, 1979. One of the few studies that focuses solely upon the Ionian rebellion portion of the Greco-Persian War.
  • Herodotus. The Persian Wars. Translated by George Rawlinson. New York: Random House, 1942. The classic account of the Greek-Persian conflict, by the “father of history.”
  • Lateiner, Donald. The Historical Method of Herodotus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989. A historian’s analysis of Herodotus and his history of the Greco-Persian War.

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Cleomenes I; Cyrus the Great; Darius the Great. Ionian Revolt (499-494 b.c.e.)