How did the Ionian Revolt (499-493 BC) change the Ancient World

Revision as of 13:22, 17 October 2018 by Ewhelan (talk | contribs)
Jump to: navigation, search


The Ionian Revolt (499-493 BC) was a rebellion by Greek city-states, against the rule of the Persian Empire. This uprising was a serious challenge to the Persian Empire but was ultimately defeated. The Ionian Revolt nevertheless was to have a range of consequences for the Persian and the Greek Worlds. In the short term, the city states that revolted recovered rapidly and were to flourish for centuries. However, the Ionian Enlightenment or Awakening, which saw the birth of Ancient Greek philosophy and science, was effectively ended by the crushing of the uprising by Emperor Darius’ army and navy. Finally, the revolt was to trigger a series of events that resulted in the Greek and Persian Wars, that transformed the ancient world.

Ruins of Miletus


During the so-called Greek Dark Ages, many Greeks migrated to the Aegean coast of Asia Minor in what is now Turkey<ref. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War I, 7</ref>. Here the Aeolians, Dorians, and Ionians, established settlements that became city-states. Ionia was the area settled by the Ionian tribes and it was composed of twelve cities. They were independent, but they shared common places of worship and regularly cooperated with each other. Ionia became very wealthy especially Miletus, and it was in the 6th century the most important cultural center in the Greek world. [1] These Greek city-states were conquered by the rising Kingdom of Lydia, ruled by the famed King Croesus. The city-states were able to secure a great deal of autonomy and continued to flourish, under the Lydians. This arrangement was upset by the rise of the Persian Empire, based in modern Iran, which is often regarded as the first ‘World-Empire’ [2]. Cyrus the Second, sometimes known as the Great, conquered the Median and Neo-Babylonian Empires and annexed the kingdom of Lydia, thereby establishing the Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian Empire. The Greek cities in Ionia were also annexed by Cyrus. The Achaemenid monarch and his successors respected local customs and religions and gave regions in their realms’ considerable autonomy[3]. However, the Ionian Greeks who were very urbanized and their democratic political systems proved very difficult to fit into this system. In order to control the Greek cities, Cyrus appointed local rulers with dictatorial powers, who were answerable to a Persian satrap or governor and this policy was also adopted by his son, Darius. This caused great unrest in cities such as Ephesus and Colophon, which had traditionally been democracies’, but this was ignored by the local Persian Satrap[4]. In 500 BC the Satrap of Asia Minor held an assembly with the rulers who governed the Ionian cities in the name of Darius. There was increasingly rivalry among the tyrants, as they were known, and each sought to expand their territories at the expense of their neighbors. To preserve peace and stability in Ionia, the rulers were obliged to enter into an alliance and foreswore to attack each other. However, in BC 499, Aristagoras, the tyrant of Miletus sought to conquer the independent island of Naxos and add it to his territories. He tried to win support from his fellow Ionian tyrants’, but they refused. Aristagoras then secured some powerful Persians support and sought to conquer Naxos in the name of Darius [5]. However, this invasion of Naxos was a military disaster and moreover, he owed some of his backers a great deal of money. Aristagoras knew he could be imprisoned or executed for his failure on Naxos. The tyrant of Miletus decided to gamble on a rebellion. He devised an audacious plan, he encouraged the other Ionians cities to depose their pro-Persian rulers and to restore their old governments. The region was ripe for rebellion. He managed to incite a series of revolutions in Ionia that led to the inhabitants expelling or killing their pro-Persian governors. This also spread to the Aeolian and Dorian Greek communities on the Aegean Coast.

Detail from a vase showing a Greek and Persian warrior

The Ionian Revolt

Aristagoras knew that the Persians would not accept Ionian independence and that Darius would swiftly seek to re-conquer the region with a huge army. In desperation, he traveled to Sparta to secure help from the most powerful state in Greece. When it refused he traveled around Greece, seeking men, money, and ships. Only the Athenians and the Eretians agreed to provide help to the Ionian rebels whom they regarded as their fellow kinsmen [6]. Furthermore, both of these cities were democracies and Aristagoras impassioned pleadings swayed the popular assemblies. The Athenians and Eretians sent a large number of hoplites and ships to support the Ionians. The arrivals of these reinforcements persuaded the rebel to go on the offensive in 498 BC. The allies marched on the important city of Sardis and burned most of the city but could not seize the citadel. The rebels retreated to Ephesus, but they were annihilated by a large force of Persians [7]. Aristagoras, decided to continue the revolt and convinced more Greek cities to join him and even persuaded the Carians to join an anti-Persian alliance [8]. Then various kingdoms on the island Cyprus joined the revolt, but the Athenians withdrew their support at this time. In 497 BC, the Persian Emperor, sent three of his sons-in-law with a large army to crush the rebellion. Soon they had restored Cyprus to obedience and executed its rulers. Part of Darius’ army was able to defeat the Carians at the Battle of the Marsyas River. The remnants of the Carian army were joined by Milesian forces, but this new army was later badly defeated by soldiers of Darius [9]. A Persian commander ordered an attack on the Carians, presumably to end their resistance once and for all. However, they had found out about the plan and launched a night-time ambush and destroyed the enemy forces with all its generals. This brought the rebels some respite. The following year the Persians changed their strategy and they directly attacked the Ionian cities and they besieged and seized several cities. Aristogros knew that his rebellion was doomed, and he fled to Thrace where he was later killed. The Milesians and others continued to defy Darius, and they placed their faith in their large fleet. The Persian commanders assembled a large naval taskforce, crewed by their subject peoples, especially the Phoenicians. This armada sailed to Ionia and met the rebel fleet at Lade in 494 BC. The larger Persian fleet utterly defeated the rebel navy [10]. Also, in 494 BC the army of Darius captured the city of Miletus, which was devastated. By now leaderless, the rebellion collapsed, and Ionia was reincorporated into the Persian Empire and by 493 BC, the last remnants of resistance to Darius had collapsed.

Darius I from a bad relief in modern-day Iran

Impact on Ionia

The Greek-city states managed to recover quickly, and they were soon able to secure a great level of autonomy. The Persian Empire was a de-centralized Empire and they did not seek to rule the Ionians directly <Herodotus, v, 119</ref>. It was a tributary Empire and did not want to conquer lands and peoples but simply demanded that they pay taxes and provide their Satraps with soldiers and ships when requested. Darius wanted the city-states, to remain prosperous so that they could continue to provide him with tribute and especially ships. The Persian Emperor was a farsighted ruler and his policy of clemency was to prove to be successful. During the two invasions of Greece, the Ionians provided their Persian overlords with sailors and ships. The number of ships would indicate that they had recovered rapidly after the revolt. The cities continued to prosper for centuries, right down to the Byzantine Empire. They even remained culturally Greek for centuries.

18th-century painting of the great Ionian philosopher Heraclitus

The End of the Ionian Enlightenment

Ionia was one of the cradles of western philosophy and science [11]. Traditionally the Ionian cities, was where Greek science and philosophy began. This was due to the wealth of the city-states, freedom of thought and the influence of Babylon and Egypt intellectual traditions. Here for the first time in the West, individuals offered explanations for the origin of the world without recourse to some deity [12]. They used reason and observation to develop theories on the nature of the world. Thales from Miletus (6th century BC) was probably the first philosopher and scientist in the western tradition. He argued that life came from the sea and was also an astronomer and he successfully predicted an eclipse. The philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras came from Samos. Xenophanes was another important philosopher who criticized Greek polytheism and was arguably the first monotheist. The great revolt did not totally destroy the flourishing intellectual life of the region as seen in the works of the great philosopher Heraclitus or the writings of the historian and geographer Hecateus. However, the great revolt and the subsequent rule of tyrants forced many thinkers to leave. Moreover, philosophers no longer had the intellectual freedom or patronage that they required for their studies and investigations and intellectual life declined in the decades after the Darius crushed the revolt. Many thinkers and scientists, after the collapse of the rebellion, traveled widely through the Greek world and spread the ideas of the Ionian awakening. These Ionians played a crucial part in the development of philosophy in other parts of the Hellenic World, especially Athens. While the Ionian Revolt led to the end of the first stage of Ancient Greek philosophy it contributed to a great flourishing in scientific investigation and metaphysical speculation elsewhere in the Hellenic world [13].

The Greek-Persian Wars

The Greek historian Herodotus argued that the Ionian Revolt was very important in history because it marked the beginning of the Greek-Persian Wars. Darius was greatly angered by the Athenians and Eretians involvement in the rebellion. The Ionian Revolt had destabilized a part of his Empire and he feared a repeat of this in the future. According to Herodotus, Darius ordered his servants to remind him, daily, of the Athenians and their role in the rebellion [14]. This is probably a literary invention. However, the Persians had become concerned about potential unrest in the western reaches of their Empire. Athens had shown itself to be a threat to their interests and it was feared that it could encourage more uprising in the future. This was to lead to the first Persian Invasion of Greece. This can be considered to be a punitive expedition that was aimed at punishing those who supported the Ionian rebels [15]. In 490 BC, a Persian amphibious force attacked several Greek cities and islands before landing near Athens. They were defeated by the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon 490 BC [16]. This defeat made Darius more determined than ever to punish the Athenians, but he died before he could invade Greece. Therefore, the defeat at Marathon did not end the Persian ambitions to subdue the Greeks. Xerxes the successor of Darius, did not only want to punish the Athenians but wanted to conquer all of Greece. He launched the second invasion of Greece and he moved his army via the Balkans into Hellenic territory but was later defeated on the sea at Salamis and on the land at Platea. It is highly likely that if it were not for the Ionian Revolt that there may not have been any Persian attacks on mainland Greece. This rebellion caused two major wars and these conflicts directly led to the rise of Athens and Sparta and weakened Persia.


The Ionian Revolt was a doomed attempt to regain the independence of Greek city-states. It was, however, a serious challenge to the Persians, the superpower of the day. However, the Ionian cities were able to recover quickly, in part because of Darius’ clemency and pragmatism. The city-states had changed, and they were no longer vibrant cultural centers. The revolt was the end of the Ionian Enlightenment, but it also helped to spread its ideas around the Greek World and this was very important in the development of ancient philosophy and science. The other significant consequence of the rebellion was that it was one of the root causes of the Greek-Persian Wars, that was so important in the development of Antiquity and the evolution of the western world.

Recommended Reading

Rung, Eduard. "Athens and the Achaemenid Persian Empire in 508/7 BC: Prologue to the Conflict." Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 6, no. 3 S2 (2015): 257.

McKirahan, Richard D. Philosophy before Socrates: An introduction with texts and commentary (London, Hackett Publishing 2011)

Guth, Dina. "The'Rise and Fall’ of Archaic Miletus." Historia 66, no. 1 (2017): 2-20.

Greaves, Alan M. "Miletus" The Classical Review 53, no. 1 (2003): 137-139.

Wiesehöfer, Josef. "Greeks and Persians." A Companion to Archaic Greece (2009): 162-185.


  1. , Holland, Tom. Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (London, Doubleday, 2006), p 87
  2. Holland, p 3
  3. Fine, JVA The Ancient Greeks: A Critical History (Harvard, Harvard University Press, 1983)
  4. Hornblower, Simon The Greek World: 479–323 BC (4 ed.) (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011),p. 2
  5. Herodotus, v, 118
  6. Herodotus, v, 114
  7. Brosius, Maria. "The Ionian Revolt, 498–494 BC." The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Battles (2017): 1-7
  8. Herodotus, v 115
  9. Herodotus, v, 120
  10. Holland, p 99
  11. Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy (New York, Simon, and Schuster, 1999), p 12
  12. Russel, p 14
  13. Russell, p. 17
  14. Herodotus, v, 118
  15. Herodotus, v 119
  16. Holland, p 119