The Beginning of the Ionian Revolt

Darius as XXVIIth Dynasty Pharaoh
Darius as XXVIIth Dynasty Pharaoh. CC Flickr User dynamosquito

The Ionian revolt (c. 499-c.493) led to the Persian Wars, which includes the famous battle depicted in the movie 300, the Battle of Thermopylae, and the battle that lent its name to a long race, the Battle of Marathon. The Ionian Revolt itself did not occur in a vacuum but was preceded by other tensions, notably trouble in Naxos.

Why Did the Ionians Revolt?:

Possible reasons for the revolt of the Ionian Greeks [based on Manville (see references)]:

  1. Anti-tyrant feeling.
  2. Having to pay tribute to the Persian king.
  3. The king's failure to understand the Greeks' need for freedom.
  4. As response to an economic crisis in Asia Minor.
  5. Aristagoras' hope to get out of his difficulties with Artaphrenes that were caused by the ill-fated Naxos Expedition.
  6. Histiaios' hope to get out of his benign captivity at Susa.

Here we're focusing on #5.

Characters in the Naxos Expedition:

The principle names to know in connection with this Herodotus-based introduction to the Ionian Revolt are those involved in the Naxos Expedition:

  • Histiaios (Histiaeus), son of Lysagoras and the tyrant of Miletus (c.515–493 B.C.),
  • Aristagoras (c.505–496 B.C.), son of Molpagoras, ambitious son-in-law, and deputy of Histaios,
  • Artaphernes, satrap of Lydia, in western Asia Minor,
  • Darius (r. c.521-486 B.C.), the Great King of Persia and half-brother of Artaphernes, and
  • Megabates, a cousin of Darius and Persian naval commander.

    Aristagoras of Miletus and the Naxos Expedition:

    502 Revolt in Naxos.

    Naxos, the prosperous Cyclades island where the legendary Theseus abandoned Ariadne, was not yet under Persian control. The Naxians had driven out certain rich men, who had fled to Miletus but wished to go home. They asked Aristagoras for help.

    Aristagoras was the deputy tyrant of Miletus, the son-in-law of the proper tyrant, Histiaios, who had been rewarded Myrkinos for loyalty at the Danube Bridge in the Persian Great King Darius' fight against the Scythians, then asked by the king to come to Sardis, and then brought by Darius to Susa.

    499 Naxos Expedition:

    Aristagoras agreed to aid the exiles, and asked the satrap of western Asia, Artaphernes, for help. Artaphernes, with permission from Darius, gave Aristagoras a fleet of 200 ships under the command of a Persian named Megabates. Aristagoras and the Naxian exiles set sail with Megabates et al. They pretended to head to the Hellespont. At Chios, they stopped and waited for a favorable wind to take them to Naxos. Meanwhile, Megabates toured his ships. Finding one neglected, he ordered the commander punished. Aristagoras not only released the commander but reminded Megabates that Megabates was only second-in-command. Herodotus says that as a result of this insult, Megabates betrayed the operation by informing the Naxians in advance of their arrival. This gave them time to prepare, so they were able to survive the Milesian-Persian fleet arrival and four-month siege. At the end, the defeated Persian-Milesians left, with the exiled Naxians installed in forts built around Naxos.

    Herodotus says Aristagoras feared Persian reprisal as a consequence of the defeat. The historian tells a story about Histiaios sending Aristagoras a slave with a secret message about revolt that was hidden as a brand on his scalp. Whatever this story means about the power relationship between Histaios and his son-in-law, the revolt was Aristagoras' next step.

    Aristagoras persuaded those he joined in a council that they should revolt. One hold-out was the logographer Hecataeus who thought the Persians too powerful. When Hecataeus couldn't persuade the council, he objected to the army-based plan, urging, instead, a naval approach.

    Ionian Revolt:

    With Aristagoras as leader of their revolutionary movement after his failed expedition against Naxos, Ionian cities deposed their pro-Persian Greek puppet tyrants, replacing them with a democratic government, and prepared for further revolt against the Persians.

    Since they required military help Aristagoras went across the Aegean to mainland Greece to ask. Aristagoras unsuccessfully petitioned Sparta for its army, but Athens and Eretria provided more appropriate support for the Ionian islands -- naval, as the logographer/historian Hecataeus had urged. Together the Greeks from Ionia and the mainland pillaged and burned most of Sardis, the capital of Lydia, but Artaphrenes successfully defended the city's citadel. Retreating to Ephesus, the Greek forces were beaten by the Persians.

    Byzantium, Caria, Caunus, and most of Cyprus joined in the Ionian revolt. Although the Greek forces were occasionally successful, as at Caria, the Persians were winning.

    Aristagoras left Miletus (in the hands of Pythagoras) and went to Myrkinos where Thracians killed him.

    Persuading Darius to let him leave by telling the Persian king that he would pacify Ionia, Histiaios left Susa, went to Sardis, and tried unsuccessfully to re-enter Miletus. A major sea battle at Lade resulted in the victory of the Persians and defeat of the Ionians. Miletus fell. Histiaios was captured and executed by Artaphrenes who may have been jealous of Histiaios' close relationship with Darius.


    • Herodotus Book V
    • Herodotus Book VI
    • "Aristagoras and Histiaios: The Leadership Struggle in the Ionian Revolt," by P. B. Manville; The Classical Quarterly, (1977), pp. 80-91.
    • "The Attack on Naxos: A 'Forgotten Cause' of the Ionian Revolt," by Arthur Keaveney; The Classical Quarterly, (1988), pp. 76-81.