The Great Ionian Colony of Miletus

Theater of Miletus against partly cloudy sky.
Josh Spradling / Getty Images

Miletus was one of the great Ionian cities in southwestern Asia Minor. Homer refers to the people of Miletus as Carians. They fought against the Achaeans (Greeks) in the Trojan War. Later traditions have Ionian settlers taking the land from the Carians. Miletus itself sent off settlers to the Black Sea area, as well as the Hellespont.

In 499, Miletus led the Ionian revolt that was a contributing factor in the Persian Wars. Miletus was destroyed 5 years later. Then in 479, Miletus joined the Delian League, and in 412 Miletus revolted from Athenian control offering a naval base to the Spartans. Alexander the Great conquered Miletus in 334 B.C.; then in 129, Miletus became part of the Roman province of Asia. In the 3rd Century A.D., Goths attacked Miletus, but the city continued, waging an ongoing fight against the silting of its harbor.

Early Inhabitants of Miletus

The Minoans abandoned their colony in Miletus by 1400 BC. Mycenaean Miletus was a dependency or ally of Ahhiwaya though its population was mostly Carian. Shortly after 1300 BC, the settlement was destroyed by fire—probably at the instigation of the Hittites who knew the city as Millawanda. The Hittites fortified the city against possible naval attacks by the Greeks.

Age of the Settlement at Miletus

Miletus was regarded as the oldest of the Ionian settlements, though this claim was disputed by Ephesus. Unlike its near neighbors, Ephesus and Smyrna, Miletus was protected from landward assaults by a mountain range and developed early as a sea power.

During the 6th century, Miletus contested (unsuccessfully) with Samos for possession of Priene. In addition to producing philosophers and historians, the city was famous for its purple dye, its furniture, and the quality of its wool. The Milesians made their own terms with Cyrus during his conquest of Ionia, though they joined in the rebellion of 499. The city did not fall to the Persians until 494 at which time the Ionian Revolt was considered to be well and truly over.

Rule of Miletus

Though Miletus was originally ruled by a king, the monarchy was overthrown early on. Around 630 BCE a tyranny evolved from its elected (but oligarchic) chief magistracy the prytaneia. The most famous Milesian tyrant was Thrasybulus who bluffed Alyattes out of attacking his city. After the fall of Thrasybulus there came a period of bloody stasis and it was during this period that Anaximander formulated his theory of opposites.

When the Persians finally sacked Miletus in 494 they enslaved most of the population and deported them to the Persian Gulf, but there were enough survivors to play a decisive part in the battle of Mycale in 479 (Cimon's liberation of Ionia). The city itself, however, was completely razed.

The Port of Miletus

Miletus, though one of the most famous ports of antiquity is now 'marooned in an alluvial delta'. By the middle of the 5th century, it had recovered from Xerxes' attack and was a contributing member of the Delian League. The 5th-century city was designed by the architect Hippodamas, a native of Miletus, and some of the extant remains date from that period. The present form of the theater dates to 100 A.D., but it had existed in an earlier form. It seats 15,000 and faces what used to be the harbor.


  • Sally Goetsch of Didaskalia provided notes for this article.
  • Percy Neville Ure, John Manuel Cook, Susan Mary Sherwin-White, and Charlotte Roueché "Miletus" The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Simon Hornblower and Anthony Spawforth. Oxford University Press (2005).
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "The Great Ionian Colony of Miletus." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, September 1). The Great Ionian Colony of Miletus. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Great Ionian Colony of Miletus." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).