What was the Ionian Revolt?
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What is the Ionian Revolt?

Theater of Miletus

In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great made himself the King of Kings, and ruled all of West Asia. Along the coast of Anatolia (modern Turkey), Cyrus conquered first the Lydians and then the Greek cities that had been dependent on Lydia (LIH-dee-uh). The people who lived in these Greek cities in Turkey were called Ionians (eye-OH-nee-anns). Cyrus and the Persians made some changes in Ionia - they charged higher taxes and imposed tyrants who were loyal to the Persians. So the Ionians were not happy.

Cyrus' son Cambyses conquered Egypt too, and some of the Greek islands between Anatolia and Greece. In 522 BC, Cambyses conquered the important island of Samos.

When Cambyses was killed, Darius became king, and he wanted to conquer something too. This may have been because of a victorious army problem. Darius decided to attack the Scythians, to the north of the Black Sea. Maybe he thought this would weaken the Greeks. But when Darius attacked the Scythians, in the summer of 514 BC, he lost. The Scythians retreated, but they burned all their food before they left, and so Darius' army could find nothing to eat and was forced to go home to Persia.

At this point, many Greeks thought that the Persians were going to attack Athens and Thebes and Sparta next. Many of the Greek cities sent messengers to the Persians to say that the Greeks would do whatever the Persians wanted, and please not to attack them. For example, Macedon, a small kingdom to the north of Greece, made an alliance with the Persians about 510 BC. Athens seems to have been one of the cities that sent messengers to the Persians (though later they didn't like to remember that they had been so scared). But when the Athenians got to see King Darius, he was rude to them, and they decided not to make an alliance with the Persians after all.

Also, when the Athenians threw out their tyrant, Hippias, he fled to the Persian court, and now the Persians were sheltering Hippias, which the Athenians didn't like.
The Persians, growing bolder, decided to attack the island of Naxos in 499; this was the first attempt to extend Persian rule off the coast of Asia Minor into the Cycladic islands. This force was led by Aristagoras, the tyrant of Miletus, known to be very close to the Persian king Darius — he was Greek and his force was mainly though not entirely Greek. But after a siege of four months, Naxos did not fall, and the Persians had to withdraw.
A second defeat following the Scythian one so closely made the Ionian Greeks think they really could win against the Persians, and later in 499 they decided (not all of them) to revolt. This is the Ionian Revolt. Aristagoras, fearing the reaction of the Persian king Darius to his defeat, took charge of the revolt (much to the Ionians’ surprise).
Aristagoras deposed the other pro-Persian Ionian tyrants and set up democracies in their place, basically like the Athenian democracy (which had itself only just been established). Then he set off to ask for help from Sparta. The Spartans, never very interested in events in Asia, and always worried about helot revolts, turned him down, so he went to Athens, which agreed to send a lot of her new navy — twenty ships. The Eretrians on Euboea agreed to send five ships.
The Ionian Revolt at first went well: the allied forces captured and burnt the capital city of Sardis, though they did not capture the citadel. But gradually the Persians began to win, and by 494 Miletus itself was taken, Aristagoras was killed, and the Ionian revolt was over.

The Persians do not seem to have done anything very bad to the Ionians after the Ionian Revolt. They made treaties and agreements, set up new tyrants operating under clear rules, and renewed the taxes at the old rate. But the Persians were really mad at the Athenians and Eretrians, foreign terrorists who had invaded their country unprovoked and destroyed innocent people's houses and killed people.

Learn by doing: Greek History Bingo
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Bibliography and further reading about the Ionian revolt:

Oxford First Ancient History, by Roy Burrell and Peter Connolly (1997). Lively interviews and pictures make the ancient Mediterranean come to life. For teens.

The Oxford Illustrated History of Greece and the Hellenistic World, by John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray (2001). For college students.

A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture, by Sarah Pomeroy and others (2004). This one might be a little more politically progressive than the Oxford history.

The Greco-Persian Wars, by Peter Green (1998).

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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