Aristagoras stood down, nominally, as tyrant of Miletus and introduced democratic institutions (isonomia is used again here), which was what the Milesians wanted; he also persuaded the other cities of Ionia to follow suit. Only the geographer and historian Hecataeus, one of several ground-breaking intellectuals active in Ionia at that time, advised against taking on the might of Persia. Presciently, he argued that only control of the sea would give Aristagoras any chance of success. Aristagoras did know that he was in need of strong allies and Sparta was his first port of call:
Cleomenes was still king when Aristagoras, tyrant of Miletus, came to Sparta. When he went to speak with the king, the Lacedaemonians tell me that he had with him a bronze plate engraved with a map of the whole earth including all the seas and rivers. Aristagoras began the conversation, saying, ‘Do not let my eagerness to come here surprise you, Cleomenes, for look at what has come to pass! The sons of Ionia are slaves rather than free men, and this shames us and causes us great sorrow. And it must be the same for you, surely, above all the rest of the Hellenes, because you are the leading power of Hellas. Now, in the name of Hellas’ gods, I call upon you to deliver your Ionian kinsmen from slavery. This is a thing you can easily achieve, for your fighting qualities are superlative and the Barbarians are not brave at all. They go into battle with bows and short spears, wearing trousers and with soft bonnets on their heads, so they can be easily beaten. Also, the people who live in those lands possess more in the way of assets than the entire population of the rest of the world: gold, for a start, and silver and bronze, the finest clothing, and beasts of burden and slaves. All this can be yours if you wish. Let me show you where these peoples live in the order you would encounter them. Next to the Ionians are the Lydians, very wealthy and dwelling in a fair land.’
And, as he spoke he pointed to the map of the world he had brought with him, engraved on a bronze plate. ‘Look here to the east of the Lydians. Here are the Phrygians with more livestock and better crops than any people I know of. Next to them are the Cappadocians, whom we call Syrians, and their neighbours the Cilicians, whose land stretches to the ocean here, where the island of Cyprus lies; the yearly tribute the Cilicians pay to the King is 500 talents. After the Cilicians come the Armenians, another people rich in livestock, and then the Matieni, whose country you can see here. Next, we have the land of Cissia and, here, Susa on the banks of the River Choaspes where the Great King has his residence. The treasure-houses of his wealth are there and, if you take that city, you can be assured that your wealth will rival the riches of Zeus.
‘Now surely the time has come for you to cease fighting for small patches of valueless land with narrow borders, to cease fighting with the Messenians, who are a match for you in battle, and with the Arcadians and the Argives. These people possess neither gold nor silver, none of that treasure for which men are driven by desire to fight and die. Given this opportunity to become master of all of Asia with ease, what other choice do you have?’
That is what Aristagoras said, and Cleomenes replied, ‘Milesian guest-friend, I will put off answering you till the day after tomorrow,’ and that was as far as they took things. On the day set for Cleomenes to give his answer they met as agreed and Cleomenes asked Aristagoras how many days’ march it was from the Ionian Sea to where the Great King lived. So far, Aristagoras had been clever and misled Cleomenes completely, but at this point he slipped up. He should never have answered with the truth if he wanted to bring the Spartans into Asia, but he did, and said that it was three months’ march inland. At that Cleomenes cut off Aristagoras before he could start his detailed description of the journey, saying, ‘Leave Sparta before sunset, Milesian guest-friend. You may wish to lead the Lacedaemonians off on a three-month march8 from the sea, but there is nothing you can say that will persuade them to follow you.’ (5.49–50)
Aristagoras made a final attempt to persuade Cleomenes, approaching him as a supplicant to be on the safe side and offering larger and larger bribes. According to Herodotus the king’s eight-year-old daughter was with him and brought the discussion to an end:
‘Father!’ she exclaimed, ‘Your guest-friend is going to corrupt you if you don’t get away from him.’ Cleomenes liked the child’s advice and went off into another room, and Aristagoras left Sparta there and then. (5.51)
He went to Athens next:
The Athenians were already on bad terms with Persia when Aristagoras the Milesian arrived in their city after being ejected from Sparta by Cleomenes the Lacedaemonian. He had come there because Athens was the next most powerful city after Sparta. He stood before the people and gave the same speech as he had given in Sparta, describing the riches of Asia and declaring that the Persians could be easily defeated because they did not fight with the hoplite shield or spear. He said all this and also pointed out that the Milesians had been settlers from Athens, and that it was right and proper for the Athenians to come to their aid with their great power. In his desperation there was nothing he did not offer, and he finally convinced the Athenians. It really does seem to be easier to deceive a crowd than a single man. Aristagoras could not deceive Cleomenes of Lacedaemon, one single individual, but he succeeded with 30,000 Athenians. So led astray, the Athenians voted to send 20 ships to support the Ionians and put Melanthius, a citizen of excellent reputation, in command. Those ships were the origin of the great troubles that were to affect Hellenes and Barbarians alike. (5.97)
This episode is coloured by Herodotus’ wish to lay responsibility for ‘the great troubles’ that were now in store on Aristagoras, and by his low opinion of the man’s character. He shows him deviously underplaying Persian military might, making only a passing reference to their archery and no mention of their cavalry, vast manpower or immense navy. However, Hellenes did generally consider the bow an unmanly weapon, and trousers effeminate, and Aristagoras does correctly present the Barbarian spear as inferior to the longer hoplite weapon. But Persia’s almost unbroken run of military success over the preceding half-century should have conveyed a more intimidating message and this could have been reinforced by the experiences of the many Hellenes who had fought as mercenaries or levies alongside or against Persians in the Great Kings’ various campaigns.
In any case, Aristagoras’ geography lecture and alleged attempt to bribe Cleomenes backfired as far as the Spartan king was concerned. But, as Herodotus drily observes, the Athenians, flexing their democratic rights in their quite recently instituted Assembly, were easily gulled. On the other hand, it could be reasonably argued that their decision, misguided as it was in strategic terms, was a principled one, to join kindred Ionians in a fight against an enemy of freedom that had already reached out half-way across the Aegean in its attempt on Naxos. Their commitment of a little more than 4,000 men, including a few hundred hoplites, was not a massive proportion of their total manpower, but the 20 ships probably represented close to half of their navy. The manpower commitment would have been smaller if some or all of the ships were smaller than triremes with their complement of 200–230 oarsmen, sailors, hoplites and archers.
The Athenians arrived at Miletus with their 20 ships and with them came five triremes from Eretria. The Eretrians were not campaigning with the Athenians out of goodwill towards them but to repay the Milesians for being their allies in an earlier war that they had fought against Chalcis, when the Samians sided with the Chalcidians against the Eretrians and Milesians. So, when they and the rest of his allies had arrived, Aristagoras launched his attack on Sardis. However, he did not go off to fight himself but stayed behind and appointed two other Milesians as generals, his own brother Charopinus and a fellow citizen named Hermophantus. On reaching Ephesus with this force, the Ionians left their ships at Coresus in Ephesian territory and marched inland with a large body of men, enlisting Ephesians to be their guides. They followed the River Cayster, crossed Mount Tmolus and came to Sardis. They captured the city without any opposition, all of it except for its acropolis, which was occupied by Artaphernes himself with a substantial garrison. But the Hellenes were unable to plunder the city they had taken. A lot of the houses in Sardis were built entirely of reeds and those that were built of bricks had thatched roofs. A soldier set one of these buildings on fire and the blaze went from house to house until it had spread over the whole city. With the city burning and its outskirts all ablaze, the Lydians and those of the Persians who were with them had no way of escape. So they all streamed down to the marketplace and the banks of the Pactolus. (This river carries gold dust from Mount Tmolus and flows through the marketplace, eventually joining the Hermus, which runs down to the sea.) The Lydians and Persians, now massed in the marketplace, had no option but to stand and fight and when the Ionians saw that the enemy was going to put up a fight, and that many more were coming up in support, they took fright and fell back on Mount Tmolus. Then they set off back to their ships under cover of night. So, Sardis was burned and in it the temple of Cybele, the mother-goddess worshipped there, an act which was to become the Persians’ justification for destroying the holy places they later burned in Greece.
When the Persians who lived to the west of the River Halys heard what was happening, they gathered together and marched to support the Lydians. Finding the Ionians gone from Sardis they followed their trail and caught up with them at Ephesus. The Ionians formed up and faced them but suffered a severe defeat in the battle that followed and the Persians killed many of them, some of them famous, including Eualcides, commander of the Eretrians, a prizewinning athlete much praised by Simonides of Ceos. Those who managed to escape from the battlefield scattered, each to their own city, and that was the end of the fighting there. Afterwards the Athenians completely abandoned the Ionians and refused to help them in any way, although Aristagoras sent many pleading messages. However, despite the loss of their alliance with the Athenians, the Ionians did not draw back from war with the Great King because they had already gone so far in their actions against him. They sailed to the Hellespont and took control of Byzantium and all the other cities in that region and then went on from the Hellespont and brought most of Caria over to their side. Even the city of Caunus, which had previously refused to be part of the alliance, now joined it after the burning of Sardis. (5.97–103)
The bold, even foolhardy Hellene attack on Sardis seems to have taken Artaphernes completely by surprise. His ‘substantial garrison’ was clearly strong enough to see off the Hellenes when it actually confronted them, and the most appropriate course of action would have been to meet them outside the city, rather than to wait for them to lay siege to the acropolis. The unplanned fire may have been more of an immediate problem for the attackers than the defenders, who would presumably have been safe inside the citadel walls on the heights above the city. The spreading blaze forced the Hellenes to gather in the open spaces by the river, enabling the Persians and Lydians to assess their strength and concentrate their forces to attack them en masse. When the Hellenes withdrew, the Persians and Lydians, reinforced from further inland, regrouped and caught up with the rebels before they could board their ships. They now clearly outnumbered the Hellenes and the speed of their pursuit suggests there was a strong cavalry element. Herodotus’ only quantification of the forces involved is the 25 ships from Athens and Eretria. Their withdrawal probably did not significantly weaken the rebels, who were able to muster over 350 triremes four years later. But the early loss of their only support from the heartland must have been a blow to morale. There could have been a swift change of political mood in Athens with a desire to appease rather than provoke the Great King, but that was no longer possible.
When word came to Darius that Sardis had been taken and burnt by the Athenians and Ionians, and that Aristagoras the Milesian had led the conspirators who had hatched the plot, it is said that he was unconcerned about the Ionians because he knew they would not escape punishment for this rebellion. But he asked who these Athenians were, and, when he had been told, called for his bow. He took it, put an arrow to the string and shot it into the sky, and, as it soared up, he said this prayer: ‘O Zeus, grant me vengeance on the Athenians.’ And after doing this he gave orders that one of his servants should say to him three times whenever his dinner was set before him, ‘Master, remember the Athenians.’ (5.105)
It is unlikely that Darius needed to be told who the Athenians were, pleasing as the echo is of Cyrus’ reaction to his decades-earlier encounter with the Spartans. He probably already knew that they had reneged on their offer of earth and water to Artaphernes, and very likely knew about their subsequent refusal to reinstate Hippias, even if the ex-tyrant had less access to him than Herodotus suggests. The King’s dramatic oath has a ring of truth to it, however. He is calling on Ahura Mazda, the principal god of the Persians, regarded by the Hellenes as one and the same as Zeus. Ahura Mazda was actually an altogether more sophisticated divine being than the head of the Hellenes’ chaotic pantheon, but the two shared roots in the ancient Indo-European tradition of a supreme sky-god. The bow, symbolic of Persian military might, was an important piece of the Great King’s regalia and shooting an arrow into the sky sealed the oath powerfully.
In spite of their early setback the Ionians had quickly spread insurrection north to the Bosporus and south throughout Caria. Then all but one of the ten major cities of Cyprus rebelled, and Cyprus had been a rich and important imperial asset since the reign of Cambyses. The Ionian Revolt was no longer purely an Ionian affair, if it ever was. Since both the Carians and the Cypriots were as Asian as they were Hellene, it had become rather more than an irritating disturbance in a cluster of subject cities on one limited frontier. So Cyprus and the strategically important Hellespont region became higher priorities than Ionia. In the meantime, Histiaeus managed to persuade Darius to allow him to return home on the pretext that he would restore order. He disingenuously undertook to deliver Aristagoras for punishment, if it proved to be the case that he and the Milesians were responsible for the rebellion, and into the bargain he made a ridiculous promise to bring Sardinia, recently annexed by Carthage, into the Persian Empire.
Operations to put down the rebellion took place simultaneously in more than one theatre from 498 onwards. Herodotus does not give any precise chronology, but he deals with the suppression of Cyprus first. The Cypriots called on the Ionians for support and they sent a fleet, but declined to join in any fighting on land. The Persians had shipped a large army over from Cilicia supported by a Phoenician fleet and the two sides faced each other on the south side of the island by the city of Salamis on land and offshore:
When the Persian army arrived on the plain of Salamis, the Cypriot kings formed up their battle line. They placed the best of the Salaminians and Solians opposite the Persians with the remaining Cypriots facing the rest of the enemy. Onesilus, the Cypriot commander-in-chief, took up position opposite Artybius, the Persian commander. Now, Artybius was mounted on a horse that was trained to rear up when facing a hoplite on foot. Onesilus knew about this and said to his attendant, a Carian by birth and a famous warrior of great courage, ‘I understand that Artybius’ horse rears up and uses his hoofs and teeth to kill any man he comes up against. With this in mind, tell me which of the two you would prefer to take on, the horse or Artybius himself.’ His attendant replied, ‘I am ready to take on either or both, as your majesty wishes, but I will tell you what I think is most appropriate from your point of view. I say that it is right for a king and commander to fight a king and commander. For if the man you strike down is a commander, you do a great deed, and if, on the other hand, that man strikes you down (let this not be so!), your misfortune is halved because your death is at the hands of a worthy opponent. And it is right for a servant to fight a servant, or a horse. So don’t worry about this horse’s tricks. I guarantee he will never again rear up over any man!’ This was his response, and immediately afterwards the opposing forces engaged on land and sea.
The Ionian fleet was superb that day and defeated the Phoenicians, and the Samians fought best of all, and while this fight was going on, the two armies on shore swept together in battle. As for the two commanders, when Artybius the Persian astride his horse charged at Onesilus, the Cypriot followed the plan he had agreed with his attendant and aimed a thrust at him. The horse reared up and kicked out at Onesilus’ shield and the Carian sliced off its hindlegs with one stroke of his billhook. That is how Artybius the Persian commander met his end, he and his horse. While the rest were still fighting, Stesenor the ruler of Curium, which is said to be an Argive settlement, deserted with the substantial force under his command and, when the Curians deserted, the war-chariots of Salamis did the same. And so the Persians gained the upper hand over the Cypriots, and their army was routed with many slain. Onesilus son of Chersis, who had instigated the rebellion in Cyprus, and the king of the Solians, Aristocyprus son of Philocyprus, were among the dead. (5.112–13)
Herodotus’ tantalizingly brief account of this significant land-battle and the single combat between the two commanders has an exotic and epic flavour. However, the cities of Cyprus were capable of mustering a large army, many thousands strong. Herodotus tells us that their infantry equipment was Hellene in style except for the headgear: ‘the kings wrapped turbans round their heads, the rest wore felt caps’ (7.90). This could be counted as another victory for Asian cavalry, and medium and light infantry, over western-style heavy troops, and the Persians could reasonably consider it a better test than the battle outside Ephesus. It is the only battle in which Herodotus mentions the involvement of chariots, though elsewhere he notes that the Libyan element of the imperial Persian army included them in place of cavalry. At this time the chariot was used as an archery platform rather than as a shock weapon. That appears to have come later when the Persians developed the scythed chariot towards the end of the 5th century.
It is disappointing that Herodotus has so little to say about the simultaneous sea-battle. Two years later the rebels faced the Persians with over 350 triremes, 60 of them from Samos, but there is no indication of their strength on this occasion. It is possible that the Phoenicians, from the Mediterranean’s finest navy, were simply outnumbered here. However, with the Cypriots defeated on land, the Ionians could not exploit their victory, whatever its scale, and so sailed home. Nonetheless, it is surprising that Herodotus, with his liking for coincidences and portents, makes so little of this earlier Hellene naval victory near a place called Salamis.
All the cities of Cyprus that had rebelled were subsequently besieged and taken:
Soli held out the longest but the Persians tunnelled under its outer wall and took it after five months. And so the Cypriots, after one year of freedom, were made slaves again. (5.115–16)
At this point Herodotus jumps back to operations on the mainland immediately after the burning of Sardis:
The Persian generals Daurises, Hymaees, and Otanes, all of them married to daughters of Darius, pursued the Ionians who had marched on Sardis and drove them back to their ships. After this victory they divided the rebel cities between them and sacked them. Daurises set off for the cities of the Hellespont and took Dardanus, Abydos, Percote, Lampsacus, and Paisus, each in a single day. Then, as he marched from Paisus against Parium, word came to him that the Carians had joined up with the Ionians and risen against the Persians. So he turned back from the Hellespont and marched his army to Caria. (5.116–17)
It seems that the Persians had quickly regained full control of the Bosporus and Hellespont sea-lanes allowing Daurises to abandon operations to suppress the rebels on the Asian shore and to make the march of several hundred kilometres to the south to deal with Caria, presumably linking up with his brothers-in-law:
The Carians managed to find out about Daurises’ approach ahead of his arrival, and when they had this information, they gathered at a place called White Pillars on the River Marsyas which flows from the land around Idrias and joins the Maeander. When they had mustered there, many and various plans were proposed. The best of these, in my judgement, was suggested by Pixodarus of Cindye, the son of Mausolus24 and husband of the daughter of Syennesis, king of Cilicia. His idea was that the Carians should cross the Maeander and fight with the river at their backs so that with retreat impossible they would have no option but to stand their ground and fight even more bravely than it was in their nature to do. But this idea was rejected and the decision was taken that the Persians, not the Carians, should fight with the Maeander at their backs, the purpose being that if the Persians were defeated and put to flight, they would be hurled into the river, never to return home.
When the Persians had come up and crossed the Maeander, the Carians engaged them by the River Marsyas and fought long and hard, but in the end they were overcome by superior numbers. About 2,000 Persians fell, but close on 10,000 Carians. The Carians who got away were penned into a large sacred grove of plane trees, the sanctuary of Zeus at Labraunda. Trapped as they were, they discussed what action might give them the best prospect of saving themselves, whether they would be better off surrendering to the Persians, or simply abandoning Asia. But whilst this debate was going on, the Milesians and their allies arrived to reinforce them and the Carians immediately set these thoughts aside and prepared to do battle all over again. They charged the Persians, engaged with them, fought a second time and were more severely beaten than before. The whole army sustained many casualties and the Milesians suffered most of all. However, the Carians recovered from this setback and carried on the fight. For example, having discovered that the Persians were launching a campaign against their cities, they set an ambush on the Pedasus road and the Persians fell into the trap and were wiped out with all their generals, including Daurises, in a night attack. The ambush force was commanded by Heraclides from Mylasa. (5.118–21)