Ancient Warfare: Ionian Revolt against Persia

There was no discipline in the Ionian fleet. The men left the ships and scattered over the island, refusing to obey orders, and even going to the length of opening communication with the expelled Tyrants, to whom they promised to desert their comrades in time of battle.

Under such circumstances the Persian commanders did not hesitate to attack the vessels. Just as the battle was about to open, the Samian vessels treacherously sailed away, and directly afterward the Lesbians did the same; but the hundred ships of the Milesians fought with unsurpassable heroism until they were crushed by the overwhelming numbers of the enemy.

This was the decisive struggle of the war. Miletus was soon taken by storm. Nearly all the men were slain, and the few who were spared were carried with the women and children into slavery. Similar harshness was shown in the cases of the other Greek cities in Asia and the neighboring islands. Chios, Tenedos, and Lesbos were desolated, and the Persian fleet carried death and destruction up to the Hellespont and Propontis. At Byzantium and Chalcedon the inhabitants fled, and the distinguished Athenian Miltiades barely escaped by making all haste to Athens.

The cup of Ionia was full. The Asiatic Greeks had been conquered by Croesus of Lydia, then by Cyrus, and now they were the captives and slaves of Darius; and the last was the worst of all. Artaphernes devoted himself to establishing an orderly government, and did what he could to heal the bleeding wounds of the subject province (494 B.C.).

Darius had not yet punished Athens for what to him was her unpardonable crime against his authority. His fury was as hot as ever, and now that the Ionic revolt had been subdued, he made his preparations for striking a terrific blow against that gallant little commonwealth. Mardonius, his son-in-law, was ambitious and longed for a chance of winning glory on the field of battle. Darius removed Artaphernes from the government of the Persian provinces bordering on the AEgean, and appointed Mardonius in his place. A large armament was placed at the command of Mardonius, with orders that he should send to Susa all the Athenians and Eretrians who had insulted the Great King. The task was a congenial one to Mardonius, who crossed the Hellespont, and, marching through Thrace and Macedonia, brought under subjection such tribes as still defied Persian authority. With so powerful a force, this was easy work against the undisciplined barbarians.

But disaster was at hand. He had sent the fleet to double the promontory of Mount Athos and join the army at the head of the Gulf of Therma, when a tremendous hurricane destroyed three hundred of the ships and drowned twenty thousand of the men. While in Macedonia, Mardonius had his army almost cut to pieces in a night attack by an independent Thracian tribe, and though he stayed long enough to subdue the country, he was obliged to retreat across the Hellespont, and, shamed and humiliated, he returned to the Persian court.

This failure only roused the anger of Darius to greater intensity than before. He would not rest until he had humbled Athens to the dust, and he began his preparations on so colossal a scale that it seemed nothing short of the direct interposition of heaven could save Greece from extinction. Before beginning his fearful work, he sent heralds to the principal Grecian states, demanding from each earth and water as a symbol of submission. When the herald reached Athens, he was flung into an excavation in the earth, while the messenger who visited Sparta was tumbled into a well and told to help himself to all the earth and water he wanted. In nearly every other instance, however, the Grecian cities were so cowed by the subjugation of Ionia, that they complied with the demands of Darius. In the case of AEgina, the first maritime power in Greece, the people hated the Athenians as much as they feared Darius. They had been at war for several years with Athens, and welcomed the promise of seeing her pride humbled. The Athenians sent ambassadors to Sparta, charging the AEginetans with having betrayed the common cause of Greece by sending the symbol to the barbarians, and demanding that Sparta, as the leading state of Hellas, should punish them for the crime. The Spartans sent to AEgina, and, taking away ten of its leading citizens, placed them as hostages in the hands of the Athenians. The noteworthy fact about this is that it was the first time in Grecian history that the Greeks appear as having a common political cause, and Sparta was recognized by Athens as entitled to the leadership. It was the impending peril from the Persians that brought about this union, so fraught with momentous results.

Darius was busy all this time in completing his preparations for the invasion of Greece. In the spring of 490 B.C., he assembled an immense army in Cilicia, under the command of Datis, a Median, and Artaphernes, son of the satrap of the same name in Sardis. Their fearful resolve was to reduce the cities of Athens and Eretria to ashes, and carry off the inhabitants as slaves, while all the other cities that had not sent earth and water to the Persian king were to be brought under subjection. Thousands of fetters were taken along with which to bind the hapless people, and Darius was warranted in believing that failure was the most unlikely thing that could happen to his hosts. There were six hundred galleys, and numerous transports for horses, ready to receive the troops on board.

The army set sail for Samos, and, remembering the disaster to Mardonius, Datis decided to pass directly across the AEgean to Euboea, bringing under subjection the Cyclades on his way. The Naxians, seeing their city about to be attacked, fled to the mountains, and the invaders burnt it to the ground. The other islands of the Cyclades made haste to give their submission, for it would have been madness to resist.

The first fighting took place at Eretria, which, knowing the fate intended for it, held out bravely for six days, when it fell through the treachery of two of its citizens. The city was destroyed and the inhabitants were put in chains, as a part of the plan of Darius. Having accomplished one object of the invasion, Datis now crossed over to Attica and landed on the palm of Marathon.

Meanwhile, as may be supposed, Athens was awake to her peril, and made tremendous exertions to meet it. All her available forces had been placed under the command of her ten generals, who, it will be remembered, were yearly selected. Among these was Miltiades, who as Tyrant of the Chersonesus, had won a reputation as one of the bravest of men and the possessor of signal military ability. It was he who accompanied Darius on his invasion of Scythia, and did his utmost to persuade the Ionians to destroy the bridge of boats and thus overwhelm the Persian monarch with ruin. While the Persians were occupied in putting down the Ionic revolt, Miltiades captured Lemnos and Imbros, drove out the Persian garrisons and the Pelasgian inhabitants, and turned over the islands to the Athenians.

Knowing all this, the Persian leaders would have exchanged thousand of their men for Miltiades. None knew this better than Miltiades himself, who, upon the appearance of the Phoenician fleet in the Hellespont, after the suppression of the Ionic revolt, hurriedly sailed for Athens with five ships. The Phoenicians pursued, but were unable to overtake him, though they captured one of the vessels commanded by his son. The enemies of Miltiades brought him to trial on the charge of tyranny while ruler of the Chersonesus, but he was not only acquitted, but elected one of the ten generals who were to meet the Persian invasion.

In the very hour that Athens heard of the fall of Eretria, its swiftest runner was sent to Sparta to beg for assistance. One hundred and fifty miles separate the two cities, yet the runner covered the distance in forty-eight hours. The aid asked for was promised, but a superstition prevented giving it until the full of the moon, which was several days distant. Darius, however, did not tarry for any such cause, nor could the Athenians afford to do so.

The latter had advanced to Marathon, where they encamped on the mountains surrounding the plain. Upon receiving the answer of the Spartans, the ten generals held a council of war. Half were opposed to fighting the overwhelming army until the arrival of the Lacedaemonians, but the others, led by Miltiades, insisted upon not losing a moment in attacking them; for, by doing so, they would have the measureless advantage of the enthusiasm of their men, and would forestall any treachery among their own people. It must be admitted that with all their valor the Greeks were plentifully supplied with traitors, and more than once those in whom the fullest trust was reposed were bribed to betray their country.

Since the vote was a tie, the decision fell upon Callimachus, the Polemarch, for we have learned that down to this time the third Archon was a colleague of the ten generals. Miltiades, seconded by two other generals, Themistocles and Aristides, argued so earnestly with him that he was convinced, and voted for immediate battle. It was the practice for each general to command in rotation the army for a day, but all agreed to place their days of command in the hands of Miltiades, and it was surely a wise proceeding to have everything in the hands of a single person, whose ability had been proven.

An inspiriting occurrence took place while the Athenians were preparing for battle. They had given help to Plataea years before when she was attacked by the Thebans, and now the Plataeans sent their whole force to the help of the Athenians, consisting of one thousand heavy-armed men. Athens never forgot this favor. The whole Athenian army consisted of only ten thousand heavy armed soldiers; they had no archers or cavalry, and only a few slaves as lightarmed attendants. We have no means of knowing the strength of the Persian army, except that it was more than ten times that of the gallant body which girded up its loins and made ready to rush forward into the life-or-death struggle.

The plain of Marathon is six miles long and at its broadest part in the middle about two miles wide. It is curved like a crescent, each end of which is a promontory extending into the sea, with marshes at the northern and the southern point. There is hardly a tree on the flat plain, which is enclosed on every side toward the land by rugged mountains, which cut it off from the rest of Greece.

"The mountains look on Marathon-- And Marathon looks on the sea."

The Persian fleet was drawn up along the beach, and the army formed about a mile from shore. Gazing down upon them were the Athenians who occupied the rising ground, from end to end, so that the mountain prevented the enemy from flanking them and sending their cavalry around to attack them in the rear. This line, however, was so extensive that it could not be fully occupied, without being weakened at some portion. Miltiades met this difficulty by drawing up the troops in the centre in thin files, relying mainly upon the deeper masses at the wings. The post of honor, the extreme right, was given to the Polemarch Callimachus, while the equally difficult post, the far left, was held by the Plataeans.

It must be remembered, in the first place, that the trained army drawn up in battle array on the plain was ten or twelve times as numerous as the Greeks, and the renown of the Medes and Persians was equal to theirs. They had been engaged for centuries in sweeping dynasties and monarchies out of existence; the Median, Lydian, Babylonian, and Egyptian empires had crumbled under their tread, and since those woeful days the Asiatic Greeks had felt the iron heel of the conqueror. In truth, the Medes and Persians had never been defeated by the Greeks in battle, and their name had long filled all people with terror

Miltiades was eager to come to close quarters, and ordered his men to advance on the "double quick" over the mile of plain which separated the two armies. The Persians viewed this charge as if made by madmen, and calmly awaited the moment when they should come within reach and go down like ripe grain before the reaper. But those ardent Greeks, shouting their war cry, assailed their enemies with the fury of a cyclone. Each wing was successful and the Persians were tumbled back toward the beach and the marshes, but the weak Greek centre was broken through and put to flight. Miltiades called back the wings from the pursuit of the enemy, and hurled them upon the centre, overthrowing the Persians, who scattered in a panic and hurried after their friends that had made such desperate haste to scramble aboard the ships. The impetuous Athenians strove to burn the vessels, but succeeded in destroying only seven. The enemy were driven to the wall and fought with the energy of desperation.

In this memorable battle the Persians lost more than six thousand men, while of the Athenians only one hundred and ninety-two fell; but among them was the valiant Polemarch Callimachus and several of the most noted citizens of Athens.

As soon as the Persians were safely aboard their ships, they sailed in the direction of Cape Sunium. Suddenly a burnished shield shone out like the sun from the crest of one of the Attican mountains. The watchful Miltiades saw it, and noted the course taken by the fleet. Suspecting the meaning of the signal, he marched his army with all haste back to Athens. The signal in truth was an invitation to the Persian fleet to attack the city while the army was absent, and it set out to do so. Miltiades arrived just in time to save it from certain capture. When the Persians were about to land, they saw the very soldiers from whom they had fled at Marathon, and they had no wish to meet them again. The invasion was given up in despair, and the fleet returned to Asia.

Support this site and add value to yours by linking to this page. Just copy the text or HTML below and paste into your web site. Thank you!

Read about Ancient Warfare: Ionian Revolt against Persia in the The Story of the Greatest Nations and the Worlds Famous Events Vol 1

Help us improve and/or update this article. Please send suggested text to For submission Terms and Conditions, click here.