What caused the Greco-Persian Wars? (A complete guide)

The Greco-Persian Wars were probably some of the most influential wars of Antiquity, maybe even of all times.

But what started the Greco-Persian wars?

Let`s find out.

The Greco-Persian Wars were started by the Ionian Revolt (499-493 BC) during which the Greek city-states of Asia Minor with the help of Athens and Eretria rebelled against the Persian supremacy. The rebellion failed but the Persians wanted to punish Athens and Eretria which led to the Greco-Persian Wars.

What was the Ionian Revolt?

During the Ionian Revolt, the greek city-states at the modern-day western coast of Asia Minor rebelled against the Persian supremacy with the help of Athens and Eretria.

After initial successes like the capture of the Persian city of Sardes, the Ionians were soon pushed into the defense. The Ionian Revolt ended in 493 BC with the Persian recapture of the revolting city-states.

The Ionian revolt is seen as the first major conflict between Greeks and the Persian empire and represents the first phase of the Greco-Persian Wars.

Why were there Greek city-states in Asia Minor?

Before we deal with the events of the Ionian Revolt we have to take a look at the greek world.

During Antiquity, the greek influence stretched much further than just modern-day Greece.

This was a result of the Great Colonization from 750 to 550 BC. During that period the poleis in mainland Greece founded new settlements all over the Mediterranean.

The Greek colonies stretched from Gaul, southern Italy, the Adriatic sea, the coasts of the black sea, and Macedonia as far east as Ionia (Asia Minor).

Many of these colonies developed into mighty poleis like for example the city Miletus.

These Greek poleis in Asia Minorwere independent until around 560 BC when they were conquered by the famous Lydian king Croesus. They remained under Lydian rule until 545 BC.

In 545 BC the Lydian king Croesus was defeated by the Persian king Cyrus the Great and the Lydian empire was integrated into the Persian empire.

That didn`t change a lot for the Greeks in the Ionian poleis (=city-states). They still paid a similar amount of taxes and they still had to provide contingents for campaigns. The only difference was that they now had to obey Persian orders instead of Lydian orders.

The political organization within the Greek city-states of the Ionian Coast was not touched by the Persians.

Many of the poleis kept Tyrants as their rulers. Miletus for example kept its tyrant Aristagoras.

What sparked the Ionian Revolt?

The last paragraph sounded pretty harmonious which bears the question of why the Ionian poleis started a revolt against the Persian supremacy.

The cause for the Ionian revolt lies in the polis of Naxos. Like in many greek poleis the city of Naxos also saw a constant rivalry between the political systems.

Aristocrats were fighting Democrats and since the Aristocrats were currently losing they asked Aristagoras (Tyrant of Miletus) for assistance. Aristagoras and the Persian governor (= satrap) Artaphernes decided to back the aristocrats in hopes of expanding their own influence.

The Persian king Dareios also sent troops under the command of general Megabates to assist the cause of reinstating the aristocrats.

The campaign against Naxos failed and the Persian general Megabates opened up to the possibility of cooperation between a Democracy and the Persian Empire. As stated before, the Persians didn’t really care about the inner political order of the Greek poleis as long as they paid their taxes and contributed contingents to the Persian army.

The possibility of cooperation between Democrats and the Persian Empire posed a huge threat for tyrants like Aristagoras of Miletus.

Until now he was convinced that his position as tyrant was secured but because of Mardonios actions, the power of tyrants all over Ionia was threatened!

To secure his power Aristagoras managed to convince Miletus to rebel. The call for rebellion against the Persians soon expanded over the entire Ionia and its islands.

The Ionian Revolt

Since the coast of Ionia was an important region for the Persian Empire the rebellion of the greek city-states could not be ignored and had to be dissolved.

Aristagoras was fully aware of the military potential that would be used to end the revolt and realized that the Ionian poleis would not be enough to withstand the Persian army. He needed allies.

Since Miletus and the other greek poleis in Asia Minor were founded by colonists from mainland Greece it seemed logical to ask the greek mother cities for help.

Support for the Ionian Revolt from Mainland Greece

Most of the greek cities in mainland Greece refused to participate in a conflict against the Persian empire.

Only Athens and Eretria decided to send aid. Athens sent 20 and Eretria 5 ships. Both also sent a small force of Hoplites. Here you can find my article with more information on why the Hoplites were such feared warriors.

Especially Athens had its own reasons to fear the Persian empire. That fear dated back to the last Athenian tyrant Hippias who ruled Athens from 527 BC to 510 BC.

In 510 BC, coincidentally the same year that early Rome got rid of its last king (more on why & how these two events might be connected here in my article), Hippias had been driven out of Athens with the help of Sparta.

Hippias then seeked refuge in the Achaemenid Empire (=persian empire) from where he planned to retake power over Athens.

If you want to find out how the influence of Hippias influenced the famous battle of Marathon then you can check out my article here.

But back to the Ionian revolt:

In the spring of 498 BC, the Athenian and Eretrian ships set sails for Miletus where they would join the assembled rebel army.

The Greek offensive

As soon as the reinforcements from mainland Greece had arrived the Ionian rebels started their advance on the Sardis, the capital of the Persian province Lydia. Sardis was conquered, looted and the shrine of Kybele was burnt down.

According to Herodotus, one of the best (and only) sources for the Greco-Persian Wars, the capture of Sardis was the reason why the persian king Dareios I. swore vengance upon Athens.

According to legend Dareios I. even tasked one of his servants to remind him atleast three times a day by using the sentence „Master, remember the Athenians“ (Herodotus V, 105).

The wrath of Darius against Athens was understandable since the events in 510 BC gave him every right to see Athens as his subordinate or at least as his allies.

After the capture of Sardis, the greek forces retreated to Ephesus where they suffered their first defeat.

As a consequence, Athens and Eretria ended their alliance with the Ionian city-states (= poleis) and the survivors returned to Greece.

The Athenian and Eretrian assistance to the Ionian revolt only lasted during the year of 498 BC since the Persians weren`t the easy prey that Aristagoras had promised.

But even without that kind of support, the Ionians were still able to conquer additional cities so that the entire coastline of Asia Minor was controlled by the rebels.

As a result the kingdoms of Cyprus also joined the revolt in late 498 BC.

The end of the Ionian Revolt

The Persians did not take advantage of their victory at Ephesus in 498 BC.

It wasn`t until 497 BC that the Persians started their offense against the Ionian rebels.

The first Persian goal was to recapture Cyprus which was archived in the same year.

Cyprus was of great strategic importance since it was an important naval power and supply post for all of Antiquity and even during the Middle ages!

The revolt in Cyprus ended here after just one year of „freedom“ from the Persians.

During the following years, the Persians managed to reclaim all of the lands until the Ionian fleet was finally defeated at the battle of Lade.

After that defeat, the revolt was effectively over.

Only Miletus still had to be punished for starting the rebellion. Since its former tyrant, Aristagoras had already fled to Thrace the city was captured by the Persians.

According to Herodotus most of the men were killed while women and children were sold into slavery. By the way, selling enemies into slavery was a pretty common (and quite lucrative) side effect of ancient warfare.

A few hundred years after the Ionian Revolt many of the Roman gladiators would find their way into slavery and the arena by being captured and sold after a battle. Please check out my article here for more information on how that worked.

The Ionian revolt ended in 493 BC.

The aftermath of the Ionian Revolt

Although the Ionian revolt had ended there were still unsolved problems.

The biggest problem from the Persian point of view was that Athens and Eretria were still unpunished for their involvement in the capture and destruction of Sardis.

The biggest problem for Athens and Eretria was that they had unnecessarily maneuvered themself into a conflict with the ancient global superpower.

And that superpower was seeking revenge!

But particually Athens had an advantage for the upcoming events. The general Miltiades the Younger, the hero of the Athenian victory at Marathon,  left his persian employer behind and joined the Athenians.

Do you want to learn more about how Miltiades was able to help Athens by using his insight knowledge into Persian warfare? Please check out my article here.

That desire for revenche set a string of events into action that would lead to the famous Greco-Persian Wars with its major battles.

Even the contemporary witness Herodotus realized that the Ionian Revolt had set a conflict in motion that would only be solved by the destruction of one of the participants!

One might even say that the Ionian Revolt laid the ideological foundation for the legitimization of Alexanders the Great campaign into the Persian empire.

But that is a story for another time. Feel free to check out my article here for more information on the army that Alexander the Great used for his invasion into the Persian Empire.

And here you can find my article with more information on the unusual actions that Alexander, after conquering the Persian Empire, took to ensure the stability of his empire.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


E. Abbott: A History of Greece: From the Earliest Times to the Ionian Revolt. 1895. – Pt.2, 2015.

E. Jensen: The Greco-Persian Wars: A Short History with Documents.