At the beginning of the 5th century BCE, a hodgepodge of political strife, imperialistic occupation, and territorial conflict spurred the Ionian Revolt, a bloody rebellion on the coast of Asia Minor, now modern-day Turkey. The revolt lasted six years, during which the powers of Ionia and Persia both sustained significant losses. By its end, however, Persia emerged the unequivocal victor.
The city-states of the Ionian coast had been captured by the Persian king in the mid-6th century BCE and had remained under their rule ever since. The Persians installed tyrants, leaders of unconstitutional power, to establish governance in each city-state. The proud Ionian Greeks would not have taken well to external rulership in any case, but most unacceptable was the foreign imposition upon not just their government but also their land. Land, a commodity more valuable than gold, was frequently granted by the king to Persians relocating to the Ionian coast, often in exchange for some kind of political or military service. The Greek mainland, on the other hand, was becoming increasingly democratised while the Ionian coast watched through the bars of Persian occupation.
In 499 BCE, the Greek-born tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras, incited a revolt in the city with the incentive of land repatriation and democracy, readily joined by the rest of the Ionians. Athens and Eretria supplied military help at the request of Aristagoras, but the aid he was most eager to gain was Sparta’s, the militaristic superpower renowned for its fierce fighters and penchant for warfare. Described as the best warriors of the Greek world, many historians have wondered how Spartan aid might have turned the tide of the revolt. The tyrant’s appeal, however, was rejected by the Spartan king.
With the help of Athens and Eretria, the Ionians razed the inland city of Sardis which proved a massive victory for the cause and the first significant turn of Persia’s rule over Ionia. Although, this would be one of few victories as the Persian counter-offensive was longer and more brutal. Over the following years, the Persian military violently quashed revolts across Ionia: Cyprus, the Hellespont, the Propontis, and Caria, forcing the conquered into military service or killing the local population in each conquered city. The Persian army was also bolstered by Egyptians and Phoenician soldiers. By 493 BCE, the locus of the rebellion at Miletus had been retaken by the Persians, and the city was purged of the native Milesians; they had officially quelled the revolt.
A dimension we may recognise in the Ionian Revolt is the noticeable lack of Spartan aid: aid that may have turned the tides. It is not the historian’s job to speak in terms of potentiality, but the capability and magnitude of the Spartan regime are markedly felt within the whole conflict.
It is true that the historical narrative of the Ionian revolt is construed primarily by Greek writers, namely Herodotus. However, most classical historians can agree that Ionia was the ‘underdog’, so to speak, in the conflict. It was outnumbered, desperate for the gleaming egalitarianism of formal democratisation, and the recipient of Persian imperialistic cruelty. The case for the Ionians as the ostensible ‘good guys’ seems quite strong, so much so that we can immediately point out the moral wrongs of the Persians.
But why might we discuss this two-and-a-half-millennia-old conflict? Is it still relevant? It seems so. As the saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and the Ionian Revolt bears an unfortunate resemblance to the current Israel-Palestine conflict. There are the clear material parallels: vicious land disputes, brutalisation of a much smaller region, the stripping of an identity of the locals from a dominant power, and the alliance of said dominant power with other major powers. Today, Palestine is undergoing a ruthless onslaught from Israel, which has used thousands of bombs on the area, an extraordinary and unnecessary degree of violence. And much like the Ionians, Palestinians are occupying the space in which they first lived.
Most of all, the negligence of the Spartan king in aiding Ionians, which so affected the conflict, is almost parallel to our Western negligence of the condition of Palestine. In fact, in this, the nations of the Western world are perhaps more egregious. Such nations like the United States, Canada, and our very own Britain have publicly affirmed Israel during this humanitarian crisis and done little to acknowledge Palestine at all. I do not have the answers on how we will reconcile the inadequacy of state acknowledgement with the atrocity of what is occurring, but at the very least, we can learn and remember. We are lucky to live within democratic processes in which we can educate ourselves and speak on issues, and in which the constitution of a citizenry can affect the politics of a nation.
It should also be noted that this is not a direct parallel. There is a great deal of nuance needed to analyse both situations, and this piece is not meant to synthesise them. Rather, it is to analogise the two and recognise that the barbarism we see in antiquity is not a thing of the past: it still exists, and it is happening right now, and if we are to condemn the Persians, we must condemn contemporary powers who exhibit the same imperialistic methods.
Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and forgotten it we have.
By Gabriel Rumble-Siddique