Aristagoras was the leader of Miletus in the late 6th century BC and early 5th century BC.
Aristagoras served as deputy governor of Miletus, a polis on the western coast of Anatolia around 500 BC. He was the son of Molpagoras, and son-in-law (and nephew) of Histiaeus, whom the Persians had set up as tyrant of Miletus. Aristagoras controlled Miletus while Histiaeus was being held by the Persian emperor Darius I of Persia at Susa. Aristagoras was the main orchestrator of the Ionian Rebellion, when the Greek poleis of Ionia on the east coast of the Aegean Sea banded together to rebel against the rule of the Persian Empire.
Certain exiled citizens of Naxos came to Miletus to seek refuge. They asked Aristagoras to supply them with troops, so that they could regain control of their homeland. Aristagoras hoped that if he supplied troops, he could become ruler of Naxos, so he made a deal with the Naxians. He claimed that he did not have enough troops, but that Artaphernes, Darius’ brother and the Persian satrap of Lydia, who commanded a large army and navy on the coast of Asia, could help supply troops. The Naxians allowed Aristagoras to do their business with Artaphernes and supplied him with money. And so Aristagoras went to Sardis and told Artaphernes to attack Naxos and restore the exiles with the implication the Artaphernes would be in control of the territory. He insisted that Naxos "was a fine and fertile island, close to the Ionian coast, and rich both in treasures and slaves." Aristagoras promised that he would both fund the expedition and give Artaphernes a bonus sum. He also tempted Artaphernes by adding that capturing the island would place other poleis of the Cyclades under his control, which would serve as a base for attacking Euboea. Artaphenes agreed and promised 200 ships. The following spring, Aristagoras and the Naxian exiles sailed with the fleet. Unfortunately for the invasion, Aristagoras quarrelled with the admiral Megabates, who then informed the Naxians that the fleet was coming. Naxos then had enough time to prepare for a siege. Four months later, the siege still held, the Persians were out of supplies, and few funds remained. The expedition had failed, and they sailed home.
After his failure in Naxos, Aristagoras’ political position was at risk. In an attempt to save himself from the wrath of Persia he began to plan a revolt with the Milesians and the other Ionians. Meanwhile, Histiaeus, still detained at Sardis, had tattooed a message upon the shaved head of a slave. Once his hair had grown back, he sent him to Aristagoras. The message told Aristagoras to revolt. Histiaeus, desperate to see Miletus again, hoped Darius would send him to deal with a Naxian revolt. Aristagoras, who had already considered revolt, conferred with a council of his supporters, who agreed to a rebellion in Miletus in 499 BC. Aristagoras was supported by most of the citizens, except the historian Hecataeus. He sent men to Myus to capture the Persian fleet commanders there. Once his rebellion was in the open, Aristagoras "set himself to damage Darius in every way he could think of." To gain support, he deposed the despots in the other Ionian states, and claimed he too would end his tyranny, to allow for popular government. Aristagoras ordered all of the states to create a board of generals to rule, thus beginning the Ionian Revolt. Then, he sailed to Lacedaemon in search of an ally.
Aristagoras appealed to the Spartan king, Cleomenes I, to help them throw off the Persian yoke. He praised the quality of the Spartan warriors, and argued that a pre-emptive invasion of Persia would be easy. He claimed that the Persians would be easy to defeat, as they fought in "trousers and turbans," clearly not a sign of good warriors. He also tempted him with Persian riches. Cleomenes asked Aristagoras to wait two days for an answer. When they next met, Cleomenes asked how long it would take to reach Susa, and upon learning that it was a three months’ journey, he stoutly refused to give Sparta’s assistance as his troops would be gone for too long. At the time, Sparta was concerned with possible attacks from the Argives. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that Aristagoras attempted to change Cleomenes’ mind with bribes, until the king's young daughter warned that Aristagoras would corrupt him. Aristagoras left, another venture having failed.
Burning of Sardis
Aristagoras next went to Athens, where he made a convincing speech, promising "everything that came into his head, until at last he succeeded." Won over, the Athenians sent ships to Ionia, and Aristagoras went before them with the sole intention of irritating Darius. The Athenians arrived in Miletus with twenty triremes and five other triremes that belonged to the Eretrians. Once all his allies arrived, Aristagoras put his brother Charopinus in charge of the expedition, and the whole contingent set out for Sardis, the Persian capital in Ionia. Using Ephesus as its base, the land army went to Sardis, where they captured the city without any opposition and forced the satrap Artaphernes and his forces to retreat to the acropolis. The Ionians set the town on fire, accidentally burning down the temple of the Lydian goddess Cybebe in the process, which the Persians later used as an excuse for burning down Greek temples. The Ionians retreated to Tmolus when Persian reinforcements began to arrive. The reinforcements followed the Ionians, caught up with them near Ephesus and soundly defeated them.
After this battle, the Athenians refused to continue to fight in the Ionian Revolt and returned to Athens. Because of their participation in this battle, however, the Persian king, Darius, swore vengeance on Athens and commanded a servant to repeat to him three times every day at dinner, "Master, remember the Athenians."
After the burning of Sardis, the Ionians continued their campaign, gaining control of Byzantium and the surrounding towns as well as the greater part of Caria and Caunus. Almost all of Cyprus also rebelled against the Persians. Onesilus, the younger brother of Gorgus, the ruler of Salamis, tried to convince his brother to rebel against Persia and join in the Ionian Revolt. When his brother continuously refused, Onesilus waited until he left town and then shut the doors on him. Gorgus fled to the Persians while Onesilus took over and convinced the Cyprians to revolt. They then proceeded to lay siege to the city of Amathus.
Histiaeus and Aristagoras: Friends or Enemies?
During the Battle of Sardis, Histiaeus, was being held by Darius as a royal advisor. When questioned about the actions of Aristagoras, his deputy, Histiaeus claimed no prior knowledge of the plans and swore to put down the rebellion if Darius allowed him to return to Ionia. Darius consented and Histiaeus, who Herodotus claimed had no intention of putting down the rebellion, returned to Ionia to assist Aristagoras.
Many scholars frequently assume that Aristagoras and Histiaeus worked faithfully together as co-authors in the war against the Persians. Other scholars, such as P.B. Manville, suggest that while fighting the Persians, Histiaeus and Aristagoras also fought each other for control of Miletus and could better be described as rivals or even enemies. While Histiaeus was away serving Darius, Aristagoras acted in his stead as deputy of Miletus where, it is argued, he worked on securing his own power. The first indication of this was his Naxos expedition. He did not ask Histiaeus’ permission and instead of turning to him for help, Aristagoras turned to Artaphrenes, who was severely jealous of Histiaeus. When the expedition failed, Histiaeus sent his tattooed slave to Aristagoras, not as encouragement to revolt, but as an ultimatum. Histiaeus ordered Aristagoras to give up his rule or suffer the consequences. However, at this time Histiaeus was still stationed in Susa and, despite his threat, would not be able to do anything if Aristagoras did revolt. Aristagoras realized that this would be his last chance to gain power and revolted despite Histiaeus’ threat. When Aristagoras pretended to give up his power when all the other Ionian tyrants were disposed, this was also a deposition of Histiaeus. Histiaeus then tried to form an alliance with Artaphrenes to depose this usurper and regain his power at home. Artaphrenes, though he was currently at open war with Aristagoras, refused and Aristagoras was killed in Thrace soon after.
Although the revolt started out well for the Ionians, the tides soon turned in favor of the Persians. After only one year, the Cyprians were once again forced into submission by Persia. Towns around the Hellespont fell one after another to Daurises, the son-in-law of king Darius. The Carians fought the Persians at the Maeander River and were defeated with severe casualties. Aristagoras saw his great rebellion falling to pieces around him and began looking for a way to escape form Darius’ wrath. After calling together a meeting of his supporters, Aristagoras decided that the best place to hide out would be Myrcinus. He put Pythagoras, "a man of distinction," in charge of Miletus and set sail for Thrace, where he attempted to establish a colony on the Strymon river, at the same site as the later Athenian colony of Amphipolis. He gained control of the territory but later, while besieging a neighboring town, was killed by the Thracians.
In conclusion, Aristagoras had many failed ventures. He failed to capture and gain control of the city of Naxos. He failed to convince Sparta to join him in the Ionian Revolt. He was also unable to lead a successful rebellion against the Persians. However, these failed ventures still had lasting consequences. Darius’ anger and desire for vengeance against the Athenians for their participation in the revolt was a contributing cause of the Persian Wars.
Herodotus as a Source
Much of the information on Aristagoras and his actions is based upon the writings of the ancient historian Herodotus. While Herodotus in many ways reflects some of the best of ancient historiography, nonetheless, some scholars have been increasingly critical of his value as a historical source, especially in regards to the Ionian Revolt. As Mabel Lang notes, one of the problems with uncovering historical veracity in Herodotus' account is "that the failure of the revolt not only gave prominence to every aspect and event which would explain, justify or anticipate the disastrous results but also cast into the shade any intentions which deserved a better fate and any temporary successes during the course of the war." Moreover, Oswyn Murray argues that much of Herodotus's discussion of the Revolt is dependent on Ionian oral tradition, which is perhaps suspect because of their defeat. As proof of this unreliability, Murray contends that the Ionian Revolt was not motivated by desires to end tyranny, as Herodotus suggests, but rather it was motivated by the economic consequences of Persian expansion. Despite these potential limitations, some recent scholars have attempted to rehabilitate Herodotus as a source for information on the Ionian Revolt. Pericles Georges in particular has attempted to contest Murray's claims, arguing that not only did Persian expansion cause economic prosperity for the Ionians but Herodotus's depictions of Ionian politics is consistent with other contemporary sources.