130 Years Before Socrates: Historical Exploration (Part 1 – Persians Conquer Ionia)

Last week I wrote an introduction article giving an overview of the historical ground we will cover in the roughly 130 years leading up to the famous Greek philosopher Socrates. This post is the first part of our journey. We will visit the Asian side of Greek city-states (Asia Minor): the Ionian region where, so far, the vast majority of pre-Socratic philosophers came from. Where do we start? Let`s have a look at the map.


What we see here gives us a certain focus for our story. On the Greek mainland side we have Athens as one of our emerging protagonists (Attica region). On the Asia Minor side of Greek city-states (modern-day Turkey) we have Miletus and its neighboring cities as our established protagonists (Ionian region). Our focus is on the period from ~550s BCE to ~500s BCE, before the 50-years long Greco-Persian wars began. This is the focus of the story. But the thing with focus is that it comes at a price.

What might we be missing? Where is our antagonist? Of course, it is an oversimplification and, no doubt, a biased view of the parties involved in our story. However, these things always depend on the perspective and its context. We are telling our story from the Greek perspective and are trying to understand their context, which means that if there is an antagonist, it should be someone “else”. A concept that later will contribute to the development of Greek self-identification, partly also through the medium of theatre and drama.

Indeed, there was such a force, a true antagonist for our story. A neighbor that spread its dominion dangerously close to Ionian city-states so that by the middle of the 6th century BCE it was practically knocking at their doors (although, I am pretty sure they did not see the need for such courtesy). Who were they? To see that, to grasp the slightest idea of their might, we need to change our focus and zoom out. A lot. This is what we see:

The Achaemenid (Persian) Empire in 500 B.C.E. (2)

Just take a moment to take it in. This immense Persian empire had originated far to the East from the Greeks, probably not even known to them. That is until it had spread its rule so wide and broad that Ionian city-states could not not notice their immeasurably more powerful neighbor. In the map above I have sketched in the region of our protagonists. From the Persian perspective, that was probably just one minor periphery on the western extremity of their ”world” empire. So, in 547 BCE they extended their rule also to this region and incorporated Ionian Greek city-states into their empire. No big fuss.

It will take almost 70 years until these cities regain their autonomy. Before that, however, they will play a crucial role in the Greek history. How? After having lived for almost half-century under the Persian rule, they will revolt in 499 BCE and trigger a half-century period of wars that will shape the self-image of Greeks as opposed to the ”barbarians”. But I`m getting ahead of myself.

We know that among the Ionian city-states Miletus had achieved the most prosperous status. It was an active trade center and had links not only to other city-states in the region, but, like some of its neighbors, also had established its own colonies.

“From the eighth century onwards, therefore, several of the most ancient cities of the Greek mainland and of Asia Minor – Chalcis, Eretria, Corinth, Megara, Phocaea, and, above all, Miletus – were engaged in active colonization. The most frequent locations were found in Sicily and southern Italy, in Thrace, and on the costs of the Euxine or ‘Hospitable’ Sea [the Black Sea] – so named, like the Pacific, in the hope that its name might offset its nature.”

n. davies (1998) with my comment in brackets
Greek territories and colonies during the Archaic period (3)

So when the Persian empire incorporated the Ionian Greek city-states, it acquired wealthy additions to its enormous project. And as long as these cities paid tribute and accepted the appointed tyrants, its seems that their Persian overlords were happy enough. In other words, it is very likely that whatever cultural habits and beliefs the Greeks of those 6th century BCE cities had, they could, by an large, maintain them. Moreover, these city-states were not democracies when the Persians came. So, in principle, it shouldn`t be overly problematic to change one monarch for another, should it? Well, as the Persians had to learn, it wasn’t all that easy with their new Western ‘acquisitions’.

“In most Greek poleis [city-states], the tribal monarchy gradually disappeared, to be replaced by government by nobles from the most powerful families who had also, in the past, been military leaders: those who called themselves the community’s best men, the aristoi. The rivalry between these families frequently led to chaos; sometimes a single person seized power and ruled as a tyrant; at other times efforts to achieve peace resulted in power sharing between several socio-economic groups.”

p. rietbergen (2015) with my comment in brackets

This was a problem. Why? Imagine yourself in the place of a Persian emperor. How would you select a regional ruler for your new subjects who would be both loyal to you and effective in keeping (your) law and order among these subjects? If there is no clear elite group that the conquered people recognized as authority also before you came along, then you have a problem. Of course, I don’t know what you would do, but the Persians opted for what seems to me a ‘quick and dirty’ solution – they sponsored a local tyrant and appointed him as a placeman. I would even venture to say – as a kind of ‘placeholder’.

Having tyrants as rulers was nothing extremely new for the Greeks back then, but we must be careful about how we understand the meaning of this word. For ancient Greeks, especially during the Archaic age (roughly – before Athenian democracy), a tyrant was a neutral word and carried no negative moral load as it does now.

In Archaic Greece, a tyrant meant someone who seized absolute power without having formal legal right to do so. But in order to seize such power and successfully oppose those who ruled, tyrants often had to rely on the support of the people.


The ‘placemen’ tyrants appointed by the Persians had all the might of Persian empire behind them (especially the army!) – they did not need the support of the people they were instructed to rule. In such circumstances and having the specific context in mind, it is easy to imagine that Greeks of the conquered Ionian city-states could grow very dissatisfied indeed, and after almost 50 years of what must have felt like unchecked rule of some ‘placemen’ they were ripe for rebellion. As often happens in such situations, people only needed a spark to unleash the pent-up fire of their discontent.

Ironically, the spark came from the then-tyrant of Miletus who decided to act very opportunistically when one of his military missions together with the Persian emperor’s brother and general turned into fiasco and risked him his post as a tyrant. Now, if you really like your career and you sense it is being threatened by your boss, what do you do? That’s right, you incite your whole department to rebel against the boss. At least, that was this guy’s approach. We can see how Milesians might have been unhappy about such ‘leadership’.

Be that as it may, people needed a spark and they were given a spark. In 499 BCE the Ionian revolt, with Miletus at its center, against the Persian rule began. Things will take a crucial turn in Greek history after this. Not least because they had help from Athens and Eretria. This was significant because the Persian king saw this as betrayal and vowed to punish these city-states by embarking on a campaign to conquer all of Greece.

Why was this seen as betrayal and why did the Persian king make it his goal to subjugate Athens and entire mainland Greece? This is the next part of our journey. I hope you are enjoying our trip, and I will see you at our next ‘stop’.

keep exploring!

Resources I used for this article:

  1. Norman Davies “Europe: a history”, HarperPerennial, first edition 1998
  2. Peter Adamson “Classical Philosophy”, the first volume in his series “A history of philosophy without any gaps”, Oxford University Press 2014 
  3. Peter Rietbergen “Europe: A Cultural History”, Routledge, third edition 2015
  4. YouTube channel`s History Time video “Entire History of the Persian Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) / Ancient History Documentary”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34oQfaJiy7w 
  5. Wikipedia on Greco-Persian wars: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Persian_Wars  

Image(1) By User:Megistias – Own work data fromGrece Archaice (620-480 Avant J.C.),ISBN 978-960-6709-90-6Blank map from Image:Map greek sanctuaries-fr.svg., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3201392

Image(2) By Aldan-2 – [1][2][3], CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76823770

Image(3) By Regaliorum / Based on a map in The Times History Atlas of the World – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Greek_Colonization.png, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31888155

One thought on “130 Years Before Socrates: Historical Exploration (Part 1 – Persians Conquer Ionia)

  1. Pingback: Xenophanes from Colophon – a Pre-Socratic Greek Philosopher (ca. 540 BCE) – humanfactor

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