Greco-Persian Wars - Origins of The Conflict

Origins of The Conflict

The Greeks of the classical period believed that, in the dark age that followed the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization, significant numbers of Greeks fled and had emigrated to Asia Minor and settled there. Modern historians generally accept this migration as historic (but separate from the later colonization of the Mediterranean by the Greeks). There are, however, those who believe the Ionian migration cannot be explained as simply as the classical Greeks claimed. These settlers were from three tribal groups: the Aeolians, Dorians and Ionians. The Ionians had settled about the coasts of Lydia and Caria, founding the twelve cities that made up Ionia. These cities were Miletus, Myus and Priene in Caria; Ephesus, Colophon, Lebedos, Teos, Clazomenae, Phocaea and Erythrae in Lydia; and the islands of Samos and Chios. Although the Ionian cities were independent of one another, they recognized their shared heritage and supposedly had a common temple and meeting place, the Panionion.ii They thus formed a 'cultural league', to which they would admit no other cities, or even other tribal Ionians.

The cities of Ionia had remained independent until they were conquered by the Lydians of western Asia Minor. The Lydian king Alyattes II attacked Miletus, a conflict that ended with a treaty of alliance between Miletus and Lydia, that meant that Miletus would have internal autonomy but follow Lydia in foreign affairs. At this time, the Lydians were also in conflict with the Median Empire, and the Milesians sent an army to aid the Lydians in this conflict. Eventually a peaceable settlement was established between the Medes and the Lydians, with the Halys River set up as the border between the kingdoms. The famous Lydian king Croesus succeeded his father Alyattes in around 560 BC and set about conquering the other Greek city states of Asia Minor.

The Persian prince Cyrus led a rebellion against the last Median king Astyages in 553 BC. Cyrus was a grandson of Astyages and was supported by part of the Median aristocracy. By 550 BC, the rebellion was over, and Cyrus had emerged victorious, founding the Achaemenid Empire in place of the Median kingdom in the process. Croesus saw the disruption in the Median Empire and Persia as an opportunity to extend his realm and asked the oracle of Delphi whether he should attack them. The Oracle supposedly replied the famously ambiguous answer that "if Croesus was to cross the Halys he would destroy a great empire". Blind to the ambiguity of this prophecy, Croesus attacked the Persians, but was eventually defeated and Lydia fell to Cyrus.

While fighting the Lydians, Cyrus had sent messages to the Ionians asking them to revolt against Lydian rule, which the Ionians had refused to do. After Cyrus finished the conquest of Lydia, the Ionian cities now offered to be his subjects under the same terms as they had been subjects of Croesus. Cyrus refused, citing the Ionians' unwillingness to help him previously. The Ionians thus prepared to defend themselves, and Cyrus sent the Median general Harpagus to conquer them. He first attacked Phocaea; the Phocaeans decided to abandon their city entirely and sail into exile in Sicily, rather than become Persian subjects (although many later returned). Some Teians also chose to emigrate when Harpagus attacked Teos, but the rest of the Ionians remained, and were each in turn conquered.

In the years following their conquest, the Persians found the Ionians difficult to rule. Elsewhere in the empire, Cyrus identified elite native groups such as the priesthood of Judea - to help him rule his new subjects. No such group existed in Greek cities at this time; while there was usually an aristocracy, this was inevitably divided into feuding factions. The Persians thus settled for sponsoring a tyrant in each Ionian city, even though this drew them into the Ionians' internal conflicts. Furthermore, certain tyrants might develop an independent streak and have to be replaced. The tyrants themselves faced a difficult task; they had to deflect the worst of their fellow citizens' hatred, while staying in the favour of the Persians. In the past, Greek states had often been ruled by tyrants, but that form of government was on the decline. Past tyrants had also tended and needed to be strong and able leaders, whereas the rulers appointed by the Persians were simply place-men. Backed by the Persian military might, these tyrants did not need the support of the population, and could thus rule absolutely. On the eve of the Greco-Persian wars, it is probable that the Ionian population had become discontent and was ready for rebellion.

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