Were Greek tactics at fault for the failure of the Ionian Revolt?

The inability of the Ionian Greek cities to resist the Persian onslaught against them during the Ionian Revolt stands in marked contrast to the stunning success enjoyed by the Greeks of the mainland just a few years later. Whereas the mainland Greeks won great victories during the Persian invasions at Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea, the Ionians were themselves comprehensively rolled up by Persian forces, and made little impression against their might.

What were the causes of the Ionian failure? Was there something lacking in Greek tactical doctrine at the time of the Revolt? Were changes effected in the interim that made the mainland Greeks more potent than their Ionian cousins? Or was something more to blame for the collapse of the uprising by 493? The Battle of Ephesus in particular highlights some of the problems that the Ionians faced in combat with the Persians.

The Battle of Ephesus, 498 BC: the phalanx breaks

About the clash at Ephesus, Herodotus tells us little:

So Sardis had been burned, and in the fire a sanctuary of the local goddess Kybele had also gone up in flames (…). [W]hen the Persians who dwelled in the districts west of the Halys River heard about these events, they gathered together and rushed to the aid of the Lydians. Discovering that the Ionians were not in Sardis any longer, they followed their tracks and caught up with them at Ephesus. The Ionians deployed their troops to oppose them, but in the battle that followed they suffered a severe defeat. Many of them were slaughtered by the Persians (…) Those who escaped from the battle dispersed as each one fled to his own city.

Numbers of troops for either side are entirely missing, and there is not a single piece of information given about either Ionian or Persian deployments or what kinds of troops were present. Still, a few important facts may be gleaned from his brief account of the fight:

  1. The Persians in the region west of the Halys River (an enormous swath of territory comprising nearly all of western Asia Minor) roused themselves, took up arms, and sped to the defense of Sardis. The Persians arrived at the city at some point after the Ionians had departed from the vicinity and then set off again in pursuit.
  2. The Ionians marched to Ephesus slowly. The distance between the two cities was about sixty miles, and even though they had a head start, the Persians still managed to catch them before they reached Ephesus.
  3. The Ionians were not ambushed by the pursuing Persians, or otherwise taken by surprise, but deployed in some kind of battle order, with the strong presumption of it being a phalanx, and fought.
  4. The ensuing battle was a rout. Herodotus’ own description leaves no doubt that the Ionian hoplites were smashed. The disaster was unmitigated by either heroic last stands or other inspiring tales of bravery that would nonetheless demonstrate the superiority of the Greek hoplite over his Persian enemy, as Herodotus fails to report them. These are details he would never have left out if they had been known to him.

From the foregoing, we may surmise that the Ionian army was in no hurry to attain the security of Ephesus. It is clear that while the Persians reacted speedily, almost certainly making use of the Royal Road that led to Sardis, the Ionians lacked the same urgency, and thereby allowed the Persians to overtake them. The relatively slow progress made by the Ionian army on the march from Sardis to Ephesus cannot be explained by its soldiers being burdened with looted goods. Sardis had been burned, but it had not been sacked because, as Herodotus relates earlier in his narrative, the conflagration that engulfed the city made plundering it impossible.

The sedate pace taken by the Ionians may have been a consequence of the weakness of their scouting arm, reconnaissance being a task ideally given to light cavalry, and thus the Ionians may not have been not alerted to the growing danger all around them. Their slow movement was also perhaps due to overconfidence, exhaustion, and dejection at their failure to capture Sardis.

In Appendix 5 of his Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, Donald W. Engels gives figures for the marching speeds of Alexander’s Macedonian army, slow-moving line infantry included, during various legs of his invasion of the Persian empire. Even at a relatively tame marching speed of fifteen miles per day (Herodotus claims that a day’s march was about 17 miles in length) the Ionians could have reached Ephesus in about four days. Engels writes that fifteen miles per day is in fact the same daily march speed later achieved by Alexander’s army while it marched in four days from Sardis to Ephesus in 334. That the Persians were able to respond to the attack on Sardis, collect there, and still catch the Ionians near Ephesus, indicates that the Ionians, probably very tired after their exertions, took their time in making their getaway after the destruction of the city, and probably spent many more than four days doing so.

There is no indication given by Herodotus that the tactical doctrine of the Ionians differed in the slightest from that utilised by other Greeks of the period. It should be remembered that the Ionians were fully rooted within the Greek cultural system. The hoplite as a troop type was in place all across the Greek world by the beginning of the sixth century B.C. at the latest, and may have been in existence much earlier. Mainland Greek hoplites would win glory against the Persians just a few years later at Marathon and then again at Thermopylae. The Ionian hoplites were nevertheless crushed, and Herodotus could apply no gloss on the outcome to make the story more palatable to his audience.

It has been suggested that the Persian army at Ephesus may have been a mostly cavalry, or perhaps even all-cavalry, force. If so, this would illuminate how it covered so much ground in the aftermath of the attack on Sardis. In addition, it may very well have been that the Ionian hoplites were defeated by a Persian weapon system, bow-armed light cavalry, against which they could not respond. This deficiency did not, however, represent a fundamental difference between Ionian armies and those of mainland Greece, which were similarly vulnerable to missile cavalry. Low morale, weariness, poor reconnaissance, and heedlessness of the danger posed by the enemy are more likely culprits for Ionian failure than any variations in either tactics or the fighting qualities of the hoplites themselves.

Persian power projection: the Royal Road as a strategic asset

Another major difference at the time of the Ionian Revolt was that the Persians themselves were not suffering from an overextension of their lines of communication. Herodotus states that the journey along the Royal Road from Lydia (meaning specifically Sardis), in western Asia Minor, to Susa, where the Persian king made his capital, took no less than three months, or ninety days. In his book The Pursuit of Power, American historian William H. McNeill asserted that in the ancient world, for a ruler to “exert sovereign power effectively,” he “had to be able to bring superior force to bear if forcibly challenged either by revolt from within or by attack from without. But if a ruler and his bodyguard had to reside at least part of the year in a capital city, then a march of more than about ninety days from the capital became risky.”

The Ionian cities of western Asia Minor were at the very edge of this ninety-day radius of march. Once the Persian kings attempted to go much further than this, as in the cases of their campaigns in Greece, their lines of communication lengthened untenably. During his invasion of Greece, McNeill observes, “Xerxes trespassed far beyond the ninety-day radius of action from his capital in Iran. As a result, his campaigning season was cut too short to win decisive victory. By invading Greece the Persians had in fact exceeded the practical limit of imperial expansion.”

In contrast, far western Asia Minor, though distant from the imperial core in Iran, was still more or less within the ninety-day limit as set forth by McNeill. The alacrity with which Persian forces in Asia Minor west of the Halys responded to the summons to defend Sardis highlights the responsiveness of Darius’ army in the region. The Royal Road likely accelerated the Persians’ muster and sped their reaction, thereby enabling them to bring the Ionians to book soon after Sardis was burned. The Royal Road, it must be pointed out, however, ended at Sardis itself, and was of no use to the Persians once they had to transport their forces to Europe. In addition to however long it took Xerxes’ Persians to reach western Asia Minor, it is also possible, as Herodotus states, that it took still another ninety days for the Persians to travel from the Hellespont to Athens, thereby highlighting that time and distance were allies of the mainland Greeks during Xerxes’ invasion in ways that they were not for the Ionians during the Revolt. The Greeks of the mainland were thereby helped in their defensive stance by the overextension of the Persians once they had marched into Greece.

Marc G. DeSantis writes regularly on military matters and has contributed to Ancient Warfaremagazine. Look forward to his article on Darius the Great’s Scythian expedition in issue VIII.3, “Horsemen of the Steppes”. Subscribe now and receive the latest issue.

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