The World of Christian Cameron

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Tyrant of Miletus and ally of Darius of Persia, possible originator of the plan for the Ionian Revolt.

Histiaeus was a powerful Greek tyrant who seems to have owed his power to his loyal service to the Persian empire. According to Herodotus, he took an active part in the failed Persian campaign against the Scythians—a campaign which may have revealed to the Greeks how weak the Persian empire really was.

Regardless, after playing a major role in supporting Darius’s overseas conquests, Histiaeus was invited to be a “King’s Companion” at Susa and advise Darius. Or possibly he was exiled to Susa to keep him from making trouble. The lens of history is all too distorted at the distance of 2500 years!

However, according to Herodotus, Histiaeus was unhappy having to stay in Susa, and made plans to return to his position as tyrant of Miletus by instigating a revolt in Ionia. In 499 BC, he shaved the head of his most trusted slave, tattooed a message on his head, and then waited for his hair to grow back. The slave was then sent to Aristagoras, who was instructed to shave the slave’s head again and read the message, which told him to revolt against the Persians. Aristagoras, who was disliked by his own subjects after an expedition to Naxos ended in failure, followed Histiaeus’ command, and with help from the Athenians and Eretrians, attacked and burned Sardis. When Darius learned of the revolt, he sent for Histiaeus, who pretended to have no knowledge of its origins, but asked to be sent back to Miletus put down the revolt. Herodotus writes that Darius permitted him to leave.

On his way back, Histiaeus went to Sardis, where the satrap Artaphernes suspected Histiaeus’s role in the revolt, forcing Histiaeus to flee to Chios. Histiaeus tried unsuccessfully to build a fleet while on Chios. He then returned to Miletus with the aim of becoming tyrant once more. However, the Miletians did not want a return to tyranny and exiled him to Lesbos. There, he gathered some ships and, according to Herodotus, began committing acts of piracy in the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea from a base in Byzantium.

Meanwhile, the Persians defeated the leaders of the Ionian revolt at the Battle of Lade in 494 BC. When Histiaeus learned of this he left Byzantium, and his troops attacked Chios, blockaded Thasos and then attempted to land on the mainland to attack the Persians. After joining a Greek force in battle against the Persians, he was captured by the Persian general, Harpagus. The satrap Artaphernes did not want to send him back to Susa, where he suspected that Darius would pardon him, so he executed him and sent his head to Darius. According to Herodotus, Darius still did not believe Histiaeus was a traitor and gave his head an honourable burial.

Even through the lens of Ionian pride and oral history, the story from Herodotus seems to lack something—does not quite ring true. I chose to represent Histiaeus not as the originator of the revolt, but as a greedy man whose position has been undercut by the failings of a subordinate—Aristagoras—and who is left with little choice but to act.