Map above: The location of Phocaea οn the Aegean coast of Asia Minor between the Aeolian Kyme and the Ionic Smyrna.
Below: The Hellenistic theater of Phocaea.
By Periklis Deligiannis
In 494/493 BC a small but formidable Anatolian Greek naval force appeared in the sea around Sicily, causing serious problems to the Carthaginians and the Etruscans. A few months earlier, the Ionic Revolt of the Greeks of Asia Minor against the Persian rule was reaching its end. This revolt was called Ionic because the Ionians were the most numerous among the Greek revolutionary forces but they were supported as well by many Aeolians and some non-Greek Lydians and Carians. The outcome of the war was decided in the naval battle of Lade Islet.
Dionysius of Phocaea was the commander-in-chief of the Greek fleet, being the ablest Ionian admiral. Phocaea was a Greek city-state on the linguistic-dialectic border between the Ionian and the Aeolian Greeks of Asia Minor, on the Aegean coast between the Aeolian Kyme and the Ionic Smyrna. The city was Ionic (with an Aeolian minority) and small comparing to the mentioned neighbouring large cities, but it was a great naval power with many colonies around the Mediterranean, especially in the western part of it. Marseille (anc. Massalia), Monaco (anc. Monoecos Herakles’ Limen), Sain Tropez (anc. Athenopolis), Avignon (Auenion), Arles (Theline), Nice (Nikaia), Alicante (Akra Leuke), probably Barcelona (Greek Kallipolis, later conquered by the Barcid Carthaginians and renamed to Barcinon) and finally Velia (Elea or Hyele, home of the Eleatic philosophers) are some renowned modern French, Spanish and Italian cities founded by Phocaean colonists.
An image of a bireme, by Peter Connolly. The bireme and the penteconter were the favorite warships of the Phocaeans.
During the Ionian Revolt, Phocaea had an even smaller population because most of its inhabitants had abandoned the city around the mid-6th century BC in order to avoid the Persian oppression. The town was now around ten times smaller than the neighbouring Kyme and Smyrna and even smaller comparing to Ephesus and Miletus.
Dionysius tried to impose discipline on the untrained crews and marines of the Greek warships and to train them intensively in order to be able to confront the Phoenician fleet of the Achaemenid Great king. The Greek city-states of Asia Minor had a long naval and military tradition and powerful navies, but now they were experiencing a phase of decline in this sector. The past centuries of socio-economic progress and wealth had caused complacency to their warrior-citizens who while formerly were the most wanted mercenaries for the armies of the Middle East (Egyptian, Lydian, Persian, etc.), now they had neglected their military and naval readiness. Dionysius has tried unsuccessfully to reverse this situation, knowing that the Ionian fleet had to confront the skillful mariners and marines of Phoenicia. The Phoenician cities were vassals of the Persians with the obligation of offering their fleets to the Achaemenid forces in wartime. But in any case, they would contribute to the war effort of the Achaemenids, if they had the chance to fight the Greek maritime and commercial antagonists of them.
Currency of Phocaea depicting the head of the goddess Athena.
The Ionians were miffed at Dionysius’ orders on discipline and hard drill, and that they had to obey an admiral coming from the small and half-desolated Phocaea which managed to man only three warships for the war. Most of the Phocaeans had already chosen migration to the old Phocaean colonies in the West thereby the city’s population was greatly reduced. On the other hand, the Ionians had elected Dionysius as their admiral especially because of his skillfulness on naval warfare, but as shown by their attitude, they were expecting him to achieve miracles without their own substantial efforts. Eventually the great battle of Lade (494 BC) was lost for the Greeks because of the indiscipline and the inexperience of most of them. Dionysius, disgusted by the behavior of his fellow-countrymen, manipulated a personal “crusade” against the enemies of the Greeks, especially against the Phoenicians. After all, the main opponents of the Phocaeans at sea were the Phoenicians of the eastern and western Mediterranean (Syro-Phoenicians and Liby-Phoenicians & Blasto- Phoenicians respectively). However the Phocaeans, the most skilful Ionian mariners of their time, did not hesitate to attack other Greek competitors and conduct piracy against them. After all, this was a general practice of the Greek, Phoenician and Etruscan mariners against ships of competing maritime cities of their own nation.
Map of ancient Sicily. The Aeolian or Liparean Islands, probably Dionysius’ haven, are noted on top right.
After Lade, Dionysius fled with the three Phocaean warships to Cyprus where he engaged in intensive piracy on Phoenician ships coming from the nearby Near Eastern coast. Tyre and Sidon – the main naval powers of Phoenicia – sent warships against the Phocaean fugitives. The latter managed to beat off them, but Dionysius understood that if he and his men decided to remain in Cyprus, they would sooner or later be arrested by the Persians or the Phoenicians. The admiral decided to sail to Sicily, where he set up his new base of operations. From there he was conducting piracy against the Western Phoenicians (especially the Carthaginians) and the Etruscans. In fact this was the continuation of Dionysius’ personal war against the enemies of the Greeks, since his piracy was “selective”. As Herodotus informs us, his Phocaean ships were never attacking Greek vessels but only Phoenician and Etruscan ones. Herodotus stops here his narrative on Dionysius. Most probably the admiral died in Sicily far away from his home city.
It is unknown where Dionysius’ haven was. The Greek part of Sicily had only a few good natural ports and at that period all of them belonged to well organized city-states. It is very unlikely that any of them would provide asylum and haven to Dionysius, because they would fear that his corsair activities would harm their trade. In my opinion, the Lipari Isles (or Aeolian Isles) northwest of the Strait of Messina, whose Greek inhabitants were stubbornly fighting the Etruscans and Carthaginians who were trying to evict them, are the most likely to have been Dionysius’ haven and base.