Yaunâ: the old Persian name for Greeks.

First contacts

Yaunâ (Greek). Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis
Yaunâ (Greek). Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis

The Yaunânote are mentioned for the first time in the catalogue of subject people in the inscription of the Behistun monument, which was erected in c.520 BCE by the Persian king Darius I the Great. This confirms what we know from the Histories by the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus (fifth century): the Ionians had been subjected by the Persian king Cyrus the Great in the mid-sixth century. According to Herodotus, the Ionian Greeks were grouped together in one tax district with the Pamphylians, Lycians, Magnesians, Aeolians, Milyans and Carians.note

The Yaunâ appear to have benefitted from the Persian occupation. After all, the eastern Mediterranean was ruled by one king, which made trade easier. Impoverishment, therefore, is not the explanation for the revolt of the Yaunâ in Asia Minor in 499. It took the Persian armies about six years to restore order. Now, it was clear that the possessions in Asia Minor could be safe only after a cordon sanitaire had been created that separated the Yaunâ in the Persian empire from those to the west of the Aegean Sea.

As a preliminary operation, general Mardonius was sent out to conquer Macedonia (492). His navy may have counted 300 ships, the army 20,000 men. Their first victim was Thasos, a Yaunâ island that possessed important mines. It became tributary to the Achaemenid empire. The navy and the army continued to Macedonia, which was added to Darius' kingdom as well.

This campaign was important, because Macedonia was a fine base for further conquests in Europe and possessed gold mines. Darius proudly wrote in the inscription on his tomb at Naqš-e Rustam that he had conquered the Yaunâ takabarâ, the 'Greeks with sun hats', a reference to the Macedonian headwear.


Two years later, king Darius sent a new expedition to the west. The commanders were Datis and Artaphernes. Herodotus presents the expedition as a punitive action against Eretria and Athens, who had helped the Ionians during their revolt of 499.note But he is almost certainly wrong, because the army was too small to attack Athens. In reality, the aims of the expedition of Datis and Artaphernes were to add the Aegean islands to the empire, and, in doing so, create the cordon sanitaire. The Persian aims were, therefore, to conquer Naxos and the other islands, and to occupy Euboea (with its capital Eretria). They also tried to bring back the former ruler of Athens, Hippias, to his home town.

The Persians were successful. First, they added Naxos to their empire, the largest island in the Aegean sea, situated in its center. The Yaunâ cult center Delos was seized immediately afterwards; the Greek god Apollo received a large sacrifice, probably because the Persians identified him with Ahuramazda. A few days later, Datis and Artaphernes took Eretria. Its inhabitants were deported to Elam.

The tomb of the 192 Athenians at Marathon
The tomb of the 192 Athenians at Marathon

A couple of days later, the Persians landed at Marathon, some 25 kilometers east of Athens. Although an Athenian army came to block the road to the west, it did not dare to attack the Persians, who were able to plunder the country for five days. Since their enemies refused to offer battle, Datis and Artaphernes decided to leave early in the morning of 12 August or 10 September. When they were boarding, the Athenians attacked and inflicted heavy losses on the Persian troops.

Herodotus' account of the battle of Marathon is our most important source.note He wants us to believe that Marathon was an important Greek victory, but from a Persian point of view this is incorrect. It was a rearguard action, and we know for certain that Artaphernes remained in the king's favor; it is likely that Datis had the same experience, because his sons reached important offices. After all, the operation had been successful: with the cration of the cordon sanitaire, the Aegean Sea was under Persian control, preventing new Yaunâ attacks on Persian dominions.

Xerxes in Greece

In 480, Darius' son and successor Xerxes tried to conquer the Yaunâ mainland. He assembled a large army and personally took charge of the campaign. However, there were troubles in Babylon. In the summer of 484, an important official named Zopyrus had been killed by rebels named Bêl-šimânni and Šamaš-eriba. The insurrection was suppressed by Zopyrus' son Megabyzus, but when Xerxes proceeded to the country of the western Yaunâ, he knew that he had to protect his rear.

In the summer of 480, the Persians invaded Thessaly. The Yaunâ army that guarded the Tempe ravine, evacuated the road before the enemy arrived. Not much later, Thessaly surrendered. The Yaunâ navy was defeated at Artemisium (more) and a Yaunâ elite army consisting of Spartans was annihilated at Thermopylae after a three days' fight. Boeotia and Delphi were added to the Achaemenid empire, and in September, Athens fell, the largest city of the Yaunâ.

An Achaemenid king killing a Greek hoplite
An Achaemenid king killing a Greek hoplite

There was one setback, however: the Persian navy was attacked by the Yaunâ in the Athenian harbor, and suffered heavily (more). This naval battle at Salamis was not the humiliating defeat that Herodotus thinks it was and Xerxes could truthfully state in the Daiva inscription that, by the favor of Ahuramazda, he ruled the Yaunâ, those who dwell on this side of the sea and those who dwell across the sea.

Mardonius remained among the Yaunâ who dwelt across the sea with a smaller but more effective army. He had to defend the newly conquered territories and was probably ordered to conquer the Peloponnese. What is strange, however, is that the Persian marines returned home. Anyhow, Mardonius' forces were not strong enough to keep the conquered country. Mardonius was defeated in the summer of 479 (battle of Plataea). A Yaunâ naval expedition to the east liberated the Ionian towns in Asia Minor.

The fifth century

Although there was to be more fighting in the fifth century, the spheres of influence were clear. Yaunâ pirates sometimes looted ports in the Achaemenid empire and the Athenians on several occasions attacked Cyprus and Egypt, but these attacks never really changed the balance of power. The status quo was recognized by the Athenians and the Persian king Artaxerxes I Makrocheir (465-424) in a peace treaty (449/448, Peace of Callias). The details of this treaty, however, are very obscure.

During the Archidamian War, which broke out in 431 and is the first part of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians and Spartans were at each others throats. In 421, the Athenians seemed to have won the war, and they felt strong enough to interfere in the Persian zone of influence again. When a certain Amorges, son of Pissuthnes, revolted, he received Athenian support (414). The Persian king Darius II Nothus retaliated by supporting Sparta. In the treaty that his satrap Tissaphernes concluded with the Spartans, the latter allowed the Persians to reoccupy Ionia. The second round of the Peloponnesian War, the Decelean or Ionian War, broke out in 413 and culminated in 404 in a Spartan victory.

Many Yaunâ veterans of the great war found employment in the army of the Persian rebel prince Cyrus the Younger. He was defeated at Cunaxa in Babylonia, but the Persian government was impressed by the fighting qualities that the western barbarians had shown in the center of the empire. From now on, many Yaunâ served as mercenaries in the Persian army.

The fourth century

However, when Sparta had won the war, its king Agesilaus II invaded the Achaemenid empire (396-394). He was recalled when the Persian king Artaxerxes II Mnemon started to support Athens and gave it a new navy. When Athens became too powerful, the Persians started to pay the Spartans again. Finally, in 387, the Persian king dictated peace conditions to all the Yaunâ. Those 'who dwelt on this side of the sea' remained Persian subjects, and 'those who dwelt across the sea' were to be controlled by Sparta.

This treaty regulated the relations between the Persians and Yaunâ for half a century, although it was renewed several times (375, 371, 366, 361) to accomodate for the rising power of Thebes. The incredible influence of Persia is best shown by the fact that the Social War between Athens and its allies came to an end when the Great King ordered the Athenians to give in (355).

It is interesting to note that the Yaunâ who were in these years fighting for the great king had a special status in the Persian army. From Babylonian sources (the Marašû-archive from Nippur), it is clear that the Persian army contingents were recruited from several nationalities. We find Carians, Tyrians, Arabs, Indians, Phrygians and Lydians, who were probably deportees or their descendants. They received a piece of land in exchange for their service in the Persian army. However, the Yaunâ were not fief holders, but remained mercenaries who had volunteered in exchange for a payment in money.

In c.340, a king of the Yaunâ takabarâ named Philip II stood up against the Persians, who intervened when he besieged Perinthus and threatened Persian vital interests (the Hellespont). However, he was killed before he could attack the Persians in Asia. That was left to his son, who invaded Persia in 334: Alexander the Great.

This page was created in 2003; last modified on 24 September 2020.