Tissaphernes (c.445-395): Persian nobleman, satrap of Lydia.

Early Career

The citadel of Sardes, seen from the west
The citadel of Sardes, seen from the west

Tissaphernes belonged to one of the most important Persian families. The name of his father has not been recorded, but his grandfather was the Hydarnes who had commanded the elite corps of the Immortals during Xerxes' ill-fated campaign against Greece. Hydarnes' father, who was also called Hydarnes, had been one of the seven conspirators who killed the usurper Gaum√Ęta and helped Darius the Great become king (522). Tissaphernes belonged, therefore, to the highest Persian nobility.

His career started before c.415, when he was appointed as satrap of Lydia and Caria. The region had been unquiet, because the former satrap, Pissuthnes, had revolted against king Darius II Nothus (423-404). However, a young Tissaphernes was able to incite a rebellion among Pissuthnes' Greek mercenaries and managed to have the man arrested. As a reward, Tissaphernes was made satrap. His first task was to mop up the last rebels, who were now commanded by Pissuthnes' son Amorges.


In the following years, the new satrap of Lydia and Caria arranged negotiations between the Greek town Sparta and king Darius. The Spartans were involved in an intense conflict with the Athenians, the Peloponnesian War (427-404), and had found out that they were unable to win as long as they had no navy. Persia offered them money, and demanded in return that Sparta would no longer protect the independent Greek towns in western Turkey, something that Athens had always done. This treaty, signed in the winter of winter of 412/411, changed the war completely, and this phase is usually distinguished from the preceding one by calling it Decelean or Ionian War. Under the terms of the treaty, which demanded mutual support against rebels, the Spartans arrested Amorges.

Tissaphernes, however, had not been straightforward in his dealings with Sparta. During the talks, he opened negotiations with Athens, hoping to obtain more concessions. The Athenians, however, refused to play this game. When the deal with Sparta was concluded, Tissaphernes refused to send the Persian-Phoenician navy to assist the Spartans, although he had promised to do this. In this way, he continued his policy of keeping the two warring Greek states in balance.

This strategy was not appreciated by king Darius and queen Parysatis, who made their second son Cyrus the Younger satrap of Lydia and Cappadocia. He was to pursue an unconditional pro-Spartan policy. Tissaphernes remained satrap of Caria.

The Revolt of Cyrus

King Darius died in April 404. Prince Cyrus and Tissaphernes were present when Artaxerxes II Mnemon (404-358) was inaugurated at Pasargadae, the religious capital of the Achaemenid empire. Our Greek sources (Ctesias' History of the Persians, Xenophon's Anabasis and Plutarch of Chaeronea's Life of Artaxerxes) tell us that Tissaphernes informed the new king that Cyrus wanted to dethrone him. We do not know whether Tissaphernes spoke the truth: although Cyrus did eventually revolt, it may be that he was forced to do so precisely because he was already suspected and felt insecure, as Xenophon suggests. However this may be, for now, Cyrus was pardoned after an intervention by his mother Parysatis.

Perhaps because he had been humiliated, but probably because he had planned it all along, Cyrus decided to revolt. He started to recruit an army, saying that he wanted to attack the Pisidians, a mountain tribe in southern Turkey. Tissaphernes, noting that the army was too large for this purpose, understood the real aim of the expedition and informed king Artaxerxes, who started his own preparations. Meanwhile, Cyrus found political support in Sparta, which allowed volunteers to join the expedition. They were commanded by Clearchus.

In 401, Cyrus' army was ready. Meanwhile, Tissaphernes had joined his king. During the battle at Cunaxa (north of Babylon), he played an important role and although Cyrus' Greek mercenaries were victorious, the usurper was killed. Negotiations were opened between the mercenaries and Tissaphernes, and during the talks, Tissaphernes arrested Clearchus and executed him. After this, the remaining Greeks fought their way back to the Black Sea, constantly harassed by Tissaphernes. Of the 13,000 mercenaries who had been present at Cunaxa, 6,000 returned.

As a reward for saving Artaxerxes' throne, Tissaphernes was allowed to marry the king's daughter and reappointed as satrap of Lydia (400). Tissaphernes was now on top of his fortunes.

The Greek War

During the next years, he was occupied with a war against the Spartans, who had invaded Asia to liberate the Greek towns that they had once negotiated away. A second reason was that they (understandably) distrusted Tissaphernes. The first of their attacks was commanded by Thibron, who used the 6,000 surviving mercenaries and marched along the coast until he reached Ephesus (399). The aim of this campaign was to force Tissaphernes to open negotiations. However, he refused, and Thibron was recalled and replaced by Dercylidas. Now Tissaphernes united with the satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia, Pharnabazus, and they concluded a truce with the Spartan army (397).

However, the Persian king double-crossed the peace talks. He built a large navy, and the Spartans understood what was going on. Now it was the turn of their king Agesilaus, who decisively beat Tissaphernes in the neighborhood of Sardes (395).


At this moment, Tissaphernes received an invitation from a courtier named Tithraustes, who asked him to come to a town named Colossae; here, Tissaphernes was killed. It may have been that king Artaxerxes had wanted to pardon him, but queen-mother Parysatis had persuaded him to execute the man who had destroyed her son Cyrus.

Tissaphernes was one of the most loyal servants of the Persian king, a true nobleman. However, during his service, he made two enemies: Sparta and Parysatis. Ultimately, they overcame him and the king did nothing to protect the man to whom he owed his throne.

Tissaphernes was succeeded as satrap of Lydia by Tiribazus.

This page was created in 2002; last modified on 6 May 2019.