Tissaphernes
(c. 440 BC - 395 BC)

One of the most famous conflicts in the Western canon is the Peloponnesian War, which saw two would-be hegemons battle it out for dominance of the Greek world: Athens and its de facto empire (the Delian League) on one side, and Sparta and its "allies" in the Peloponnesian League on the other. The wild card in this conflict was the Persian Empire, ruled at the time by the Achaemenid Dynasty. This was the same family that had produced such notable rulers as Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great, and Xerxes I. Under the Achaemenids, Persia embarked on a quick path to expansionism beyond the confines of what is modern day Iran and into Babylon, Egypt, India, Anatolia, Thrace, and other areas. The Achaemenid Empire was the largest empire of antiquity, outdistancing even the mighty Romans by about a million square kilometers at their greatest respective extents. It was a vast amount of land that required hard work to maintain.

Although Persian rulers are almost universally regarded as oriental despots who treated their subjects like slaves, the truth is that they simply could not be in all places at all times. Recognizing this, the Persians divided their territories into administrative districts called satrapies that were governed by individuals known appropriately enough as satraps. There were typically three types of satraps: (a) family members or very close associates of the king, (b) military governors, and (c) local client rulers. If an area submitted willingly or even enthusiastically to the Persians (and many did), the ruler who had been in place before would stay in his or her position and simply act as a vassal to the Great King. If an area did not go quietly, however, the king would send a trusted officer or minister to get a handle on the situation. The Persians actually allowed their (submissive) subjects a great deal of autonomy in local matters, feeling that this sort of continuity represented the best chance for regional stability, and this worked out most of the time. Sometimes, however, it didn't.

One of the best known satraps of the Achaemenid period was an official named Tissaphernes. Tissaphernes had an impeccable pedigree: his grandfather was a certain Hydarnes who had led the elite Persian fighting force known as the Immortals during Xerxes' abortive attempt at conquering mainland Greece in the 480s-470s BC. Hydarnes' father of the same name was instrumental in suppressing a dangerous revolt against Achaemenid rule in the previous century. Because the historical record is shoddy, we don't know exactly when Tissaphernes was born or even what his father's name and rank were, but we can assume a date in the 440s based on the dates of his appointments. Tissaphernes was considered a reliable subordinate and he used the trust placed in him by the reigning king at the time of his promotion to satrap -- Darius II -- to basically run Persian foreign policy as it related to Greece.

As a brief digression, the Greeks and the Persians had had a pretty rough history up to that point. Greco-Persian relations began around 550 BC when Cyrus the Great conquered the Greek part of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) called Ionia. The Greeks had had a presence in the region for centuries, dating back at least to the time of the conflict we call the Trojan War (roughly 1250 BC). Cities like Miletus and Ephesus were hard to convince of the necessity or desirability of Persian rule and were treated in a very heavy-handed manner. This caused the Ionian Revolt in 499 BC, and although the rebellion was eventually put down, the Ionian city-states had had help from mainland Greece, particularly from Athens. To punish Greece, Cyrus' successor Darius invaded Thrace (about half of modern Bulgaria) and Macedonia and began preparations to take the mainland. It was a brutal campaign, but eventually the Greeks repulsed the Persians. It is said that Darius was so enraged by this that he procured a slave for the express purpose of telling him at least once a day "my lord, remember the Greeks" so that he would never forget their insolence.

Given the pride that many of us feel for the Western tradition, it is tempting to view the Greeks as the major movers and shakers of the day, when nothing could be further than the truth. The Greeks were a peripheral concern to the Persians and indeed to most everybody else at the time. The Persian Empire at this point was about 7.5 million square kilometers in area; the area that we might call "ancient Greece" was at the very most about 150,000 square kilometers. Still, the Persians were intent on expanding further into Europe, and to accomplish that, they would need to go through Greece. As was mentioned earlier, Darius' son Xerxes attempted this but failed. Eventually, the Greeks were able to liberate most of Thrace and Ionia from the Persians and a treaty was agreed upon to prevent further hostilities.

Returning to the original point, Tissaphernes first appears in the surviving historical record around 415 BC. In this instance, the satrap of Sardis (a man named Pissunthes) was attempting to revolt against Darius and to this end overran much of Western Asia Minor with the help of Greek mercenaries, which makes sense when you consider that Sardis shared a border with Ionia. Tissaphernes had no interest in getting bogged down in counterinsurgency measures, so he simply paid the Greek soldiers more than Pissunthes and they dispersed from the area. Through deceit, he convinced Pissunthes that he would not be harmed if he were to return to Susa to meet the king. Immediately upon his arrival, however, he was executed as a traitor, which apparently involved being burned alive in those days. Darius promoted Tissaphernes to be satrap of Lydia, taking over Pissunthes' former domain and even expanding it a little bit. Darius tasked Tissaphernes with smashing the last remnant of the rebellion in the neighboring province of Caria led by Pissunthes' son Amorges. Tissaphernes expelled the rebel and added Caria to his domain. It was discovered that Amorges had been bolstered by the help of the Athenians, who had inserted themselves into the situation after learning of the involvement of the Ionian soldiers in the revolt. Darius was furious over this interference in an internal affair and became determined to eliminate Athens.

Now at the same time that all of this was going on, the Peloponnesian War was raging. It had begun in 431 BC over a complex series of entangling alliances and diplomatic failures within the Greek world that seemed designed specifically to cause the region to explode into violence. The war claimed numerous lives but neither side seemed to have a tactical advantage over the other. One of Athens' leading personalities was a debauched, flamboyant ne'er-do-well and former lover of Socrates named Alcibiades. Alcibiades was an expansionist who believed that the region surrounding the Aegean Sea was simply too small for Athenian ambitions. In 415 BC, he managed to get himself appointed strategos (general) and outlined a daring plan for the invasion and occupation of Sicily. In his quest for power, however, Alcibiades had made powerful enemies in the city. He found himself and his confederates accused of cutting off the penises of several statues of Hermes in the city the night before the expedition was to launch. While this type of juvenile vandalism sounds harmless if patently ridiculous today, it was actually a very serious crime, as it was considered desecration and thus blasphemy, the penalty for which was death. Alcibiades demanded to face his accusers immediately, but was ordered to proceed to Sicily and then face the charges upon his return. As soon as he left, he was sentenced to death in absentia. His ship was pursued by another from Athens bearing the warrant for his execution, so he defected to Sparta. The Spartans accepted him and he ominously warned them of Athens' irredentist ambition to conquer Sicily, conveniently neglecting to mention that he was the one who had given Athens that ambition. He gave the Spartans valuable advice about how to hurt the Athenians, which they took. In 412, they sent him to Ionia to foment rebellion amongst the Delian League, which had the desired effect. During his time in Sparta, Alcibiades conducted an affair with a woman Timaia. While there is nothing outwardly unusual about this, the problem was that Timaia was the wife of Agis II, the king of Sparta, and that she gave birth to a child that could not have been the king's. Alcibiades had to defect again, and this time he chose the only place that would take him: Persia.

Tissaphernes had been in negotiations with both the Spartans and the Athenians (but mainly the former) for about a year by this time. At the behest of the King, a treaty with Sparta had been concluded in 412 BC that gave them the money to build a navy to rival that of Athens and to better equip their allies. In return, the Spartans had agreed to stir up the rest of the Ionian city states against Athens but then not to extend protection to them against Persia. The Spartans were happy to do this as they had had no interest in Ionia anyway and indeed the Spartan policy established 40 years previously by their king Leotychides had been to remove all Greeks from Asia Minor and resettle them on the mainland. The Persians and Spartans agreed to have the same friends as well as the same enemies. Tissaphernes sent his deputy Stagis to command a force to help the Spartans get rid of the Athenians and bring Ionia back into the fold. Prominent cities like Ephesus readily agreed. At the same time, Stagis finally managed to apprehend Amorges for Tissaphernes, neatly bringing the original cause for the most recent discord to an end. Tissaphernes' first foray into international politics had been a great success.

Then came Alcibiades. Tissaphernes accepted Alcibiades as an adviser on Greek affairs, which on the face of it made perfect sense. After all, Alcibiades himself was Greek and was, as both his alliances and dalliances proved, intimately acquainted with both sides. However, Alcibiades never really did what was best for his patron at any given time. His chief interest was always self-promotion. It's hard to believe that an experienced political opportunist like Tissaphernes didn't see this, but whatever the case was, Persian policy became quite inconsistent thanks to Alcibiades' "advice." He told Tissaphernes that Persia should take on the role of an offshore balancer rather than that of a patron to either particular side. He recommended, then, that Tissaphernes should show some favor to Athens. Based on this, Tissaphernes stalled a planned payment to the Spartans. The Spartans were understandably unhappy with this, so they made up for it by going into the cities that they had recently turned over to the Persians and collecting the taxes meant for Darius. Well, needless to say, this was a total violation of the agreement that had been signed between Sparta and Persia and Darius was furious that (a) Tissaphernes' actions deprived him of his revenue and (b) he was passively assisting the upstart power he had sworn to crush. Tissaphernes was made to pay Darius the amount of the income lost, which (although a large amount) was a surprisingly lenient treatment. Humiliatingly, a new treaty had to be signed in a hurry that reinforced the particulars of the original treaty as well as adding a pledge of mutual armed assistance if it was requested by either the Spartans or "the King and his sons." This last bit would come back to haunt Tissaphernes.

Tissaphernes decided to try to make up for this by inviting an embassy of discontent aristocrats from Athens to come and discuss matters. Ever the shrewd thinker, he wanted to solve the problem at its source: the complete overthrow of the government of Athens and the conclusion of the war. It was determined that Alcibiades would represent him at this meeting, since he would be familiar and credible. Unfortunately, Alcibiades intentionally blew the meeting by making unconscionable demands of the representatives (for example, that Athens ought to surrender the territory it held on various islands in the Aegean). The negotiators left in a huff. While all this had been going on, however, Alcibiades had been secretly negotiating with other Athenian discontents, telling them that if they were able to bring about his recall to Athens, he would use his considerable influence over Tissaphernes to bring the Persians over to the Athenian side. By the end of 411, Tissaphernes himself was beginning to look for a way to extricate himself from the conflict. In the second treaty, he had agreed to personally pay for the Spartan naval forces from the taxes he collected in his domains. This was an expensive venture and he decided that Alcibiades had been right all along about letting the two sides wear each other down without his direct involvement. Alcibiades for his part was recalled to Athens that same year and it is hard to doubt that Tissaphernes was glad to be rid of him to some extent.

The next crisis with which Tissaphernes had to contend was the Spartan demand for naval reinforcements. Tissaphernes agreed to send the Phoenician navy, the elite of the Persian marine force. Overjoyed, the Spartans made preparations for a serious naval push against Athens. At the last minute, however, Tissaphernes vacillated and the Phoenicians never made it there. The Spartans were forced to abandon the mission. When Darius became aware of all of this in 408, he stripped Tissaphernes of the satrapy of Lydia and gave it to his son Cyrus the Younger with express instructions to do everything humanly possible to bolster the Spartan cause. Part of this was at the instigation of the king's wife, Parysatis. She did not like Tissaphernes for a variety of reasons, one of which is that his brother had been involved in an aborted plot to kill her daughter (who happened to be the wife of Tissaphernes' brother). Although Tissaphernes could not have possibly had any involvement in the plan, she never forgave him for it. The two would have much to fight about later.

In 404, Darius II died. Parysatis was insistent that Darius name Cyrus, her favorite son, as his successor. In the end, he chose his eldest son Artaxerxes II to replace him. 404 also saw the end of the Peloponnesian War in Sparta's favor. Since he had assumed control of Lydia, Cyrus had had a close and friendly relationship with Lysander, the Spartans' leading general and non-royal politician. Cyrus had intimated to his ally that he was his father's chosen successor, but that Artaxerxes had usurped his position. He reminded Lysander of Sparta's obligation to provide men and arms if a son of the king so requested. In 401 BC, then, Cyrus began gathering a strong Spartan and Ionian mercenary force (the latter of whom were not aware of the true intentions of the campaign until the very end) to march to Susa and take what he viewed as his. He then unwisely began a row with Tissaphernes over the administration of the Ionian towns, claiming that all of them -- even the ones which were not contiguous with Lydia -- belonged to him. Tissaphernes was uninterested in playing this game and simply reported what Cyrus was doing to Artaxerxes. Sufficiently warned, Artaxerxes prepared to meet Cyrus and the bulk of his Greek force outside Babylon at the Battle of Cunaxa.

It was a huge engagement, involving at least 100,000 men. Remarkably, even though they had been significantly outnumbered, Cyrus' mercenary force carried the day. It was only after the battle was over that the horrible truth was discovered: Cyrus had been killed at the very beginning of the battle by a stray javelin, rendering their involvement in the whole affair completely irrelevant. Over ten thousand Greeks were stuck within the heart of the Persian Empire with no decent prospects for survival. Tissaphernes invited the leaders of the mercenary force to discuss either their safe conduct back to Greece or their possible employment for him in Caria. When they arrived, Tissaphernes had them executed, leaving the Greeks without senior commanding officers. The surviving Greeks began an epic if harrowing journey through places like Assyria and Armenia that is famously recorded in Xenophon's work the Anabasis. Tissaphernes harrassed the Greeks all the way to the Black Sea. As a reward, Tissaphernes was reinstated in Lydia.

The political winds in Sparta were changing, and a real movement to reclaim Ionia had sprung up. The Spartans felt that the Persians -- and Tissaphernes in particular -- could not be trusted. In 399, the Spartans regrouped with about 6,000 of the mercenaries from the previous campaign and invaded Asia Minor. Tissaphernes and his local rival Pharnabazus, the satrap of Phyrgia, were ordered to combine forces and crush them. There was no quick or easy victory. Artaxerxes compelled Tissaphernes to call for peace talks with the Spartans, but they were understandably a bit wary of him. Their doubts were confirmed when the Great King sent his navy to attack the Spartans. Fortunately, they had prepared for this during the Peloponnesian War using funds provided to them by the Persians and managed to defeat Tissaphernes and his forces in 395. Later that year, a Persian minister named Ariaeus asked Tissaphernes to visit him at his home in Colossae to offer his services for concluding the war favorably. When the satrap arrived, however, he was thrown into a wagon and carried to another location where a servant of Parysatis beheaded him. She had never forgiven him for his earlier transgressions and finally revenged herself on the bureaucrat who had brought about the downfall of her favorite child.

Tissaphernes was one of the most effective political operators of the ancient world. He was capable, perceptive, logical, and above all loyal to his master. On the other hand, he was also cold, duplicitous, and prone to making enemies of the wrong sorts of people. The historian A.T. Olmstead concisely summed him up by saying that he was both "the ablest and most unscrupulous diplomat that Persia ever produced." Tissaphernes is pretty well-known within academic circles, but not really by the general public. More than once did this man have a more significant impact on the course of history than he had reason to suspect.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.