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Famagusta Collage, Part II: Salamis, city of revolt
Ruins of a spectacular Greek and Roman city in Cyprus
“In due course, when the Persians came to the plain of Salamis, the Cypriot kings lined up their forces, with their crack troops — the men of Salamis and Soli — taking up the key position opposite the Persians themselves, and all the other Cypriots facing the remainder of the Persian army. Onesilus [the brother of the King of Salamis] deliberately stationed himself opposite Artybius, the Persian general.”
–Herodotus, 5.110 (Translated by Tom Holland)
In 599 BCE, the Persian Achaemenid Empire stretched from the west coast of Asia Minor to modern-day Pakistan. But, in an event remembered as the “Ionian Revolt,” Greek subjects in city-states across the west coast of Asia Minor (the “Ionians”1) and Cyprus formed a rebellion against Persian rule. This included the Cypriot city-state of Salamis, the successor of Bronze Age Engomi and the precursor to medieval Famagusta. In the end, Salamis’ participation did not bode well for the city and its allies.
As our five-part historical collage of Famagusta continues, the classical period’s city of Salamis comprised a vital chapter [catch up with Part I here]. In this vast swath of time, Salamis participated in the Ionian Revolt; later, it was one of two major Roman cities on the island, as well as the setting for a Christianized, Byzantine city built atop its ruins.
Of course, moving through a few thousand years in a short newsletter article is like flipping through all seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and claiming “you got the gist.” Given our constraints, we’ll spotlight just a few stories.
Salamis and the Trojan War
While we know of Engomi as a city of indigenous Cypriot origin and Phoenician influence established in the Bronze Age, classical Greeks attributed the city of Salamis as exclusively founded by a Greek figure of the Trojan War in the 12th century BCE—Teucer, a prince of the island of Salamis near Athens.2 Teucer, having failed to avenge the death of his brother Ajax in the Trojan War, was exiled from his homeland, and as a result he settled on Cyprus and founded Salamis in honor of his birthplace.
By the time of the Ionian Revolt, Salamis was again one of the important centers of the island, alongside Kition (modern-day Larnaca).
The Ionian Revolt
Much of what we know about the Ionian revolt and the ensuing Greco-Persian conflicts derives from the writings of Herodotus. The historian claimed that the Ionian revolt was not truly a cry for pan-Hellenic independence so much as the outcome of intrigues by a few opportunistic Greek lieutenants in the Persian imperial hierarchy.
The Persians had conquered and annexed the Ionian states of Anatolia in 546 BCE, when the region’s previous overlord, King Croesus of Sardis, was defeated. The Persians installed puppet rulers in these Ionian states, including a man named Aristagoras, who was chosen to govern the city-state of Miletus.
In Herodotus’ telling, Aristagoras was one of those schemers who so often appear in Greek history—a rogue intriguer with grand ambitions, whether that was within the Ionian League, the alliance of Ionian city-states, or in the court of the imperial Persian empire. This was a real-life Game of Thrones.
Aristagoras’ father-in-law Histaeus was the previous tyrant of the Ionian city-state of Miletus. Placed under suspicion by his enemies at court, Histaeus was recalled to the Persian capital at Susa. Histaeus recommended Aristagoras take over his position, and the Persian king Darius I assented.
Now in power, Aristagoras strove to take advantage of his position by besieging the Greek island of Naxos with the backing of Persian troops. However, the siege ended in quagmire, and suddenly Aristagoras knew he had to make another move to stay in power lest Darius remove him from his post, or worse.
Aristagoras, conspiring with Histaeus, chose to use this moment to incite rebellion among the dissatisfied Greek subjects, who chafed at Persian rule (despite the fact they had previously rejected a Persian deal to rebel against King Croesus of Sardis in exchange for increased autonomy). While this took place in an era before modern conceptions of nationalism, it was of course ironic that a Greek who attacked Naxos now led a rebellion of Greeks against the Persians.
Salamis during the Ionian Revolt
The revolt spread from the Ionian states of Anatolia to Cyprus. Onesilus, brother of Gorgus, the king of Salamis, wanted to join the revolt, but his brother did not. So Onesilus launched a coup d’état and took over Salamis. Onesilus aligned all the Cypriot cities together to rebel against Persia, except for Amathus (modern-day Limassol), which refused. So Onesilus besieged Amathus—until the Persian fleet arrived to take on the Cypriots. Onesilus wrote to the Ionians for reinforcements, and they dispatched their own fleet. While the Ionian fleet defeated the Persians at sea, the Cypriots were defeated on land, and Onesilus was killed.
Overall, the Ionian revolt failed, and its chief instigator did not survive for long. Aristagoras fled to Thrace (modern-day Bulgaria), where he hoped to establish a colony, but his landing party was slain upon arrival. The Ionian rebellion was an early spark in the Greco-Roman wars, setting in motion the first Persian invasion of Greece, which led to Athens’ unlikely victory at Marathon. In response to Marathon, the second Persian invasion led to the famous defeat of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae and the Athenian naval victory at the island of Salamis,3 teeing up the golden age of Athens, leading to the construction of the Parthenon and many of the other cultural milestones that Athens became known for.
In Cyprus, Onesilus’ corpse was put on display in Amathus as a stark warning to traitors. In Herodotus’ account, his skull became the setting for a bee honeycomb, an example of “bugonia,” a belief in antiquity that animal carcasses could spontaneously generate bees. Due to the miracle of Onesilus’ honeycomb skull, he became the subject of a cult’s worship. Over the centuries, heroes became villains before becoming heroes once again—a cycle of public opinion we moderns can relate to, albeit at a much faster pace.
Salamis today: Ruins of the Roman city
If you visit Salamis today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find the city of the Ionian Revolt. Rather, you’ll encounter what's left of the city of the Romans, and their Byzantine successors, who renamed the city “Constantia.”
What is amazing about these ruins is that they are easier to comprehend than many other, more famous classical sites. Unlike the Forum at Rome, which is crowded and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of ruins bordered by the elevated, modern city, Salamis is a ruin apart. Enter into the gymnasium and its ring of columns, and read text engraved in the floor centuries earlier. Walk a little further into an enormous complex of baths, and you’ll find a few mosaics peeking out from the corners, the subterranean heating system cut away for all to see, like a cross-section drawing you might find in an encyclopedia. Sit in the restored amphitheater and listen to your friends call from the bottom, their voices astonishingly clear—the acoustics continue to impress. Elsewhere columns lie toppled and cracked, a once monolithic Temple to Jupiter a vacant, sun-baked ruin, and meanwhile medieval walls mere suggestions of a fortress of antiquity.
But even if the traces are incomplete, they remain evocative. Set foot on a Roman road worn by the path of successive carts, yet still integral all these millennia later, evidence of the persistence of Roman engineering. Further still, all that remains of a Byzantine basilica built on the shoreline is its foundations, as well as a startling abstract mosaic toward the shore, long ago laid by the artistic precursors of M.C. Escher.
Salamis fell into decline in the 4th century CE, when devastating earthquakes wreaked havoc and the port gradually filled in. The city of Constantia that replaced it, built with the backing of Emperor Constantius II, endured until Arab raids in the 7th century CE compelled the inhabitants to relocate down the coast. But the location remained strategic, and in the medieval period the region became vital once again.
The French crusaders and Venetians who next ruled Cyprus had learned from the mistakes of the Romans. The Latins ended up constructing one of the most impressive fortifications in medieval European history—Famagusta, what we might recognize as the city of Othello—the next destination in our historical collage.
Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland, The Histories. Penguin, 2013.
This is the thirty-third post in The Cyprus Files, a newsletter series from The Usonian chronicling my Fulbright experiences in Cyprus. Thanks for reading, and if you haven’t subscribed to The Usonian to read about storytelling and design from the edge, please consider joining the list.
What is signaled by the name “Ionians” is confusing, and requires an explanation. The region of western Anatolia and the nearby islands (such as Chios, Samos, and Ikaria) were in antiquity known as “Ionia” because they were settled by Greeks from the Ionian islands (which are themselves located on the west coast of modern Greece—Corfu, Zakynthos, Ithaca, thereby abutting the Ionian Sea). The Ionian revolt was led by the Anatolian Ionians, not the Ionian Islands.
The island of Salamis near Athens was the location of the Battle of Salamis during the later Greco-Persian Wars in the 6th Century BCE, the battle that gave Athens supremacy over the seas and gave rise to the Athenian empire.
See above note.