The Classical Epoch includes the 5th and 4th centuries BC (about 500 BC to 340 BC), the Golden Age of Greek antiquity. I outine here only the fate of the island of Naxos during this epoch, about which we learn a lot from ancient historiography.
The Archaic Epoch on Naxos
During the previous Archaic epoch (7th and 6th century) the island of Naxos had reached an important cultural climax. Three important temples were built (or rebuilt) on the island. Also on the neighbouring Delos, which was under Naxian hegemony, the Naxians erected important temples and statues in the sanctuary of Apollo. In the second half of the 6th century, the tyrant of Naxos, Lygdamis, succeeded in subjugating a number of other neighbouring islands, and Naxos gained supremacy over the Cyclades. The rule of Lygdamis over Naxos ended in 524 BC, when the island was invaded by Spartans who were on a campaign against the tyrant of Samos Polycrates. The Spartans helped the Naxian aristocrats, expelled thirteen years earlier by Lygdamis, to regain their power.
Naxos in the Classical Epoch
During the Classical epoch no new temples were built on Naxos. Excavations in the Chóra testify to the existence of three small sanctuaries from the Classical epoch that were dedicated to unidentified female deities (at least two of these sanctuaries existed also before), as well as remains of buildings and some graves. Since the archaeological finds show little that is new compared to the previous Archaic epoch, I will confine myself here to an illumination of the political events, about which we learn from the historian Herodotus, the “reporter” of the Persian Wars (5th century BC).
The Persian Campaign Against Naxos
About 500 BC, at the beginning of the Classical period, the aristocracy of Naxos was expelled by the people and a democracy was established. The Naxian nobles fled to Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor and persuaded the governor of Miletus Histiaios, who stood under Persian supremacy, to start a campaign against Naxos. Histiaios and his son-in-law Aristagoras turned to the Persian satrap of Sardes Artaphernes for support. In the spring of 499 BC a fleet of over 200 ships – manned by Milesians under Aristagoras and Persians under the command of Megabates (cousin of Artaphernes) – set off for Naxos. The fact that the Persians undertook such an elaborate campaign against Naxos can only be explained by the fact that the island had a significant wealth to offer.
The campaign against Naxos, however, went differently from what the Naxians aristocrats and the Milesians had imagined: Because of a disagreement with Aristagoras, the Persian commander Megabates secretly warned the Naxians in the last minute of the imminent danger. They entrenched themselves in the Chóra, and after four months of siege, the attackers were forced to withdraw without having accomplished anything. The Naxians claim that the Persian commander said admiringly about the defenders: “na oi áxioi”, which means: “behold, these are the brave ones”, and that their name comes from that sentence. Until today they often call themselves Axiótes (and this is probably the correcter name: the “N” of Naxos probably comes from the last letter of the accusative article: “tin Áxo” became “ti Náxo”). In any case, it is remarkable that little Naxos was able to give the Persians their first defeat in their campaign against Greece which turned into a war of 50 years, and it testifies to the organization, military strength and determination of the Naxian.
The Ionian Revolt
The defeat of the Persians against Naxos had far-reaching consequences. Aristagoras, having returned to Miletus, feared being punished by the Persians – and thus used the opportunity to try to end the Persian supremacy over the Ionian cities of Asia Minor, which had lasted for 50 years. It was easy to persuade the trade-dependent Ionian cities to participate in the revolt, since they had already suffered greatly in recent years from the bad economic situation, as trade had decreased after a war between Persia and Egypt. Thus the rebellion quickly spread over an area stretching from the Hellespont to Cyprus, and the Greeks succeeded in conquering the capital of the Satrape, Sardis. Aristagoras also sought help among the other Greeks, but only Athens and Eritrea sent 20 and 5 ships, respectively, which had little effect. Soon it became apparent that the Ionians’ organization and military equipment were not sufficient for such a great war. Cyprus and Sardis were soon reconquered by the Persians. Only nine cities resisted longer, but they too could not permanently resist the Persian superiority. In 494 BC, the Ionian fleet was destroyed, and Miletus was taken and destroyed by the Persians.
The Persian Wars: Their Effects on Naxos
But even with that the matter was not yet at an end. The Persian king Darius showed indulgence towards the Ionians of Asia Minor, seeking peace and order. He continued to let the Ionian cities to govern themselves to a large extent, even allowing the establishment of democracies and endeavoring to make the tax system fairer and to eliminate grievances that had led to dissatisfaction among the people. He did not, however, show such leniency towards the “foreign” Greeks who had participated the uprising, that is Athens and Eritrea: This interference by the neighbours, who had so far been insignificant for the Persian Empire, could not be tolerated.
So the Persians under Datis and Artaphernes undertook a campaign against Greece in 490 BC, the first of the two Persian Wars. On the way to Athens the Persian fleet passed Naxos again. To take revenge for the previous defeat, the Persians attacked the island again, now with 600 ships. This time the Naxians stood no chance – whoever could, fled into the mountains, the Chóra was destroyed and large parts of the population were led into slavery.
This defeat was a heavy blow for the island – after that and for the rest of antiquity Naxos only achieved its independence for a short time, and also the cultural achievements were far less than those of the Archaic epoch, when the island held a pioneering position in the region. Naxos was occupied for eleven years by the Persians, who presumably established a tyranny. In the second Persian campaign against Greece in 480 BC, Naxos was forced to participate with four ships on the Persian side; however, in the battle of Salamis the Naxian ships (as the only ones of the Cyclades) passed over to the Greek side even before the battle.
The Attic-Delian League
After the triumphal victory of the Greeks over the Persians, Naxos joined the Attic-Delian League under the leadership of the Athenians, whose purpose was the defence against the Persians. During the first fifty years the meeting place was in Delos, where also the money that was paid by the members was kept. Apart from Athens and the large North and Central Aegean islands of Thasos, Lesbos, Chios and Samos, only Naxos (as the only representative of the Cyclades) provided its own ships – so the island still played an important role.
As the years went by it became continously more obvious that Athens wanted to exercise sole sovereignty in the Attic-Delian League; and so the Naxians broke away from the alliance in 470 BC. However, they had to pay dearly for their love of freedom – they were attacked, besieged and subjugated by the Athenians, and had to endure the control and supremacy of the Athenians with a heavy tax burden for the next years.
In the Peloponnesian Wars in the last decades of the 4th century Athens lost its supremacy to Sparta and the Attic League was dissolved. In the year 404 B.C. after the victory of Sparta over Athens, Naxos became independent for a short time, and for the first time since the conquest by the Persians it began to mint its own coins again. Soon, however, it came under the control of Sparta, who in turn demanded taxes from the island.
The Second Attic League and the End of the Classic Epoch
After many further conflicts, the Athenians finally founded a Second Attic League and defeated the Spartans in a naval battle between Paros and Naxos in 376 BC. Naxos was obliged to join the League, which this time gave the members greater freedom to avoid conflicts. A decade later, Naxos tried again to break away from the League, but was defeated again by the Athenians.
At the end of the Classical epoch the confrontation of the members of the Attic League with the northern Greek Macedonians became more and more important. Gradually Athens lost its allies to the Macedonians, until it was finally defeated in 338 by the Macedonian king Phillip II, who wanted to unite the Greeks in a great campaign against the Persians. The Persian campaign was then implemented a little later by Phillip’s son, Alexander the Great – but with the assassination of Phillip II in 336 BC the Classical epoch of Greek antiquity came to an end.