The Persian Wars
The Persian Wars begin with the Ionian Revolt and the history
of that revolt really begins with Croesus, king of Lydia, located
in Asia Minor. He was fabulously wealthy thanks to his fostering
of trade and thanks to the silver mines of Pergamum.
Croesus had conquered most of the cities of Asia Minor, including
the Greek cities. He was on fairly good terms with the Greeks,
mainly because he let them tend to their own affairs. They were
free to pursue their internal disputes, so long as they paid
tribute money. This was palatable because trade flourished thanks
to his wise rule.
But the Ionian Greeks were not destined to enjoy the benefits
of Lydian rule for long. Another power was rising in the east:
Persia was the greatest empire that the ancient world had
yet seen. At one time, Assyria had controlled the southern portion
of the Middle East, but they were conquered by the Medes. The
Medes were famous warriors, feared by all Greeks. But the Persians
had conquered Media.
One of their greatest kings was Cyrus (d. 530). Cyrus conquered
not only Media but Lydia as well. He captured Croesus and subjected
him to a humiliating imprisonment and eventual death.
Because Cyrus had conquered Lydia, he was now the ruler of
the Ionian Greeks. The Greeks did not like their Persian rulers,
for the Persians drafted Greeks into their armies, levied heavy
tribute, garrisoned Persian troops in the Greek cities, and interfered
in the local governments. Soon the Greeks were muttering about
Persian oppression and Greek liberty. They began walling their
towns and calling war councils. Cyrus responded to this by conquering
the Greek cities directly.
Phocaeans and others, unwilling to submit and unable to resist,
packed up their homes and sailed to Italy, to start a new life.
All the rest were incorporated in the Persian Empire.
About this time (530), Cyrus died in battle. The Greeks continued
to be unruly subjects, but it was some time before Cyrus' son
was able to deal with them.
Darius I of Persia (522-486)
A benevolent and extremely competent ruler, Darius had the
misfortune of trying to rule the Greeks. He knew they were troublesome
and he realized that the Ionian Greeks would be a perpetual bother
so long as they could gain help and encouragement from the Greek
So, he determined to conquer Greece proper, to secure his
western frontier. The Persian Empire was enormous, and one portion
or another was regularly in revolt, so it was some time before
Darius was able to turn his attention to Asia Minor.
As it happened, the Greeks themselves gave Darius a pretext
for action. The fires of rebellion had smoldered in Ionia for
a generation or more, but the spark was provided by one man:
Aristagoras of Miletus.
The Ionian Revolt
Aristagoras was the tyrant of Miletus. Tyrannos was
the Greek word for anyone who had come to power illegally, whether
they ruled well or badly. A tyrant's position was therefore always
legally shaky and keeping the power he had seized was a tyrant's
In 500, Aristagoras had a great idea. The way to secure his
power, he thought, was to ingratiate himself with the Persians.
The way to do this was to gain for Persia a great victory. So
he persuaded the Persians to attempt to take Naxos.
The expedition failed, however, and the Persians blamed Aristagoras.
To protect himself, he persuaded the people of Miletus to rebel
in the name of Greek liberty. The citizens killed the local Persian
garrison and freed the city. It was a desperate act on Aristagoras'
part, but he was in a desperate situation. But Miletus by itself
could not stand against Persia.
It did not need to stand alone. The Greeks were ready for
any excuse to rebel, and this was a good one. With Aristagoras'
encouragement, city after city followed Miletus in killing or
driving out the Persians and declaring liberty.
The local satrap could not control the rebellion, and the
revolt spread. By 499, most of the cities on the Ionian coast
were once again independent.
Darius, of course, could not tolerate this.
The Revolt is Crushed
But the revolt had succeeded only temporarily. The Persian
war machine was slow to mobilize, but highly effective once it
was in motion. Aristagoras naturally knew this.
He appealed to the mainland Greeks. Sparta refused, arguing
that events in Asia were none of its concern. Athens, on the
other hand, sent an entire army plus a navy to defend her fellow
Greeks from the barbarians.
The expedition burned Sardes, capitol of this part of the
Empire, in 496. The Persians had been driven completely out of
The Persians finally arrived in full force, and when they
did, the rebellion was over. The key event was the Battle of
Lade in 494, a naval battle that ended in a complete Persian
victory. Aristagoras was killed and his city was destroyed. Those
citizens who survived were transplanted to the lower Tigris River.
By 493, the entire rebellion was crushed.
Aftermath of the Revolt
Darius was actually fairly lenient, at least with those cities
that agreed to submit to Persian rule once more.
Athens had been a principal ally in the Ionian Revolt and
the Athenians quite naturally feared that Darius would be coming
after them next. With the example of Miletus before them, this
was a distressing prospect.
We now see a split in the Athenians citizens that will appear
more than once. The Athenians, faced with a choice of trying
to placate Persian or preparing for war, elected Themistocles,
who undertook a build-up of the navy, advocating war. They rejected
the peace party (mainly aristocrats). This split--the democrats
for war and the aristocrats for peace--would haunt Athens in
Themistocles had argued for a navy in vain for several years.
The Athenians had been so impressed by the brilliance of their
army at the Battle of Marathon that they were inclined to place
faith in soldiers rather than in a navy.
The question was a social one, too, for the army was dominated
by the aristocrats whereas the navy employed many commoners.
The Greeks did not use slaves to row their ships, they used citizens.
An increased role for the navy meant increased political clout
for the common people.
Herodotus tells how Themistocles was frustrated in every attempt
to gain financing for a new navy. He was able finally to get
approval when Athens, seeing the threat of Xerxes all too clearly,
sent to the oracle at Delphi for advice.
The oracle answered in true Greek oracular style--in obscure
verse. The gist of the verse was that Athens would be safe from
the Persians behind a wall of wood. This could not be taken literally,
for any wall made of wood could simply be burned down.
It was Themistocles who interpreted the oracle correctly.
The wall of wood was in fact a fleet of wooden ships --the triremes
of the Athenian navy. The citizens were convinced, and they forthwith
voted a huge increase in spending for the navy.
But the Athenians were in a desperate mood, nevertheless.
The Persian Empire was so huge it must surely be able to crush
the Greeks no matter what defensive measures they took. So worried
were the Athenians that in 493 they fined the playwright Phrynichus
1,000 drachmas for his play The Capture of Miletus, which
in recounting the events of the Ionian Revolt, reminded them
of the reasons for their current difficulty.
The First Persian Invasion of Greece
The Athenians were right to worry. Darius invaded with a large
army, one that had conquered the Medes and the Lydians, both
of whom had bested the Greeks. Darius was the man who had quelled
the Ionian Revolt. The Greeks would have to summon all their
strength to stop the Persian juggernaut.
Mardonius, Darius' brother-in-law, invaded Thrace in 492.
Athens could see war coming and tried to gain allies, but no
one dared openly to oppose Persia. Sparta was supportive, but
Darius finally invaded in person in 490, moving down the Greek
eastern coast. One of the Greek strong points, Eretria, fell
after a six day siege. The city was sacked and the entire population
taken captive. This was a clear indication to the Athenians that
theirs would be the same fate.
The Battle of Marathon - Preparations
Persian army then landed at Marathon. Sparta was still unwilling
to fight beyond the borders of the Pelopennese, and Athens stood
alone. Present at the battle were the Medes, and their conquerors
the Persians. No one has been able to stand against them, even
at favorable odds, and the odds are not at all favorable.
Athenian army took its position in the Valley of Vrana, outnumbered
three to one. The army was joined at the last minute by about
a thousand Plataeans, but that's the only ally that stood with
The battle lines were about one mile apart. The Athenians
had not enough men to cover the entire valley, so Miltiades set
a weak center and strengthened the wings.
The Battle of Marathon
Miltiades attacked at dawn. The Athenians charged at a run.
The Persians waited, not really believing anyone could run that
far and still fight well. The Persians were not yet fully organized
because it was so early in the morning.
Still, they routed the Greek center and charged up the valley.
The Greeks retreated, pulling the Persians forward and extending
their lines. Then the Greek wings fell upon the Persian flanks
while the center suddenly stood firm.
The Persians broke ranks and began to retreat. As the Greeks
pressed, the retreat became a rout. Greeks harried them all the
way to the beach and followed them into the water, swimming out
after the boats and capturing seven Persian ships.
You might enjoy reading Herodotus' account of the battle
(below) as well.
Herodotus narrates the Battle of Marathon
Miltiades by these words gained Callimachus; and the addition
of the Polemarch's vote caused the decision to be in favour of fighting.
Hereupon all those generals who had been desirous of hazarding a battle,
when their turn came to command the army, gave up their right to Miltiades. He however,
though he accepted their offers, nevertheless waited, and would not fight
until his own day of command arrived in due course.
Then at length, when his own turn was come, the Athenian battle
was set in array, and this was the order of it. Callimachus the Polemarch
led the right wing; for it was at that time a rule with the Athenians to give the
right wing to the olemarch. After this followed the tribes, according as they
were numbered, in an unbroken line; while last of all came the Plataeans, forming
the left wing. And ever since that day it has been a custom with the Athenians,
in the sacrifices and assemblies held each fifth year at Athens, for the Athenian
herald to implore the blessing of the gods on the Plataeans conjointly with the Athenians.
Now, as they marshalled the host upon the field of Marathon, in order
that the Athenianfront might he of equal length with the Median, the ranks of
the centre were diminished, and it became the weakest part of the line, while
the wings were both made strong with a depth of many ranks.
So when the battle was set in array, and the victims showed
themselves favourable, instantly the Athenians, so soon as they were let
go, charged the barbarians at a run. Now the distance between the two armies
was little short of eight furlongs. The Persians, therefore, when they saw the
Greeks coming on at speed, made ready to receive them, although it seemed to them
that the Athenians were bereft of their senses, and bent upon their own destruction;
for they saw a mere handful of men coming on at a run without either horsemen
or archers. Such was the opinion of the barbarians; but the Athenians in
close array fell upon them, and fought in a manner worthy of being recorded. They
were the first of the Greeks, so far as I know, who introduced the custom of
charging the enemy at a run, and they were likewise the first who dared to look
upon the Median garb, and to face men clad in that fashion. Until this time
the very name of the Medes had been a terror to the Greeks to hear.
The two armies fought together on the plain of Marathon for
a length of time; and in the mid battle, where the Persians themselves and the Sacae
had their place, the barbarians were victorious, and broke and pursued the Greeks
into the inner country; but on the two wings the Athenians and the Plataeans
defeated the enemy. Having so done, they suffered the routed barbarians
to fly at their ease, and joining the two wings in one, fell upon those who had broken
their own centre, and fought and conquered them. These likewise fled,
and now the Athenians hung upon the runaways and cut them down, chasing
them all the way to the shore, on reaching which they laid hold of the ships
and called aloud for fire.
It was in the struggle here that Callimachus the Polemarch,
after greatly distinguishing himself, lost his life; Stesilaus too, the son
of Thrasilaus, one of the generals, was slain; and Cynaegirus, the son of Euphorion,
having seized on a vessel of the enemy's by the ornament at the stern, had his
hand cut off by the blow of an axe, and so perished; as likewise did many other
Athenians of note and name.
Nevertheless the Athenians secured in this way seven of the
vessels; while with the remainder the barbarians pushed off, and taking aboard
their Eretrian prisoners from the island where they had left them, doubled
Cape Sunium, hoping to reach Athens before the return of the Athenians.
The Alcmaeonidae were accused by their countrymen of suggesting this course
to them; they had, it was said, an understanding with the Persians, and made a signal
to them, by raising a shield, after they were embarked in their ships.
The Persians accordingly sailed round Sunium. But the Athenians
with all possible speed marched away to the defence of their city, and
succeeded in reaching Athens before the appearance of the barbarians: and
as their camp at Marathon had been pitched in a precinct of Hercules, so now
they encamped in another precinct of the same god at Cynosarges. The barbarian
fleet arrived, and lay to off Phalerum, which was at that time the haven of Athens;
but after resting awhile upon their oars, they departed and sailed away to Asia.
There fell in this battle of Marathon, on the side of the barbarians,
about six thousand and four hundred men; on that of the Athenians, one
hundred and ninety-two. Such was the number of the slain on the one side
and the other. A strange prodigy likewise happened at this fight. Epizelus,
the son of Cuphagoras, an Athenian, was in the thick of the fray, and
behaving himself as a brave man should, when suddenly he was stricken with blindness,
without blow of sword or dart; and this blindness continued thenceforth
during the whole of his after life. The following is the account which he himself,
as I have heard, gave of the matter: he said that a gigantic warrior, with a
huge beard, which shaded all his shield, stood over against him; but the ghostly
semblance passed him by, and slew the man at his side. Such, as I understand,
was the tale which Epizelus told.
The Athenians had won at Marathon, but they certainly had
not destroyed the Persian army, and they knew it. Well before
the battle, they had made provision for whatever might happen
Should the Athenians lose, then word must get back quickly
to the city and the citizens would abandon Athens, retreating
to the Peloponnesus. Should the Greeks win, then word must likewise
get back quickly, for the Persian navy was sure to sail around
Attica and attempt to take the city while it was undefended.
In the case of victory, the citizens were to man the walls and
make it appear that Athens was strongly defended.
So Miltiades sent his best runner, Phaedippas, to take word
back to Athens. He ran the entire distance. When he arrived,
he gasped out a single word, "victory!" and died.
The Persians did indeed sail around Attica, hoping to find
the city helpless. When they met with resistance, they hesitated.
Not long after, the Greek army arrived. The Persians decided
they had had enough of these Greeks, and they sailed home.
Marathon - Results
The casualties give an indication as to the nature of the
victory: 6,400 Persians died at Marathon, and only 192 Athenians.
The Greek dead were buried on the Plain of Marathon, where the
mound is still pointed out to tourists.
Athens gained tremendous prestige from this victory, not least
because she fought almost alone. The myth of Persian invincibility
was broken. But both sides knew that the issue was not yet settled.
Miltiades, the hero of Marathon, lead an expedition that failed
the next year (489), trying to drive the Persians out of Thrace.
He died of wounds, in disgrace for having lost. This is typical
of Athens--very fickle in regard to their leaders.
After a few years, leadership of the war party was taken over
by Themistocles, who had a different military vision. Instead
of the army, Themistocles urged that Athens place her faith in
the navy. This was a fateful change of policy, for it lead Athens
to becoming a great sea power.
Persia readies for war
Meanwhile, the Persians were preparing. Darius was unable
to respond immediately to his defeat because of rebellions on
the other end of his empire. While he quelling these, he was
His son, Xerxes, spent several years securing his own succession.
But he was determined to avenge his father's defeat by the Greeks.
Once ready, Xerxes undertook enormous preparations, convinced
that sufficient manpower would win the day.
Xerxes built an enormous army that he somehow had to get across
the sea to Greece. Travel by sea was perilous; armies always
travelled by land when possible. So Xerxes' route was to cross
the Bosporus and travel by way of Thrace, Macedonia, and Thessaly.
The Bosporus presented the first obstacle. To cross it, Xerxes
had a boat bridge built, with each boat attached to the next
with planks. This was an enormous undertaking, for the bridge
had to be over a mile long and involved many boats, and the sea
of course had to remain perfectly calm.
The sea, evidently uninterested in Xerxes' campaign, did not
remain calm. Time and again the boat bridge was nearly complete
when winds and rough seas broke it apart. Xerxes was so exasperated
with the god of the sea, so Herodotus tells us, that he commanded
his slaves to whip the sea with chains.
It worked. The sea, properly chastened, behaved itself, the
bridge was completed, and the Persian army crossed into Europe.
Xerxes had supply depots along the way, for the problem of
supplying such a huge force was as great a task as actually battling
the Greeks. Everything depended on keeping the army supplied.
For this reason, Xerxes even had built a canal behind Mt. Athos,
so that his army would not have to lose contact with his navy.
The Greeks Unite . . . or not
The Greeks were, of course, disunited as always. Some city-
states, especially in the north, went over to the Persians rather
than face war and destruction. For the stronger states in the
south (Athens, Sparta, Thebes, etc.) had decided not to try to
meet Xerxes in the north.
Athens and Sparta, plus a handful of scattered small cities,
stood alone against the giant. When Xerxes finally invaded Greece
in 480 BC his army consisted of 200,000 men and 700 warships.
The Greeks together had 300 ships and 10,000 men, with ability
to raise about 50,000. They were led by King Leonidas of Sparta,
who brought with him 300 Spartans.
The small turn-out of Sparta reflected a disagreement as to
where best to meet the Persians. Sparta wanted to fight at the
Isthmus of Corinth. Others wanted to fight further north. And
the Athenians continued to argue that the war would be won or
lost at sea. So Sparta left the bulk of her army in the Peloponnese.
The issue was very touchy, though. The Athenians were frantically
building ships as fast as they could, for the Persian fleet outnumbered
them better than 3 to 1. Literally every day's delay would mean
more Greek ships at sea. Moreover, Athenian representatives needed
as much time as possible to persuade more city-states to stand
with them against Xerxes.
It was therefore imperative that Xerxes be delayed as long
as possible. The Greeks decided to take a terrible gamble. They
would send an expeditionary force north to meet Xerxes, to fight
the Persians at hopeless odds, and to sacrifice themselves in
order to improve the chances of ultimate victory.
One of the best points at which to hold off an invader was
at Thermopylae, a narrow valley adjacent to the sea. The attacker
could not pass to the seaward side, and to go inland would mean
a significant detour. Other armies could risk this, but Xerxes
On the other hand, a defender could take a stand with comparatively
few men. A wall had once been built here, and a small fort. The
Greeks rebuilt the wall and waited.
The Greek strategy was to delay the land force and to defeat
the Persians at sea, then starve the Persian army. It should
have worked, but from the beginning everything seemed to go wrong.
To begin with, the Greek army was surprised to see the Persians
arrive so soon. They had hoped to get more reinforcements. On
the other side, Xerxes had excellent information and knew that
the Greeks were waiting for him. He set up camp on the plain
below the pass. He was confident, but the army was so large that
it could not afford to wait in any one place for very long.
He sent scouts up the valley to ascertain the nature of the
opposition. The Spartans had duty on the outside wall, where
they were waiting watchfully. The scouts were astounded to see
the Spartans doing calisthenics and braiding their hair. Xerxes
could not believe they intended to fight against hopeless odds.
He announced his presence and waited four days for them to leave.
Battle of Thermopylae
The Greeks did not leave. Exasperated, and aware of his supply
situation, Xerxes ordered an attack on the fifth day. He sent
the Medes against the Greeks, ordering Spartans be taken alive,
so confident he was of easy victory.
The Spartans retreated, running away, even to the point of
turning their backs on the enemy. The Medes, sure that they were
winning the victory they had expected, broke ranks to pursue,
whereupon the Spartans turned and fought savagely. After sharp
fighting, the Medes were defeated.
Xerxes now sent in the Immortals, his best troops. The Spartans
employed same strategy, with the same results. Xerxes was furious.
Another day's fighting yielded no better for the Persians.
The fighting was all the more remarkable in that the Greeks
had failed utterly in the sea battle and the Persians had complete
control of the sea. The sole purpose now for the battle was solely
to delay the inevitable as long as possible.
At this point, treachery undid their heroic efforts.
Ephialtes, a man from Malis, went to King Xerxes and told
him that he knew of a goat path that went around the Greek position
and debouched behind their lines. After initial skepticism, Xerxes
discovered the man was telling the truth. He made his preparations.
The Greeks knew of the path, of course. There were, in fact,
more than one path, winding among the mountains. The men of Phocis
were posted on the most likely path, but the Persians slipped
past them by way of a different path under cover of night.
The Greeks learned of the treachery near morning. They would
barely have time to escape from the trap. Leonidas tells the
other Greeks to return home, to fight another day, but the Spartans
will stay. The Thespians and Thebans joined him. There were no
more than a few thousand who stayed.
Greeks knew they were about to die and they fought all the
more fiercely for it. The Spartans put up the stoutest resistance,
taking their stand on a little hill and fighting in a circle
facing outward with enemies all around.
When Leonidas was killed, he was some distance away. Some
of the Spartans formed a tight group, fought their way to his
body, picked it up, then fought their way back to the main group
on the hill.
The Persians seemed utterly unable to annihilate the Spartans.
At last, the Spartans are killed by a hail of spears and arrows,
the Persians fearing to close with these fearsome warriors.
Results of Thermoplyae
The Greeks lost the battle. They had come hoping for a victory
and instead had been routed. But Thermopylae was always hailed
as a triumph for Greek arms because the Persian army was crucially
Thermopylae allowed the Greeks time to organize. Themistocles
did not lose heart and continued to drive the shipbuilders for
all they were worth. He was still confident of victory at sea.
Moreover, the Greeks were heartened by the example of Leonidas,
the Spartans, and the others who fought at Thermopylae. This
battle served as an exemple to officers and soldiers alike, not
only through Greek history but Roman as well, of what can be
accomplished through heroic self-sacrifice.
Xerxes moves south
Athens was in despair, for the Athenians knew that their city
would surely be destroyed. There simply was no place between
the Persians and Athens where the Greeks dared to risk battle.
Instead, they must watch their city burn and place their trust
in the fleet. The citizens fled, many to the island of Salamis.
Xerxes did indeed burn Athens. He was enraged to find that
the only ones who remained were those too ill or too demented
to leave. The Athenians stood on the shores of Salamis and could
see the flames devour their city.
Both the fleet and the army were now in place. Xerxes was
sure of victory. He had his throne placed upon a hill overlooking
the sea, in part to savor his victory and in part so his commanders
would know that their king was watching them.
The Battle of Salamis
The Persians had around 700 ships, the Greeks around 300.
The Spartans and other allies were encamped in the Isthmus of
Corinth, awaiting the outcome of the sea battle. Xerxes had conquered
most of Greece; now was the time for the killing blow.
The Greeks were able to lure the Persians into narrow waters
where superior Greek seamanship won the day. As Xerxes watched,
his massive fleet sailed into the straits, then were systematically
rammed and sunk by the enemy.
The victory at Salamis was so decisive that Xerxes immediately
sailed back to Persia, leaving Mardonius and the army to fight
their way back as best they could.
Battle of Plataea, and after
The land war continued for another year, but the heart had
gone out of the Persians. At Plataea, in 479, the Persian army
was defeated and Mardonius was killed.
The Persians retreated from Greece without further incident,
neither side desiring to fight further. The Greeks gained other
victories in Asia Minor.
The victory over Persia was the greatest of all victories
won by the Greeks. It meant that Greece would stay Greek, and
not be absorbed into the Persian Empire had so many other cultures.
It meant that Greek influence would live and grow, to be spread
further by Alexander and to be preserved and extended by Rome.
Results of the Persian Wars
The Persian Wars were a heroic epoch for Greece in general
and for Athens and Sparta in particular. Asia Minor was restored
to independence, and Athens and Sparta were the undisupted leaders
In the longer term, vicotry meant Greece was now free to follow
its own destiny, and free from outside influences on its culture
and society. What it did with that freedom forms the subject
of the next narrative.