Greco Persian Wars

The Greco Persian Wars, often known as the Persian Wars, were waged between Greek powers and Persia for nearly half a century. The battle was most violent between 490 and 479 when Persia launched two assaults against mainland Greece. Although the Persian empire was at the height of its might, the combined Greek defense defeated seemingly insurmountable obstacles and liberated Greek city-states on the borders of Persia itself. Long after the fall of the Persian empire, the Greek victory ensured the survival of Greek culture and political systems.

The establishment and growth of the Achaemenid Empire (559–500 BCE)

In 559 BCE., the Persian monarch Cyrus II established the Achaemenian dynasty, and he spent the remainder of his life expanding his empire, which eventually extended from the Indus River valley to the Aegean Sea. After Croesus of Lydia was beaten by the Persians in 546, the tiny Greek towns on the Asian coast were subjugated piecemeal. Sparta, the most significant state on the Greek mainland, did nothing more than register diplomatic objections.

Darius, who ruled from 522 to 482, expanded and solidified the Persian kingdom. From his capital, located far interior at Susa, the royal roadways extended to around twenty regions called satrapies that satraps administered with complete military and political authority. The conquered peoples owed the monarch tribute and military service. As long as they complied with their requirements, they were treated well and permitted to follow their own religion and conduct their affairs. Still, disobedience was met with mass executions or expulsion.

The imperial army was composed of archers and spare bra (“shield carriers”), a form of light infantry equipped with a spear and wicker shield; Median and Persian cavalry; and the best troops of the dependent peoples. The Greek states of Asia Minor, Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Egypt supplied the fleet. The supreme authority in war and peace was placed in the Persian king, whose total authority was only moderated by the norm of conversing with his Persian officials.

Darius was “the mighty king, king of kings, ruler of the lands containing all types of peoples, and monarch of this vast and expansive world.” As the representative of the Persian divinity Ahura Mazda, Darius asserted his claim to global dominance.

In 514, Darius planned to conquer Europe. After conducting a seaborne survey of Greece and Scythia, he chose to invade Scythia first and ordered a Samian engineer to construct a pontoon bridge across the Bosporus. The imperial army conquered eastern Thrace and crossed the Danube on a pontoon bridge built by Greek contingents of the Persian navy. In 513, the Persians then made significant advances into what is now Ukraine.

The Scythians fled until Darius exhausted his supply lines, at which point they harassed his retreating army. The Greek commanders of the Persian fleet stayed faithful to Darius despite being urged by the Scythians to destroy the bridge over the Danube; nonetheless, certain Greek kingdoms bordering the Bosporus and Hellespont rebelled upon hearing of his defeat. These actions persuaded Darius of the necessity of establishing a firm foothold in Europe.

His generals punished the Greek rebels, created a satrapy in southern Thrace that severed the Scythian alliance with the Spartans, and obtained the surrender of the king of Macedonia. Meanwhile, the Persian fleet subdued Lemnos and Imbros (Gokceada), and in 500, a Persian army was prepared to assault Naxos, the most potent island in the Cyclades. This voyage likely served as preparation for an invasion of Greece.

The Ionian Uprising (499–493 BCE)

As well as demands for payment and service, the sponsorship of tyrants by Persia in the Greek kingdoms of Asia Minor was a primary source of discontent. Two unscrupulous tyrants took advantage of this strategy. Histiaeus, the tyrant of Miletus, was held in Susa. Aristagoras, his son-in-law and deputy at Miletus, had backed the Persian invasion of Naxos.

When the expedition failed, Histiaeus and Aristagoras, fearing Persian reprisals, intended to incite an uprising among the Greek states of Asia Minor. Aristagoras created a constitutional government in Miletus, and the tyrants of the other states were exiled.

Aristagoras sailed to Greece in need of help throughout the winter. Realizing their limits as a land force, the Spartans declined to send soldiers, while the Athenians pledged 20 triremes and the Eretrians five triremes. When these ships arrived in 498, the Ionians began operations by seizing and torching most of the satrapy’s city, Sardis. This triumph prompted revolts in the Greek states of the Bosporus and Hellespont, Caria, and the towns of Cyprus. At this point, the Athenians retreated their ships, and the Eretrians likely followed suit.

The rebels had little hope of defeating the three Persian army units sent in 497, so they relied on a naval attack to seize Cyprus and contain the Phoenician fleet in the southern Mediterranean. The Persians were quick to recognize Cyprus’ significance. One army force landed north of the island, accompanied by a Phoenician fleet, and launched a land and sea assault on Salamis. Here, the Ionians beat the Phoenician navy, while the Persian infantry annihilated the Cyprian Greeks.

In 496, the final Greek fortress on the island capitulated. Meanwhile, two Persian army units retook control of the Bosporus and Hellespont. Although they were delayed by a Ceridian loss in 496, they launched their last offensive in 495. While the Persian army held the coast at Miletus, a considerable fleet recruited from Egypt, Phoenicia, and Cyprus moved to harbors under the army’s control. It engaged the Ionian fleet of 353 triremes around the island of Lade off the coast of Miletus. The Persian naval victory was decisive. In 494, Miletus fell, and in 493, the insurrection was put down.

The Ionian Revolt was highly beneficial to the Greek cause since it delayed the Persian invasion of Greece until the Greek mainland states were capable of unified action, undermined Persian confidence, and taught the Greeks critical lessons. Individually, the Greeks had defeated the Persians on land and at sea; consequently, resistance did not appear hopeless.

In the future, however, it was clear that close cooperation and strong leadership would be required. The Ionians did organize a council of representatives from several states, and they entrusted it with strategic direction but neglected to include the Greeks of the Bosphorus, Hellespont, and Cyprus. They had also failed to nominate a supreme commander of the allied troops until the eve of the battle of Lade when it was too late.

The Persian offensive and Battle of Marathon (490 BCE)

Darius executed or deported the ringleaders in Asia, but he struck a lenient settlement with the states. States were required to submit their conflicts to arbitration, democratic administrations were authorized, and reasonable tribute rates were enforced. This was a political maneuver since Darius intended to utilize the Ionian navy to attack Greece. In Europe, his son-in-law Mardonius expanded Persian power to the boundaries of Macedonia, and his envoys visited the free Greek kingdoms to request “soil and water” as submission symbols to Persia. By 491, Eretria and Athens knew that a naval assault was imminent.

Before the Ionian Revolt, Sparta and Athens were at war, but the Persian menace drew them together. Athenian stance toward Persia had fluctuated before and throughout the Ionian Revolt, but Persian backing for the exiled Athenian ruler Hippias reinforced the determination to fight. Miltiades, the leader of a semi-independent Athenian principality in the Chersonese, also advised the Athenians.

Miltiades, a subordinate of Darius, had fought with the Persians in the Scythian expedition and was familiar with Persian strategy. Despite this, Sparta and Athens had no plans for a joint offensive when the Persian force, possibly numbering 25,000 warriors, sailed over the Aegean, landed in Euboea, and conquered Carystus and Eretria. In September 490, the Persian army landed uncontested in the Marathon plain in northeast Attica, where the supply routes to Euboea and the east were straightforward and safe. Athens remained isolated due to the Persians’ quickness and initiative.

The Athenian army was stationed at Athens, ready to repel any landing in the area, while the tiny navy was poised to assault any Persian convoy in the region. When word arrived from Marathon, the assembly dispatched a runner to Sparta and approved Miltiades’ request to send the highly equipped hoplite army to the foothills above Marathon.

The other decision—to stay and defend Athens—would have shut Athens off from Sparta by land and water and left the city vulnerable to blockade. At Marathon, however, Callimachus and the ten generals (each of whom possessed operational command for one day, according to Herodotus) had to choose between attack and delay. Miltiades’ counsel prevailed: Athenians would assault as soon as an opening presented itself.

First, the Athenians pushed their position to within one mile of the enemy by cutting trees and placing impediments in the path of the dreaded Persian horsemen. Then, the chance presented itself. Before morning, deserters from the Ionians reported, “The cavalry has left.” Miltiades, who commanded operations, launched an attack at daybreak. Before the cavalry could return, the line of around 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Platoons rushed the opposing troops with a thin center and strong wings. The Greek wings overcame the Persians and then turned inside to assault the Persian center, which had been pushed back by the Greek center.

The Greek infantry’s more giant spears and sturdier armor won against the Persian infantry’s small spears, wicker shields, and cushioned clothes. The defeat was total. Herodotus states that the Greeks lost 192 troops while the Persians lost 6,400. The majority escaped to the navy, which departed immediately in an attempt to surprise Athens, but the Athenians arrived that night to defend the city after an arduous march. The Persians subsequently left. The following day, a Spartan troop, which Spartan religious observances had delayed, arrived in Athens and proceeded to survey the battlefield.

One of the events of the Greek triumph at the Marathon inspired the contemporary marathon footrace. According to mythology, an Athenian messenger was dispatched from Marathon to Athens, a journey of around 25 miles (40 kilometers), where he died of weariness after announcing the Persian defeat. On the other hand, Herodotus tells the tale of Pheidippides (sometimes written Phidippides or Philippides), a aerodromes or professional long-distance “day runner” engaged by the Athenian military as a messenger. Before the war, Pheidippides was sent from Athens to Sparta to solicit assistance from the Spartans; he is supposed to have traveled around 150 miles (240 kilometers) in roughly two days.

The journey of Xerxes (480–479 BCE)

An all-out invasion followed the Persian defeat at the Battle of Marathon. A revolt in Egypt and the death of Darius delayed it until 480, when Darius’s successor, Xerxes, crossed the Hellespont with a great army and a strong navy in late April. The army advanced slowly, and the fleet had to supply it with supplies. Consequently, the Greeks had sufficient time to prepare. Sparta addressed the difficulty of gathering the roughly 30 nations willing to fight Persia by holding a congress of delegates and forming a broad alliance.

Sparta was given the authority of both land and water after the states agreed to end all interstate hostilities. Each state had one vote, and the majority’s decisions were binding on all members. It had recruitment, diplomatic, and judicial authority. On the battlefield, the commander in chief, who Sparta had appointed, spoke with the commanders of the national contingents but ultimately made his own choice.

The Greek congress was, therefore, a highly structured and effective organization for allied action. Its primary ground force consisted of the Spartans and their allies. In contrast, its primary naval force consisted of the Athenians, brilliantly led by Themistocles, who had expanded the fleet to 200 ships. Now, a coordinated defense against both components was feasible. Sparta was responsible for determining when and where to deploy the Greek congress’s relatively modest but superb armies.

The Conflict at Thermopylae

The initial plan to retain the small Vale of Tempe between Macedonia and Thessaly was abandoned when it became apparent that the position might be easily flipped. The Greeks then stationed 271 triremes at Artemisium in northern Euboea and stationed 6,000 or 7,000 hoplites along the much smaller pass of Thermopylae. The commanders of the two sites, King Leonidas at Thermopylae and Eurybiades at Artemisium, sought to halt and harm the Persian forces. Meanwhile, Xerxes was steadily approaching. His navy, convoying supply ships along the coast without using distinct columns, sustained terrible losses in a storm. August had already passed when Xerxes started the three-day-long operations.

Xerxes dispatched 200 ships, undetected by the Greeks, to circumnavigate Euboea and block the Euripus Strait on the first day of the battle. He also assaulted Thermopylae with his strongest soldiers, where the Greeks suffered devastating losses. After learning about the Persian detachment from a deserter, the Greek fleet fought the main Persian fleet with moderate success in the afternoon. The Greeks intended to sail south that night and destroy the detachment the next day, but a massive storm prevented them from leaving Artemisium and wrecked 200 Persian ships off the coast of south Euboea. On the second day, a reinforcement squadron of 53 Athenian ships delivered the news of the Persian disaster. Xerxes launched a second unsuccessful assault at Thermopylae while the Greeks destroyed some Cilician ships off the coast of Artemisium.

Ephialtes, a traitorous Greek, promised to lead the Persians over a mountain trail and change the Thermopylae position. The Immortals, an elite Persian infantry unit, were sent to him. At daybreak on the third day, they descended onto the plain behind the Greek position. Leonidas kept the forces of Sparta, Thespiae, and Thebes and dispatched the rest south. He then moved forward. He and his army battled to the death, except for the Thebans, who capitulated.

Meanwhile, around midday, the Persian navy launched an attack. Both sides suffered significant losses, and the Greeks recognized they could only prevail in smaller waterways. When the beating of Thermopylae became known that evening, the Greek navy retreated down the Euboic canal and positioned itself in the narrow straits of Salamis.

Salamis, Plataea, and the destruction of the invading Persian army are discussed.

In September, Xerxes and many Greeks residing north of Attica burnt Athens. The city was nearly abandoned since the Athenians, on the counsel of Themistocles and in line with a Delphic oracle, had surrendered themselves to “the wooden wall” of their ships. The Greek assembly resolved to reinforce the isthmus and retain the navy at Salamis in a forward position. The captains of the ships were divided over this choice. Many individuals desired to retire in the Argolic Gulf.

Themistocles cemented the issue by alerting Xerxes of their wish. Xerxes, who saw the end of the campaigning season approaching, dispatched 200 ships that night to block the Greek line of retreat and deployed the main fleet of 1,207 ships off the eastern exit of the Straits of Salamis. The Greeks knew of his attitudes and plans throughout the night. At daybreak, they maneuvered northward while feigning retreat, lured the main fleet into the strait, and then returned to close combat. The Corinthian Adeimantus sent a detachment to confront the 200 Persian ships.

The 310 surviving Greek ships, robustly constructed for ramming, had room to maneuver against the dense stream of Persian ships, which were less adept under oars and collided with one another. The outcome was a total victory for Greek seamanship. The Persians retreated in disarray. Their navy, greater in numbers but not in spirit, set sail towards Asia shortly after that.

During that winter, when Xerxes was in Asia, a great army under the leadership of Mardonius wintered in Thessaly. By means of deft diplomacy, he pushed the Greeks forward in the summer of 479 to the northern slopes of Mount Cithaeron at Plataea, where supply problems caused the 110,000-strong Greek army to retire during the night. The withdrawal was disorganized, and the force was dispersed by morning.

Mardonius immediately assaulted the 11,500 Spartan and Tegan hoplites who had stopped on steep terrain. Unfazed by the swarms of Persian troops, their commander Pausanias led his warriors downhill in close formation, charged at the double, and overpowered the enemy. The Greeks attacked the Persian camp when the Athenians arrived after defeating the Thebans, forcing the survivors to flee. In the meantime, the Greek navy had moved to Mycale on the Asian shore opposite Samos to launch an attack.

The Persians declined to fight, beached their ships, and joined a strong supporting force, while the Spartan king Leotychides landed his men further north and launched a successful attack. The Persian invasion concluded with the triumphs of Plataea and Mycale.

The Greek assault and Callias’ Peace (478–449)

Spartan leadership, Athenian allegiance, and Greek combat might lead to the Greek victory. On the other hand, the Spartans had little interest in conducting a campaign in Asia, whereas the Athenians were prepared to deploy their navy to support the Ionians. To safeguard Greek independence and seek punishment from Persia, Athens and several Greek states on the islands and Asian shore organized the Delian League. A series of successful operations culminated in a victory at the Eurymedon River in Pamphylia in around 467 BCE. An allied force of 300 ships led by Cimon destroyed a Persian army and fleet.

In 460, the Athenians and their allies supported a successful Egyptian insurrection, but the Persian army returned to fight. In 454, Egypt concluded a separate peace with the Greeks, who, overconfident in their maritime prowess, were stranded on the Nile and wiped out. Athens was at war with Sparta then, but a cease-fire on the Greek mainland allowed them to mount successful raids on Cyprus in 450–449. In 449 b.c. b.c.e., the Peace of Callias concluded the war between Athens and its allies and Persia. In exchange for peace, Artaxerxes I of Persia acknowledged the independence of the Greek nations in Europe and Asia and swore to keep his navy out of the Aegean.


In addition to their success at Plataea, the Greek navy headed by Leotychides landed an army in the Battle of Mycale in Ionia, which annihilated the Persian garrison and murdered its leader, Tigranes. The Ionian nations were re-admitted to the Hellenic Alliance, and the Delian League was formed to deter future Persian incursions.

In addition, Byzantine control of the Bosphorus and Chersonese control of the Black Sea were recaptured. Persia would remain a menace for the next 30 years, with sporadic skirmishes and conflicts occurring across the Aegean, but mainland Greece had survived its greatest peril. Around 449 BCE, the two competing civilizations ultimately signed a peace treaty, commonly known as the Peace of Callias.

While the Greeks celebrated their triumph joyfully, the Persian Empire did not suffer a fatal blow. Xerxes’ destruction of Athens was likely sufficient to allow him to depict himself as a returning hero. However, as with past conflicts, there are no written records by the Persians; thus, their perspective on the struggle can only be conjectured.

Regardless, the Persian Empire flourished for another hundred years. For Greece, however, the triumph ensured her independence from foreign authority. It paved the way for an era of prosperous creative and cultural endeavor that laid the cultural foundations for all subsequent Western civilizations.

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