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The Persian Wars

Croesus, 560-546

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.


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 mainland.

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 constant worry.

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 Asia Minor.

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 later years.

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 not active.

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 Athens.

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 at Marathon.

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 killed.

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.

Xerxes Invades

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 could not.

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 delayed.

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 of Hellas.

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.

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