Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

The Persian Wars

Steve Muhlberger

When Darius heard of the Ionian revolt, and the Athenian involvement in it, Herodotus says:

he did not give a thought to the Ionians, knowing perfectly well that the punishment for their revolt would come; but he asked who the Athenians were, and then, on being told, called for his bow. He took it, set an arrow on the string, shot it up into the air and cried: "Grant, O God, that I may punish the Athenians." Then he commanded one of his servants to repeat to him the words, "Master, remember the Athenians," three times, whenever he sat down to dinner. {5.105}
From this story, one might get the impression that the Athenians were completely unknown to the Persians. But, as J.M. Cook points out, the Persian satrap in Sardis, one of Darius's brothers, had been in touch with them for years {Cook, 92}.  Hippias the son of Peisistratos and former tyrant of Athens had moved to Sardis and been urging the satrap to restore him to power. When the Athenians had protested Hippias's unfriendly presence at the satrap's court, the satrap had told them that they should take Hippias back if they wanted to avoid disaster. They of course did not do this.

Athens, like the rest of Greece, had been living in the Persian influence for a good while. The Athenians themselves were no doubt regarded in Sardis as rebellious subjects, and that is no doubt what Darius was told about them when he asked. As rebels, the Athenians and the Eretrians had to be punished.

After the Ionian and Cypriot Greek cities, which had joined the Ionians in revolt, had been reconquered, Darius immediately began planning another European expedition. It was not just a matter of vengeance on Athens and Eretria. It was also a distraction and a reward for the reconquered Ionians. A successful war would show the Ionian cities the tangible benefits of belonging to a mighty empire.  Indeed, throughout this period there were always pro-Persian Greeks.

To understand the Persian wars, we must understand that all the campaigns combined naval and military forces, and that armies on both sides required naval support and vice versa. The Persian had huge forces that needed supplies, some of which were brought in by sea. Their armies also needed protection from flanking amphibious raids. At the same time, their fleets needed the armies to secure the nightly landings that ships of this era made as often as possible. Even the battleships of this time were small, very vulnerable to bad weather, and limited in cargo capacity.  The Greek armies required the same kind of naval support on their flanks.

The campaigns have a certain similarity. In every case, the Persians marched in along the coast of the Aegean, never very far from their fleet; the armies of the anti-Persian Greeks also stayed near the coast, and were flanked by their ships. Every campaign included both sea and land battles, and sometimes amphibious ones.

The first punitive expedition was launched by Darius in 492 B.C. It was a quick failure. The Persian fleet was seriously damaged in a storm off Mt. Athos, and Darius's forces withdrew.

A second campaign in 490 was much more successful. Eretria was taken in a week-long struggle, burned, and the population enslaved. Then the Persians marched on Athens.

Athens had appealed for allies, but few had been interested in risking themselves against the might of Persia in her cause. Sparta, the most feared and respect polis, had agreed to help, but when the time came to send troops, they delayed because it was the festival of the full moon. When the Persian army landed on the plain of Marathon north of the city, 10,000 Athenians alone save for 1,000 soldiers from neighboring Plataea faced a much larger army.

The Athenians, under their general Militiades, rather than wait for the Spartans to come up, took the initiative. The Persian cavalry was not ready to fight, and so Militiades attacked.  Though the center of the Persian line held up well, the flanks did not. Trapped between the two wings of the Athenian army, the Persians fled to their ships and disembarked, suffering serious losses in the process.

The Persian commander, a man named Datis, rowed around the coast of Attica to seize Athens before the army could return. Militiades marched 26 miles back to Athens and his troops were waiting on the beach when the Persian fleet arrived. Datis retreated and left Greece entirely.

Though it was in a way a close-run thing, in effect Marathon was a great victory for the Athenians. Even the Spartans, when they showed up the next day, were impressed. 6,400 Persians had fallen, while the Athenians had lost only 192 dead.

The course of the battle demonstrated that a well-disciplined, well-generalled hoplite army could beat the mighty Persians, even when outnumbered. And of course Athens was covered with glory, that thing most desired by every self-respecting Greek individual and community. Men of Marathon savored that designation for the rest of their lives.

The effect of this victory on the course of Athenian politics was one of its most important consequences.  The victory soon took on a democratic flavor. It was three years after Marathon that the Athenians began selecting archons by lot, reducing the prominence of aristocrats in government. The Athenian assembly also exercised its right of ostracism more freely than ever before, to exile aristocrats who seemed too likely to become strongmeneven Militiades, the "man of Marathon" par excellence.

In the post-Marathon period, Themistokles, who was to be so prominent in the second Persian War, emerged as the most influential single leader.   In 482, eight years after Marathon, important new silver mines were discovered at Laurium. The assembly debated what to do with this treasure, which was common property. Themistokles convince the assembly that  the silver should be used to build a fleet of warships. These ships would prepare them for further trouble from Persia, and in peace-time would make Athens a great commercial power.

A revolt in Egypt and the death of Darius had allowed the Athenians ten years of peace to sort out domestic disputes and build a new fleet. By 480, however, Xerxes, son and successor of Darius, had assembled his forces for a third attack.

A truly huge expedition:  A new bridge was built across the Hellespont; a canal was cut across the Mt. Athos peninsula, to avoid a naval disaster along the exposed coast as in 492. Every part of the empire was required to supply men and ships.

Herodotus tells a story to illustrate Xerxes's single-mindedness. A Lydian named Pythius, who had earlier offered the king his entire estate for the war effort, asked if one of his five sons, all of whom had been impressed into the army, could stay home.

Xerxes became furious: "You miserable fellow," he cried, "have you the face to mention your son, when I, in person, am marching to the war against Greece with my sons and brothers and kinsmen and friends?...[since you did me good service before] your punishment will be less than your impudence deserves. Yourself and four of your sons are saved by the entertainment you gave me [and my army]; but you shall pay with the life of the fifth, whom you cling to most."...Xerxes at once gave orders that [his] men...should find Pythius's eldest son and cut him in half and put the two halves one on each side of the road, for the army to march out between them.
Moderns estimate that Xerxes mustered 1000 ships and between  200,000 and 300,000 soldiers -- a huge number.   Most of north and central Greece decided to submit to Xerxes in advance, and in fact probably as many Greeks fought for the Persians as against them.

Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies provided the bulk of the resistance troops, and Sparta, as was its acknowledged right, took command of the whole effort. Athens supplied most of the ships, and had an important place in the counsels of the resistance, but it was in a difficult position. The Peloponnesians could simply fortify the isthmus of Corinth and hold up the Persians for a long time. Athens was north of the isthmus. It had a hard time convincing its supposed allies that a major effort should be made in northern Greece.

Only Sparta moved in a timely fashion to fight Xerxes in the north. The pass of Thermopolae was chosen for its strategic position. It was the only convenient way across Mount Oeta. Only a few troops were stationed at Thermopolae, however: 300 Spartans and 6,000 allies. Eventually this force was outflanked and those who did not retreat, including all the Spartans and their king Leonidas, were wiped out. But before that happened the Greek army had inflicted great casualties on the Persians, killing, among others, two of Xerxes's brothers.  Although the Persians had won, the superiority of hoplites was again confirmed; also, storms at sea had cost them part of their fleet.

After Thermopolae, the Greek fleet withdrew to avoid being outflanked, and Athens was helpless and largely evacuated. But it was Athenian determination that kept the war going. The oracle of Delphi had told them that their wooden wall would not be taken, and Themistocles had convinced them their safety lay in the fleet. They felt as long as the fleet was intact, they still had a polis -- something more important than having a country. So the Persians entered Athens without opposition, killed the few people who held out in the Acropolis, and destroyed the monuments there.

Most of the allies of Athens wanted the fleet to pull back to the Isthmus and help defend the Peloponnese. The Athenians were convinced that this would be disastrous, and determined to force a battle at Salamis. Themistocles went to the allied council meeting and threatened the alliance, telling the allies that they would be helpless without the Athenian fleet.

This convinced the Spartan commander to keep the allied forces across from Salamis to support the fleet. Themistocles then sent word to the Persians secretly, as if he were a traitor, telling them that if they sailed to Salamis, they would find the allies in disarray. The Athenian fleet then trapped the Phoenecians against the shore and massacred them.

The Persian losses, which included client kings, the admiral, and relatives of Xerxes as well as many ordinary sailors and soldiers, demoralized the fleet. It withdrew to Asia.  Most of the army, led by Xerxes, had to retreat too. Thus at the end of 480, the Persians had suffered a major defeat.

But Xerxes  left a sizable army behind.  Plans were made for a new campaign. In the spring the Persian commander moved up his forces, perhaps 90,000 strong, and began ravaging Attica once more. The Athenians were once again in the position of threatening and pleading with allies to move. Eventually it worked. A Spartan-led army marched to Plataea to take a position across from the Persians.  When it came to actual fighting, a hoplite charge destroyed the Persian formations, just like at Marathon. with the Persians who also fought as hoplites.

Plataea was decisive: the Persian commander was killed, and his army left Greece as fast as it could. Greek forces were immediately load on ships, and taken to Ionia, where they defeated the Persian garrison of Ionia and freed the country from the Persians.

Was this a dangerous move? The Greek alliance was committing itself here not just to self-defense, but to the seizure of a Persian province. In other words, by taking an advanced position, on the Asiatic coast, they were opening themselves up for further invasions. But the invasions never happened. The damage they had inflicted on the Persian was so great that no further expedition was ever launched against Greece.

What hurt the empire was the loss of many warriors of Persian blood, the most reliable of the king's followers, whose belligerence and loyalty made possible Persian rule in the first place. J.M. Cook has estimated that 25,000 Persians died, out of a total adult male population of about 120,000. The ruling minority had been much diminished, and Persian rule weakened at the core.

The effect of the war on the Greeks was much more immediate and dramatic. Its can be assessed by looking at our main source for the war itself. A generation after Xerxes' defeat, Herodotus composed one of the great books of history, his Histories. Herodotus wrote a long, detailed account of this war, the crucial event of recent times, not in epic verse, as might have been done at an earlier date, but in prose. He approached his subject not mythically, but analytically: the war was the result of the actions of mortal men, which might be understood by the use of reason and through a careful investigation of the facts.

Herodotus stands at the head of our historical tradition, but his history affected and reflected his contemporaries for a somewhat different reason. He summed up, in a striking literary form, the conclusions Greeks had drawn from their still somewhat unbelievable victory.

Greek victory had come because their way of life was inherently superior to the Persian way -- one might say, the imperial way. The Persians had been led by a man who wrongly claimed arbitrary, even divine power. These claims attracted the disfavor of the divinities; Herodotus believed that there was a fate that punished false pride of this sort. Also, it meant that Xerxes' subjects were slaves, and could be expected to lose when faced with free men.

Herodotus depicted Demaratus, a former king of Sparta, in exile at the Persian court, telling Xerxes that the Greek  cause was hardly hopeless. Spartans were the best fighters in the world, and would fight no matter what the odds:

Fighting singly, [the Spartans] are as good as any, but fighting together they are the best soldiers in the world. They are free -- yes -- but not entirely free; for they have a master, and that master is Law, which they fear much more than your subject fear you. Whatever this master commands, they do; and his command never varies: it is never to retreat in battle, however great the odds, but always to stand firm, and to conquer or die.
Another Persian courtier tried to tempt Spartan ambassadors to take service with the Great King, telling them that if they submitted to Xerxes, they might find themselves rulers of Greece when the Persians took it. They replied to him:
The advice you give us does not spring from a full knowledge of the situation. You know one half of what is involved, but not the other half. You understand well what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced, so you do not know if it tastes sweet or bitter. If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears alone, but with axes too.
Herodotus uses Spartans to illustrate his point, but he meant it to apply to all Greeks, who were all free men, united by alliegance to a law, and not to a man. Whatever we think of this definition, we must admit that Herodotus is speaking out of a great confidence in the values of his culture. This confidence was general. The Persian Wars are often taken to mark the beginning of classical times in Greece, a period when all the arts blossomed, all over Greece, but particularly in Athens, which not only produced a bundle of native geniuses but attracted the best talent from elsewhere to. In all things save warfare on land, Athens was the leading city of Greece. It was entering its golden age


J.M. Cook, The Persian Empire
H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks (NU)
Peter Levi, Atlas of the Greek World (NU)
Herodotus, The Histories (NU)

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Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.