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Greek-Persian Wars (490 bce–479 bce)

Greek-Persian Wars (490 bce–479 bce)

Major Figures

Darius

When Darius I (549 bce –486 bce ) became king of the Persian Empire in 522 bce , he inherited an empire in transition.

The Rise of the Persian Empire

Although the Persians, who called themselves Irani, were an ancient people, the Persian Empire was quite new. Officially founded in 547 bce by Cyrus the Great after his successful rebellion against the Medean Empire, the Persian Empire had grown by leaps and bounds over the ensuing twenty-five years.

Cyrus added the ancient kingdoms of Assyria, Lydia (inheritor of the Hittite Empire), and Babylon to his Medean conquests, then took control of Palestine before dying in 529 bce . His successor, Cambysses, conquered Egypt during his brief seven-year reign, then died on the way home.

Cambysses’ death created a power vacuum in Persia that was made worse by a rather bizarre twist involving fratricide and pretenders to the throne.

Darius Seizes Power

The main historical source for what happened after Cambysses’s death is Darius’s own account of events, and there is some scholarly doubt over whether Darius was really the heroic liberator he claimed to be. What can be certain is that prior to his departure for Egypt, Cambysses’s brother Bardiya (known as Smerdis to the Greeks) died. The story goes that Cambysses himself, concerned that his brother would try to seize the throne in his absence, had Bardiya killed.

So it was that when Cambysses himself died, there was no heir apparent. The story takes a strange turn at this point, however. A magian , or high priest, by the name of Gaumata claimed that he was none other than Bardiya, who had not died after all.

Despite the rather obvious deception (one story relates that, although they looked similar, Gaumata had had his ears cut off some years previously), Gaumata seemed poised to get away with his back-door usurpation: apparently the other nobles at court were too cowed to do anything about his plot for fear of violent reprisal.

Enter Darius. With the help of six co-conspirators, Darius made a claim to the throne. He was the son of a minor branch of the royal line, the Achaemnids, and was not even the oldest member of his immediate family, but he was ambitious.

Darius himself killed the imposter Gaumata and took the throne, which by this point was resting upon very shaky foundations. Over the next year Darius fought nineteen battles against various rebellious provinces in an effort to consolidate his power. By 521 bce , his rule was unquestioned.

His accomplishments were immortalized on the Rock of Behistun. Rising out of the surrounding plains and situated near a major east-west trade route, the rock to this day bears Darius’s triumphant inscriptions 200 feet above the ground. Written in three languages, the inscriptions proudly tell the story of Darius’s fight for the throne. But Darius’s great reign had only just begun.

Darius as Military Leader

In contrast to his two predecessors, Darius is not noted for his military conquests. He focused on consolidating and improving the inner workings of the far-flung empire.

Nevertheless, Darius did lead several expeditions. The first, from 519 bce –518 bce , was to Egypt, where rebellion still stirred. Two years later, Darius found himself at the other end of his empire, campaigning in the Indus River valley (modern day Pakistan). Adding a portion of India to the Persian Empire proved a wise move. The revenue generated from that region was reportedly several hundred pounds of gold dust per year.

Darius also campaigned against the Scythians, horse nomads whose territory ranged from Central Asia to southern Europe. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus reports that one of the expeditions, dated to 514 bce , took place north of the Danube River, which would make it one of the first Persian campaigns on European soil. During this campaign, Darius made use of his Greek subjects, including one Miltiades, the Athenian who would later defeat the Persian invasion at Marathon.

Darius’s Scythian adventures came to nothing. The mounted nomad-archers refused to give battle, and, after suffering weeks of guerrilla attacks, the Persians went home.

Darius as Ruler

It was at home in his empire that Darius truly came into his own. Although an administrative system had been evolving in Persia since the foundation of the empire, Darius was the first king to regulate and codify what would come to be known as the satrapy system.

A satrapy was basically a province arranged along ethnic or cultural lines. The rulers of each satrapy, the satraps , were chosen from the local populace in order to avoid the appearance of imperial domination. In fact, Persian policy was to keep things as “normal” as possible in their many subject kingdoms. Local religions were allowed to flourish. For example, after conquering Babylon, the Persians allowed the Jews to return to Palestine and encouraged them to rebuild the Temple of Solomon.

All that was asked in return was for the satrap to collect a certain amount of “tribute” each year and pass the earnings on to the Persians. Of course, the Persians were not naïve, and a sophisticated royal spy network referred to as “the king’s eyes and ears” closely monitored each satrapy.

Darius is also credited with constructing the Royal Road, a sort of ancient superhighway that ran from Sardis in modern-day Turkey to Susa, one of the four Persian capitals, a length of 1700 miles. A normal journey along the road took about three months, but the king also established a system of couriers who, like the riders of the Pony Express of the American West, would ride in horse relays of twenty miles per horse. This system allowed a message to travel the distance from Sardis to Susa in about a week’s time.

Darius and the Greeks

It was at the extreme western end of the Royal Road, at the provincial capital of Sardis, that Darius first encountered what could be called his “Greek problem.” The western coast of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), then known as Ionia, was ethnically Greek. In 499 bce , the Ionians rose in revolt, probably encouraged by the local satrap in a politically motivated power grab. However, the rebellion quickly grew beyond the satrap’s control and turned into a movement for total independence from the Persian Empire.

The Ionians sent for help from mainland Greece. The Athenians agreed to help, as did the nearby city of Eretria, which had a large Ionian population.

The Greek expedition sailed across the Aegean and marched inland to Sardis, taking the city and burning it. When word of this foreign intervention reached Darius’s ears, the king became incensed. He vowed that as soon as he had put down the Ionians, he would punish the Athenians for their temerity. It took six years to finally extinguish the fire of rebellion in Ionia, and every night during that time Darius had his attendant remind him three times during dinner to “remember the Athenians.”

The last Ionian stronghold, Miletus, fell in 493 bce and was nearly razed to the ground. By the following year Darius had an expedition ready to take the fight to mainland Greece. Unfortunately for Darius, the ships carrying the army were wrecked off the Mount Athos peninsula in Thessaly, in the extreme north of Greece. The expedition did manage, however, to secure the submission of Macedonia and Thrace before heading home.

Two years after his first attempted invasion, Darius was ready to try again. He sent a fleet directly across the Aegean this time, conquering the many Greek islands that dot that sea. Upon reaching the mainland, the Persians first landed at Eretria, which fell within a week, but the Persians were defeated soon after at Marathon.

Darius was not ready to give up on his dream of vengeance against the Greeks, but his time soon ran out. He died in 486 bce at the age of sixty-four in the midst of planning a third expedition. His son and heir, Xerxes, would attempt to carry on his father’s dream, but meet with defeat at Salamis and Plataea.

Legacy

The reign of Darius I was pivotal for Persia. He expanded the boundaries of the empire somewhat, adding the Indus Valley, Macedonia, Thrace, and the Aegean Islands. But it is as an administrator and builder that he is remembered. He regulated weights, measures, and coinage. He built grand palaces at Persepolis, his new capital, and left behind inscriptions chronicling his great deeds. He was also the first Persian king to publicly acknowledge the new religion of Zoroastrianism.

It was in the name of Zoroastrianism’s primary god, Ahura-Mazda, that Darius left this advice for future rulers of the state he helped consolidate:

“King Darius states: King, whoever you are, who may arise after me, protect yourself well from lies. Do not trust the man who lies.… Believe what I did and tell the truth to the people. Do not conceal [it]. If you do not conceal these matters, but you do tell the people, may Ahura-Mazda protect you.”

Xerxes

When he ascended to the throne of the Persian Empire in 486 bce , Xerxes (520 bce –465 bce ) could not have known that in a scant seven years he would be responsible for one of the greatest military defeats in history. But the Persian defeat at the hands of the Greeks during the so-called Persian Wars was only one chapter of a reign plagued by strife and setbacks.

Early Life, First Years as King

Born in 520 bce , Xerxes was the son of the Persian king Darius I, and was tapped from childhood to succeed his father. Although he was not the eldest of Darius’s children, he was the eldest son of the king’s favorite wife. Little is known of his life prior to his ascent to the throne, although there is evidence that he was the viceroy of Babylonia during his early adulthood, perhaps as a means to prepare him for the responsibilities of rule.

When Darius died, Xerxes was immediately confronted with an ongoing revolt in Egypt and would soon have to deal with an uprising in Babylonia as well. He seems to have put down the rebellions quickly and, when necessary, ruthlessly. After Babylon revolted a second time in 482 bce , Xerxes tore down the temple ziggurats (towers) of the city and defaced the statues of the local gods.

Along with rebellious provinces, Xerxes inherited something else from his father: the desire to crush Greece, which had proven a continual thorn in the western side of the Persian Empire. Darius had launched two expeditions targeting Greece in 492 bce and 490 bce . The first foundered in stormy seas off the Mount Athos peninsula; the second was turned back at the Battle of Marathon. Xerxes was determined to make good on the third attempt and set about assembling one of the largest armies the world had yet seen in an effort to guarantee victory.

Xerxes’ Army

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus calculated that the Persian army, when all personnel and camp followers were factored in, numbered some five million individuals. Modern scholarship estimates a total closer to 300,000, with about 120,000 comprising the main body of the army. Xerxes assembled a fleet to match his army, some 1,200 ships strong.

The composition of the army was also unlike anything previously seen, drawing units from all over the empire—from the Indus River valley, with its soldiers clad in “tree-wool” (cotton), to Nubia (southern Egypt) and all points in between. The army even included a sizeable number of Greeks, mostly Ionians from the west coast of modern-day Turkey.

The core of Xerxes’ army was his personal bodyguard of 10,000, the “Immortals,” so called because the unit was always maintained at that precise number of soldiers, even while on campaign.

Xerxes’ Strategy

The Greeks were small in number, but had won a reputation as excellent sailors and fearsome warriors. The Persians had felt defeat at Greek hands ten years earlier at Marathon despite outnumbering the Greeks in that battle. Clearly, Xerxes’ strategy was to stack the odds so far in his favor that quantity would have to win out over quality.

The patient Xerxes paid heed to past defeats and took several years to prepare carefully for his invasion. His knew his army was too big to sail across the sea, so his plan was to march across the Bosporus, the strait separating Europe from Asia Minor, then on to Greece proper. Xerxes had two great pontoon bridges, bridges laid across the backs of lashed-together boats, built across the Bosporus at its narrowest point. Remembering what the treacherous Mount Athos had done to his father’s fleet in 492 bce , he ordered a canal dug across the base of the peninsula. It took three years to dig the canal. Finally ready for attack, Xerxes sought divine sanction for his mission by ordering the sacrifice of 1,000 head of cattle. Then he and his army set off for Greece.

Xerxes Invades Greece

Xerxes first met Greek resistance at the Pass of Thermopylae. The famous band of 300 Spartans under King Leonidas were supported by about 4,000 allied troops and stopped the whole of the Persian army for over a week, including nearly three days of fierce close combat. Thermopylae was Xerxes’ first encounter with the quality of Greek fighters, and he could count it a victory despite losing thousands of troops in the effort. He marched south and occupied Athens, with the Greek armies retreating before his advance.

The key to victory now seemed to rest not in a land engagement but on the clash of navies. If Xerxes could crush Greek naval power, his own ships could blockade the remaining third of Greece, the Spartan homeland known as the Peloponnesus. Troops could be landed at will. The war would be all but over.

The Greek fleet had gathered in the Bay of Salamis, between the island of the same name and the Athenian port of Piraeus. The Greek fleet was weakened by bickering and fractiousness and was outnumbered by the Persians to boot. Xerxes had only to blockade the fleet inside the bay and the Greeks were sure to turn on each other.

It was at this point that the crafty Athenian leader Themistocles sent a secret communication to the Persian king designed to look like an attempt at treachery. In the message, Themistocles simply told Xerxes the Greek fleet was in perilously weak condition. Overanxious for a victory, Xerxes fell for Themistocles’ ruse and ordered an attack. So confident was he of victory, he even set up a throne on a nearby mountaintop from which to watch the battle and take notes on which admirals did well and which did poorly.

But instead of watching an easy Persian victory, Xerxes was forced to observe as his fleet went down to defeat. As much as one-third of the Persian fleet was sunk. Unable to swim, most of the sailors of the sinking ships drowned. Xerxes’ overanxious attack, in which his fleet’s great size worked against it, gave the Greeks control of the seas and the initiative in the war. The next year, the Persians would be defeated once and for all at Plataea.

After Salamis

Nervous about the possibility of another rebellion in Babylon, Xerxes took about half his army and returned to Sardis. Without control of the seas, he would not be able to maintain his supply lines for the full invasion army. The vast numbers of soldiers upon whom he had depended turned into more of a hindrance than a help. The outnumbered Greeks had found ways to turn the size of the Persian force against itself.

For the Persians, the wars in Greece were ultimately a sideshow. The empire went on. Official peace was eventually declared with the Greeks about thirty years after Salamis, although the Persians would continue to meddle in Aegean politics and wars.

As for Xerxes, he proved not nearly as durable as his realm. He took no further part in the wars with Greece or the political maneuverings of his generals and governors. Often drunk, he retreated to his palaces, embittered and focused on grand building projects.

Fifteen years after Salamis, in 465 bce , Xerxes was assassinated in a palace coup led by the captain of the guard, Artabanus. The kingdom fell to civil war between Artabanus and Xerxes’ three sons, one of whom, Artaxerxes, eventually won the throne. Even in death, Xerxes’ legacy was one of violence, bloodshed, and death.

Datis

There is little that is actually known about the Persian general named Datis (birth and death dates unknown), leader of the expedition against the Greeks that ended in defeat at Marathon in 490 bce . Most of our information comes via the Greek historian Herodotus, although there are also inscriptions and palace records that help fill in the blanks.

Early Military Career

Datis was a Mede from the mountainous northern region of Mesopotamia and was clearly one of the top generals in the army of the Persian king, Darius I. His name first appears in connection with the Ionian revolt, a six-year struggle between the ethnically Greek Ionians of the west coast of modern-day Turkey and their Persian overlords. Datis is historically credited with capturing the key Ionian island of Rhodes in 495 bce and with leading the Persian fleet to victory at the battle of Lade in 494 bce .

Lade marked the beginning of the siege of Miletus, the last holdout of Ionian resistance. Within a year, Miletus had been taken amidst much blood and fire, and the Ionian rebellion was officially put to rest.

When the Ionians had first risen against the Persians in 499 bce , help had come from the mainland Greek cities of Athens and Eretria. Darius swore vengeance on the foreign cities for intervening, and in 490 bce launched an expedition across the Aegean Sea with Datis and another Persian commander, Artaphernes, in charge of the forces.

The Expedition of 490 bce

The expedition had three goals: to punish Athens and Eretria for their involvement in Ionia, to restore the deposed Athenian tyrant Hippias as a Persian puppet ruler, and to incorporate the many Aegean islands into the Persian Empire, thus creating a buffer zone between Persia and Greece.

This last objective had been a Persian goal for nearly a decade, having first been attempted in 499 bce under the command of Artaphernes’s father. That campaign was cut short by the more pressing matter of the Ionian revolt, and the Aegean islands remained free for the time being.

Datis and Artaphernes met with considerably more success in 490 bce , taking every island that stood in their way, including the vital trading center of Naxos and the island of Delos, site of a major Apollo cult. As the Persians associated Apollo with their Zoroastrian god Ahura-Mazda, Datis made a great sacrifice to thank the god for the expedition’s success so far.

Marathon

Upon reaching the Greek mainland, Datis first laid siege to the city of Eretria, which fell within a week. Its citizens were enslaved and eventually sent back to Babylon for a life in captivity.

After the fall of Eretria, Datis landed at the plain of Marathon, a site north of Athens that Hippias advised would be favorable terrain for the superior Persian cavalry.

Meanwhile, the Athenians had assembled a force of about 10,000 hoplites, heavy infantry clad in bronze armor and wielding spears, to oppose the Persian army, which was anywhere from twice as big to six times the size, but made up almost exclusively of lightly armored archers and light cavalry.

The Greeks blocked the road south to Athens but did not attack. A standoff ensued over the next five days before the Greeks, under their general Miltiades, charged the Persian army and broke it. It has been theorized that the Greeks charged when they did because the Persian cavalry, to which the Greek phalanx (body of troops) was most vulnerable, was not in the area, or was perhaps boarding the ships in preparation for departing to another landing point.

What is known is that after the defeat, Datis sailed his fleet around to the south of Athens with an eye to taking the Athenian port town of Piraeus, but found the port blocked by the victorious troops of Marathon, who had raced home to secure the city. With no apparent landing point, Datis turned back for Persia.

Legacy

Most of the goals of his expedition had been accomplished, but the defeat at Marathon would have the largest impact on world events. The Persians had never lost a land battle against a regular army, and the defeat had a profound effect on Persian authority and power.

Although some sources claim Datis was killed at Marathon, this is unlikely. His exact date of death is unknown. All that is certain is that he did not participate in the Persian invasion of Greece tens years after Marathon in 480 bce , although two of his sons did serve as generals in that great army. As for their father, he emerges only briefly from the mists of history and, despite his string of successes as a general, is best remembered for one of the most momentous defeats in the ancient world.

Miltiades

Miltiades (c. 549 bce –489 bce ) was an Athenian general and adventurer who is best remembered as the victorious commander of the Battle of Marathon.

Early Military Career

An Athenian aristocrat, Miltiades first made a name for himself serving as a magistrate under the tyrant Hippias. Around 516 bce , he set himself up as tyrant of the Greek colonies in the Chersonese, an area now known as the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. In Miltiades’s day, Thracians, a relatively uncivilized people the Greeks looked down upon as little better than wild men, dominated the area, and Miltiades ruled with an iron fist.

The Chersonese fell under the dominion of the Persian Empire, and Miltiades marched with the army of the Persian king Darius during an expedition against the nomadic Scythians north of the Danube River. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Miltiades considered burning the Persians’ bridge over the mighty Danube, thus stranding the army and their king, but this could very well have been an attempt to paint the hero of Marathon as reluctantly serving under his future enemies, a Greek patriot through and through.

When the other Greeks in the Persian Empire did rise against Darius, Miltiades fought on their side, taking the island of Lemnos, which he later gave to Athens.

In Command at Marathon

Persia eventually suppressed the Greek rebels, and Miltiades returned to Athens, where he faced a cool reception due to his tyrannical rule of the Chersonese. In fact, he was soon brought to trial for his actions, but charges against him were dropped. The Athenians, aware that Darius was preparing a punitive campaign against them for their involvement in the Greek revolts, needed someone like Miltiades, an experienced general with inside knowledge of how the Persian army fought and operated. In July of 490 bce , as the Persian invasion fleet was making its way across the Aegean towards Athens, Miltiades was elected one of ten generals for the year.

The Athenians sent word to Sparta, the greatest Greek military power of the day, requesting help against the Persians. The Spartans replied that they would be unable to help out right away because they were in the middle of a religious festival.

Miltiades suggested marching out immediately rather than hiding behind Athens’s city walls. The Greek force numbered around 10,000 and faced a Persian army at least twice that size. Miltiades and his fellow generals, having blocked the Persians from advancing beyond their landing site at Marathon, were unsure of how to proceed. For five days the Greeks held their ground.

It was Miltiades who finally proposed a bold plan: the Greeks, who excelled at close combat, should charge the Persians, who relied on their archers and cavalry. Forced into close quarters, the Greeks would negate the Persians’ preferred method of fighting. Furthermore, Miltiades proposed to leave the Greek center weak and to strengthen the wings, thus setting up a trap for the Persians in which their numbers would work against them.

By a one-vote margin, his idea won approval from the other generals. The Greeks charged.

Miltiades’ plan went off without a hitch. The weak Greek center gave way, the Persians surged forward, and the Greek wings swung in like great pincers, striking the Persian flanks and causing panic in their ranks. Thanks to Miltiades, Marathon was a triumph, with the Greeks losing a mere 192 men to the Persians’ 6,400.

After Marathon

Miltiades was showered with praise upon his return to Athens and was the natural choice to lead further expeditions against the Persian-occupied Aegean islands. However, his star rapidly fell. During an attack on the Persian-held island of Paros, Miltiades was wounded and the attack was driven off. Returning to Athens, he was condemned and fined for his failure, dying soon after from his wound.

Despite this ignominious end, Miltiades is today remembered as a military genius who showed the Greeks they could defeat the mighty Persian army, inventing the tactic of “double envelopment” in the process.

Leonidas

The legendary hero King Leonidas (?–480 bce ), defender of Thermopylae, remains largely an enigma to modern scholarship. His birth date could range anywhere between 530 and 500 bce , which would place his age at the time of death somewhere between twenty and fifty years old.

The main source of information on Leonidas is the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who reports that Leonidas was born to the Spartan king Anaxandrides and came to rule Sparta through an unlikely sequence of events.

Leonidas, King of Sparta

Anaxandrides had taken a wife who had produced no sons. As such, the Spartan council ordered him to take a second wife, a very unusual decree in Greek society. Anaxandrides dutifully married again and soon had a son by the name of Cleomenes. Ironically, the king’s first wife then began producing sons, three to be precise: Dorieus, Leonidas and Cleombrotus.

Although Dorieus would have been the king had his father not remarried, Cleomenes took the throne instead, which was unfortunate, since consensus held Dorieus to be the better qualified of the two to rule by far. So upset was Dorieus at the hand fate had dealt him that he left Sparta for good and was soon killed during an overseas adventure.

Cleomenes, who was mentally unsound and might have actually been developmentally disabled, died sometime around 487 bce . Leonidas, who had married Cleomenes’ daughter (and his own half-niece) was next in line for succession and so became king, or rather co-king, for Sparta was ruled by two men at all times.

Cleomenes had shared the throne with one Demaratus, but an internal feud had driven Demaratus to join with the Persians. A new king named Leotychides filled the vacant position.

The Role of the Spartan King

As kings, both Leonidas and Leotychides functioned as rulers and high priests, the military and spiritual leaders of their city. Spartan kings were expected to be true leaders, setting the example for those that followed them.

In the militaristic society of Sparta, that example was often by necessity quite extreme, as evidenced by Leonidas’s decision to personally lead a hand-picked band of his 300 best warriors (and a few thousand allies) north to Thermopylae to provide a stopgap defense against the massive Persian army that was bearing down on Greece in the year 480 bce . It was a mission from which none of the Spartans would return.

But Leonidas and his men were not mere lambs to the Persian slaughter—Herodotus claims 20,000 Persians died in nearly three days of fighting against the vastly outnumbered Spartans. Leonidas’s leadership was critical to the Greek resistance, and it continued to serve as an example even after he died.

The victorious Persians set Leonidas’s head on a pike and marched south. After the wars, the Spartans recovered their king’s remains and bore them back home where he was given a hero’s burial.

After the Persian army was defeated at Plataea in 479 bce , the Spartan commander Pausanias had this to say about his deceased king: “For Leonidas, whom you bid me avenge, I tell you he has been greatly avenged; he has found great honor in these countless souls here—both he himself and the others who died at Thermopylae.”

Themistocles

Themistocles (c. 524 bce –460 bce ), was the leader perhaps most directly responsible for the Greek victory in the Persian Wars. Little is known of his early life, save a story related by the biographer Plutarch, writing some 600 years later.

Plutarch writes that a young Themistocles was walking down the street when the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus approached from the other direction. When Themistocles’ tutor cautioned him to make way, Themistocles responded, “Isn’t the road wide enough for him?”

Regardless of the truth of this story, it illustrates the biting wisdom that came so naturally to Themistocles and that would mark him out as a clever, wily leader of men in the mold of Odysseus of old. It also gives a hint of the great streak of pride that would eventually see Themistocles make enemies of all his allies.

Early Political Career

The famous democracy of Athens was just blossoming at the dawn of the fifth century bce after two generations of tyrannical rule. There are hints that Themistocles was involved with the city government, perhaps pushing through plans to fortify the Athenian port town of Piraeus.

It is not until 483 bce that Themistocles definitively enters the historical record. Athens had recently received an influx of wealth thanks to the discovery of new veins of silver in its mines. There was considerable debate in the city as to what to do with all the newfound revenue. The most popular plan involved dividing up the money equally among all the citizens of Athens, a dividend that would have been equal to a month’s pay for most people.

Themistocles had a better idea. After the Athenian victory at Marathon in 490 bce , many Greeks had assumed the Persians would no longer pose a threat. Themistocles was not so sure, and felt the best defense for Athens was a strong navy. He introduced a plan to more than double the size of the Athenian navy. The consummate politician, Themistocles was able to convince the citizens of Athens, who were still stinging from a recent naval defeat at the hands of the island state of Aegina, to back his plan.

In 480 bce , the last of the new Athenian warships slipped into the harbor of Piraeus just as the Persians, under their king Xerxes, launched a massive invasion of Greece.

As a Military Leader

Thanks to Themistocles’ navy, Athens had become the preeminent Greek naval power. Nevertheless, the Spartans were appointed commanders of the allied fleet, which first engaged the Persians off Cape Artemisium at the same time as the famous land battle at nearby Thermopylae was occurring. The Greek fleet was driven back, but not before inflicting serious losses on the Persians.

As he retreated with the fleet, Themistocles left a message in every port he stopped in, addressed to his fellow Greeks who were serving in the Persian navy. His message entreated them to come over to the Greek side, or at least not fight as fiercely against their brethren as Xerxes might like.

Although his messages did not win any converts, there is evidence that it sowed mistrust between the Greek and non-Greek generals in the Persian fleet. But Themistocles’ trickery was just getting started.

The Greek navy, made up of ships from a multitude of independent city-states, was under constant threat of breaking up due to internal rivalries. Themistocles kept the various factions together as best he could, using every trick his clever political mind could muster, but he knew that time was of the essence. A battle with the Persians needed to be forced so the squabbling Greeks could unify against a common enemy.

Once Xerxes found the Greek fleet at anchor in the narrow Bay of Salamis, his own fleet hung back. The narrow bay did not favor the massive Persian fleet, which needed the open ocean to make its numbers count.

In order to force a confrontation, Themistocles dispatched a servant to Xerxes bearing a message: the Greek fleet was on the verge of dissolution. They were apt to break up and go home any day now.

Xerxes, anxious to defeat the whole Greek fleet in one blow, ordered the bay blockaded and attacked at dawn. And, just as Themistocles had planned, the Persian numbers worked against them. The Greek fleet, led by the brand new state-of-the-art Athenian navy, outfought and outmaneuvered the Persians, sinking upwards of a third of the fleet.

The victory at Salamis was the turning point of the Persian Wars. The Greeks had won naval superiority and would go on to defeat the Persian army the following year at Plataea.

Ups and Downs after the War

From his shipbuilding initiative, to his efforts to hold the fleet together, to his cunning trickery, the Greek victory over the Persians was owed almost entirely to Themistocles, and he seemed to know it. In the wake of the war, offended that his fellow Athenians did not do enough to honor him, Themistocles departed for Sparta, where he was honored with an olive branch, the “finest chariot in Sparta,” and much merry-making. For his journey back to Athens, an honor guard of 300 Spartans accompanied Themistocles to their border.

Once back in Athens, Themistocles encountered a delegation from Sparta that was lobbying hard to prevent the Athenians from rebuilding their city wall, which only stood in a few spots after the Persians razed the city. According to the Spartans, a wall only served to defend an enemy who takes your city. Sparta had no wall, the Spartans argued, and neither should Athens.

Secretly telling his fellow citizens to devote every man, woman, and child to the task of rebuilding the wall, Themistocles returned to Sparta to “negotiate.”

Once in Sparta, Themistocles stalled and played for time. First he claimed that he was waiting on other Athenian delegates who were unaccountably late. When word reached Sparta that Athens was rebuilding her walls, Themistocles dismissed the reports as wild rumors. He then encouraged the Spartans to send another delegation to see for themselves, sending word ahead to Athens to delay the delegation as much as possible on their journey to the city.

Eventually, of course, the truth was revealed. Not only had Athens rebuilt its walls, they now stood taller and thicker than before. What was more, the fortified port of Piraeus was now connected to Athens by a seven-mile long walled corridor and the city wall in general encompassed a larger area.

Amazingly, Themistocles extricated himself from Sparta with little overt hostility. He explained to his hosts that time and again during the war, Athens had demonstrated superior judgment, and always acted in the service of the greater good for Greece. The city walls, he continued, were simply the latest manifestation of that beneficent judgment. The Spartans let him go, albeit with considerably less enthusiasm than the last time he had departed that city.

As with many wartime leaders, Themistocles saw his popularity at home decline in peacetime. He may have exacerbated matters with his rather arrogant personality and constant need for recognition. Apparently tired of having him around, his fellow Athenians ostracized, or formally banished, Themistocles in 472 bce , eight years after the victory of Salamis.

In theory, when an Athenian was ostracized, he had to stay away from the city for ten years, but his property and social standing were left untouched and he was free to return at the end of the exile, his reputation intact. Unfortunately for Themistocles, things did not work out quite so cleanly.

Themistocles wandered from city to city, trying to find a place to settle, but was dogged by accusations from the Spartans that he was conspiring with the Persians. Unwilling to harbor an enemy of Sparta, no city would put up with him for long. Back in Athens, the allegations of deals with the enemy led to Themistocles being branded a traitor. His property was confiscated and his citizenship revoked.

Later Life and Legacy

The victor of Salamis eventually found himself in Asia Minor, where, in an ironic twist, his former enemies, the Persians, took him in. They made him governor of the province of Magnesia, which he ruled until his death. There exist today Magnesian coins bearing Themistocles’ likeness.

There are two versions of Themistocles’ death. One has him committing suicide by drinking bull’s blood so that he would not have to lead an army against his fellow Greeks. The other, much more likely, story finds him dying of old age sometime around 460 bce .

However he died, Themistocles left behind a towering legacy. Without his shipbuilding program and leadership, victory at Salamis is very hard to imagine. Without victory at Salamis, the Greek army would have almost certainly been defeated. Whatever his personal faults, Themistocles is more directly responsible for Greek victory in the Persian Wars than any other single person.

Mardonius

Best known for his role in the defeat at the Battle of Plataea in 479 bce , the Persian general Mardonius (?–479 bce ) was nevertheless a capable military leader who had the misfortune to lead two campaigns that each ended in disaster.

Early Life

When Darius I became king of Persia in 522 bce , he relied on the assistance of six co-conspirators who helped him seize the crown. One of these noblemen, Gobryas, married Darius’s sister, and it is from this union that Mardonius most likely was born.

The first Persian encounter with the mainland Greeks came when the ethnically Greek region of the Persian Empire known as Ionia rose up in revolt and Athens sent troops to assist the rebels, burning the provincial capital of Sardis.

Governor of Ionia

Darius put down the revolt over a six-year period, oftentimes quite brutally, and he assigned Mardonius to patch the subjugated province back together. All evidence indicates that Mardonius was a just and capable administrator, and that he even instituted democratic reform in the Ionian cities.

As Mardonius got Ionia back on its feet, Darius was busy planning an expedition to Greece with the objective of punishing the city-states that had sent aid to the rebels. Mardonius, perhaps due to his capable work in Ionia, was put in charge of the first expedition in 492 bce .

The First Persian Invasion

The expedition never made it to Greece: the fleet was wrecked upon the storm-tossed peninsula of Mount Athos. Mardonius made the best of a bad situation and used his army to win the submission of the northern Greek state of Macedonia and the semi-civilized region of Thrace, possibly venturing as far north as the Danube in the process. These acquisitions would prove vital to later Persian campaigns in Europe, as they provided a natural staging area for armies assembling at the extreme western edge of the mighty empire.

Serving Under Xerxes

When Darius died in 486 bce , Mardonius’s cousin and brother-in-law, Xerxes, succeeded to the throne. Xerxes intended from the very start of his reign to carry out his father’s plans to invade Greece, and Mardonius wholeheartedly supported the idea. A great army began assembling at Sardis. After a brief pause to put down a rebellion in Babylon, Xerxes was ready to launch his invasion. In 480 bce the army set out, with Mardonius as one of six generals serving under the king.

After taking northern Greece with no difficulty, the Persian army hit its first snag at Thermopylae, where a vastly outnumbered Spartan force held them up for a week. Nonetheless, the Persians pressed on and occupied Athens and central Greece. Shortly thereafter, the Persian navy was defeated at Salamis and Xerxes retired to Asia Minor with about half his army. He named Mardonius commander of the Persian army in Greece, which probably numbered about 150,000.

Prelude to Plataea

Over the winter, Mardonius attempted to win the Athenians over to his side. He retired to north-central Greece and offered to give the Athenians their city back, as well as a preeminent position in Greece, if they would only acknowledge Xerxes as their king. The Athenians, living in exile, would have none of it.

As winter turned to spring, the Athenians refused a second similar offer and Mardonius moved back to Athens. He razed the city to the ground, leveling every building in the town and covering the ruins with dirt.

Meanwhile, Sparta had begun assembling a great Greek army after the Athenians spurred them to action by threatening to turn their fleet over to Mardonius. Nearly every city in Greece not already under Persian domination contributed units to the army, which numbered about 100,000 men. The Greeks marched towards Athens in the summer of 479 bce .

Plataea

Mardonius met the Greeks near the town of Plataea and a game of brinkmanship began. Neither side wanted to initiate the attack. Although his Greek allies suggested using the gold and silver of northern Greece to bribe his enemies, Mardonius was looking for a battle.

He finally got one when he misinterpreted Greek troop movement for a retreat and ordered his army forward. He personally led a cavalry attack on the Spartan-held right, and it was at some point during the fighting that Mardonius was killed.

It is perhaps a mark of his personal leadership qualities that as soon as Mardonius perished, his army began to fall apart. The Spartans drove back their attackers and a general retreat was soon sounded. The Greeks had triumphed and the greatly reduced Persian army limped back to Asia Minor along the old invasion route.

Several towns near the battlefield competed for the honor of burying Mardonius. It was a sign of respect for the Persian general that the Greeks would want to do such a thing, but it was an ironic end for Mardonius. As a Zoroastrian (follower of the traditional relgion of Persia, Zoroastrianism), he would have preferred his body to be left for the vultures and would have seen burial as sacrilege.

Major Battles

Marathon, 490 bce

Origins

The origins of the Battle of Marathon, one of the most decisive battles in world history, lay in a provincial revolt at the extreme western edge of the sprawling Persian Empire. The region known as Ionia, located along the west coast of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), was primarily Greek in population but had been subject to Persian rule since the defeat of King Croesus of Lydia in 546 bce .

In 499 bce , the Ionians rebelled against their Persian overlords, and it is here that the chain of events that would lead to Marathon began.

At the dawn of the fifth century bce , the legendary democracy of Athens was in its infancy. In fact, although technically ruled by an assembly, de facto tyrants had dominated Athenian politics for many years. The Athenians, with the help of Sparta, drove out their last tyrant, Hippias, in 510 bce .

With Hippias gone, Athenian politics began to assume a much more democratic appearance. One of the major reforms of this time was the granting of citizenship to all men residing in the countryside surrounding Athens, a region known as Attica. Significantly, there was a sizeable population of Ionians living in Attica, and once they gained the ability to participate in the political process, Ionian concerns quickly became Athenian concerns.

So it was that when the Ionians in Anatolia rose against Persia, Athens voted to send military assistance. The nearby city of Eretria, which had a large Ionian population, also voted to send ships and troops. Sparta, the greatest military power in Greece, decided to remain neutral on the issue and sent no assistance.

The joint Athenian-Eretrian force numbered twenty-five ships (twenty from Athens and five from Eretria) and quickly made its presence felt after landing in Ionia. The Greeks marched inland to the Persian provincial capital of Sardis and put the city to the torch.

Darius Swears Vengeance on Greece

When word reached the Persian king, Darius, that foreign Greeks had intervened in what he considered an internal dispute, he was outraged. Never mind that the Athenian expedition had been defeated and scattered shortly after razing Sardis, or that a pro-peace movement quickly gained traction back home in Athens; Darius determined to teach the foreign Greeks a lesson as soon as he had dealt with the rebellious Ionians.

The Ionian revolt was crushed by 493 bce with the sacking of the Ionian capital of Miletos, an event so brutal that the peace movement in Athens quickly lost support. In the meantime Darius, determined to keep his goal of punishing the Greeks foremost in his mind, had instructed a servant to remind him three times during every dinner to “remember the Athenians.”

The First Expedition

Darius certainly did not forget the Athenians, and by 492 bce had prepared a punitive expedition that he sent by ship along the rugged coast of Thrace (a region now split by modern-day Greece and Turkey). Unfortunately for the Persians, this first expedition ran afoul of a storm off the coast of Mount Athos and was wrecked. The mission was not a total loss—before heading home, the shipwrecked Persian army extracted submission from Thrace and Macedonia (another northern Greek kingdom).

The Second Expedition

It took Darius two years to assemble another invasion fleet, and in 490 bce this new force set out on a more direct route, landing first at Eretria. The army consisted of some 26,000 Persians, and the city of Eretria fell in flames to the invaders within a week.

Leaving some of the army to occupy the ruined city, the Persian commanders sailed on to Marathon, a site about twenty-six miles north of Athens. Traveling with them was none other than the exiled tyrant, Hippias. He knew Marathon would make a good staging point for an expedition against Athens (his own father, Peisistratos, had used the site to land an army some fifty years earlier) and Darius had promised to return Hippias to power once the Persians subjugated the upstart Athenians.

The Greek Response

In response to the Persian threat, the Athenians had assembled a force of hoplites, heavily armored citizen-soldiers, 9,000 strong. To this they added an allied contingent of 1,000 hoplites from neighboring Plataea.

These 10,000 Greeks marched out against an invading force that was probably twice as large. The Athenian commander, Miltiades, dispatched the runner Phiddipides to distant Sparta to call for aid, but the Spartans refused on the grounds that they were in the middle of a month-long religious festival. The Athenians were on their own.

The Battle

It was late September. The Athenian force formed up on a ridge overlooking the Persian positions on the beachhead below. The Greeks relied on shock and the press of close combat; the Persians preferred to stand off and use their bows. Knowing this, Miltiades devised a plan: the Greeks, deployed with a weak center and strong wings, were to run at full speed for the Persian lines, minimizing the time available for the Persians to use their bows.

As battle was joined, the Persians broke through the weakened Greek center and began pressing forward. As they did so, the Greek wings swung inward in a great “pincer” movement, hitting the Persians in the flanks and breaking them. The Persian army disintegrated, some soldiers fleeing back toward their ships, others into the nearby marshes. At the end of the day, the Persians had lost some 6,400 men to the Greeks’ 192.

Militiades once again dispatched his runner Phiddipides, this time to carry the good news of victory to Athens. Phiddipides did so, running the twenty-six miles without stopping. Upon arriving in Athens, he had just enough time to gasp out word of the victory before dying of exhaustion.

The Impact of Marathon

The battle of Marathon marked the first time a Western army had defeated an Eastern force in battle, and was a tremendous boost for the fledgling Athenian democracy. Winning the victory without Sparta’s aid proved to the Athenians that they could stand on their own.

But Athens, and indeed all of Greece, still had much hardship to look forward to in the short term. Darius died in 486 bce while planning another invasion of Greece. His son and successor, Xerxes, set about carrying out his father’s plans. Within ten years of Marathon, the Greeks would find themselves once again defending their homeland against a massive invading army. The Persian Wars had just begun.

Thermopylae, 480 bce

In the summer of 480 bce , a Persian army, perhaps numbering in the millions, crossed a pontoon bridge at the Hellespont, the narrow channel of water separating Europe from Asia Minor, and marched towards Greece. Meanwhile, a small force of Spartans and their allies marched north from the Peloponnesus, the mountainous peninsula that constitutes southern Greece, determined to stop the invaders. The two armies would meet at a narrow pass called Thermopylae in one of the most famous battles of the ancient world.

The Road to Thermopylae

As word of the Persian invasion reached the Greek mainland, the Greek city-states, usually occupied with squabbling amongst themselves, came together for a conference at Corinth. Sparta, as the premier military power in the region, was appointed leader of the coalition. A plan was drafted to defend the north of Greece at the Pass of Tempe, but this was quickly abandoned. The Persians were moving faster than anticipated through the rugged Greek countryside. Xerxes had come prepared and had a whole division of axemen leading the army, hacking paths through dense forests.

Sparta had a unique form of government. Technically a monarchy, it was ruled by two kings. In 480 bce , Leotychides, who had assumed the throne after the traitor king Demaratus had been exiled, ruled Sparta with Leonidas. The two Spartan kings and their Peloponnesian allies next advocated a plan to set up a defensive line at the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow strip of land that connects the Peloponnesus to the rest of Greece. This plan proved unpopular, however, as it would have meant abandoning most of Greece to the Persians.

A third plan was formulated: Leonidas would take a handpicked force of 300 hoplites, heavily armored soldiers, north to the pass of Thermopylae and establish a defensive line on the eastern coast road. The Spartans were in the midst of a religious festival, but once that was over they would send the bulk of their army north to join Leonidas. This plan met with approval, as it was assumed that the Persians would not reach Thermopylae before the main Greek army arrived. Nevertheless, Leonidas selected only unmarried, childless men for his 300. Perhaps he sensed they would be marching to their death.

The 300 Spartans of legend were never alone. Allied hoplites, 4,000 strong, joined them immediately. As they marched north, other city-states in the path of the invading Persians added what units they could: 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, 1,000 Locrians and 1,000 Phocians. Thus, by the time Leonidas reached Thermopylae, he had an army of between 7,000 and 8,000 hoplites under his command.

The Hot Gates

Thermopylae was an ideal site for mounting a defense. Named for the nearby hot springs (Thermopylae literally means “hot gates”), it was a site where the eastern coast road traced a narrow path between mountains and the sea. The Greek fleet had followed Leonidas north, as the sea also formed a natural choke point at nearby Cape Artemisium. Man and nature alike protected Leonidas’s flanks. There was even an ancient wall that stretched across the pass, the site of previous battles between the local Phocians. Leonidas ordered the wall reinforced and sent scouts out.

It is at this point that he most likely learned of the one weakness of the pass: there was a path through the mountains, the Anapaea Path that wound around Thermopylae and came out behind the Spartan position. The Phocians volunteered to guard the path, as they were on their home territory and would be most familiar with the local terrain. Leonidas consented.

The Persians Arrive

Meanwhile, other scouts brought word that the Persians were much closer than anticipated. It quickly became clear that the Spartans could expect a fight, and soon. In fact, the first Persian scouts began to appear within days of the Spartans’ arrival. To show their contempt for the enemy, the Greeks engaged in athletic games and had their hair dressed for war in full view of the scouts.

When Xerxes first received word of the Greek presence at Thermopylae and their open disdain for the approaching threat, he turned to his Greek advisor, the exiled Spartan king Demaratus. There was perhaps no one better qualified to explain to Xerxes just what he was up against: the very elite of Greek soldiery.

In spite of their displays in front of the Persian scouts, the Spartans held a council with their allies to determine a course of action: to retreat or to hold. Leonidas, with Phocian and Locrian support, opted to stand and fight. Nevertheless, he sent messengers to other city-states asking for extra troops.

The main Persian army arrived at Thermopylae, then waited, most likely to allow their supply train to catch up. Xerxes sent threats of total annihilation to the Greeks. His arrows, he said, would be so thick they would block out the sun. “All the better to fight in the shade,” replied the Spartan hero Dieneces, or so says the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.

The Battle: Day One

When it became clear that the Greeks were not about to surrender, Xerxes launched his attack the morning of the fifth day. Leading the attack were the Mede and Cissian divisions, lightly armored warriors from the mountains of northern Mesopotamia. The fighting lasted all morning. The Persian attack was stopped cold, no match for the heavily armed Greeks.

That afternoon Xerxes sent in his “Immortals,” an elite bodyguard of 10,000 soldiers. The narrowness of the pass once again prevented the Persians from making use of their massive numerical superiority, and the Immortals, too, proved no match for the Greeks. In fact, three times over the course of the afternoon, the Spartans drove the Persians completely out of the pass and Xerxes was forced to abandon his observation post for fear of being overrun.

At the end of the first day, the Persians had made no progress and left only heaps of bodies in the pass.

The Battle: Day Two

Xerxes had no choice but to launch further frontal assaults throughout the course of the following day. The Greeks fought in rotation, allowing some units to rest before rejoining the fray. The second day ended much as the first. However, it was at this point that Xerxes received a stroke of luck.

A local Greek named Ephialtes, whose name became as infamous in the ancient world as Benedict Arnold’s is today, approached the Persian king with an offer to guide troops through the treacherous Anapaea Path in exchange for a hefty reward. Xerxes readily accepted and immediately sent his Immortals on a nighttime march into the mountains.

The Phocians, who had been guarding the path for two whole days with no sign of enemy action, were caught unawares by the swiftly moving Persian column. After pelting the Greeks with a volley of arrows, the Immortals pressed on, bypassing the Phocian position altogether.

The Battle: Day Three

At dawn of the third day, Leonidas received reports of Persian movement in the mountains. It became clear that their position would soon be attacked from both ends. Another council was called. Leonidas vowed to fight on with his Spartans, declaring that it would be dishonorable to retreat. The Thespians vowed to fight alongside the Spartans, as it would be dishonorable to desert their allies. The other allied commanders, however, decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and opted to retreat. Leonidas let them go, except for the Thebans, whom he suspected might go over to the Persians if allowed to leave.

As the allies withdrew, those soldiers remaining sat down to their last meal. According to Herodotus, Leonidas instructed his soldiers, “Eat hearty, lads, for today we dine in Hades.”

The Persian frontal assault started around mid-morning, led by two of Xerxes’ brothers. The Greek defenders were down to about 1,000 men. Leonidas, knowing it was only a matter of time before the Immortals appeared behind him, marched the Greeks forward, beyond the Phocian wall into the wider portion of the pass. Here he was able to fully deploy his forces, all the better to engage and kill as many Persians as possible. The Spartans were determined to sell their lives dearly.

For their part, the Persian soldiers knew that the already determined Spartans would be fighting with the ferocity of a cornered lion, and it is said that they had to be driven into battle with their masters’ whips behind them. A human wave crashed on the Greek lines.

It was just as the Persians feared. According to Herodotus, “the Greeks, knowing that their own death was coming to them from the men who had circled the mountain, put forth their very utmost strength against the barbarians; they fought in a frenzy, with no regard to their lives.”

As bodies piled up, Persian and Greek alike, the Spartans fought on. They fought until their spears shattered, then drew their iron swords and continued. Both of Xerxes’ brothers were killed in the melee, as was Leonidas. The Spartans fought back four Persian waves to secure their king’s body.

It was around this time that the Immortals were first spotted marching in from behind the Greek position, having emerged from the Anapaea Path. Now under the leadership of Dieneces, the Greeks withdrew to a hill overlooking the Phocian wall, preparing to make their final stand. As the enemy encircled the hill, the Thebans deserted to the Persian side, just as Leonidas had feared they would. Then the Persians came at the last defenders of Thermopylae who, according to Herodotus, “defended themselves with daggers—those who had any left—yes, and with their hands and teeth.”

As the sun set over the battlefield at the end of the third day, the Persians stood in victory. Leonidas’s head was placed on a pike and the Persians marched south.

It is not known exactly how many Persians died in the effort to take the pass (Herodotus estimates about 20,000 Persians were killed), but there can be no doubt that the battle cost Xerxes dearly. He had expended lives, resources, and, perhaps most importantly of all, time. It was already late in the campaigning season, and the Persians would be unable to bring the Greek armies to battle before the close of the year.

When the two sides did meet in battle the following year at Plataea, the sacrifice of Thermopylae provided a rallying cry and an example for the Greeks—the Spartans in particular. The Persians were defeated for good at Plataea, thanks in no small part to the sacrifice at the “Hot Gates.”

The Battle of Thermopylae attained mythical status almost immediately. Leonidas’s remains were located forty years after the battle and borne back to Sparta for a royal burial. A lion statue was erected at the hill where the Spartans made their last stand. On it were two inscriptions. The first read, “Here is the place they fought, four thousand from Peloponesus, and here, on the other side, three hundred ten thousands against.” The second inscription was dedicated to the Spartans in particular: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to words we lie.”

Today the lion statue is long gone, but a statue of a hoplite, holding his weapons out in front of him, has replaced it. At the base is carved the soldier’s defiant words to the Persians: “Come and get them.”

Salamis, 480 bce

The road to Salamis began ten years before the battle, with the Greek victory at the battle of Marathon. The first Persian invasion, under King Darius, was halted on the beach twenty-six miles north of Athens, and most Greeks breathed a sigh of relief, happy to believe that the Persians would trouble them no more. When Darius died in 486 bce , the threat seemed to have truly evaporated.

However, Darius’s son and successor, Xerxes, set to work planning a massive invasion that would dwarf the first effort. As word of the preparation began to filter back to Greece, some astute individuals in Athens recognized the need for preparedness.

Themistocles’s Navy

One such individual was Themistocles, a statesman known for his wisdom and cleverness. When the silver mines near Athens hit a particularly rich vein, many Athenians wanted to distribute the surplus revenue among all Athenians as a one-time dividend. Themistocles, however, thought the money could be more wisely spent building up the navy, and he managed to convince his fellow citizens of this. From 483 bce to 480 bce , the Athenian navy grew by one hundred triremes (Greek war ships).

The Persian Fleet Approaches

When Xerxes launched his invasion force in 480 bce , a mighty fleet of more than 1,000 ships sailed along the flank of the massive Persian army as it made its way from Asia Minor toward Greece.

At the Hellespont, the narrow channel of water that separates Asia and Europe, naval engineers built a massive pontoon bridge to allow the Persian army to cross. As the fleet paralleled the army’s progress, a canal was dug to bridge the storm-tossed peninsula of Mt. Athos, where an earlier Persian invasion had shipwrecked in 492 bce . Wide enough for two ships to sail abreast, the canal existed solely for the purpose of creating a shortcut across an inconvenient finger of land, a monument to Persian hubris, or foolish pride, said later Greek chroniclers.

As the Persian invasion force made its way south into the Greek peninsula, a line of resistance was drawn up at the tip of the Greek island of Euboea, which sits just off the Greek coast. The narrow channel between the island and the mainland would prove an ideal chokepoint in which the Persian navy would be unable to bring its superior numbers to bear, much as the Spartans on land were simultaneously garrisoning the narrow mountain pass of Thermopylae.

Cape Artemesium

According to tradition, the Greek fleet met the Persians off Cape Artemesium on the same day as the Spartan-led Greeks met the Persian army at the legendary Battle of Thermopylae. After three days of fighting, as the Spartans were overrun on land, the Greek navy turned south, having inflicted serious damage on the Persian fleet while taking heavy casualties in return. The Persian fleet was delayed when it ran into storms off the coast of Euboea that reportedly sank 200 ships, compounding the loss from battle.

Divine Salamis

As the Persian army marched south and prepared to take Athens, the Oracle at Delphi (a priestess at the temple of the sun god Apollo supposedly possessed of the gift of prophecy) predicted that “divine Salamis” would bring death to the “children of men” and that the Greeks would find salvation behind a “wooden wall.”

With these predictions in mind, the Greeks met for council at Salamis, a large island just opposite Athens’s seaport of Piraeus. As refugees fled from Athens to Salamis ahead of the advancing Persians, the leaders from the various allied Greek states fell to bickering. The Spartans were in favor of retreating to the southern peninsula known as the Peloponnesus, their homeland. There, they argued, they could construct a wall at the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, the only point of access to the Peloponnesus, and hold the Persians off indefinitely.

Themistocles, who was leading the Athenian contingent of the fleet, argued that as long as the Persians retained superiority on the seas, a wall would not stop them from landing troops somewhere else on the peninsula. Furthermore, he offered that the “wooden wall” of the Delphic Oracle’s prophecy referred to a wall of Greek ships, not a literal wall. He won some converts with this argument, but tensions remained high and Themistocles feared that the Greek fleet might disintegrate even as the Persian fleet arrived in the region and dropped anchor at nearby islands.

The Greek Trap

Themistocles realized it was in the Greeks’s best interest to initiate a battle quickly, so, in the guise of offering to turn traitor against his fellow Greeks, he sent a servant to meet with Xerxes. The servant delivered Themistolces’ message: the Greeks were fighting among themselves and the alliance would soon disintegrate. If Xerxes attacked right away, he could bag the whole squabbling Greek navy in one battle.

Xerxes took the bait. He sent squadrons to blockade the two exits from Salamis Bay and had them patrol throughout the night to catch any fleeing Greek ships. Meanwhile, within the bay, the Greek ships remained at anchor, their crews sleeping. At dawn the Battle of Salamis would begin.

The Battle

As the day began, Xerxes watched from a golden throne atop a nearby mountain as 200 Egyptian ships blocked the western exit from Salamis Bay and the remainder of the fleet (which may have been brought back up to a strength of 1,000 ships), consisting of Phoenician, Cypriot, and Ionian Greek ships, was stationed at the eastern exit. Leaving a thirty-ship squadron to guard against the Egyptians, the Greek fleet rowed out toward the main Persian fleet.

As soon as the Persian fleet entered the bay, the Greek fleet began reversing itself, rowing toward the shore and drawing the Persians into the narrow part of the bay where their numbers and their slower ships would be a disadvantage, as they had been at Cape Artemesium.

The Greek fleet was divided into three squadrons. The Athenians led the center and left. The Spartans, despite their lack of experience with naval engagements, were given command of the fleet and deployed on the right, the traditional location for commanders of ancient forces.

As the bay narrowed to less than 1,300 yards in width, the Persian fleet could only present a front of about one hundred ships. Nevertheless, the Persians, mindful of their king’s watchful gaze, rushed headlong toward the Greeks. It was at this point that the Greeks sprung their trap.

Taking advantage of their triremes’ speed and maneuverability, the Greeks wreaked havoc among the Persian ships, ramming them and sending their hoplite (a heavily armored citizen-soldier) marines aboard to engage with the unarmored Persian sailors. As the Persian ships slipped beneath the waves, many of their crewmembers, unable to swim, drowned.

Xerxes watched the whole debacle from his mountaintop post and by the end of the day could count at least a third of his fleet sunk and thousands of sailors drowned; the Greeks, in comparison, had lost forty ships. In his rush to secure a victory, Xerxes ensured his defeat. Had he simply blockaded the bay, the Greek fleet would have almost certainly fallen to infighting.

Salamis was without a doubt the most decisive battle of the Persian Wars. Without naval superiority and unable to guarantee a reliable chain of supply, Xerxes had to withdraw the bulk his massive army from Greece, leaving his brother-in-law Mardonius to continue the campaign the following year. The Persians were decisively defeated at the simultaneous land and naval battles of Plataea and Mycale, respectively, on the same day the following year. The Athenian navy became the premier naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean, eventually building an empire of allies and colonies. The Persians would never threaten mainland Greece again.

Plataea, 479 bce

The Battle of Plataea was the final, decisive defeat of the invading Persian forces by the Greeks. It is considered a turning point in Western civilization, as the rout of the Persians cleared the way for the blossoming of Greek culture.

After Salamis

In the wake of the Greek naval victory at Salamis in 480 bce , the Persian war machine ground to a temporary halt. Without control of the seas to guarantee reliable re-supply of his immense army, Xerxes withdrew with perhaps half his troops to Asia Minor. The troops he left behind were tasked, along with their new general Mardonius (Xerxes’ half-brother and leader of the first ill-fated Persian invasion of Greece in 492 bce ), with conquering the one third of Greece that remained out of their grasp as the year came to a close.

The problem was that this lower third, the Peloponnesian peninsula, was only accessible via the narrow Isthmus of Corinth and was the domain of the Spartans, perhaps the ablest warriors in the ancient world. The Spartans, for their part, were content to sit behind a wall at the Isthmus and let the Persians come to them.

The Athenians, whose ships had led the Greeks to victory at Salamis, were anxious to take the fight to the Persians, who were occupying Athens and laying waste to the surrounding countryside of Attica.

Meanwhile Mardonius, who was a cagier and more patient commander than his king, marched out of Athens. Macedon, a northern Greek state, had been subjugated to the Persians since 492 bce , and Mardonius sent the Macedonian king Alexander I to negotiate with the Athenians, hoping to turn them against the Spartans by offering them autonomous government and assistance with rebuilding shattered Athens.

The Athenians instead met with the Spartans and representatives of every Greek state that had not yet been conquered by or gone over to the Persians. The Spartans tried their standard excuse, claiming that a religious festival would prevent them from fighting, but the Athenians were determined. It took a winter’s worth of arguing, but eventually the Athenians convinced the Spartans to lead an army north and take the fight to the Persians.

When Mardonius received word that the Greeks were assembling an army, he re-occupied Athens and razed it to the ground, covering every last brick in dirt. He then marched his army to Thebes, a Greek state that had willingly allied itself with the Persians at Thermopylae the year before.

The March to Plataea

The army that marched out of Sparta in the spring of 479 bce was of a size never before mustered by that martial polis (city state). Consisting of hoplites, heavily armored infantry, the Spartan army also brought most of its helots, or slaves, along, too, acting in the role of light infantry.

Leading the Spartans and the whole Greek army was Pausanias, who was regent, or acting leader, for the young son of the Spartan co-king Leonidas, who had fallen heroically in battle at Thermopylae the year before.

Once all the allied states had joined up, the Greek force numbered more than 100,000, a massive army by any standards and most likely the largest army the Greeks had ever fielded up to that point. The numbers of the Persian force they were marching against are unknown, but it was most likely at least equal to the Greeks and might have been upwards of three times the size.

The two armies came together near a town called Plataea on the plains north of Athens. The battle that ensued actually unfolded over a series of phases, marked by maneuver and countermaneuver and much skirmishing prior to the actual pitched battle.

The First Phase

The Persians, whose army boasted a large cavalry contingent, camped on the plains, excellent terrain for mounted troops. The Greeks, who had no mounted elements, camped in the hills overlooking the plains, the better to discourage cavalry attacks.

Mardonius sent his cavalry against the Greeks anyway, who repulsed the mounted attack, killing the Persian cavalry commander in the process. Mardonius had hoped to at least draw the Greeks into battle, but they maintained their lines.

The Second Phase

Nevertheless, the Greeks were obliged to come down out of the hills after their water supplies began to dwindle. They made camp near the Asopos River, keeping a low line of hills between their position and the Persian camp. A series of skirmishes broke out over the next three days as neither side wanted to be the first to initiate a full-blown battle.

During this time, in a daring raid, Mardonius captured 500 wagons making their way across the open plains. The Greeks were faced with running out of supplies, a situation that became dire when the Persians managed to poison the local water supply. Pausanias decided to move camp again, this time retreating back towards the hills with the twin objectives of finding a fresh source of water and shortening his supply lines.

In order to avoid detection, Pausanias ordered the relocation to start after nightfall. The maneuvers did not go smoothly, and many units, the Corinthians in particular, became lost in the darkness and ended up at the town of Plataea itself rather than the intended rallying point. As the sun rose, the Greek forces were stretched out across the plains and Mardonius saw his opportunity … or so he thought.

The Third Phase

From the Persian position, it looked like large elements of the Greek army were in retreat. This was exactly what Mardonius had been counting on—he had been told of the rivalrous and argumentative nature of the Greek allies and of the possibility that the army might disintegrate. The Persian commander mustered his army and charged the far-flung Greek positions, thinking he was riding down an army on the verge of collapse.

It came as quite a shock to the Persians, then, when they encountered fierce Greek resistance. On the Greek left, the Athenians and their allies clashed arms with Persian cavalry and Theban Greek hoplites. On the Greek right, the Spartans came under attack from a massive Persian contingent of infantry and cavalry, with Mardonius himself leading the horse charge.

The troops the Spartans fought were as varied as the empire they hailed from: Medes from what is now Iran, Bactrians from modern-day Afghanistan, Indians, Egyptians—the roll call read like a list of the subjugated states of the Persian Empire.

Against this diverse force, the Spartans held their ground but were unable to advance. The Corinthians, far to the rear and sheltering behind the walls of Plataea, saw the Spartans were hard-pressed and marched forth to aid their allies. The Persians were forced to split their attention between the Spartans and the approaching Corinthians, and in this moment of confusion, the Spartans pressed forward, killing Mardonius and routing the Persian cavalry.

Meanwhile, the Athenians on the other end of the field were faring equally well and pushing back their attackers. In the Persian center, the second-in-command, a man by the name of Artabazos, saw how the battle was going and sounded the retreat.

With the Greeks, and in particular the Spartans, hot on their heels, the Persian retreat turned into a rout. Most of the Persian losses that day occurred during the headlong flight from the enemy as the Spartans and their allies pursued relentlessly, cutting down any enemy that got in their way.

The Greeks Triumphant

The Persians quit the field entirely, and the Greeks took the Persian camp and all the riches of that far-flung empire that it contained. As the Greeks marveled at the sumptuous fabrics and gilded finery, Pausanias wondered aloud why the rich Persians would be so determined to come so far to rob the Greeks of their poverty.

The same day as Plataea, the Greek navy followed up its victory at Salamis by destroying the remainder of the Persian fleet at Mycale. The Persian menace had been neutralized once and for all. Never again would a Persian army set foot on the Greek mainland.

Casualty figures for Plataea are vague. The Persians probably lost a third of their army, which could very well equate to hundreds of thousands dead. The Greeks lost anywhere from 1,500 to 10,000 men. Even the most conservative casualty estimates mark Plataea as one of the bloodiest battles in history, and certainly the bloodiest up to that point. The Greeks had purchased their autonomy at an enormous price in suffering and blood.

Key Elements of Warcraft

Hoplites and the Phalanx

The backbone of the ancient Greek army was always the phalanx, a dense formation of heavily armored soldiers called hoplites. At the time of the Persian Wars, most Greek armies consisted exclusively of hoplites fighting in phalanxes.

The Hoplite’s Armor

The hoplite derived his name from his massive shield, called a hoplon . A curved wooden shield plated with bronze on the outside and leather on the interior, the hoplon weighed about fifteen pounds and covered the hoplite from his shoulders to his thighs.

The hoplite also wore a heavy suit of armor, called a panoply . This initially consisted of a bronze cuirass, a hinged, bell-shaped corset that protected the warrior’s torso. The hoplite also wore a bronze helmet, often topped with a fearsome crest of dyed horsehair, and bronze greaves, fitted plates that protected his lower legs.

As can be imagined, all this metal tended to weigh the soldier down. It is estimated that a full panoply, plus shield, could weigh as much as sixty-five pounds. Additionally, the armor was quite expensive, and each hoplite was responsible for his own equipment. Purchasing a full panoply was perhaps the equivalent of buying a new car today, so it should come as no surprise that most Greek hoplites were noblemen or otherwise well-off.

For all the protection it offered, the hoplite’s armor was not ideal. In addition to the weight, the cuirass and helmet were seriously lacking in ventilation or comfort. Many Greek warriors grew their hair long to provide some measure of padding for their hard metal helmets. The helmets also restricted vision and, to an even greater degree, hearing.

Over time, a lighter, cheaper cuirass made of glued layers of linen was developed and helmets were constantly refined to make them easier to wear in battle while still granting adequate protection. These innovations increased the pool of recruits available to Greek armies and, over time, Greek battles became larger and larger.

The Hoplite’s Weapons

The primary weapon of the hoplite was the spear. Ranging in length from six to ten feet, the spear was tipped at one end with an iron head and at the other with a spiked bronze counter-weight. The counter-weight could also double as spearhead when the other end of the spear broke (which often happened). Once fighting got too close for spears to be effective, the hoplite would draw his iron sword, with which he could both slash and thrust.

The Phalanx

On his own, the Greek hoplite was a fearsome warrior, but when placed in a phalanx, he became nearly unstoppable. Lining up in units of six to ten rows, shields locked together, the phalanx had one objective: march forward, get to grips with the enemy, and break him. This goal required every hoplite to maintain his place in line and not falter. The slightest gap in the lines would open the entire phalanx to disaster once in the press of combat.

As soon as a phalanx contacted the enemy, the front ranks would begin thrusting with their spears, aiming for the necks, legs, and groins of their enemy. The back rows would push against the row in front of them with their shields. Thus, the best warriors were generally deployed in the front and rear rows, the better to fight and push, respectively.

Aside from the need for absolute order, the other weakness of the phalanx was its right side. Shields were carried in the left hand, which meant that every soldier in the unit was dependant on his “right hand man” to protect him. The extreme right side of the phalanx, obviously, had no protection and was extremely vulnerable to attacks from that direction. The position of honor on any Greek battlefield was on the right flank, as only the most steadfast units were placed there.

The experience of combat in a Greek phalanx must have tested the nerve of even the most steadfast warrior. Encased in heavy bronze, sweating profusely in the hot Mediterranean sun—most fighting went on during the summer—the hoplite’s helmet would further restrict his vision and hearing to the point that he usually could only hear the trumpets and shouted cries of his unit commander, and even these not well. Several Greek battles were decided by a unit misunderstanding its orders and executing a maneuver that left it vulnerable. Weighed down by heavy armor, rapidly dehydrating, and encased in a sense-stealing helmet, the hoplite became even more reliant on his comrades for protection and support during battle.

The Greeks in Battle

The typical Greek battle began with a standoff lasting anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. The phalanxes of the opposing armies would line up and attempt to intimidate the enemy. Shouted threats and challenges were not uncommon, nor was involuntary voiding of bowels or swooning, as recorded by several ancient observers.

If neither side quit the field, the two sides would begin to march towards each other. At about one hundred yards (or more, as at the Battle of Marathon) the phalanxes would break into a trot. The resulting crash as the two sides met must have been deafening. It was here that the hoplite’s mettle was further tested. It was common for Greek soldiers before battle to drink double or more of their daily wine ration, all the better to dull the pain of wounds and steel the nerves.

The nature of Greek combat bred a society that put a premium on courage and martial prowess. After busily fighting among themselves for centuries, when the Persian Wars thrust the Greeks onto the world stage, they found that they had evolved a method of fighting that was almost unstoppable in its time and would come to dominate warfare for centuries to come.

Impact of the Greek-Persian Wars

The impact of the Persian Wars on world history is immeasurable. They are the definitive clash between east and west in antiquity and in many ways saw a passing of the historical initiative from the Ancient Near East to the burgeoning West, initially centered on the Mediterranean and Greece in particular.

What is more, the Persian Wars not only represented a major turning point in Greek history, they also marked the beginning of the end for the mighty Persian Empire. When Alexander the Great marched into the Persian Empire some 150 years after Marathon, he was consciously repaying the Persians for the imperial ambitions of Darius I and Xerxes. Thus, Greek culture was not only saved by the wars, it was eventually disseminated to the very regions that once sought to subjugate it.

Many historians believe Salamis to be the most decisive battle of all time. Had the Greeks lost, a Persian victory on land would have been practically assured. And had the Greeks fallen to the Persians, the foundations of Western culture—concepts of individual rights and democracy as well as Greek philosophy and culture—would have been snuffed out while still in their infancy. Considering the massive effect Western civilization has had on the rest of the world, it is fair to say that changing the foundations of Western culture would fundamentally alter world history as well.

The battle of Plataea in 479 bce marked the beginning of the Classical Age in Greece. The great ancient societies of Athens and Sparta and Ancient Greek culture in general emerged from the crucible of invasion. Greek culture was unified, and Greeks began to view it as the superior culture in the world. Athens entered its Golden Age and saw the likes of Pericles and Socrates walking its cobbled streets.

Athens found itself the preeminent naval power of the ancient world after the Persian Wars. Heading the Delian League, an association of polei , or city-states, from around the Aegean, the Athenians quashed the last enclaves of Persian resistance in northern Greece, drove the Persians out of Cyprus, took Byzantium (later Constantinople, and still later Istanbul), and liberated Ionia, an ethnically Greek region in what is now western Turkey.

Thanks to her gains in the wars against Persia, Athens’s power grew to the point that the Delian League effectively became the Athenian Empire, creating a natural power struggle with the Spartan-led Hellenic League. Beginning in 431 bce , Sparta and Athens went to war.

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 bce ) marked the decline of Classical Greece and, unfortunately, the end to any chance of greater Greek political unity. At the end of the fifth century bce , the Greeks were embroiled in a devastating war but could look back to a time when they had put aside their petty rivalries and stood united against a foreign menace.

As the Greek states bled each other dry, Persia reasserted its control over Ionia and held it for some sixty years before, once again, the Greeks marched to defend their brethren in Anatolia, this time under the leadership of Philip of Macedon.

Phillip was assassinated before he could get his campaign under way, but his son, Alexander III, known as “the Great,” carried on the campaign in a bizarre sort of reversal of Xerxes carrying on Darius’s invasion plans 160 years earlier.

Alexander, of course, went on to liberate not only Ionia, but to destroy the Persian Empire completely and bring Hellenic culture to the banks of the Indus River. The chain of events set in motion by the Ionian revolt and Athenian intervention at the dawn of the fifth century bce had come full circle. Without the Persian Wars, Greek culture would not have coalesced, matured, and then spread across the known world.

See also The Conquests of Alexander the Great

Hanson, V.D. Ed. Hoplites: The Classical Battle Experience . London and New York: Routledge, 1991.

Isserlin, B.S.J., et al., “The Canal of Xerxes on the Mount Athos Peninsula.” Annual of the British School at Athens 89 . (1994).

Herodotus. G. C.Macauly, trans. History of Herodotus. <(accessed April 2, 2007).

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