Introduction to the Greek-Persian Wars (490 bce–479 bce)

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Introduction to the Greek-Persian Wars (490 bce–479 bce)

From 490 to 479 bce , the scattered city-states of Greece clashed with the mighty empire of Persia in a series of encounters that saw the emergence of Greek military dominance and a unified Grecian culture.

The origins of the Persian Wars lay in the support offered by Athens to Greek rebels in Western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) in a region known as Ionia, which was part of the Persian Empire.

The Persian king, Darius I, incensed at foreign intervention in what he saw as an internal issue, was determined to teach the upstart Greeks a lesson. Landing at Marathon in 490 bce , the Persians were defeated by Greek hoplites, heavily armored citizen-soldiers—the first time a Western force had emerged victorious over an Eastern army.

Darius died soon after the defeat at Marathon, but his son and successor, Xerxes, vowed to carry on his father’s mission and conquer Greece. In 480 bce , he raised a massive army, numbering anywhere from 100,000 to 1,000,000 men (ancient sources are vague, but there can no doubt that it was the largest army assembled up to that point) and prepared an impressive fleet of some 1,200 ships.

It was at the pass of Thermopylae, a tiny strip of land between the mountains and the sea, where Xerxes’ army first came up against Greek resistance. A tiny force (albeit somewhat larger than the 300 of legend), led by King Leonidas of Sparta, blocked the way, buying time for the rest of the Greek army to prepare for the invasion. The Persians spent three days trying to break through the Spartan lines with wave after wave of frontal assaults. In the end, they outflanked and overran the Greek position. Leonidas and his men fought to the last.

Meanwhile, the mighty Persian fleet had encountered storms and battle losses that reduced its number nearly by half. It was, nevertheless, still a force to be reckoned with, and much of Greece, including Athens, fell to the advancing Persians.

A brilliantly executed, improbable Greek victory at Salamis seemed to turn the tide in the Greeks’ favor, but Xerxes felt confident enough of the Persian position to take half his army and return home, leaving his brother-in-law Mardonius to finish off the Greeks the following year. Instead, Mardonius went down to death and defeat at Plataea (479 bce ), and the Persians were forced out. The Greeks and Persians continued to have skirmishes for thirty more years, but the Persians never again landed on the Greek mainland. In 449 bce , war-weary Athens struck the Peace of Callias, which marked a formal end to hostilities with Persia.

Plataea marked the beginning of the Classical Era of Greece. Athens took up the war against Persia on distant shores, building a maritime empire even as it rebuilt its war-torn city. Meanwhile, across Greece the wars had created a new sense of shared culture and heritage known as Hellas.

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Introduction to the Greek-Persian Wars (490 bce–479 bce)

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Introduction to the Greek-Persian Wars (490 bce–479 bce)