Ancient Greece


The Persian Wars

   Like the Trojan War, the Persian Wars were a defining moment in Greek history. The Athenians, who would dominate Greece culturally and politically through the fifth century BC and through part of the fourth, regarded the wars against Persia as their greatest and most characteristic moment. For all their importance, though, the Persian Wars began inauspiciously. In the middle of the sixth century BC, the Greek city-states along the coast of Asia Minor came under the control of the Lydians and their king, Croesus (560-546 BC). However, when the Persians conquered the Lydians in 546 BC, all the states subject to the Lydians became subject to the Persians. The Persians controlled their new subject-states very closely; they appointed individuals to rule the states as tyrants. They also required citizens to serve in the Persian army and to pay fairly steep taxes. Smarting under these new burdens and anxious for independence, the tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras, began a democratic rebellion in 499 BC. Aristagoras was an opportunist. He had been placed in power by the Persians, but when he persuaded the Persians to launch a failed expedition against Naxos, he began to fear for his life. So he fomented a popular rebellion against the Persians and went to the Greek mainland for support. He went first to the Spartans, since they were the most powerful state in Greece, but the Spartans seem to have seen right through him. When he approached the Athenians, they promised him twenty ships. In 498 BC, the Athenians conquered and burned Sardis, which was the capital of Lydia, and all the Greek cities in Asia Minor joined the revolt. The Athenians, however, lost interest and went home; by 495 BC, the Persians, under king Darius I (521-486 BC), had restored control over the rebellious Greek cities.

   And there it should have ended. But Athens had gotten the attention of the Persians, who desired that Athens be punished for the role it played in the destruction of Sardis. The Persians also had Hippias, the tyrant of Athens who had been deposed by Cleisthenes in 508 BC. So in 490 BC, the Persians launched an expedition against Athens. They were met, however, by one of their former soldiers, Miltiades. He had been an outstanding soldier in the Persian army, but he took to his heels when he angered Darius. Unlike other Athenians, he knew the Persian army and he knew its tactics. The two armies, with the Athenians led by Miltiades, met at Marathon in Attica and the Athenians roundly defeated the invading army. This battle, the battle of Marathon (490 BC), is perhaps the single most important battle in Greek history. Had the Athenians lost, Greece would have eventually come under the control of the Persians and all the subsequent culture and accomplishmenst of the Greeks would probably not have taken the form they did.

   For the Athenians, the battle at Marathon was their greatest achievement. From Marathon onwards, the Athenians began to think of themselves as the center of Greek culture and Greek power. This pride, or chauvinism, was the foundation on which much of their cultural achievements were built. The first great dramas, for instance, were the dramas of Aeschylus; the principle subject of these dramas is the celebration of Athenian greatness. The great building projects of the latter half of the fifth century were motivated by the need to display Athenian wealth, greatness, and power.

   The Persians, however, weren't done. For the Persians, Marathon barely registered; the Persians, after all, controlled almost the entire world: Asia Minor, Lydia, Judah, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. While Marathon stands as one of the greatest of Greek military accomplishments, it was really more of an irritation to the Persians. The Persian government, however, was embroiled in problems of its own, and it wasn't until Xerxes (486-465 BC) became king, that the Persians really got down to business and launched a punitive expedition against Athens. This time the Persians were determined to get it right. In 481 BC, Xerxes gathered together an army of some one hundred fifty thousand men and a navy of six hundred ships; he was determined that the whole of Greece would be conquered by his army.

   The Athenians, however, were prepared. While many Athenians celebrated their victory at Marathon and thought that the Persians had gone home permanently, the Greek poitician, Themistocles, convinced the Athenians otherwise. So while Persia delayed through the 480's, Themistocles and the Athenians began a navy-building project of epic proportions. Themistocles convinced the Athenians to invest the profits from a newly discovered silver mine into this project; by 481 BC, Athens had a navy of two hundred ships.

   When Xerxes gathered his army at the Hellespont, the narrow inlet to the Black Sea that separates Asia Minor from Europe, most Greeks despaired of winning against his powerful army. Of several hundred Greek city-states, only thirty-one decided to resist the Persian army; these states were led by Sparta, Corinth, and Athens: the Greek League. Sparta was made leader of all land and sea operations.

   Themistocles, however, understood that the battle would be won or lost at sea; he figured that the Persian army could only succeed if it were successfully supported by supplies and communications provided by the fleet. He also understood that the Aegean Sea was a violent place, subject to dangerous winds and sudden squalls. While he kept the Athenian fleet safe in harbor, many of Xerxes' boats were destroyed at sea. He also waited his time; if the Persians could be delayed on land, then he could destroy the Persian fleet when the time was right.

   That time came in a sea battle off the island of Salamis. The Greeks had slow, clumsy boats in comparison with the Persian boats, so they turned their boats into fighting platforms. They filled their boats with soldiers who would fight with the opposing boats in hand-to-hand combat; it was a brilliant innovation, and the Athenians managed to destroy the majority of the Persian fleet. The Persians withdrew their army.

   However, one Persian general, Mardonius, remained. He wintered in Greece, but he was met in 479 BC by the largest Greek army history had ever known. Under the leadership of the Spartan king, Pausanias, Mardonius was killed in the battle of Plataea, and his army retreated back to Persia.

   It's difficult to assess all the consequences of the Greek victory over the Persians. While the Spartans were principally responsible for the victory, the Athenian fleet was probably the most important component of that victory. This victory left Athens with the most powerful fleet in the Aegean, and since the Persians hadn't been completely defeated, all the Greeks feared a return. The majority of Greek city-states, however, didn't turn to Sparta; they turned, rather, to Athens and the Athenian fleet. The alliances that Athens would make following the retreat of the Persians, the so-called Delian League, would suddenly catapult Athens into the major power of the Greek city-states. This power would make Athens the cultural center of the Greek world, but it would also spell their downfall as the Spartans grew increasingly frightened of Athenian power and increasingly suspicious of Athenian intentions.

 Classical Athens: The Age of Pericles

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-17-96