Twice during the fifth century B.C., the greatest empire of its age attempted to conquer the city-states of Greece. Twice the Persians assembled a mighty force that dwarfed the numbers of the defenders, and yet twice they were repulsed. The Persians posed the greatest external threat that the Greeks had ever known, but in meeting that threat, the Greeks also made possible the achievements of the Classical Age. From the drama of the Peloponnesian War, to the conquests of Alexander and the accomplishments of the Hellenistic period, everything flowed from the Persian War.
The sixth century B.C. had made Persia the dominant power from the Mediterranean to India. Cyrus the Great had conquered the bulk of Near East, extending the empire north through Asia Minor to the Aegean Sea. In so doing he created the conflict that would eventually destroy his empire, but not before it grew even mightier. His successor, Cambyses, captured Egypt, and his successor, Darius I, sought to extend the empire further to the north and west.
The Aegean coast of what is now Turkey, known in the ancient world as Ionia, was populated by Greek city-states much like those on the other side of the sea, within the borders of modern Greece. In a real sense, the Ionian coast was a part of Greece itself, although the foundations of its cities were newer and its people generally experienced the junior side of patronage relationships with major city-states of European Greece, such as Athens. The conquest of part of Greece made likely future conflicts with the remainder, and to Darius, this was quite desirable.
Athens had extensive ties with the Ionian cities, and when the ruler of Miletos initiated the uprising that became the Ionian Revolt, Athens responded to his entreaties with a significant amount of aid. Athens sent twenty ships full of men expecting rich plunder; Eretria contributed a further five ships. The combined Greek force set forth from Ephesos in 499, and the campaign concluded with the sack of Sardis, the Persian regional capital.
To Darius, taking vengeance upon Athens and Eretria was second only to reasserting control over Ionia; at the same time, however, it provided a wonderful pretext for the conquest of Greece, and his strategic thinking had already centered upon that region. It took him five years to amass sufficient force to destroy the revolt, as well as the city of Miletos where it had hatched. In part, this is because the effort required a large naval contingent. This force spent the next two years claiming the islands off the Ionian coast and seizing Thrace and Macedonia. Some Greek cities and islands submitted peacefully, but Athens and Sparta were notable in their refusal. Athens, of course, was the primary target in this first invasion.
The Persians began the campaign with their punitive strike on Eretria, which was defeated and razed. Next the Persians looked south to Athens, and the plain of Marathon was the most logical place for the Persian army to disembark. Often, armies planning a naval landing need to reckon with unfavorable numbers, but the Persians did not have this handicap. They numbered somewhere between twenty and thirty thousand, while the Athenian and allied force setting out to meet them numbered nearly eleven thousand.
The numbers tell only part of the story. The Persian force was a mixed one, including lightly armed specialists such as archers and slingers. The Greeks fielded heavy infantry, trained to force rapid conclusion through short and fierce combats. When the Persians attempted to soften the Greeks up with missile fire, the Greeks charged the Persian line. The fighting was long, much longer than usual for Greek combat, but it was decisive: the Persians were forced to retreat with staggering losses.
Much is made of the melodrama surrounding the messenger who ran back to Athens, dying after proclaiming victory, but this invasion truly ended in anticlimax. The Persians tried to take advantage of the strategic mobility afforded by their boats to land on the other side of Athens for another attack while the Greek army was still near Marathon, but the Greeks had managed to assemble at Athens before the Persians were able to attack, and again the Persians had to retreat.
What Darius had undertaken in 490, his successor Xerxes attempted to complete ten years later. This time, there would be no half measures; Xerxes meant the complete conquest of Greece and assembled an army big enough to accomplish it. Legend has it that he fielded a million men; this number is highly improbable, but it is not inconceivable that their numbers approached half a million. Xerxes clearly felt that victory was all but assured as soon as he had managed to deliver his force to the other side of the sea.
Some cities were compelled to submit, but again Athens and Sparta were determined to resist. One of the Spartan kings, Leonidas, led a small force of allied Greeks to make a symbolic stand at Thermopylae, “The Hot Gates.” The terrain was chosen because it would counteract the Persian numerical advantage, but not forever. Leonidas sought not a tactical victory, but a symbolic one, showing Greeks and Persians alike that this mighty force could still be beaten, steeling the nerves of the remaining Greeks so that they would stand up for just such a victory. Those Greeks who remained at Thermopylae when their flanks were turned, including the famous 300 Spartans, died to the last, but succeeded in raising the sentiment to resist.
It would not be easy; the Persians had soon reached the isthmus to the Peloponnese, and the Athenians had to flee their city for a time. The Athenian investment in their navy paid off at Salamis later that year when little more than 350 Athenian ships defeated a Persian fleet more than three times their numbers by applying a tactic similar to the one used at Thermopylae: by joining battle in a place where geography precludes the larger force from bringing itself to bear at once, superior skill, planning and even technology would trump raw numbers.
The following year, the Greek cities mustered a huge force that probably exceeded 100,000 men, nearly half of them heavy infantry. That summer, they mustered near the city of Plataea, and though even this mighty army was still outnumbered by odds of two to one, it crushed the Persian force. The Greek victory marked the end of Persian designs on Greece; Xerxes concluded that conquest was impractical.
Much of the Greek success can be attributed to issues of morale. Regardless of the political organization of the city-state fielding the phalanx, a hoplite was a citizen with a true stake in his city, and not merely a conscript or even a mercenary. The average Greek soldier fought with more determination and enthusiasm than the average Persian. It is also true that Greek armies were more skillfully used in battle, with Greek generals usually succeeding in maximizing their advantages and minimizing their disadvantages. In part, the defender often has an easier time accomplishing this in any invasion, but it is also fair to observe that the Persians were far less skillfully led. Finally, military doctrine and technology played significant roles. Man for man, the hoplite was both more lethal and better protected than his Persian foe; the large and sturdy Athenian ships enjoyed a similar advantage against the more elegant Persian vessels. Trained to fight in cohesive units, to strike hard in the offense and to be stubborn in the defense, they consistently outperformed their opponents.
The Persian Wars created the world of the Classical Age of Greece. Athens and Sparta naturally assumed leadership roles in the aftermath, which only exacerbated existing tensions between the two of them. As leading rivals, they each gathered up allies, and eventually this led to a ruinous war within Greece. In the latter half of the fourth century, the leadership of Greece would be taken up by the Macedonians, semi-barbarian Greeks with a fine military tradition and wily leaders in Philip and Alexander. As leader of all of Greece, Alexander sought to finish what began in 499 by reclaiming all of Ionia. Before his death, Alexander would lead the Greeks to conquer all of the Persian Empire, a feat that the Persians had failed to accomplish in reverse.
Cowley, Robert and Geoffrey Parker, eds. The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Farrokh, Kaveh. Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War. Osprey, 2007
Hanson, Victor Davis. The Wars of the Ancient Greeks. Cassell, 1999.
Sekunda, Nicholas. Marathon 490 BC: The First Persian Invasion of Greece. Osprey, 2005.
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