Greek History


The Persian War

  • The Dynasty of Achaemenids
  • Organisation of the Persian Empire
  • The Persian Threat
  • The Battle of Marathon
  • Athens becomes a Naval Power


  • During the 7th and 6th centuries BC an important change in the political situation of the middle east took place: the Indo-European people gained power at the cost of the Semitic people. Around 700 BC the Median people managed to free themselves from the Asyrians, and they became independent. After a period of peace they decided to attack the Assyrian empire and with the help of Babylon they conquered the Assyrian capitol Niniveh in 612, which was the end of the once mighty Assyrian empire. Subsequently they marched towards the east border of little-Asia, where they entered the kingdom of Lydia, which was founded by Cyges in 685. After a bloody battle, that was ended because because of a solar eclipse, they decided that the river Halys would become the border between both kingdoms.
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    The dynasty of Achaemenids.
    In 559 Cyrus, of the family of Achaemenids who were members of the Persian tribe, managed to form the Median tribes into one big group. Crysus proved himself to be more than a worthy leader as the power of the Median tribes, who were now known as Persians, grew with an astonishing speed, and other kingdoms were destroyed one after another. They conquered Media in 549, defeated Croessus who was king of the rich kingdom of Lydia in 546, and sacked Babylon in 538. Unfortunately Cyrus was killed during an expedition against nomadic tribes in 529, and his son Cambyses became his successor. It was rumoured that Cambyses was a very unstable person, but still he managed to conquer Egypt in 525. Polycrates of Samos, who was a personal friend of Amasis, predecessor of the defeated pharaoh, got involved in the Persian-Egyptian conflict. His fleet, the biggest in Europe at that moment, formed a serious threat for the Persians, and he also almost managed to get support from the side of Sparta. He was crucified in 522, and the rich island of Samos the became the first Persian subject in Europe.

    The Persian empire had grown in no time from a small kingdom into one of the biggest empires the world has ever seen.

    After the death of Cambyses in 522 a priest of the Median class of Magicians managed to get to the throne by faking that he was the murdered brother of Cambyses. Three years later the Achaemenid Darius managed to restore the order. Darius became the great organizer of the Persian empire. The conquest of Babylon and Elam proved to be a turning point. Darius started a palace administration just like the Babylonians used to have, and while Cambyses was happy with donations he raised taxes in the conquered areas. Babylon and Susa became the administrative capitols of the empire, while Persepolis was the ceremonial centre.
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    Organisation of the Persian empire.
    Although the palace administration was of a purely bureaucratic nature had the Persian empire a feudal aspect as well. It was divided in twenty satrapies, each rules by a satrap who was inspected by an independent general who was appointed by the king himself. These satraps had a lot of independence and were able to gain wealth in their provinces and to built up a position of power for their family. On the long term this increasing independency of the provinces meant less grip of the palace on the empire, and an increased chance on nationalistic revolts in the conquered areas. To prevent this from happening and to be able to move the troops around faster, Darius decided to enlarge the road network. The Greeks were amazed by this, and especially the Road of Kings, which connected Susa with Ephese over 2000 kilometres, was a wonder.

    Still, the dominion of the Persian kings was less feudal than of their predecessors. They had a very high tolerance for other cultures and religions, and men from the upper class often married women of the conquered people. The king held all power though, the type and symbol of an absolute king who' s position of power was totally opposite to the Greek ideas of freedom.
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    The Persian threat.
    These huge changes in the East of course also influenced Hellas. In the seventh century their colonies in Asia Minor were attacked by the Lydians, and during the period of 560 BC till 546 most Greek colonies were conquered by Croessus. Nevertheless they kept most of their independence, and their trade even increased since coins, a Lydian novelty, were introduced in their society. When Lydia was defeated by Persia the Greek colonies were soon part of the Persian empire. They were not enslaved, but they did have to pay taxes, supply man for the Persian army, and install tyrants who were approved by the Persian king.

    But was Darius planning to conquer Hellas next, or would he try to expand his kingdom into another direction? The Greek did not seem to care that much, and they were not even shocked when Darius' forces crossed the Bosporus in 512, and started an expedition against the Scythes in southern Russia. This expedition turned into a huge failure for the Persians, and soon they were forced to retreat. Darius left a part of his army behind with the assignment to conquer the coastal area of Thracy, which was alarmingly close to Hellas.

    The Persian expedition against the Scythes in southern Russia turned out to be a huge failure as we know. However, Darius army would have been surrounded and slaughtered if the Greek colonies in Asia Minor would not have remained loyal to him. Both parties drew wrong conclusions from this event: Darius that he could rely on the Greek colonies, and the Greek colonies that the Persian army was not undefeatable, and thus that the time had come to revolt.

    The problems start in 499 in Asia Minor. The tyrant Histiaeus of the Greek colony Milete and his deputy Aristagoras believed that they could insinuate themselves in a role of authority. The Persians did not think so of course, and this all lead to a great patriotic outburst. The main reason of the revolt was most likely not because of hatred against the Persians, but more because the Greek colonies could not develop into mature Poleis as they were governed by pro-Persian tyrants. The Persians were know for their tolerant policy a towards other cultures so it seems likely that the Greeks did not revolt against the high king of Persia, but against the tyrants who were installed by him.

    Messagers were sent out to the Greek homeland in an attempt to get support for their revolt. The only cities that decided to help their Ionic brothers were Athens and the insignificant Eretria who would sent 25 ships altogether. Sparta refused to help in any way. At the beginning it seemed as if luck was at their side, and the revolt spread out over more cities. Most of the Aeolian colonies in the north, most of the Ionic colonies in the centre, and some of the Dorian colonies in the south disposed their tyrants and joined the open revolt against the Persians. With a combined action they even managed to conquer and burn Sardis, the capitol of the old Lydian empire. Then the Persians had enough of it and hit back hard. They destroyed the Greek fleet at Lade, followed by the destruction of Milete in 494.

    The citizens of Milete were murdered or enslaved, but for the rest the Persians were remarkably merciful towards the revolting Greek cities. The system of Persian-installed tyrants had proved to be a failure, so the Persians decided to install a form of democracy in the Greek colonies. Still, the trade and the culture of the Asian Greeks decreased while the unrest grew. Many people immigrated to Hellas and other colonies in the west. An area of great

    economical and cultural prosperity had ended.
    In 493 Themistocles became archon eponymos in Athens. He made a start with the fortification of the three natural harbours of the Piraeus. This was a first step towards the later Athenian supremacy on the seas. A year later a number of Greek colonists from the Thracian coasts returned to Athens. Among them was Miltiades II, a nephew of the founder of the colony in Thracy. The reason was that the Persian empire had started an expedition against the coastal area of Thracy which was infected by the Ionic revolt of 499. Darius managed to prevent another revolt from happening here, but it is not known if his second goal would have been Hellas itself. Before he reached the Greek borders his fleet got damaged in an enormous storm at Athos. His army which travelled over the land had now lost its supplies and on top of that was it attacked by a Thracian tribe of nomads, so Darius wisely decided to retreat.

    Darius was convinced that the bad co-operation between his fleet and army had been the main reason for his first failure, so for his next expedition he used a smaller fleet. In 490 the fleet crossed the Aegean and conquered several small Greek islands. In Athenian tradition this expedition is seen as a revenge against Athens and Eretria, as Darius was angry that both cities had openly attempted to interfere in the Persian empire during the Ionic revolt.

    From the Persian point of view it seems more likely that this new expedition was a sequel to the one of 492 in an attempt to gain an effective control over the Aegean by strongholds in Thracy, on several Greek islands and in Athens itself. This theory becomes even more likely as the tyrant Hippias, who was banished out of Athens in 510, travelled along with the Persian fleet. The Athenians feared that the Persians hoped to make Athens indirectly a part of their empire by installing a pro-Persia tyranny.
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    The battle of Marathon.
    In Athens Miltiades had become an important person because of his noble family and his experiences with the Persians. Besides victim of the Persians he also was a personal enemy of Hippias. In 490 he was chosen as a strategos and he managed to persuade the majority of the Athenian citizens in spite of their hesitations to fight an open battle with the Persian army. Sparta promised to help Athens. However, before the armies were gathered was Eretria, the weakest of the two guilty cities, already destroyed.

    After this the Persian army landed at the northwest coast of Attica, in the plains of Marathon. Their number is not known, but it was vastly larger than the 10.000 hoplites that Athens and one small ally, Plataea, could put into the field against them. Still the superiority of the phalanx proved to be more important than the superior Persian manpower. The Spartan army was late because of religious reasons and arrived just in time to congratulate the Athenians with their miraculous victory.

    Miltiades, who had lead the Greek army into battle, was given the command over the Greek fleet after his victory in Marathon. Unfortunately he wanted to gain personal power over the Thracian Chersonese and for his attempts he used the Greek fleet without any shame. He was sued for this and died in prison at 489 BC.

    The Greeks had always distinguished themselves from the rest of the world. Other nations were referred to as barbarians. Not because they were less than the Greeks, but because they spoke a different form of language. After the Persian invasion two notions were added to the description: those of hostility and superiority. The idea that the Greeks were in fact equal with other people suddenly became indecent. This sudden change in attitude lasted for several centuries until Alexander the Great, who had exploited the idea more than anybody else, realised that the idea was absurd.

    The changes in mood were also rapidly noticed by Cleisthenes who exploited it against fellow Athenian aristocrats. Aristotle remarks that the victory at Marathon gave the normal people more political confidence. The power had to be more equally distributed, but traditional habits of thought die not overnight. Most aristocrats would have still acted the same as they had always done, but it is undeniable that the absolute control of the ruling class over the Athenian mind became less as time passed by.

    Cleisthenes had devised a political system which made room for this change in Athenian attitude. One of his inventions was called ostracism which allowed the assembly to decide every year to send, if needed, one of its political figures into temporary exile for ten years without loss of property. One of the most noticable events which tell us that an evolution into a democracy had started was that the ten generals came to replace the archons as chief officers of state: desire for elected efficiency overcame principle.
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    Athens becomes a naval power.
    We already saw that Greek nationalism had awakened after Marathon and that they had evolved an idea which placed them above other nations. The superiority was real in at least one field: the military. The battle of Marathon had shown that even a moderately well trained hoplite phalanx could defeat any form or combination of other infantry, archery and even cavalry. Everybody in Hellas had always believed that the Spartan hoplite was the finest soldier in the whole world, but even the Spartans were impressed by the Athenian success.

    Almost nobody in Athens believed that the Persian empire would risk another invasion after the horrible defeat at Marathon so Athens focused on Hellas. Boeotia which had gained power at an alarming pace under its leading city Thebes was no longer a problem as it had been defeated during its campaign against Athens in 506. Sparta also did no longer form a problem during the nineties as its preoccupation was with the Peloponesse: Sparta's nemesis Argos formed once again a threat, the helots attempted a revolt and there was a quarrel between her kings.

    There was one city left which could form a threat to the Athenian society: the rich commercial island of Aegina. The island was situated 20 miles from the Athenian harbour at Phaleron and formed a serious rival when Athens turned her attention to the sea. A conflict between both cities started in 500 and lasted through the eighties.

    In 482 an event took place which would turn Athens into the biggest and strongest naval power in the Mediterranean: an exceptionally rich vein was discovered in the silvermines of Laurium. One side, led by Aristides, demanded that the profits should be distributed among the population of Athens as was seen as normal in those days, but another side which was led by Themistocles had different ideas. He realised that Athens would never be safe unless no enemy would dare to attack it. As an archon he had already fortified the harbour at Pireaus, and later on he would literally fortify Athens against the threat of Spartan jealousy.

    However, a mobile army was needed to be able to strike back when Athens would be sieged, and the commercial traderoutes of Athens had to be protected as Athens did not produce enough food and goods to support the population. He argued that the silver should be used for building a fleet of 200 triremes as the conflict with Aegina could not be stopped without an immense fleet. Later on these warships would form the backbone of Greek resistance against the Persian empire, but that was not his concern at that time...

    Xerxes was afraid that the fleet would get damaged again in a storm so he ordered his troops to dig a canal through the peninsula of Athos. This took three years, and during these years he also constructed a bridge over the Hellespont. The Persian army would march again through Thracy towards northern Hellas while the fleet sailed up with them to protect and provision them. At the same time Xerxes invaded Sicily to prevent that they could offer any help to Hellas. The Greeks also assembled their forces. The Spartan king had the command over about 40.000 hoplites, and more light armed troops, while the Spartan admiral had 366 ships under his command. All were fine troops, but puny in the face of the 200.000 Persians warriors and 1000, mostly Phoenician, ships. The size of this Persian army is still legendary.

    The Persian Wars was one of the rare occassions when most Greek cities forgot their internal struggles and formed a Greek alliance.
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    Greek defensive lines.
    The Greeks knew that they were majorly outnumbered and based their strategy on this. It was obvious that the natural aspects of Hellas had to be used as much as possible in order to defeat the Persian army. The plan was to trap the Persian army in a mountain-pass where its numeric advantage was of less account, and where the Persian fleet could not launch any attacks in the back of the Greeks. Then maybe the fleet could be destroyed in a sea-strait where the manoeuvrable trireme had an advantage over the less experienced Persian fleet. Once the Persian fleet was destroyed, or spread out, it was not unlikely that the huge army would be cut off from all supplies and forced either to retreat or to starve.

    The first choice for a defensive line was the gorge of Tempe and 10.000 hoplites were sent to it. Closer inspection learned that the Boeotians could not be trusted, and that the geographical situation was not optimal. Two other lines remained: the pass of Thermopylae where the fleet could block the adjacent north-Euboean strait, or the Isthmus of Corinth with a fleet at the north of Salamis. Sparta was far from optimistic about the first plan and made plans to retreat to the Isthmus. Even Athens was preparing for the worst scenario possible. A recently found tablet proves that Themistocles prepared plans for a decent evacuation of Athens.

    Athens demanded that the defences would be formed at Thermopylae as otherwise Attica would easily fall in the hands of the Persians. The Spartan king positioned himself with 7000 men in the narrow pass in 480 BC, while the fleet formed its defences near Artemisium. The battles at sea remain indecisive, but Leonidas held out magnificently for two days against the best Persian troops. Then they could not hold it any longer, and all of them were killed.
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    The balance tips to the other side. Now the Persian troops did not only control northern Hellas, but they also could march into Attica and take Hellas. Luckily the Athenian population had already been evacuated to the island Salamis. Finally the Persians had their revenge, and Athens was destroyed. Themistocles realised that their only hope was the fleet, but that they should not fight a battle at open sea. With a fake message he managed to lure his Persian opponents in the small strait of Salamis where they were destroyed by the Greek triremes. At the same time in the east the Syracusans had crushed the Carthaginian army, sent by the Persians, during the battle at Himera.

    Xerxes went home with his fleet, but left most of his army behind under the command of Mardonius with the instructions to conquer the remains of Hellas. The Athenians wanted an offensive war as they wanted Athens back, but Sparta felt saver behind their Isthmus wall. Finally a battle took in 479 place at Plataea, situated at the south border of Boeotia. This battle was more characteristic than Salamis for battles in those days: chaotic. Primarily the Spartans forced their way through the enemy, and the Greek won the battle.

    At the same time the Greek fleet had sailed over the Aegean and destroyed the remains of the Persian fleet and the Persian army at the naval base Mycale in Asia Minor. The Ionic Greeks who were forced to serve in the Persian army choose the side of the Greeks, and helped them during these last battles. This way an Ionic revolt formed the start and end of the Persian wars. The Greeks would not lose territory again, what they would lose however was the internal unity.

    The final victory must have seemed a miracle. A handful of independent cities, who were not prepared at all, and who hastily formed an alliance with enormous aversion, had humiliated the mighty Persian empire. Most people were filled with enthusiasm and self-confidence, but nothing was for sure yet. Athens was a heap of ruins, the colonies in Asia Minor had to be protected, and there was always the threat of another invasion.

    Of course the Greeks expected that Sparta would continue its leadership, which it had during the wars. After the conquest of Mycale the Athenian fleet conquered the Thracian Chersonese, and this and other expeditions, for example against Byzantium, were lead by the Spartan Pausianus. However, the Spartans rather focused on controlling its Peloponesse, and it did not have a fleet like Athens. Yet it tried to built a big fleet itself, and it also tried to prevent Athens from rebuilding its citywalls, but when both failed everybody accepted that Athens was the major city of Hellas again.
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