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The GREEKS at WAR, 494 to 371 BCE (2 of 8)

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Greco-Persian War

To 500 BCE the empire of the Persian Achaemenid Dynasty extended to all of Asia Minor, into Thrace and Chalcidice. Imperial Persia was generally tolerant of local customs and provided its conquered peoples protection from attacks from wandering warrior tribes. It offered its subjects peace and a stable coinage. But in 499, a desire for self-rule among the Greeks of Asia Minor helped fuel a rebellion against the Persians.

Athens and the city of Eretria (about thirty miles north of Athens), supported the uprising. By 494 the Persians crushed the rebellion, destroying the great city of Miletus, sacking and burning other towns and taking select Greek boys and girls back to Persia. Then, believing that his god-given right to rule should not have been challenged, Persia's King of Kings, Darius the Great, set out to punish Athens and others who had supported the uprising. Darius hoped to extend his rule down the Greek peninsula, and many Greeks opposed to democracy including some Athenians favored submission to the Persians. They saw Persia as a champion of authoritarian rule and expected that Persian rule would include freedom of worship and allow local self-government as it had in Asia Minor.

Battle of Marathon

Battle of Marathon, Greek hoplites
on top, Persians trampled upon.

maybe Darius the Great or his son, Xerxes

Darius the Great or his son, Xerxes – perhaps. Interesting chair!

Those who supported democracy favored resisting the Persians. So too did many Greeks who made their living in industry and trade, fearing that the Persians would give trading favors to rivals such as the Phoenicians – who were subjects of Darius. And the Spartans feared the Persians, believing that if the Persians came to the Greek mainland they would try to eliminate them as a military power.

In the year 490, the Persian fleet sailed across the Aegean Sea and landed a force of many thousand soldiers at Marathon Bay, twenty-six miles by road north of Athens. With the Persians was Hippias, former ruler of Athens, son of Pisistratus, who expected the Persians to return him to power in Athens. The Athenians responded to the threat from Persia by sending troops to Marathon, and it sent a fast runner to Sparta with the news of the Persian landing. Sparta announced that it would join Athens against the Persians. But remaining faithful to their gods, the Spartans waited for the passing of a full moon, and the Athenians had to confront the Persians without them.

Historians write of the heroism among the Greeks during the Persian war. Greeks far and wide, including the Athenians, were inspired by their victory over the great Persian Empire, and they held a religious festival at Delphi as thanksgiving to the gods for the victory at Marathon. And there the oracle of Apollo praised Athens as an eagle "for all time."

Soon it was said that the god Pan had given the Athenians their victory by his causing panic among the Persians. It was said that Pan had done so after having seen a slack in devotion to him among the Athenians and that by giving them victory he was trying to regain their devotion.

But declaring victory was premature. The Greeks had driven off the Persians, but the Persians remained a formidable power. After Darius died in 486, his son and successor, Xerxes, intended to carry out his father's plan to invade the Greek mainland again. Xerxes failed to appreciate adequately the costs that would be incurred by such an expansion or the burdens of maintaining an empire that would be farther reaching. He had trouble enough with the empire as it was. But Xerxes believed in the power of his god, Mazda.

Athens, Sparta and some other Greek city-states expected the return of the Persians. And they did as many others had done before them: they set aside their differences and formed a military alliance. Their alliance was called the Hellenic League and was led by Sparta, still seen as the greatest land-based military power among them. Member cities sent representatives to league congresses, the first of which was held in 481. This congress ended the small wars that were taking place among member cities. And at these congresses, oaths were taken that were supposed to bind the city-states to each other permanently.

Ancient Greek warship

Ancient Greek warship, a trireme. Motivated oarsmen were used rather than slaves.

Salamis Island, near Athens

Salamis Island (NASA photo)

Xerxes assembled the greatest military force ever, and in the year 480 he launched his invasion, marching his armies along the coast of Macedonia and down into Greece, while keeping these armies supplied by his navy. Sparta and Thebes sent armies to meet the invaders at Thermopylae, about 20 miles north of Delphi and eighty-five miles northwest of Athens. There they held the Persians at a narrow pass while the league's navy, mostly Athenian, engaged Persian naval forces offshore. The Greek writer Herodotus described the storm that wrecked much of the Persian fleet as an intervention by Zeus, but, inexplicably, Zeus appeared uninterested in helping the Greek cause on land. A traitor among the Greeks showed the Persian foot soldiers a way around the pass at Thermopylae, and the Persians attacked the Greeks from behind. The Thebans surrendered while the Spartans fought and died to the last man. The main force of Persians swarmed through the pass toward Athens. Persia's army overran Attica and Athens, while Athenians fled to the islands of Salamis, near their port, and Aegina, tens miles to the southwest.

The Athenian navy placed itself between Xerxes' force and the Athenian refugees on the island of Salamis, and it rallied support from numerous coastal Greek cities. Near Salamis, the Athenian navy and its allies won a great naval battle, destroying the Persian fleet – the waters said to be covered with Persian wreckage and blood. With much of the Persian army dependent on ships for supplies, the Persians were forced to march out of Greece and back to Asia Minor. Xerxes had failed. But peace was not declared, and Persia and the Greeks remained at war.


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