The Persian Wars

The Persian Wars

The war against the Persians was the high point of Greek history. It took place at the beginning of the 5th century and ended with the resounding defeat of the mighty Persian army. For the Greeks it was a great victory which ensured their independence – and they dined out on it ever after. It was not just a war between two peoples – it was the clash of barbarism (= the Persians) versus civilisation, that is the Greeks.

In the 19th century the theme of the victory of civilisation over barbarism was taken up with great enthusiasm by imperialist historians, so in the 20th century, socialist historians have gone to the other extreme. But since the theme of this book is Barbarism and Civilization, I really ought to investigate this matter further and arbitrate between the imperialists and the socialists. Indeed the very word ‘barbarian’ was invented to describe the Persians who spoke a strange language the Greeks could not understand, which sounded just like baa, baa, baa. But just how barbarian were the Persians and how far was the Greek victory a cultural victory as well as a military victory?

The story was told in fine style by Herodotus, the world’s first great historian. Herodotus is one of the best examples of the new spirit that was alive in Greece following the money/market/democracy revolution. He was not in fact an Athenian, but was born in 484 BC at Halicarnassus, in the south west corner of modern Turkey. He wrote in an Ionian form of Greek and presumably spoke with an Ionian accent that would have sounded perhaps rather posh to the Athenian ear. But whereas all earlier history in the great empires was written essentially for the ruler, and celebrated the rulers’ achievements, Herodotus was writing for the market place and he had to tell his stories to the crowds that surrounded him.

As a result he was always ready to tell a good story about strange and exotic foreign lands. Thus of the nine books of his history, Book 2 is devoted to Egypt – the earliest account we have of the history of Egypt – while Book 5 is devoted to the Scythians living in the Ukraine and south Russia and is the only account we have of the Scythians. He begins off his account by describing the Trojan Wars, not in terms of heroic deeds but as a story of rape and counter rape – he knew like any good story teller he must begin with a comic turn and get his audience laughing and receptive. He is called the ‘father of history’, but he was also the father of anthropology, the father of journalists and the father of all travel writers.


The Persian Empire was, at its height, was one of the biggest the world had ever seen. (Wikipedia)

But who were the Persians? At the beginning of the 5th century, the Persians had the mightiest empire in the western world, indeed possibly the mightiest empire anywhere in the world. The Persians were the successors to the great empires of Mesopotamia, but they were different from their predecessors. Firstly they came not from the land of Mesopotamia – the land between the two rivers – but from the mountainous land to the east, in today’s terminology they came from Iran rather than Iraq. Linguistically too they were different because Persian is an Indo-European language, whereas the languages of the Babylonians and Assyrians were Semitic. The last of the great Mesopotamian empires was Assyria, famed in the Bible as the home of my favourite oriental despot, the marvellously named Tiglath Pileser who defeated Israel and deported the Israelites. But the Assyrians declined through dynastic incompetence and were overthrown by the hardy hills folk from the east, first by the Medes at the Battle of Nineveh in 612 BC who were in turn overthrown by the neighbouring Persians in 553 BC.

The Persians were led by their great king, Cyrus II, otherwise known as ‘the Great’, a great conqueror and the butt of many of Herodotus’s best stories. He conquered first his neighbours, the Medes, then Babylon and he then went on the conquer Lydia, the up-and-coming Greek state in Anatolia, which brought him to the Mediterranean where the Persians soon colonised the whole of the Anatolian coast that is now Turkey. But he was basically a good thing and a good king. He thought it was a nuisance to keep the Jews in captivity so he sent them home to Jerusalem and even helped them rebuild the temple.

He ruled his vast empire through a series of satraps, that is governors who have been given considerable local autonomy. And to keep his empire together he and his successors built what was known as the Royal Road, a paved highroad which led over a thousand miles from Sousa in Persia, across modern Iraq and across the whole length of Turkey to Sardis nearly on the Mediterranean coast.

Persepolis Panorama Wiki

Stitched together view of the Palace at Persepolis. Wikipedia.

But he never got round to conquering Egypt. He died in 530 BC and was succeeded by Cambyses who ruled only eight years, but added Egypt to the Persian Empire, inaugurating a new dynasty of pharaohs. He was succeeded by Darius, also known as ‘the Great’ who built a grand new palace at Persepolis. But it was under Darius that the Persians first came into conflict with the Greeks and who sent the first military expedition to conquer the Greeks in 490 BC. He died six years later in 486 BC and was succeeded by Xerxes, who led a huge army against the Greeks that was defeated. The Persian Empire continued for a further couple of centuries until eventually it was destroyed by Alexander the Great, who disgracefully burned down the great palace at Persepolis in a drunken orgy.

The Greek Seleucid dynasty was followed by the Parthians who warred – often successfully – with the Romans, but who in their turn were replaced by the Sassanians (AD 224 – 651), who fought with and often humiliated the Romans, until they in turn were engulfed by the Islamic invaders. But the invaders were not in vain for – speak it softly – Islamic art and culture is largely Persian art and culture in an even more flamboyant form.

However, the Persians had a problem. At the western end of their empire there was a small rather insignificant people called ‘the Greeks’ who were terribly disorganised: they were not a single united country but a number of different cities, most of them often in conflict with each other. They needed to be organised and brought within the empire. Some of the Greeks were scattered in numerous towns along the Ionian coast (that is modern Turkey). But in the 540s Ionia was conquered and brought within the Persian Empire.

The Ionian Revolt

Ionian_Revolt Wiki

Map to show the Ionian revolt. Click to see the details – note the attack on Sardis and the eventual defeat at the battle of Lade.

However in 499 Iona revolted, or rather one of the tyrants – and the Greek word ‘tyrant’ simply means king – having blundered over an attempted attack on the island of Naxos, feared that he was going to be deposed and therefore revolted and took the town of Miletus with him. He persuaded many of the other towns to join him and they marched inland and captured Sardis and burned it, but having done so, they retreated back to Miletus. The Persian army with their heavy cavalry followed and at Miletus they defeated the rebels. However the revolt lingered on. The Greeks won a battle at Pedasus and the revolt spread and it was not until the sixth year of the revolt that the Persians finally put it down at the decisive battle of Lade.

However the Ionians had been supported by the mainland Greeks, notably the Athenians and the Eritreans, and Darius was determined that the Greeks should be punished. In 490 he sent one of his top generals, Artaphernes, on a joint army and navy expedition to punish the errant Greeks. Thrace – the part of Europe between Turkey and Greece was captured and Macedonia – northern Greece – ‘Medized’ , that is surrendered to the Medes by sending their traditional demands for ‘earth and water’. The army then marched south and captured Eritrea, one of the two cities that had helped the Ionians. Part one of the mission was accomplished.

They then went south by sea and landed near at Marathon on the east coast of Attica, 25 miles from Athens. The Athenian army promptly moved out to pen them in on the coastal plain. However the Athenians thought it imprudent to face the Persians alone: they needed the help of the crack troops of Greece, who were undoubtedly the Spartans. They therefore sent off their best runner – Pheidippides – to run the 150 miles to Sparta, which he did in two days. Herodotus is on his best form in telling the story and it is perhaps not surprising that the term ‘marathon’ has passed into modern usage as a term for a long distance run. The modern marathon covers 26 miles: Pheidippides ran 150 miles in two days!   However when he arrived, the Spartans were awkward. They were celebrating a festival, they said, and could not leave Sparta until the full moon. By the time they eventually reached Athens, it was all over and the Athenians had won a great victory alone.

Greek hoplite

A Greek hoplite, the Greek super-soldier,  depicted on a black figure vase in the Florence museum.

To understand the Persian wars, one must first understand the Greek army. In the archaic period, the Greeks invented a new type of soldier known as the ‘Hoplite’. In Homer, battle was essentially undertaken by the champions, but the hoplite reversed this. The hoplite was essentially a citizen soldier, someone who could pay for his own arms and armour – ‘hopla’ in Greek means armour. The hoplite soldier fought in a phalanx, a formation normally eight to ten rows deep, each hoplite armed with a long spear, a short sword, and a medium sized round shield. The phalanx displayed all the virtues of having a citizen army with all citizens working together; it was a formidable fighting force. The two sides were therefore very different. The Persians relied on their heavy cavalry and light armed infantry.

Battle_of_Marathon Wiki

Plan of the battle of Marathon. Quite simple, really. The Athenian hoplites charged,  punched through the Persian centre and the battle was won. (Wikipedia)

When the Cavalry could be used, the Persians normally won, so the task of the Greeks was to manoeuvre them into a suitable position where cavalry could not be used and the heavily armed hoplites could easily defeat the lightly armed Persian forces. The site at Marathon was ideal – a boggy plain where the Persians could not deploy their cavalry. When the Athenian hoplite phalanx charged, the Persians were destroyed: 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans defeated a Persian army many times larger.

Tumulus_(tomb)_in_Marathonm Wiki

Mound at Marathon to commemorate the battle. Wikipedia.

Marathon was a great victory for the Greeks, particularly for the Athenians: for the Persians it was a minor setback, but an extremely irritating one.



Double_daric Wiki

A  ‘daric’ Persian gold coin, showing a Kings. Coins had limited use in the Persian Empire, mainly around the former kingdom of Lydia where coinage was invented. Wikipedia.

Darius the Persian Emperor felt that Greece must be finished off once and for all, so he decided to lead a great army in person and show the Greeks who was master. However other things were on his mind: Egypt was giving trouble and in 486 he died while on campaign. He was succeeded by his son Xerxes who first had to deal with the minor matter that his half-brother thought that he should be king,– and then Babylon revolted and had to be destroyed.


The Second invasion

Greco-Persian_Wars- Wiki

The course of the second Persian invasion. Note the crossings of the Hellespont between Abydos and Sestos (top right). Wikipedia.

It was not until 480 that he was ready to deal with the Greeks. He assembled a huge army – Herodotus says that it was 2 million men, though modern historians tend to divide that figure by ten, and also 4,000 ships. They marched to the Hellespont, the gateway to the Black Sea, which had to be crossed. He sent his engineers ahead to build a floating bridge across the Hellespont – an incredible undertaking. However a storm sprang up and destroyed the bridge before he could cross. Xerxes responded by beheading the engineers and ordering that the sea should be given 300 lashes – Herodotus on fine form here! More engineers were appointed and the army marched safely across.

Thermopylae_&_Artemisium_campaign_map Wiki

Detailed map of the second Persian invasion of Greece. The Persians won the battle of Thermolyae, but their fleet suffered badly in the naval battle of  Cape Artemision. Subsequently part of their fleet tried to sail round Euboea, but was destroyed in a storm. The remainder of the fleet sailed round the corner of Attica where they were eventually defeated at the Battle of Salamis

The Greeks devised a two-fold strategy in reply, to ward off the Persian attack. At Thermopylae, in northern Greece, the mountains come down almost to the sea leaving only a narrow passage between mountains and sea: this was the place to blockade the invaders, and the Battle of Thermopylae became the second great epic battle of the Persian wars. The Spartan army was at the forefront this time, led by their king Leonidas, supported by the Spartan allies and most of the rest of the Greek cities.




Thermopylae_ancient_coastline wiki

Site of the battle of Thermopylae today. The sea has receded and the coastline at the time of the battle was approximately where the modern motorway runs to the right.  Wikipedia

For seven days they held off the mighty Persian army until a traitor, Ephialtes, showed the Persians a narrow pathway through the mountains which enabled a contingent of the Persian army to go round and threaten the Greeks from their rear. Leonidas, realising that he was trapped, dismissed the main part of the Greeks army and told them to go home and be ready to resist the Persians in the next battle. Meanwhile 300 Spartans and their allies decided to stay and were slaughtered, every last one of them. The poet Simonodes wrote their epitaph:

Stranger go tell the Spartans
That here obedient to their commands we lie

Leonidas statue, Wiki

A fine modern statue of Leonidas, the Spartan general who died fighting at Thermopylae was erected in 1950 at the site of the battle of Thermopylae. Wikipedia.


Today a splendid modern statue of a naked Leonidas has been erected at Thermopylae while a similar statue occupies a central point in the modern city of Sparta. Spartan honour was retrieved.

Meanwhile – Herodotus says on the same day – a naval battle was being fought at Artemision where a Persian fleet of 1,200 ships faced 270 Greek triremes (ships with the oars raised in three banks). For two days the fleets faced each other skirmishing but then on the third day battle was joined. Both sides suffered heavy losses: the Persians lost more than the Greeks, but proportionally the Greek losses were far more severe. Then the news came through about the disaster at Thermopylae, there was no point in holding the seas passage anymore, so the Greek fleet retreated; the Persian fleet pressed on, suffering further losses due to stormy weather.

Nevertheless, the Persians had won, so the Greeks had to put part two of their strategy into operation. The second place where they could hold the Persians was at the isthmus of Corinth, the narrow neck of land that joins the Peloponnese (southern Greece) to the mainland of Greece. Athens would have to be abandoned and sacrificed to the invaders, but Sparta and Argos and the remaining cities of southern Greece could fight on.

The oracle at Delphi had as usual been consulted in all this and had issued one of its most famous and most elusive pieces of advice, that the Greeks should trust in their “wooden walls”. This had been the subject of much debate. At Athens a rich vein of silver had been discovered in the mines at Laurion. Many wanted to spend the resulting profits as handouts to the citizens, but the statesman Themistocles persuaded them to spend the money on building 200 ships. These would be the “wooden walls” of Athens, and in the event, they played a crucial role in the wars.

The battle of Salamis

The Persian army rolled south. The Athenians had no option but to abandon their city and flee to the nearby island of Salamis. The Persians took the city and after a short fight captured the Acropolis and destroyed the Temple of Athena. This eventually proved to be a blessing in disguise, for the temple that they rebuilt half a century later is the Parthenon, the greatest of all Greek temples, while the archaic statues that were overthrown and buried, now form the finest corpus of archaic Greek sculpture in the Parthenon Museum.

Battle_of_salamis Wiki

The site of the battle of Salamis. When the Persians invaded, the Athenians abandonment Athens and fled to the island of Salamis,  where their fleet eventually defeated the Persian fleet.

It was at Salamis that the second great battle was fought and this time the Greeks achieved a great victory. The Greek ships at the time were mainly triremes, that is they were rowing ships with three banks of oars. The main method of fighting was by ramming the enemy and all the triremes had specially strengthened beaks in the front with which to ram their opponents. Salamis is a large island that lies just a couple of miles off shore from Athens, indeed it is this that makes the Piraeus such a marvellous harbour for Athens. Many of the Athenians had fled to Salamis, so the Greek fleet lined up on Salamis with the Athenians refugees on land behind them. The Persians greatly outnumbered them in the confined space, the Greeks manoeuvred better, and the Persians fell into confusion and were thoroughly defeated. This effectively meant the end of the campaign for without naval superiority an invasion of the Peloponnese could only be down the narrow Isthmus which the Greeks could easily defend. There was therefore nothing left for the Persians to do but to withdraw.

Battle_of_Plataea Wiki

The final decisive battle was the battle of Plateia. the Greeks, in black, occupied the higher ground and lured the Persians across the river where they were eventually defeated.    Wikipedia

Xerxes the king returned to Persia leaving his general Mardonius to finish off the Greeks. Mardonius retreated north to Thessaly for the winter. But the next year in 479 he came south , determined to finish off the Greeks, once and for all. The final battle took place at Plataea, a village 60 miles north west of Athens, not far from Thebes. Here they spent ten days manoeuvring, the Persians wanting to get onto the open plain where they could use their cavalry to advantage. The Greeks wanted to get into a position where they could use their formidable infantry. Eventually battle was joined and the Greeks won decisively. The Persians left Greece for ever and the Greeks celebrated a great victory. For the Persians it was, one suspects, essentially a minor setback. Indeed, they could even claim a strategic success, for though the Greeks eventually reconquered most of the islands in the Aegean, the coast Anatolia remained wholly part of the Persian Empire: there was never any repetition of the Ionian revolt – which was the reason for the Persian invasion in the first place.

Civilization v Barbarians?

The Greeks always represented the Persians as being barbarians, indeed the very name ‘barbarian’ was invented to describe the Persians as being people who spoke in a strange tongue which sounded like bah, bah, bah – hence barbarian. But by our definitions, how far were the Greeks civilised and the Persians barbarians?

The tomb of Cyrus (Wiki)

The tomb of Cyrus (Wiki)

The Persians were certainly a palace-based empire. The Persians had a number of palaces. The original one was Pasargde where the tomb of Cyrus still survives. Little remains of Ecbatana, the capital of the Medes – indeed the very site is uncertain. But a new capital was built in the south at Susa. However the greatest of the palaces was at Persepolis founded originally by Darius and enlarged by his successor Xerxes and his successor Artaxerxes: the site was famously burnt down by Alexander the Great when he captured it in 330 BC. But the destruction may have been a blessing from the archaeological point of view because it has become the best preserved of all the Persian capitals and shows something of the splendour of the Persian court, centred round the huge ceremonial hall known as the Apadana, which it is said could hold 10,000 people.

My second major criterion for civilisation is the use of money and here Persia comes in at half and half. One of the great Persian successes was its conquest of the Kingdom of Lydia under its King Croesus and Lydia was the place where money was first invented, or at least first used, and money continued to be used in Lydia after the Persian conquest. Indeed the King Darius reorganised the use of money by issuing new gold coins known after himself as ‘Darics’, while the silver coins were called ‘Sigloi’. But though these circulated to a considerable extent in western Anatolia around Lydia, they never achieved a major usage and were treated elsewhere mainly as bullion.

Nevertheless the Persians built up a great and impressive empire, in extent the greatest empire the world had ever seen, stretching from the borders of Greece in the west, right through across Afghanistan in the east to include much of modern Pakistan and stretching down to include both Egypt and Libya to the south. To hold this great empire together they used both engineering skills and governmental skills. They constructed the ‘Royal Road’ that ran over 1,000 miles from the palace at Susa in the east through to Sardis, the former capital of Lydia in the west, paved along the whole route for speedy transport. Administratively they divided the empire into satrapies where the individual rulers were allowed a great deal of autonomy. The Greek cities in the west were allowed to rule themselves with local Greek tyrants, though occasionally these alternated with democracy, though presumably the democracy was strictly limited.

Cyrus cylinder in British Museum

The Cyrus cylinder in the British Museum in which Cyrus proclaims that he was returning the conquered peoples to their homes.

The most famous example of Persian magnanimity is to be found in the ‘Cyrus cylinder’, which has been called ‘the world’s first Bill of Rights’. This is a clay tablet shaped rather like a rugger ball with a long Persian inscription. This was found in Babylon in 1879 and was a building inscription deliberately placed under the foundations of a new building. This is essentially a justification for Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon in 539 BC. It begins by recounting the various misdeeds of Nabonidus, the last King of Babylon who Cyrus had just overthrown. But having trashed Nabonidus it then goes on to say: ‘I am Cyrus, King of the universe’ and then goes on to emphasise how peaceful the conquests had been when all the kings of the empire came and kissed his feet. But he was clearly a magnanimous ruler who returned the conquered peoples to their homes taking their gods with them, and this included the Jews. The return of the Jews from their exile in Babylon was fully recorded in the Bible, and when first discovered, the Cyrus cylinder was seen as being a dramatic confirmation of the truth of the Bible. However in the 1960s the Shah of Persia before he was overthrown took up this section of the inscription and the idea arose that this was an early Bill of Rights, and indeed a copy of the cylinder is still on display as such in the United Nation building in New York.

After the Shah was overthrown the Muslim rulers forgot about the cylinder, but when they were overthrown by Saddam Hussein the cylinder was once again proclaimed as the Bill of Rights and it has managed to maintain its position even after the overthrowing of Saddam Hussein.   But Cyrus appears to have been remarkable – and successful – in his magnanimity towards the conquered people as is shown by his treatment of Croesus, the King of Lydia who was at first condemned to death, but was then dramatically pardoned when on his funeral pyre.


In conclusion I would make just two points: firstly the Greeks cities of Anatolia did not seem to flourish under Persian rule; indeed the islands in the Aegean, Naxos and Paros which had been among the leading Greek centres of culture before the Persian invasions never seem to have recovered after the Persian conquest. Only the little island of Delos flourished as a sanctuary and in the Roman Empire became a leading slave market. Indeed there is an interesting comparison with the Romans, for whereas in the Roman Empire. Most of the countries that were conquered flourished mightily, in the Persian Empire the Persians flourished but the Ionian towns did not.

Finally, history. When we study the history of Mesopotamia, Assyria and the Persian Wars, a good outline can now be drawn thanks to archaeology. There are inscriptions that give us names, such as that at Bisitun, while the evidence is particularly full for the Persian period for the Persians were in the habit of burying clay tablet inscriptions under the foundations of new buildings – there is a series called the Nabonidas Chronicles.

But when we come down to the time of the Persian Wars, the history becomes much fuller thanks largely to the Greek historian Herodotus. The course of the Royal Road is recorded in detail; the crossing of the Hellespont is described in detail, as is the canal through the Athos peninsula whose course has been confirmed by archaeologists. Herodotus may indeed be to some extent a one-off phenomenon but his information on Persia is backed up by many later writers – Xenophon, Plutarch and Diodorus. The Greeks were the first people to write real history and thus ironically, the history of Persia is largely seen through the writings of the little people they failed to conquer; and that surely is why the Greeks can be called the world’s first civilisation.


On to The Fifth Century


25th October 2015