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.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae
Persian architecture at its best: the simple but powerful tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae

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. 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 4 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 travel writers, and the father of journalism — and gossip writers.

At its greatest extent, the Perian Empire stretched from the Mediterranean to India

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 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. 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.

Persepolis: general view of Great Hall

Persepolis: some of the columns that once held up the roof of the Apadana, the great audience hall, are still standing

He ruled his vast empire through a series of satraps, that is governors who have been given considerable local autonomy. 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.

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

However in 499 Ionia 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.

The Ionians were 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 to punish the errant Greeks. Northern Greece surrendered and Eritrea, one of the two cities that had helped the barbarians was captured.  Part one of the mission was accomplished: only Athens remained to be punished.

Man of the Persian Wars, which began with the Ionian revolt in Asia Minor to the right with Miletus, and then spread to mainland Greece at Marathon Salamis and Plateia.

They therefore went south by sea and landed at Marathon on the east coast of Attica, 25 miles east of 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.

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. 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 then 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.

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

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 today: originally the shoreline lay where the modern motorway run today to the right of the picture.

The Greeks devised a two-fold strategy 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.

 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.

Modern statue of Leonidas, the leader of the Spartans who perished at Thermopylae

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 an inconclusive naval battle was fought at Artemision, following which 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 became 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, 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.

The second great battle was fought at Salamis, and this time the Greeks achieved a great victory. The Greek ships 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.

The Greeks maneuvered better, 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 but to withdraw.

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.  Eventually battle was joined and the Greeks won decisively. The Persians left Greece for ever and the Greeks celebrated a great victory.

Barbarism and Civilisation

The Cyrus cylinder on which Cyrus celebrates his conquest of Babylon and proclaims his magnanimity. A copy is in the United Nations building as being the world’s first Bill of Rights.

How far can the Persian wars be presented as wars of civilisation verses barbarians?  The Persians certainly built up a very impressive empire stretching from the borders of Greece in the west right across Afghanistan to include much of modern Pakistan. To hold this great empire together they constructed the Royal Road that ran over a thousand miles from Persepolis in the east through to Sardis, the former capital of Lydia in the west, paved along the whole route for speedy transport.

Cyrus, their founder also showed impressive magnanimity in returning the Jews to their homeland and even paying for the rebuilding of their temple. The most famous example of this magnanimity is to be found in the Cyrus cylinder which has been called “the world’s first Bill of Rights”.  This was a building inscription found in Babylon and was essentially a justification for Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BC. but it goes on to record that he had sent returned displaced peoples to their homelands and restored their temples. Since it is recorded in the Bible that Cyrus had returned the Jews to their homeland and had helped rebuild their temples, this is was seen in 1879 when it was recovered as a dramatic confirmation of the truth of the Bible. In the 1960s,  the Shah of Persia promoted it as being an early Bill of Rights,  and a copy of the cylinder was put on display as such in the United Nations building in New York.

But the Persian Empire was based on palaces, they had two particularly splendid ones: the old one at Susa and a new one at Persepolis, though there were lesser ones at Ecbatana and Pasargadae. They also used money to some extent, though this was mostly in the western part, around the former kingdom of Lydia where money was invented.  But on the whole, the Greek cities of Anatolia that had been conquered, did not flourish under Persian rule and the islands in the Aegean, Naxos and Paros, which had been among the leading centres of culture, never recovered after the Persian conquest. 

Persian art (left), Greek art, (right)

But it is perhaps ironic that the history of the Persians has largely been written by the Greeks.  Admittedly a certain amount of their history can be recovered from the clay tablet inscriptions that they buried under the foundations of new buildings.  But the Greeks were the first people to write real history, and thus the history of Persia is largely seen through the writings of the little people they failed to conquer: and that surely why the Greeks can be called the world’s first civilization.


On to The Fifth Century

25th October 2015, re-written 28th March 2021