So many ancient cultures have come and gone, their mark on history reduced to a mere footprint. But not the Greeks.”
Countless modern languages have Greek roots, people still quote Greek philosophers, practice Greek math, and read Greek plays and poems.”
And even though it’s been 2,500 years, we still believe democracy, which is a Greek word and which first appeared in ancient Athens, is the best version of government out there.”
All of these ideas and works of art and writing have “endured” through so much time, speaking volumes not only about what the Greeks did but also their ability to survive.”
This ability was tested frequently, but the Greco-Persian Wars were a moment in history where the survival of the Greek world was truly in question. Yet through some rare cooperation, and a bit of luck, the Greeks survived, allowing their culture and customs to endure till this day.
The Great Persian Empire
Ancient Greece did not exist in a bubble. While it had its own language, religion, and culture, there were many other civilizations existing alongside it, most notably the Persians.”
Based out of modern-day Iran, the Persians rose to dominate Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, Arabia, and parts of modern-day Turkey and Egypt, all in a rather short period of time. Their military prowess allowed them to become the most powerful empire in the region. But despite their size and power, they also wanted Greece.
Existing peacefully during this time period meant making friends with the Persians. But this was hard, since the Persians were really after total domination. It’s hard to cooperate with someone who ultimately wants to conquer you…
Having said that, the Persians didn’t try too hard to conquer Greece during the first period of its history. This was mainly because Greece was just so hard to conquer. Between all the mountains and islands, attacking it would require lots of effort, people, and resources. And there were always other, easier targets for the Persians to pursue.”
That is, until the Greeks made the Persians mad.
The Ionian Revolt
One thing that’s always important to remember is that the ancient Greeks didn’t just live in what we now think of as Greece. Instead, they were spread out all over the ancient world.”
Due to its proximity across the Aegean Sea, lots of Greeks landed on the southwestern coast of Turkey. In fact, this area was so Greek that it was called Ionia, after the dialect of Greek they spoke (which was also spoken in Athens.)
When they settled new lands, the Greeks liked to hold onto their language, culture, and customs. Understandable, but this didn’t always fit into the plans of the people already living there. But one kingdom — Lydia, which existed in what is now Turkey — didn’t mind if the Greeks kept being Greek, so long as they didn’t stir up too much trouble.”
This party ended in 547 BC when Persia invaded and successfully conquered Lydia. Not wanting to lose their autonomy, the Greeks backed the Lydian kings. And when they lost, the Persians imposed strict rules on the Greeks.”
They put up with this for about 50 years, but they were always looking for a chance to revolt. Finally, in 499 BC, they got their chance.”
Aristagoras Leads the Rebellion
As the story goes, a man named Aristagoras, the leader of the Ionian city Miletus, was in trouble. He had just convinced the Persians to give him troops so that he could invade the Greek island of Naxos. In exchange, he promised them all sorts of riches. A fair enough deal, but only if his invasion was successful. Which it was not.
Fearing the Persian king’s revenge, Aristagoras decided not to waste any time and went on the offensive. He encouraged the people of Miletus to rebel against Persia, and then he sent word to the other Ionian cities to do the same. Eager for some freedom, they agreed, and the whole region burst into open rebellion.”
Knowing full well they didn’t stand a chance against the Persian army on their own, the Ionian city-states appealed to their Greek brothers and sisters for help. They were hoping Sparta, which had the strongest army in Greece, would come to their aid. But they didn’t.”
Instead, they got Athens and Eritrea, two cities with Ionian roots. It seems they felt bad for their relatives, but while it was nice of them to help out, this decision wound up putting the entire Greek world in jeopardy.
The First Persian Invasion and the Battle of Marathon
Spoiler! The Ionian Revolt failed. Despite getting help from Athens and Eritrea, the Greeks were no match for the Persian army, and by 493 BC, the rebellion was over. After a brief moment of freedom, the Ionians were once again subjected to harsh Persian rule.
But the Persians weren’t done. Angered by Athens’ and Eritrea’s decision to help the Ionians, the Persian king, Darius I, wanted revenge.”
In the ancient world, this meant just one thing: war.
So, he gathered his army from all across the Persian empire, summoned ships from allies, and began marching towards Greece. His fleet would cross the Aegean Sea and meet him and his army near Athens.”
In the beginning, Darius I made quick work of the Greeks. As he crossed west through what is now Turkey and down through northern Greece, pretty much every city he passed surrendered to him. Not only did they already fear the Persians, but Darius’ army was massive.”
It looked like all was lost for the Greeks, but in the end, the little guys won out. Athens, knowing full well it was about to be destroyed, reached out to the rest of Greece for support. Again, they were mainly hoping for help from the Spartans.
Initially, Sparta wasn’t interested. They were like “You never should have sent troops to Ionia. We told you so!” But eventually they saw the Persian invasion as a threat to their own survival, and so they agreed to join the fight.”
The Battle of Marathon
The two sides met at the Bay of Marathon, which is to the north of Athens. In a sign of things to come, the Greeks were considerably outnumbered, perhaps by as much as 2:1. But the Greeks had other things going for them.”
First, their troops had better armour and weapons. Greek soldiers, known as hoplites, carried bronze spears and wore bronze or iron armor, whereas the Persians were protected mainly by cloth and leather.”
In addition, the geography at the Bay of Marathon gave the Greeks a considerable advantage. There were only two exits, which they blocked with a large group of soldiers. Doing this forced the Persians to attack in waves of fewer troops, which leveled the playing field.”
Plus, the Athenians had no incentive to attack, so they could sit and wait for the Persians to come.”
In the end, this combination of factors led to a stunning Greek victory, one that ended Darius’ invasion of Greece and set the stage for future Greek victories in the Greco-Persian Wars.And with his army basically destroyed, Darius I decided to retreat back to Persia. But his desire for revenge against the Greeks remained. Like so many before and after him, he stood tall and confronted the Greeks, muttering the words of many famous conquerors, “I’ll be back.”
The Second Persian Invasion and the Battle of Thermopylae
Okay, Darius I may have not actually said this. But he certainly could have, for as soon as he left Greece, he began preparing for round two. Though he would never get to experience success because he died a few years after his failed invasion.”
The next Persian king, Xerxes I, Darius’ son, took over, and he set the conquest of Greece as one of his principal objectives. But before he could head off to war, he had to secure his own claim to the throne, and also prepare his army.
Xerxes Prepares His Army
Not wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, Xerxes spared no expense when it came to war preparations. First, he called on all the regions of the Persian empire to send troops, amassing one of the largest forces ever assembled in ancient history.
Most of these soldiers were slaves who had been conscripted into the Persian army. But Xerxes also called on his “Immortals.” This elite fighting force was the most powerful in the Persian army, and it had gained a reputation for success across the ancient world that struck fear in the hearts of anyone facing it.”
In addition to gathering a massive army, Xerxes also sent out teams of engineers to make the road to Greece easier to follow. He even built pontoon bridges across the Hellespont, a small stretch of water that effectively divides Europe and Asia.”
This made it possible for him to move such a large invasion force, which dramatically improved his chances of success.
Word reached Greece of Xerxes’ army, and the Greeks were quite literally shaking in their boots. Just ten years prior, they barely escaped Darius’ attempted invasion, and now an even bigger army was on its way. Oh dear!
The Battle of Thermopylae
Similar to when Darius I invaded, the cities of Northern Greece offered little resistance. But this time, the Greeks were hoping to stop the Persians before they got too close to Athens. After some debate, they agreed to try and stop the Persians at Thermopylae.”
This spot was good for defense because it provided a geographical advantage, which the Battle of Marathon taught the Greeks was super important . To avoid the mountainous terrain in the area, the Persian army would need to march on the beaches of Thermopylae and proceed through a narrow pass. There, the Greek army would make its stand.”
On paper, this was a good strategy. But it had one flaw: the Persians outnumbered the Greeks by about 20:1, a much bigger disadvantage than at Marathon.
Famously, the Spartans sent just 300 soldiers, an “expeditionary” force, since their religious beliefs forbid them from fully mobilizing for war. These troops wound up making an impressive last stand, and their story has gone down in history as true legend.”
If we ask the simple question “who won the Battle of Thermopylae?” the answer is easy: the Persians. The Greeks had hoped to stop their enemy from advancing, and they failed to do so. But things aren’t always so black and white. Despite losing the ground they’d hoped to defend, the Greeks inflicted heavy damages on the Persian army.
In addition, the Persian fleet, which the Greeks met at the nearby Cape of Artesium, got nearly wiped out by a rather large storm.”
Together, the events of the Battle of Thermopylae helped reveal how the Greeks might win the war.”
More specifically, by using Greece’s mountainous terrain to achieve an advantageous defensive position, and by encouraging the Persians to chase them into tight spaces, they could eliminate Persia’s numerical advantage and stand a chance at victory.
This might have not been super reassuring with the Persian army marching down the Greek mainland, but when we use a historian’s lens, it becomes clear that the lessons learned from Thermopylae helped turn the tides of war in favor of the Greeks.
The Battle of Salamis
After losing Thermopylae, Athens was lost. The Persians marched into the city and burnt it. Fortunately, the Athenians had been evacuating. But it’s still never a good thing to see your city in flames.”
From there, the Greek army took up its position at the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow strait connecting the Peloponnese to mainland Greece. And then they got lucky.”
Perhaps confused in unknown territory, or perhaps just over eager for victory, Xerxes sent his fleet after the Greeks who were waiting in the narrow Straits of Salamis.”
Doing this basically eliminated his numerical advantage, and the Greeks, led mainly by Athenian sailors, were able to crush the Persian fleet.”
This ruined Xerxes’ plans for a land battle because he now no longer had a naval force to support his attack. Discouraged by this, and recognizing he had probably lost, Xerxes turned command of his army over to one of his generals and returned to Persia.”
Talk about being a sore loser.”
The Battle of Plataea
By now, the Greeks had managed to put together an army that more or less matched the size of the one supplied by the Persians. But this was only possible thanks to the heavy damage the Greeks inflicted at Thermopylae and Salamis.”
The two sides met near the town of Plataea, and after several days of waiting, fighting finally broke out. In an even match, the Persians actually stood little chance against the Greeks, and they were driven from the battlefield in a decisive victory.
From there, they started running back to Persia, the Greeks hot on their tails, hoping to win more battles and convince the Persians to never come back.
For the most part, this worked. Persia and Greece would fight more, but no Persian king would ever again try to launch a full-scale invasion of Greece. So there.
The War that Never Ended?
After Salamis and Platea, Sparta and Corinth, satisfied they’d succeeded in fending off the Persians, went home. They never really wanted to fight in the first place, and with the main threat gone, they just wanted some peace and quiet.”
Athens, on the other hand, didn’t trust the Persians to stop invading. They convinced several other Greek cities to join them in continuing the war, but this time in Persian territory.”
A lot of fighting took place in or around Ionia, but there were also battles in Egypt, which by now was controlled almost fully by the Persians.”
This went on for another thirty years, with some of the fights taking place because Athens was trying to assert itself as an empire, something that really angered the Spartans.”
Eventually, the two sides reached some sort of an agreement, though the details of this treaty still escape modern historians. But no matter what happened, by c. 450 BC, the Greco-Persian War was over.”
Greece remained independent, and Persian, despite losing some territory here and there, remained the most powerful empire in the land. So, this begs the question: was all that fighting worth it?
Don’t Mess with the Greeks
This answer we’ll ever know. But what we do know is that the Greco-Persian War brought ancient Greece to the brink of total destruction.”
Its successful defense not only made it possible for Greek culture to continue influencing human development. But it also helped contribute to a common Greek identity. And oh yeah, it sent a clear signal to the rest of the ancient world that they should not mess with the Greeks.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Pablo Velarde Diaz-Pache