The Greco-Persian Wars

By Night_Raider

The outcome of the Persian Wars would decide the fate of the eastern Mediterranean in the coming years. Would Greece spread its unique democratic culture, or would Persia simply add more lands to their already vast empire? The Persian Wars are also known as the Greco-Persian Wars.

Between the years of 560 and 500 BCE, political authority changed rapidly and to quite a degree. The Near East had never seen as vast an empire as Persia had grown to be under the leadership of Cyrus the Great. The Persian Empire claimed all of Mesopotamia, and stretched from the Persian Gulf in the south, to the Caspian Sea in the North, and from present-day Pakistan to the Aegean and Black Seas.

At the same time, another culture was rising just 200 miles away, across the Aegean. This culture would grow to become what would be the Greek Empire. In this peiod however, most of ‘Greece’ was nothing but feeble villages goverened by local aristocracies, however the city-state of Athens was a leap and a bound ahead of the others, already making unprecendented changes that would lead to a revolutionary type of government: democracy. While Athens was developing democracy, Sparta, on the Peloponnesian peninsula, was the most important member of this culture, as they had become the most powerful land power in Greece, and was the chief member of a large alliance of other Greek city-states that controlled the majority of southern Greece. Even with all these things going for them, compared to the empire they were about to fight, they were nothing.

Persian King Darius I seized control of the Persian throne after a bloody Civil War in 521 BCE. He worked to reorganize the empire, and secure and expand its outer boundaries. 513 BCE was a major year for the Persians and the Greeks. Darius I set his ambitious plan of conquest into motion when Persian armies conquered the Greek islands of Khíos, Sámos, and Lésvos. Later that same year, the Persian king himself crossed the Aegean and conquered all the land between the Danube and Aegean, all the way to the borders of Macedonia.

A failed attempt by Persian forces to capture the Greek island of Náxos helped to incite a Greek riot along the coast of Asia minor. The revolt was caused, for the most part, by dissatisfaction of economic and political conditions under the Persians, and it lasted from 499 BCE to 494 BCE. The revolt was brought to a close when they were defeated in a crucial battle at and sea, and also by the immense superiority of Persian militay. Athens, a Greek naval power by this time, and some other, but significantly smaller, cities provided help to the rebels. This action only convinced Darius more so now than ever, that the Greeks had to be put to rest to ensure the protection of the Persian western border. In 492, Persian forces launched an expedition to gain control of the central Aegean and punish the Greeks for helping the rebels years earlier. The Persians initially had great success, but were forced to turn back when they lost most of their fleet in a storm. Two years later, a second expedition was launched. This one sacked the city of Eretria and subsequently landed at Marathon, a small Greek village no more than 25 miles northwest of Athens herself. The Athenians pleaded, unsuccessfully, to the other Greek cities, particularly Sparta, for help against the invading Persian army. In the battle of Marathon, the Athenians were left to fight the mass of Persian army almost entirley alone. The Athenians were lead by General Miltiades, a brilliant strategist. Miltiades and a force of about 10,000 Greek infantrymen faced a much more numerous enemy, and surprisignly routed the Persians. This battle proved two things: it proved the superiority of the armored Greek infantry to the Persian forces in close combat, and it worked to greatly raise the moral of all Greeks. However, historians believe that the battle would have been in favor of the Persians if their cavalry was present in the heat of the battle.

Angered by the humiliating defeat, Darius began to prepare a second and final push into Greece, but revolts in Egypt delayed the invasion. Darius died before he could carry out his plan, but he was succeded by his son, Xerxes I (I believe it’s pronounced Zerkzies, but I can’t be sure). After crushing the Egyptian revolts, Xerxes prepared to invade Greece. He raised an army larger than any Greek had seen ever before. The Greek historian Herodotus estimated the combined force of land and naval Persian forces to be in the millions, although his army was probably only 200,000 to 300,000 strong accompanied by 700 warships. The sheer size of Persian force, the Greek terrain, and the need for a steady supply line lead the Persians to create a relationship between the land forces and the naval vessels. The army would provide shelter for the warships, while the warships would help the army get around impassible terrain. The expedition began in the spring of 480 BCE.

Many Greek cities saw that they had no chance in resisting, and quickly surrendered when they caught sight of the massive Persian force. The other cities who thought they actually stood a chance met together and formed an alliance. Although Athens would provide the majority of the ships, Sparta was chosen to lead the alliance. In May of 480 BCE, the Greeks decided to march against the Persians at Thermopylae. They chose the strategic position because the area both on land and in the water was narrow, and should favor the heavier Greek infantry and fleet to the Persians. After several days of battle on both land and sea, the Greeks were surrounded and defeated. What remained of the Greek fleet withdrew to the south, while most of the Greeks escaped the slaughter, the Greek commander and Spartan king Leonidas I did not.

After the decisive victory by the Persians, Xerxes moved his forces down further into Greece, sacking and occupying Athens. The Greek leaders were divided as to what to do now. The Persians now controlled Athens, and their fleet was rapidly taking up their positions in the narrow waterway that seperated the Athenian coast and Salamis, where the remainder of the Greek navy had fled to. While Sparta and some of its allies pushed for withdrawing, the Athenaian General Themistocles thought different. In the end they decided to again push against the Persians. As the days dragged on and it became late September, 480 BCE, the Greek navy was ready to attack. They took up their positions, but feigned a rout when they say the Persian fleet. The Persian navy became confused not only by the narrow waterway, but by the Greek retreat, and they were decisivly defeated by the heavier Greek ramming ships.

All hope for the Persians continued cooperation by their land and sea forces was squandered. The navy was crushed, and its moral broken. Xerxes feared another revolt, and returned to Persia, but left the army under the command of General Mardonius. Mardonius attempted several times to convince the Athenians to ally themselves with Persia against Sparta, but Athens would not comply. In 479 BCE, General Mardonius decided to bring the Greek forces to battle outside the city o of Plataea. Both Persian and Greek forces were evenly matched at about 110,000 men strong each. After a weeks worth of maneuvering by both sides, the battle finally joined and the Persian force was annhialated. Only a year later, the Greeks were attacking the Persians on their own territory.

Consequences of the wars arised for both sides. For the Persians, it ended all hopes of the empire expanding westward. For the Greeks, it established both Athens and Sparta as Greek powers, weilind unprecedented military might. Most of what we know about the Greco-Persian Wars comes from book(s) written by Herodotus, which details the various aspects of the war, the outcomes, and the cultural, political, and military consequences. In the end, Persia was crippled compared to its previous state, while Greece found a new sense of individuality.

Source: Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia Standard Edition 2004