Detailed history of the Persian wars

persian-warsThe Persian Wars are a set of military conflicts between the Persian Empire and the cities of classical Greece that began in 499 BC and lasted until 449 BC. The conflict between the disorderly political world of the Greeks and the vast empire of the Persians began when Cyrus the Great conquered Ionia in 547 BC. Trying to prevent the idea of independence in the cities of Ionia, the Persians appointed tyrants as governors of the cities. This would prove to be a source of much trouble for the Greeks and Persians.

In 499 BC, the then-tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras, organized an operation to capture Naxos, with the support of the Persians. However, the operation ended in failure, and realizing that he would lose his position, Aristagoras led the entire Greek world of Asia Minor in revolt against the Persians. This was the beginning of the Ionian Revolution, which lasted until 493 BC, as other regions of Asia Minor also participated.

Aristagoras secured the military support of Athens and Eretria, and in 498 BC, this force captured and burned the Persian local capital of Sardis. The Persian king Darius I vowed to take revenge on Athens and Eretria for this move. The revolution continued, with the two sides deadlocked from 497-495 BC. In 494 BC, the Persian army regrouped, and attacked the center of the rebellion, Miletus. At the naval battle of Ladis, the Ionians were decisively defeated, and the rebellion collapsed, with the final battles taking place the following year.

Trying to secure the protection of his empire from further revolts, and from the intervention of mainland Greece, Darius began to plan the conquest of Greece, as well as the punishment of Athens and Eretria for the destruction of Sardis.

The first Persian invasion of Greece began in 492 BC, with the Persian general Mardonius conquering Thrace and Macedonia before several misfortunes brought the campaign to an early end. In 490 BC, a second force was sent to Greece, this time across the Aegean, under the command of Datis and Artaphernes.

The Persians occupied the Cyclades, before besieging, conquering and destroying Eretria. However, en route to Athens, the Persians were decisively defeated by the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon, ending Persian efforts for this period.

Darius then began to plan the total conquest of Greece, but he died in 486 BC, and the responsibility for the conquest of Greece passed to his son, Xerxes I. In 480 BC, Xerxes personally led the second Persian invasion of Greece, with the largest ancient army the world had ever seen.

The Persian victory at the Battle of Thermopylae against the Allies (led by Athens and Sparta) allowed the Persians to occupy most of Greece. However, as they attempted to destroy the allied objective, the Persians were defeated at the naval battle of Salamis. The following year, the Allies attacked, defeating the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, and ending the Persian invasion of Greece.

The Allies destroyed the Persian fleet at the Battle of Mycale, before expelling the Persian garrisons from Sestos (479 BC) and Byzantium (478 BC). General Pausanias’ moves in the siege of Byzantium alienated most Greek cities from the Spartans, and an anti-Persian alliance formed around Athenian rule, known as the Delian League.

The Delian League continued the war against Persia for the next 3 decades, beginning with the expulsion of the Persians from Europe. At the Battle of Eurymedon in 466 BC, the Alliance achieved a double victory, which finally secured the freedom of the Ionian cities.

However, the Alliance’s participation in an Egyptian revolution (460-454 BC) resulted in a disastrous defeat, and further campaigns were suspended. A fleet was sent to Cyprus in 451 BC, but did not achieve much, and when it retreated, the Greco-Persian Wars began to draw to a close.

Some historical sources believe that the end of the wars was brought about by the peace treaty between Athens and Persia, known as the Peace of Kallias. In the Greco-Persian Wars, both sides used armored troops with spears and bows, the Greek armies emphasizing heavy infantry, while the Persian armies fought with lighter infantry.

The military structure of the Greeks and Persians

GREEKS-AND-PERSIANSThe Persian infantry used in the campaign consisted of troops from across the empire. However, according to Herodotus, there was general conformity for the type of armor and for the style of warfare. The troops were, in general, armed with a bow, a “small lance,” a sword, a wicker shield, and a leather jacket, though only men of tall stature wore the metal armor.

The style of fighting used by the Persians was probably to stand at a distance from the enemy, using their bows to wear down the opponent before disintegrating them with free throws, thanks to spears and swords. The first class of Persian infantry formations, the sparabaras, had no bows, having larger wicker shields and, sometimes, spears. Their role was to protect the rear ranks of the formation. The Persian cavalry probably fought as light cavalry.

The Greek style of warfare had been shaped over the centuries around the hoplites. It had revolved around the hoplites, members of the middle class (in Athens they were called zeugites) who could afford the necessary armor. The hoplite was, by the standards of the time, heavily armored, with a breastplate (originally bronze, but perhaps at this stage a more flexible leather version), greaves, helmet, and a large circular shield (the aspis).

The hoplites were armed with a large spear, which was larger than the Persian spears, and a sword. The heavy breastplates and large spears of the hoplites made them excellent bodies in hand-to-hand combat and gave them considerable protection against snipers. The light-armed acrobolis, the psiloi, also formed a part of the Greek armies, whose importance increased during the conflicts – at the battle of Plataea, for example, they may have made up half the Greek army. The use of cavalry in the Greek armies is not mentioned in the battles of the Greco-Persian Wars.

Sea battles

sea-battlesAt the beginning of the conflicts, all naval forces in the eastern Mediterranean had turned to triremes, a warship with 3 rows of oars. The most common naval tactic during this period was embalming (triremes were equipped with a battering ram at the bows), or boarding marines. Experienced navies had also by this time begun to use a maneuver known as the split.

It is not entirely clear what they were, but perhaps they were sailing between the gap of enemy ships and then sinking them.
The Persian fleet included Phoenicians, Egyptians, Cilicians and Cypriots. Other coastal areas of the Persian Empire would contribute by donating ships during the wars.

The Ionian Revolution 499 BC to 493 BC

ionian-revoloutionThe Ionian Revolution, as well as the related revolts in Aeolida, Dorida, Cyprus and Caria, were military revolts of the regions of Asia Minor against Persian rule, which lasted from 499 BC to 493 BC. At the heart of the revolution was the discontent of the Greek cities of Asia Minor against the tyrants, whom the Persians appointed as governors of the cities, and the individual activities of the two Milesian tyrants, Histiaeus and Aristagoras. In 499 BC the then tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras, together with the Persian satrap Artaphernes, tried to capture Naxos, to strengthen his position (both financially and in terms of prestige). The mission failed, and because he did not want to lose his position, Aristagoras preferred to persuade the Ionians to revolt against the Persian king, Darius the Great.

In 498 BC, with the support of the Athenians and Eretrians, the Ionians marched towards Sardis and captured the city. However, on the way back, they were defeated by the Persians at the Battle of Ephesus. This campaign was the only offensive action on the part of the Ionians, who then went on the defensive. The Persians responded in 497 BC with three attacks, aimed at recapturing the revolted territories, but the spread of the rebellion in Caria forced the Persians to send a larger army there, under the leadership of Darius. Although the campaign in Caria was initially successful, this army was annihilated due to an ambush during the Battle of Pedasus. This led to a stalemate for the remainder of 496 BC. and 495 BC

In 494 BC, the Persian army and fleet regroup, with the aim of suppressing the revolution in Miletus. The Ionian fleet tried to defend the city from the sea, but was defeated at the naval battle of Ladis, after the defection of the Samians. Miletos was besieged, captured, and its population enslaved. With this double defeat, the revolution ended, and the Carians surrendered to the Persians. The Persians spent 493 BC suppressing revolt in the cities on the west coast, before beginning the process of pacification in Ionia, resulting in what was justly described as a peace with the Ionians.

The Ionian Revolution was the first major conflict between Greeks and Persians, and represents the first phase of the Greco-Persian Wars. Although Asia Minor submitted to the Persians, Darius decided to punish Athens and Eretria, which supported the revolution. Furthermore, seeing that the city-states of Greece were a threat to his empire, he decided to conquer all of Greece.

First Persian invasion of Greece (492-490 BC)

Having completed the pacification of Ionia, the Persians began to plan their next moves – to eliminate the threat to their empire from Greece, and to punish Athens and Eretria. The first Persian invasion of Greece consists of 2 main campaigns.

492 BC: The campaign of Mardonius

mardonious-campaignThe first campaign began in 492 BC, under the leadership of Mardonius, son-in-law of Darius, who recaptured Thrace, which had been part of the Persian Empire since 513 BC. Mardonius forced Macedonia to become a vassal ally of Persia – the two kingdoms were allies but Macedonia was independent. However, further progress of the campaign was prevented after a storm at Mount Athos, where the Persian fleet sank. Mardonius was wounded when the Persians were attacked by a Thracian tribe, and then retreated with the remnants of his army to Asia.

The following year, having given clear warning of his intentions, Darius sent embassies to all the cities of Greece, demanding their submission. Most cities accepted, except Athens and Sparta, which executed the Persian ambassadors. With Athens still defiant, and Sparta declaring war on him, Darius ordered a further military campaign the following year.

490 BC: The campaign of Datis and Artaphernes

dates-artafernes-campaignIn 490 BC, Dates and Artaphernes (son of the satrap Artaphernes) took command of an amphibious force, and sailed from Cilicia. After gathering an army, the Persians sailed from Cilicia first to the island of Rhodes. A Chronicle of the Tribes of Lindos states that Datis besieged Lindos, but did not capture it. The fleet sailed to Naxos, with orders to punish Naxos for their resistance to the failed siege by the Persians a decade earlier.

Many of the inhabitants fled to the mountains – those engaged in fishing were enslaved. Then, the Persians burned the city and the temples of the Naxians. The fleet crossed and captured all the Aegean islands on its way to Eretria, taking slaves and troops from each island.
The Persian army sailed from Euboea to the first major objective, Eretria.

The Eretrians made no attempt to stop the encampment or advance of the Persians, and for this they were besieged. For 6 days the Persians assaulted the walls, with losses on both sides – however, on the seventh day 2 trusted Eretrians opened the gates and allowed the Persians into the city. The city was destroyed, the temples and shrines were looted and burned. In addition, according to the orders of Darius, the Persians enslaved all the remaining inhabitants of the city.

Battle of Marathon

battle-of-marathonThe Persian fleet then headed south to Attica, encamping in the Straits of Marathon, about 25 (40 miles) from Athens. Under the leadership of Miltiades, the general with the most experience in battles against the Persians, an Athenian army marched to block the 2 exits from Marathon. After 5 days of inactivity, the Athenians (for unknown reasons) decided to attack the Persians.

Despite the Persians’ numerical superiority, the hoplites proved devastatingly effective, destroying the Persian wings before turning on the center of the Persian line – the remnants of the Persian army fled the battlefield on their ships. Herodotus reports that 6,400 Persians were killed on the battlefield, while the Athenians lost only 192 men.

The survivors of the Persian army set sail to attack Athens as quickly as possible. The Athenians arrived in time to prevent the Persians from boarding. Seeing the opportunity slipping away, the Persians retreated to Asia.

The Battle of Marathon was a landmark in the Greco-Persian Wars, with the Greeks showing that the Persians could be defeated. It also emphasized the superiority of the more heavily armed Greek hoplites, and showed their potential when used judiciously. The Battle of Marathon is perhaps best known today as the inspiration for Marathon.

The period between the first and second Persian invasion 490-480 BC.

After the failure of the first invasion, Darius began to prepare a new large army to conquer all of Greece – however, in 486 BC, the Egyptians revolted, indefinitely preventing any Greek campaign. Darius died as he prepared to march on Egypt, and the throne passed to his son, Xerxes I.

Xerxes put down the Egyptian revolution, and quickly resumed preparations for an invasion of Greece. As it was a full-scale invasion, it required years of planning, gathering of troops and materials.

Xerxes decided that the Hellespont must be bridged to allow his army to cross Europe, and that a canal must pass through the isthmus of Mount Athos (where, due to a storm in 492 BC, the Persian fleet was destroyed). Accomplishing these goals was very difficult, even for modern states. However, the campaign was delayed for another 1 year due to revolts in Egypt and Babylon.

The Persians had the sympathy of a number of Greek cities, including Argos, which played into the defect when the Persians reached their borders. The Aleudians, who ruled in Larissa in Thessaly, saw the invasion as an opportunity to expand their power. Thebes, although not explicitly mentioned, is thought to have preferred to help the Persians when they arrived in Greece.

In 481 BC, after 4 years of preparation, Xerxes began to move his army to Europe. Herodotus gives the names of 46 nations from which the bodies came. The Persian army gathered in Asia Minor in the summer and autumn of 481 BC. The armies from the eastern satrapies gathered at Kritala in Cappadocia and were led by Xerxes to Sardis, where they spent the winter. Early in the spring they moved to Abydos, where they met the armies of the western satrapies. The Persian army crossed the Hellespont on 2 raft bridges.

Size of the Persian forces

The body numbers that Xerxes mustered for the second Persian invasion of Greece are part of endless debate. Modern scholars tend to reject the unrealistic figure of 2.5 million men given by Herodotus and other ancient sources as the result of inaccuracies or exaggerations on the part of the victors. This matter had been much debated, and it was thought that Xerxes mustered about 200,000 men.

The size of the Persian fleet has also been discussed, although it was a less important issue. Herodotus gives a number of 1,207 ships. These numbers are (by ancient standards) consistent, and it could be interpreted that a number close to 1,200 is correct. Some modern scholars accept this number, although they suggest that the number must be less than that at the naval battle of Salamis.

Other recent works on the Greco-Persian Wars deny this number, as the number 1,207 appears to be a reference to the combined Greek fleet in the Iliad, and it is assumed that the Persians could not muster more than 600 warships in the Aegean.

The Greek alliance

In 481 BC, Xerxes sent ambassadors throughout Greece to ask for land and water, but omitted to send ambassadors to Athens and Sparta.
At this time Sparta and Athens received the support of some Greek cities.

In the fall of 481 BC, the representatives of the Greek cities met in Corinth and a Greek alliance was created. It had the power to send envoys asking for help and provision of troops from each member city for defensive purposes.

Herodotus does not formulate an abstract name for the alliance but simply calls them “Hellenes” (the Greeks) and “the Greeks who had sworn an alliance” or “the Greeks who had united” (Rawlinson translation). Henceforth, they will be referred to as “Allies”. Sparta and Athens took a leading role in the alliance but the interests of the alliance members played a role in determining the defensive strategy. Little is known about the inner workings of the alliance or its deliberations. Only 70 of the approximately 700 Greek cities sent representatives. This is remarkable for the divided Greek world, especially as Greek cities were still involved in civil wars.

Second Persian invasion of Greece (480-479 BC)

Having crossed Europe in April 480 BC, the Persian army began to march into Greece, and it took 3 months to travel from the Hellespont to Thermi. He stopped at Doriscos, where he joined the fleet. Xerxes reorganized his troops into regular corps that replaced the national formations used earlier for the march.

In 480 BC, a new congress was convened. A delegation from Thessaly suggested that the allies should march to the Straits of Tempia, on the border of Thessaly, to stop Xerxes’s advance. However, there, they had been warned by Alexander I of Macedon that the valley could be bypassed via the Sarandoporus Pass, and as Xerxes’ army was clearly outnumbered, the Greeks retreated. Shortly afterwards, they learned that Xerxes had crossed the Hellespont. A second strategy was then adopted by the Allies.

Themistocles proposed a second strategy to the allies. The route in southern Greece would require Xerxes’ army to pass through the narrow pass at Thermopylae. The strait could easily be closed by the Greek hoplites, despite the numerical superiority of the Persians. Additionally, to prevent Thermopylae being bypassed by sea, the Athenian and allied fleets would block the Straits of Artemisium. This tactic was accepted at the conference. However, the Peloponnesian cities planned to defend the Isthmus of Corinth in case the plan failed, while Athenian women and children were leaving Troizena en masse.

Battle of Thermopylae 480 BC

battle-of-thermopylaeWhen the Allies received the news that Xerxes had crossed Mount Olympus, and was heading for Thermopylae, it was the season of the Olympic Games and the Spartan festival of the Carnias, during which military conflicts were forbidden. Nevertheless, the Spartans took the threat so seriously that their king, Leonidas, set out with his personal guard (the Horsemen) of 300 men (in this case, the elite young soldiers in the Horsemen were replaced by veterans who already had children ).

Leonidas received help from Peloponnesian allies of Sparta, and headed for Thermopylae. The Allies managed to capture the straits, rebuilt the wall that the Phocaeans had built long ago, and awaited the arrival of Xerxes At the same time as the Battle of Thermopylae, an allied naval force of 271 triremes defended the Straits of Artemisium against the Persians.

Here the allied fleet faced the Persians for 3 days – however, on the third evening the Allies received news of the defeat of Leonidas and the Allies at Thermopylae. With the allied fleet destroyed, and as there was no reason to protect the flanks of Thermopylae, the Allies retreated from Artemisium to Salamis.

When the Persians arrived at Thermopylae in mid-August, they waited for 3 days for the Allies to retreat. When Xerxes realized that the Allies would not retreat, he sent his army to attack. However, the Greek position was ideal for the use of hoplites, and the Persians were forced to attack the phalanx head on.

The Allies resisted for 2 days against the Persian attacks and the Immortals. But, at the end of the 2nd day, they were betrayed by a local, Ephialtes, who revealed to Xerxes a mountain path that led behind the allied lines. When they learned of this, Leonidas ordered the retreat of the allied army, and remained at Thermopylae with 2,000 men. On the 3rd day of the battle, the Allies moved forward to face the Persians in an attempt to kill as many Persians as possible, but were killed or captured.

The battle of Salamis 480 BC

battle-of-salamisVictory at Thermopylae meant that all of Boeotia surrendered to Xerxes – and left Attica open to invasion. The population of Athens was transferred to Salamis, thanks to the help of the allied fleet. The Peloponnesian Allies began preparing a defensive line around the Isthmus of Corinth, building a wall, and destroying the road from Megara, thus abandoning the Athenians. Athens was conquered – the small number of Athenians holed up in the Acropolis were defeated, and Xerxes ordered the burning of Athens.

The Persians had captured most of Greece, but Xerxes perhaps did not expect such defiance from the Greeks – his main priority was to end the war as quickly as possible. In short, if Xerxes succeeded in destroying the allied fleet, he would be in a strong position to force the Greeks to surrender—instead they would avoid destruction, or as Themistocles hoped, by encircling the Persian fleet so that the Greeks to prevent its capture. Thus, the allied fleet remained off the coast of Salamis in September, despite the imminent arrival of the Persians.

Even if Athens was conquered by the Persian army, the allied fleet would remain at Salamis, trying to lure the Persians into battle. Partly as a result of evasion on the part of Themistocles, the fleets finally converged on the Straits of Salamis. There, the large Persian numbers were an active obstacle, as the ships lost their ability to maneuver and became disorganized. Seeing the opportunity, the Greeks attacked, and achieved a decisive victory, after destroying at least 200 Persian ships, and secured the protection of the Peloponnese from the Persians.

Battle of Plataea 479 BC

battle-of-plateaDuring the winter, there seems to have been tension between the Allies. In particular, the Athenians, who were not protected by the isthmus, but whose fleet was the key to the security of the Peloponnese, refused to join the rest of the allied fleet.

Mardonius remained in Thessaly, knowing that an attack on the isthmus was useless as the Allies refused to send an army away from the Peloponnese. Mardonius moved to break the stalemate, offering peace, autonomy and territorial expansion to the Athenians (to achieve the removal of the Athenians from the allied forces), using Alexander I of Macedon as mediator.

The Athenians were assured that a Spartan embassy was there to listen to the offer, but they refused it. Athens was again evacuated, and the Persians marched to retake it. Now Mardonius repeated his offer to the Athenian refugees at Salamis.

Athens, as well as Megara and Plataea, sent an embassy to Sparta asking for help, threatening to accept Persian terms if the Spartans did not help. In response, the Spartans gathered a large army from the cities of the Peloponnese and marched to face the Persians.

When Mardonius heard that an allied army was moving to meet him, he retreated to Boeotia, near Plataea, trying to drive the Allies into an open field where he could use his cavalry.

The allied army, however, under the leadership of the Spartan general Pausanias, remained on the heights above the Plataea to protect themselves from such tactics. The allied position was now undermined, and Pausanias ordered a night retreat to the original positions.

This went awry, leaving the Athenians, Spartans and Tegeans isolated on separate hills, with the rest of the corps scattered further afield, near the Plataea. Seeing that he might never have a better opportunity to attack, Mardonius ordered his entire army to move forward.

However, the Persian infantry were no match for the heavily armed Greek hoplites, and the Spartans routed Mardonius’ bodyguard and killed him. The Persian force was shattered – 40,000 soldiers managed to escape across a road into Thessaly, but the remaining troops retreated into the Persian camp, where they were trapped and slaughtered by the Allies, finalizing the Allied victory.

Battle of Mykali 479 BC

battle-of-mykaliHerodotus tells us that the rumor of the allied victory reached the allied fleet, which was off the coast of Mycale in Ionia. Their morale was boosted, and the Allied marines won a decisive victory at the Battle of Mycale that same day, destroying the remnants of the Persian fleet, crippling Xerxes’ naval power, and signaling the superiority of the Allied fleet. While many modern historians doubt that Mykali took place on the same day as Plataea, the battle may have been fought when the Allies received news of the events unfolding in Greece.

Mykali was the beginning of the new phase of the conflicts, the Greek counterattack. The result of the victory in Mykali was the second uprising of the Greek cities of Asia Minor. The Samians and Milesians actively fought against the Persians at Mykali, openly declaring their rebellion, and the other cities followed suit.

After the victory at Mycale, the allied fleet headed for the Hellespont to destroy the pontoon bridges, but found them destroyed. The Peloponnesians returned to the Peloponnese, but the Athenians remained to attack the Thracian Peninsula, which was still under Persian occupation. .

The Persians and their allies moved to Sestos, the strongest city in the region. Among them was an Oeovasus from Cardia, who had in his possession equipment from the raft bridges. The Persian governor, Artauctis did not prepare for a siege, as he did not expect the Allies to attack. The Athenians, now, were able to launch a siege around Sesto.

The siege lasted for several months, causing some discontent among the Athenian corps, but suddenly, the Persians retreated from the less heavily guarded area of the city. The Athenians were able to capture the city the next day.

Wars of the Delian Alliance 477-449 BC

The Spartans believed that because of the freedom of Greece and the Greek cities in Asia Minor there was no longer a cause for war. Perhaps, this was done because the Spartans felt that the long security of the Greek cities of Asia Minor was unlikely. After Mycale, the Spartan king Leotychida II proposed moving all Greeks from Asia Minor to Europe as the only method of complete freedom from Persian rule. Xanthippus, the Athenian commander at Mycale, flatly refused – the Ionian cities were Athenian colonies, and the Athenians, if no one else, would protect the Ionians. This meant that leadership in the Greek alliance fell to the Athenians. With the Spartan withdrawal after Byzantium, Athenian leadership became clear.

The alliance of city-states that had fought against Xerxes’ invasion was dominated by Sparta and the Peloponnesian League. With the departure of these states, a conference was convened on the sacred island of Delos to establish a new alliance, which would continue the struggle against the Persians. This alliance, which now included several Aegean islands, was called the “First Athenian Alliance”, also known as the Delian Alliance. According to Thucydides, the main goal of the alliance was “revenge for the injustices suffered by the destruction of the king’s territory”.

In fact, this objective was divided into three main efforts – to prepare for a future invasion, to take revenge on the Persians, and to organize a means of dividing the spoils of war. Members were given the opportunity to choose whether they wanted to contribute to the army or a tax to the common fund – most members chose the tax.

During 470 BC, the Delian League campaigned in Thrace and the Aegean to dislodge Persian fortresses from the region, under the leadership of the Athenian statesman Cimon. In the early years of the next decade, Kimonas began campaigns in Asia Minor, trying to strengthen the Greek position there. At the Battle of Eurymedon, in Pamphylia, the Athenian and allied fleets won a double victory, destroying the Persian fleet and the Persian army. After the battle, the Persians took a passive role, avoiding engaging the Athenians in battle.

In the late 460s BC, the Athenians made the decision to support Egypt in its revolution against Persia. Although the Greek corps had successes, they failed to capture the Persian fortress at Memphis, despite a 3-year siege. The Persians then counterattacked, and the Athenian force was besieged for 18 months before being annihilated. This disaster, combined with the conflicts in Greece, forced the Athenians to continue the conflicts with the Persians.

In 451 BC, an armistice was signed in Greece, and Cimon was able to lead an army to Cyprus. However, while besieging Kition, Cimon was killed, the Athenian force retreated, and he won a double victory at Salamis in Cyprus. This campaign ended hostilities between the Delian League and Persia, and some ancient historians argue that a peace treaty, the Peace of Callias, was signed to cement the final end of the Greek-Persian Wars.