Persian Wars

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The Greco-Persian Wars or Persian Wars were a series of conflicts between the Greek world and the Persian Empire that started about 500 BC and lasted until 448 BC.


At the end of the 6th century BC, Darius the Great ruled over an immense realm, from western India to eastern Europe. In 513 BC Darius, for the first time, conquered Thrace and Macedon. Macedonian king Amyntas I became his vassal. But the conquest of Asia Minor (546 BC) left the Ionian Greeks under Persian rule, while the other Greeks were free, a state of affairs that was going to cause trouble sooner or later. Persian satraps (governors of provinces) of Asia Minor installed tyrants in most of Ionian cities and forced Greeks to pay taxes for the "King of Kings".

In 499 BC, instigated by Aristagoras in Miletus, the Ionian Revolt broke out; Ionian cities threw out the "tyrants" that the Persians had set over them, formed a league, and applied for help from the other Greeks. Athens sent twenty ships and Eretria five, and the fleet helped spread rebellion all along the coast. In 498 BC the Greeks captured and burnt Sardis, thereby provoking a Persian response in the form of an invasion. The Greek fleet was crushed at the Battle of Lade in 494 BC, and the Ionian cities sacked, although they were permitted to have democratic governments afterwards.

Darius' invasion

In 492 BC, an army commanded by Darius' son-in-law Mardonius overran Thrace and Macedon, followed in 490 BC by the punitive expedition of Datis and Artaphernes. The islands of the Cyclades surrendered, Eretria was captured, and the expedition landed in Attica near Marathon. Phidippides got the message for help to Sparta in record time, but a religious festival was being held that prevented the Spartans from leaving the city. In the end the Athenians and Plataeans alone defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon.

Xerxes' invasion

In 480, Darius' successor Xerxes I mounted a massive expedition, consisting of perhaps 60,000-120,000 soldiers and 1,000 ships, although a 1,000,000 man army or greater army is said by some Greeks to have invaded, but this is most likely an exaggeration. Additionally, a fleet of "1000" ships is interpreted as a gross exaggeration as well and seems to be derived more from mythology (see Iliad) than from an actual account of the Persian fleet. A preliminary diplomatic offensive secured the surrender of Thessaly, Delphi, Argos, and much of central Greece. Opposed to Xerxes was a Greek league led by Athens and Sparta, and a fleet hastily built by Themistocles. Attempts to hold back the Persians, at Thermopylae and Artemisium, both failed. At Thermopylae, King Leonidas of Sparta and his 300 soldiers, as well as Demophilus and his contingent of Thespians proved their bravery trying to slow the Persian advance long enough to give the rest of Greece a chance to prepare. Athens was evacuated, and the Greek fleet withdrew to Salamis. While the Peloponnesians proposed a defensive line at the Isthmus of Corinth, Themistocles instead engaged the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis, destroying many of their ships. Before the battle, Xerxes had set up a throne on Mount Aegaleo, so he could watch his great victory over the smaller Greek fleet. However, the narrow gulf provided little room for his heavy triremes to manoeuver, allowing the lighter Greek ships to flank and destroy them. Following the defeat, Xerxes and his fleet retired to Asia, where a heavy rebellion had started in Babylon], leaving Mardonius to winter over in Thessaly with the army.

The following spring (479), Mardonius twice offered Athens a separate peace, but was rebuffed. Maneuvers in Boeotia, particularly cavalry harassment of the 38,000 Athenian and Peloponnesian hoplites, ended with the Battle of Plataea; Mardonius was killed, and his army routed. The remnants of the Persian army left Greece. Also in this year a Greek fleet commanded by the Spartan king Leotychides destroyed the remaining Persian fleet in the Battle of Mycale.

The Greek counterattack

Encouraged by Xerxes' failures, the Greeks of Asias and the islands revolted again. In 478, a fleet under Pausanias captured Byzantium and started a rebellion in Cyprus. At this point the Peloponnesians withdrew from involvement (apparently due to various disputes), but Athens carried on, forming the Delian League in 478 BC. The records become scanty, but Cimon destroyed a Persian army and fleet around 467 near river Eurymedon in Asia Minor. About 459 Athens sent 200 ships in support of a revolt in Egypt, although after driving the Persians up the Nile, the fleet was lost in a counterattack at Memphis ca. 454. Another expedition in 450 failed to revive the Egyptian rebellion, and Cyprus was abandoned.

Around 449/448, with the support of Pericles, Callias negotiated the Peace of Callias with the Persians. While the exact nature of the agreement remains unclear (formal treaty or non-aggression pact), the result was independence for the Greeks of Asia, Persian rule for Cyprus, and the closure of the Aegean to Persian warships.

The Persians never really renounced their ambitions, and continued to meddle in Greek affairs in a sort of "cold war"; seducing cities with diplomacy and/or buying them off with gold, and employing Greek mercenaries (most famously Xenophon), until Alexander put an end to the Persian empire. For the Greeks, the Persian Wars engendered a consciousness of Greek unity, but the reality was short-lived, and a mere twenty years later the Greek world was torn apart by the Peloponnesian War. During and after the Peloponnesian War Persians supported Sparta (see Tissaphernes) and later, during the Corinthian War, Athens (see Artaxerxes II), perhaps in a Divide and rule way.


  • Herodotus, The Histories (the primary source)
  • Thucydides i. 93-112
  • Diodorus Siculus
  • Plutarch, Themistocles, Aristides, Cimon
  • Peter Green, The Greco-Persian Wars (University of California Press, 1998) ISBN 0520203135
  • A. R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks (1962)
  • G. B. Grundy, The Great Persian War (1901)
  • C. Hignett, Xerxes' Invasion of Greece]] (1963)

External links