The Persian War In Ancient Greece

Discover the history of Ancient Greece, and the crucial victory by the Athenians at the Battle Of Marathon, in the Persian Wars.

There can be no doubt that the Persian Wars form an essential part of Ancient Greek history. Had certain key battles gone in favour of the opposing side, it is highly likely that subsequently, the culture and status of the country would have reflected greatly the conquering nation, Persia. The Persians already controlled much of the known world at that time, so it would have been very difficult for any other nations to regain control of Greece.

The initial actions that led to the Persian Wars can be traced back to around 560 BC when the Greek city-states on the coast of Asia Minor, the Ionians, were conquered by the Lydians, led by King Croseus. Persia had long had its eye on these city-states though, and in 546 BC its army moved swiftly to take control of them. Because they wished to maintain a strict control over their newly gained lands, the Persians decided to install tyrants as rulers. By doing this, any murmurs of uprising by the natives could be harshly crushed by force, a highly effective deterrent.

In fact, the only way in which the Persians might lose control of the Greek city-states would be if the ruling tyrants themselves were to form a rebellion. It was assumed however that they would have no reason to do this - they led more than comfortable lives, and it would be foolish indeed to give that up to attack the mighty Persians. The tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras, in attempting to further his standing with the Persians, persuaded them to attack Naxos. They agreed, but the mission failed badly. Although the Persians had placed him in power, Aristagoras now feared for his life; he knew how intolerant his superiors could be.

It was with these thoughts that he decided to organise a rebellion. Turning first to the Spartans, considered to be the most powerful of all the Greeks, he pleaded for assistance. They were wary of him though and declined. Next he asked the Athenians, and they agreed to help, providing twenty ships. After all, it had been travellers from Athens that had originally settled on the Ionian coast. As well as the Athenians, Aristagoras persuaded other lesser Greek city-states under Persian rule to rebel. Issues such as high taxes and mandatory service in the Persian army were reason enough for them to join in.

During the rebellion (499 BC) the Athenians sacked the Lydian capital, Sardis, burning it to the ground. They saw it as a job well done, and returned to Athens. Without their help though, the other rebels soon crumbled under sustained pressure from the Persian army. The king of Persia, Darius I, was pleased to have regained the land, but furious at the Athenians for destroying Sardis. Also they had been one of very few states from outside the area of the Ionian coast that had helped in the rebellion. With this in mind the Persians set off for revenge against Athens with a great army.

Luckily for the Athenians, they were helped by a former Persian soldier, the great Miltiades, who had fallen out with King Darius I. He knew the workings of the Persian army inside out, so when battle commenced he was able to advise the Athenians very well. The major battle of this war was the Battle of Marathon (490 BC). With Miltiades help, the Athenians drove their enemy back to Persia. This is considered by many to be their greatest victory - if they had lost it is probable that the Persians would have gone on to control all of Greece.



The people of Athens rejoiced, believing themselves to be the greatest beings on the earth. Indeed, it is from then that Athens became a centre for Greek culture and power. However, the wiser amongst them realised the might of the Persian army and feared reprisals. Persia saw the defeat at Marathon as a mere nuisance along the road to world domination. So, in 480 BC, led by the son of Darius, Xerxes, the Persians set out with their greatest army ever, to smash the Athenians once and for all.

Fortunately, the Athenians had taken notice of those that had said the Persians would be back, and in the interceding years built up a huge navy of around two hundred ships. It didn't compare with the might of the Persian army, but at least it gave them a fighting chance. They were to be helped by other Greek city-states, most notably Sparta, although many refused to take part in the war.

The Greeks knew that the war would be won or lost at sea. Learning from previous experience of the turbulent nature of the Aegean Sea, they built a canal on land, to avoid having to use the sea. The Persians were forced to use the Aegean, and lost several ships in violent storms. Once through though, the Persians began to make inroads on dry land. Tactically the Greeks were superb, using natural bottleneck landscape features and manmade earth bankings as defensive lines. Eventually though they were broken and forced to retreat to the island of Salamis. The Persians were left to destroy the deserted cities of Athens and Attica, and then they set off in pursuit of their enemy.

Retreating to Salamis had been a tactical masterstroke for the Greeks. The waters off the island were very shallow, so when the heavy Persian fleet arrived, the light Greek vessels were able to pick them off at will. Soon enough almost the entire Persian fleet had been destroyed, and what remained of it returned to Persia. A year later a huge Greek army led by the Spartans destroyed the last remnants of the Persian army in Greece.

As a consequence of the wars, most of the Greek states looked upon Athens as the leading city, because it was thought that their fleet had been the decisive factor during the final war. The Spartans resented the Athenians for this, and ultimately it would lead to them attacking and defeating Athens in the Peloponnesian War.

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