Persian Wars


     The Persian Wars In the 5th century BC the vast Persian Empire attempted to
conquer Greece. If the Persians had succeeded, they would have set up local
tyrants, called satraps, to rule Greece and would have crushed the first
stirrings of democracy in Europe. The survival of Greek culture and political
ideals depended on the ability of the small, disunited Greek city-states to band
together and defend themselves against Persia's overwhelming strength. The
struggle, known in Western history as the Persian Wars, or Greco-Persian Wars,
lasted 20 years--from 499 to 479 BC. Persia already numbered among its conquests
the Greek cities of Ionia in Asia Minor, where Greek civilization first
flourished. The Persian Wars began when some of these cities revolted against

Darius I, Persia's king, in 499 BC. Athens sent 20 ships to aid the Ionians.

Before the Persians crushed the revolt, the Greeks burned Sardis, capital of

Lydia. Angered, Darius determined to conquer Athens and extend his empire
westward beyond the Aegean Sea. In 492 BC Darius gathered together a great
military force and sent 600 ships across the Hellespont. A sudden storm wrecked
half his fleet when it was rounding rocky Mount Athos on the Macedonian coast.

Two years later Darius dispatched a new battle fleet of 600 triremes. This time
his powerful galleys crossed the Aegean Sea without mishap and arrived safely
off Attica, the part of Greece that surrounds the city of Athens. The Persians
landed on the plain of Marathon, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Athens.

When the Athenians learned of their arrival, they sent a swift runner,

Pheidippides, to ask Sparta for aid, but the Spartans, who were conducting a
religious festival, could not march until the moon was full. Meanwhile the small

Athenian army encamped in the foothills on the edge of the Marathon Plain. The

Athenian general Miltiades ordered his small force to advance. He had arranged
his men so as to have the greatest strength in the wings. As he expected, his
center was driven back. The two wings then united behind the enemy. Thus hemmed
in, the Persians' bows and arrows were of little use. The stout Greek spears
spread death and terror. The invaders rushed in panic to their ships. The Greek
historian Herodotus says the Persians lost 6,400 men against only 192 on the

Greek side. Thus ended the battle of Marathon (490 BC), one of the decisive
battles of the world. Darius planned another expedition, but he died before
preparations were completed. This gave the Greeks a ten-year period to prepare
for the next battles. Athens built up its naval supremacy in the Aegean under
the guidance of Themistocles. In 480 BC the Persians returned, led by King

Xerxes, the son of Darius. To avoid another shipwreck off Mount Athos, Xerxes
had a canal dug behind the promontory. Across the Hellespont he had the

Phoenicians and Egyptians place two bridges of ships, held together by cables of
flax and papyrus. A storm destroyed the bridges, but Xerxes ordered the workers
to replace them. For seven days and nights his soldiers marched across the
bridges. On the way to Athens, Xerxes found a small force of Greek soldiers
holding the narrow pass of Thermopylae, which guarded the way to central Greece.

Leonidas, king of Sparta, led the force. Xerxes sent a message ordering the

Greeks to deliver their arms. "Come and take them," replied Leonidas.

For two days the Greeks' long spears held the pass. Then a Greek traitor told

Xerxes of a roundabout path over the mountains. When Leonidas saw the enemy
approaching from the rear, he dismissed his men except the 300 Spartans, who
were bound, like himself, to conquer or die. Leonidas was one of the first to
fall. Around their leader's body the gallant Spartans fought first with their
swords, then with their hands, until they were slain to the last man. The

Persians moved on to Attica and found it deserted. They set fire to Athens with
flaming arrows. Xerxes' fleet held the Athenian ships bottled up between the
coast of Attica and the island of Salamis. His ships outnumbered the Greek ships
three to one. The Persians had expected an easy victory, but one after another
their ships were sunk or crippled. Crowded into the narrow strait, the heavy

Persian vessels moved with difficulty. The lighter Greek ships rowed out from a
circular formation and rammed their prows into the clumsy enemy vessels. Two
hundred Persian ships were sunk, others were captured, and the rest fled. Xerxes
and his forces hastened back to Persia. Soon after, the rest of the Persian army
was scattered at Plataea (479 BC). In the same year Xerxes' fleet was defeated
at Mycale. The threat of Persian domination was ended.