Reading History #15 – The Persian Wars

Copyright @2015 Robert M. Shurmer

Questions to consider:

  1. Why did the Greeks and Persians go to war in the 5th century BCE?
  2. Why did Athens support the Ionian Revolt when Sparta refused?
  3. Why is the Persian War such a formative event in the development of Western Civilization?
F-16A, F-15C and F-15E flying during Desert Storm. (U.S. Air Force photo)

F-16A, F-15C and F-15E flying during Desert Storm.
(U.S. Air Force photo)

Never before have the Athenians faced a graver peril than they do right now — not since they first came into being. Bow our necks to the Mede, and their can be no doubt how terrible our sufferings will be, once Hippias has us back in his clutches. But should Athens prevail, she will surely emerge as the foremost city in Greece. (‘Speech of Miltiades before the Battle of Marathon’ from Herodotus)

Why do people, and by extension states, go to war? And how are individuals, and societies, and civilizations shaped by war? Hebrew Scripture (the Old Testament) records a war of sorts between the first off-spring of Adam and Eve, when Cain, in a jealous rage over a sacrifice gone wrong, attacks and kills his brother Abel. For the deed, Yahweh cast Cain, now a marked man literally, out of Eden. The Book of Genesis tells us that he settled ‘east of Eden’ with his wife and began building the first city, which he named after his first-born son, Enoch. Unraveling the causes of wars have consumed historians from the beginning of recorded time. This is precisely the first question posed by Herodotus, arguably the first true historian.

The writing of real history, as opposed to mere chronicles or lists, demands attention to questions (there is a reason you have lists of questions to consider at the start of each reading). What if this for? Why do those people do that? How did we reach this place? Disciplined thinkers are always asking questions. Ancient Greece nurtured a culture wherein asking questions about the world and seeking reasonable, human-centered answers, became the norm. Applying this standard to the past begins with Herodotus of Halicarnassus, an Ionian Greek commonly acknowledged as the Father of History, or as the Father of Lies depending upon your predilections. In a work he called simply his Histories (researches), Herodotus synthesized the evidence he had collected from his travels throughout the Aegean and Near East and presented a narrative of the events leading to the war that had consumed the Aegean for twenty years (499-479 BCE), the conflict we now call the Persian Wars. The questions he asked and the answers suggested by his research are indelibly printed on the fabric of Western civilization.

Herodotus tells us in the opening of the great work that he researched and wrote for two reasons: 1) to preserve a memory of the great deeds done by both the Greeks and barbarians (Persians), and 2) to explain why the two went to war with each other.  But what is the rest of the story? Herodotus, born about five years before the heroic last-stand at Thermopylae in 480 BCE, grew up in the wake of a major war that had preoccupied his city, Halicarnassus, and his people, the Greeks, for a generation. The war was a monumental event in the society in which he was raised and those who had lived through it knew that it had its outcome had profound meaning. Herodotus no doubt was aware that Greek civilization had passed through a storm that had been like no other before it and was standing the light of a new day. The war separated the past age from the present and added meaning to the Greek experience. Herodotus, committed to making sense of what we might term the spirit of the new day for Greece, spent his life asking questions about the world that had passed away. What he has left us is, first and foremost, and incredible compendium of information concerning the ancient world west of the Indus River, but it is also the first systematic attempt by an individual to piece together the historic causes of a war between two distinct civilizations: Persia, a vast empire, wealthy and sophisticated, a conquering military super-power that demanded submission; and Greece, a collection of antagonistic but culturally connected city-states on the fringe of the civilized world, independent-minded and humanistic, small states that refused to be ruled by foreign kings, however powerful.

The eminent historian William McNeill, who was awarded the National Humanities Award by President Obama in 2010, writes this about the significance of the Persian Wars:

The sovereign polis won its greatest successes in the Persian Wars. The surprising outcome of Xerxes’ invasion (480 BC) no doubt proved to many — as it did to the historian Herodotus — that under the gods, free men organized into city-states need fear no military danger from without and could be trusted to develop a more perfect individual manhood and a more glorious collective greatness than could possibly arise in a politically authoritarian society.

What took place in the Aegean region nearly 2500 years ago ultimately determined the fate of Western Civilization.


When the Persian Empire was still in its infancy and Solon was active in Athens, the Greek cities of the Ionian coast had united to defend themselves against the aggression of a much stronger and wealthier inland neighbor to the east, the Kingdom of Lydia. Lydia dominated the overland trade route between the Ionian coast, and therefore the lucrative Aegean trade, and the upper reaches of the Euphrates River system and beyond. The kingdom also possessed mineral resources, gold and iron in particular, that the Aegean Greeks lacked and a significant and industrious population. While Lydia’s military and economic strength had prompted the coastal Greeks to unite in defensive leagues from time to time, they balked the idea of a single centralized government. Efficient and effective military action was improbable and, during the reign of King Gyges (c.560-546 BCE), Lydia succeeded in completing its conquest. Thereafter the Ionian Greeks were ruled by Lydia and, consequently, pulled the kingdom into greater contact with the vibrant energies, commercial and cultural, of Aegean world . Only the polis of Miletus, the only Greek city actually to ally with Lydia by treaty, remained independent.

Lydia’s hegemonic control of the Ionian coast does not seem to have roused much anger or resistance on the part of the Greeks. The tribute that King Gyges of Lydia (the inventor of coins) and his successors exacted from the poleis remained low, and social and commercial exchange bound Lydian and Greek as never before. The Lydians, for example, began sending emissaries to the temples and oracles of Greece. They were, quite simply, merging into the same civilization, that is, the Lydians were being Hellenized. Rule from Sardis did not constitute such a great cultural shock or commercial disruption to the coastal Greek cities.

All of this seemed to change when Persia conquered Lydia in 546 BCE, and subsequently absorbed the Ionian cities, however, things changed. Rule by a faraway foreigner, who knew little of Greek civilization, began to rankle. By the beginning of the 5th century BCE, many of the leading men of the Ionian cities jostled for limited positions and favor by the imperial court which tended to patronize Persian officials. Fearing that he might lose his own governorship of Miletus and encouraged by recent military successes against the Persians by of the Greek island of Naxos, Aristagoras of Miletus conspired to raise rebellion in all the Greek cities of the Ionian coast. Once the thing was in the open and gathering steam among the Milesians (citizens of Miletus), Aristagoras made a political decision that at once defined the revolt and gave deeper meaning to struggle against Persia. He declared publicly that the Ionian Revolt was, at its core, about much more than money or disgruntled place-holders and sycophants. The Ionians fought for freedom; as true sons of Hellas they were resisting Persian tyranny and authoritarianism, fighting to restore popular government. Aristagoras, who had begun the rebellion in order to seize control of Miletus, had made the revolt about freedom from foreign-imposed despotism. He had made the cause universal among all freedom-loving Greeks who, he hoped, would rally to the support of the handful of Ionian cities.

Aristagoras set his sights on Sparta, the preeminent military power among the still independent Greek city-states, but failed to convince the Spartans to join the fight against Persia.  He then appealed to Athens where his argument about restored liberties fell on fertile and recently plowed ground. (Recall that Athens had only recently kicked out its own tyrant, Hippias, who was in exile in Persia possibly seeking military support for a return to Athens.) The Athenians agreed to send a military expedition to help Miletus.  In 498 BCE, twenty-five triremes and several thousand Athenian hoplites sailed to the Ionian port of Ephesus, western terminus of the great Royal Road of Persia. An Athenian-led coalition army then marched inland to the old Lydian capital of Sardis and burned the city to the ground before the Persian army could react to the situation or send sufficient reinforcements to the region.

When Persia did react, it did so thoroughly and with overwhelming force. Armies and navies loyal to the Emperor Darius streamed into Anatolia and brutally crushed all resistance. By 494 BCE, the Ionian Revolt was over, Miletus once again under the heel of Persia, her people enslaved (the boys made eunuchs) or killed. The citizen-army of liberation from Athens was back home in Attica. Athenians, however, were now at the top of Darius’ ‘people to destroy’ list. Herodotus tells us that after the burning of Sardis Emperor Darius had one of his slaves whisper in his ear ‘Sir, remember the Athenians’ after every meal so he would neither forget, nor forgive, their affront to the great king. When Darius and Xerxes subsequently sent their armies against the mainland Greeks (that is, the Greek states on the European side of the Hellespont), only Athens, singled out specifically for retribution, was given no opportunity to medize and save itself from destruction.

The Trireme (Greek warship) Under Sail

The Trireme (Greek warship) Under Sail

War on the Mainland: The Battle of Marathon 490 BCE

The Persians sent three military expeditions against the Greek mainland and before it was over managed to occupy Greek lands north of the Isthmus of Corinth. Athens did not escape destruction. Darius sent two military expeditions across the Aegean. Both ended in disaster for Persia. The first invasion planned to hug the northern coast of the Aegean, but it was wrecked in a storm as it rounded the peninsula of Athos. The second invasion island-hopped directly across the Aegean Sea in 490 BCE, landing some 80,000 troops on the Plain of Marathon, about 26 miles north of the city of Athens. In response the Athenians mobilized ten thousand hoplites. Joined by the troops of an ally, the polis of Plataea, the Athenian army marched to meet the Persians at Marathon. The ensuing battle between Greek and Persian has become one of the most storied clashes in all of history. Outnumbered in combatants nearly 3 to 1, the free men of Athens and Plataea pulled off a shocking victory over the professional army of the most powerful empire of the age. The Athenians buried their 192 dead on the field and raised a monument to their memory, upon which was written:

Ἑλλήνων προμαχοῦντες Ἀθηναῖοι Μαραθῶνι χρυσοφόρων Μήδων ἐστόρεσαν δύναμιν
Fighting at the forefront of the Greeks, the Athenians at Marathon laid low the army of the gilded Medes.

The Emperor Darius immediately began arming for a third invasion, which he planned to lead himself, but a rebellion in Egypt absorbed his energy. He died in 486 BCE. The throne of Persia passed to his son Xerxes; along with it was passed the smoldering war in the Aegean.

For the narrative of the final stage of the wars, we will turn to Herodotus. Let’s finish for now with some final thoughts from the experts concerning the big picture.  William McNeill (University of Chicago) sets the stage for the third and final phase of the great conflict between Greek and Persian:

When Xerxes, son of Darius, mounted the Persian throne in 486 BC, he inherited two important military-political problems. One, and the more pressing, was revolt in Egypt, which his armies put down only after severe fighting. The second was to secure his westernmost frontier, along the Aegean coast, against chronic instability resulting from the refusal of a backward part of the Greek world, lying across that sea, to recognize Persian overlordship. Moreover, Xerxes had a military tradition to sustain: his predecessors, Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius, had all been mighty conquerors, and Darius had already committed Persian prestige to the project of bringing the Greeks to heel. Therefore, as soon as he had crushed the Egyptians, Xerxes marshaled his armies and fleets for the conquest of Greece. (p.278)

And Chester Starr (University of Michigan) wraps it up neatly:

To the modern observer who cannot believe in the will of Zeus the victory of the Greeks is a superb testimonial alike to the powers of Hellenic civilization and to the strengths inherent in the city-state form of organization. True, not all Greeks had rallied to the cause, nor had traitors been absent; but those who fought had been sufficient in numbers and unified enough to carry the day and to prosecute the wars until the Persians gave over any immediate ideas of revenge.

From the Persian point of view the defeats at the hands of the Greeks were perhaps relatively minor matters, which did not shake their rule over the heartland of the Near East. Yet from this point onward the Persian empire was essentially on the defensive and was eventually to fall before an attack led from the Aegean world by Alexander the Great.

To the Greeks the victory over Persia was immediately important in many respects. That Greek civilization would have continued to progress under Persian rule seems more than doubtful; but the victory had some part in inspiring artists and authors to achieve masterpieces of the classic age. Athens, in particular, drew courage and strength from its salvation and from its position as leader of the Aegean to become the center of Greek culture, the first great democratic state, and also the first truly imperial power in Greek history.2


  1. McNeil, p.278.
  2. Starr, p.295.

Photo: USAF aircraft of the 4th Fighter Wing fly over Kuwaiti oil fires set by retreating Iraqi forces during Operation Desert Storm, 1991.


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