The Start of the Persian Wars

Bas-relief of King Darius I, bas-relief in Iran.
De Agostini / Archivio J. Lange / Getty Images

During the Archaic Age, one group of Greeks pushed another from the mainland, resulting in a sizeable Hellenic population in Ionia (now Asia Minor). Eventually, these uprooted Greeks came under the rule of the Lydians of Asia Minor. In 546, Persian monarchs replaced the Lydians. The Ionian Greeks found Persian rule oppressive and attempted to revolt—with the aid of the mainland Greeks. The Persian Wars lasted from 492-449 B.C.

Ionian Greeks

The Athenians considered themselves Ionian; however, the term is now used a bit differently. What we consider Ionians were the Greeks the Dorians (or descendants of Hercules) pushed off mainland Greece.

Ionian Greeks, who were in contact with the civilizations to their East, including Mesopotamia and ancient Iran, made many important contributions to Greek culture—especially philosophy.

Croesus of Lydia

King Croesus of Lydia, a man of fabled wealth, was said to have acquired his wealth from the man with the Golden Touch—Midas, son of the man who had created the Gordian Knot. Croesus is said to have been the first foreigner to come into contact with the Greek settlers of Ionia, in Asia Minor. Misinterpreting an oracle, he lost his kingdom to Persia. The Greeks chafed under Persian rule and reacted.

The Persian Empire

King Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered the Lydians and put King Croesus to death.* By acquiring Lydia, Cyrus was now king of the Ionian Greeks. The Greeks objected to the strains the Persians put on them, including the draft, heavy tribute, and interference in local government. A Greek tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras, first tried to ingratiate himself with the Persians and then led a revolt against them.

The Persian War

The Ionian Greeks sought and received military help from mainland Greece, but once the more distant Greeks came to the attention of the African and Asian empire-building Persians, the Persians sought to annex them, too. With many more men and a despotic government going for the Persian side, it looked like a one-sided fight.

King Darius of Persia

Darius ruled the Persian Empire from 521-486. Going east, he conquered part of the Indian Subcontinent and attacked tribes of the Steppe, like the Scythians, but never conquered them. Nor was Darius able to conquer the Greeks. Instead, he suffered a defeat in the Battle of Marathon. This was very important for the Greeks, although fairly minor for Darius.

Xerxes, the King of Persia

A son of Darius, Xerxes, was more aggressive in his empire building. To avenge his father's defeat at Marathon, he led an army of about 150,000 men and a 600-ship navy into Greece, defeating the Greeks at Thermopylae. Xerxes destroyed much of Athens, from which most of the people had fled, gathering together with other Greeks at Salamis to face their enemy. Then Xerxes suffered defeat in the battle off the island of Salamis. He left Greece, but his general Mardonius remained, only to be defeated at Plataea.

Herodotus

Herodotus' History, a celebration of the Greek victory over the Persians, was written in the mid-fifth century B.C. Herodotus wanted to present as much information about the Persian War as he could. What sometimes reads like a travelogue, includes information on the entire Persian Empire, and simultaneously explains the origins of the conflict with references to mythological prehistory.

The Delian League

After an Athenian-led Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, in 478, Athens was put in charge of a protection alliance with the Ionian cities. The treasury was at Delos; hence the name for the alliance. Soon the leadership of Athens became oppressive, although, in one form or another, the Delian League survived until the victory of Philip of Macedonia over the Greeks at the Battle of Chaeronea.

*For conflicting accounts of the death of Croesus, see: "What Happened to Croesus?" by J. A. S. Evans. The Classical Journal, Vol. 74, No. 1. (Oct. - Nov. 1978), pp. 34-40.

Sources

  • A History of the Ancient World, by Chester Starr
  • The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, by Donald Kagan
  • Plutarch's Life of Pericles, by H. Hold