Events leading up to the Persian Wars

King Darius I, bas-relief, Persepolis (Unesco World Heritage List, 1979), Iran, Achaemenid civilization, 6th-5th century BC, detail
De Agostini / Archivio J. Lange / Getty Images

Before the Persian Wars:

During the Archaic Age, which period covers the time when the poet identified as Homer composed his epic masterpieces, 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 [see discussion of this date], Persian monarchs replaced the Lydians. The Ionian Greeks found Persian rule oppressive and attempted to revolt -- with the aid of the mainland Greeks. And so it began....

The Persian Wars lasted from 492 - 449 B.C.

Ionian Greeks:

The Athenians considered themselves Ionian; however, we usually use the term 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 Greeks 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.

*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.

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. [Although on an entirely different scale, the victory of the colonists in the American revolution was far more important for them than it was for the losing British side.]

Xerxes - King Xerxes 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' 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.

Some Print 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