A Short Summary of the Persian Wars

A Key Point in the History of the Ancient World

For Honor and Glory
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The term Greco-Persian Wars is thought to be less biased against the Persians than the more common name "Persian Wars," but most of our information about the wars comes from the winners, the Greek side—the conflict apparently was not important enough, or too painful for the Persians to record.

For the Greeks, however, it was critical. As British classicist Peter Green has characterized it, it was a David and Goliath struggle with David holding out for political and intellectual liberty against the monolithic theocratic Persian war machine. It wasn't just Greeks against Persians, nor were all the Greeks always on the Greek side.

Summary

  • Locations: Various. Especially Greece, Thrace, Macedonia, Asia Minor
  • Dates: c. 492–449/8 BCE
  • Winner: Greece
  • Loser: Persia (under kings Darius and Xerxes)

Earlier than the (mostly failed) attempts by the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes to control Greece, the Achaemenid empire was enormous, and Persian King Cambyses had extended the Persian Empire around the Mediterranean coast by absorbing Greek colonies.

Some Greek poleis (Thessaly, Boeotia, Thebes, and Macedonia) had joined Persia, as did other non-Greeks, including Phoenicia and Egypt. There was opposition: many Greek poleis under the leadership of Sparta on land, and under the dominance of Athens at sea, opposed the Persian forces. Before their invasion of Greece, Persians had been facing revolts within their own territory.

During the Persian Wars, revolts within Persian territories continued. When Egypt revolted, the Greeks helped them.

When Were the Greco-Persian Wars?

The Persian Wars are traditionally dated 492–449/448 BCE. However, conflict started between the Greek poleis in Ionia and the Persian Empire before 499 BCE. There were two mainland invasions of Greece, in 490 (under King Darius) and 480–479 BCE (under King Xerxes). The Persian Wars ended with the Peace of Callias of 449, but by this time, and as a result of actions taken in Persian War battles, Athens had developed her own empire. Conflict mounted between the Athenians and the allies of Sparta. This conflict would lead to the Peloponnesian War during which the Persians opened their deep pockets to the Spartans.

Medize

Thucydides (3.61–67) says the Plataeans were the only Boeotians who did not "medize." To medize was to submit to the Persian king as overlord. The Greeks referred to the Persian forces collectively as Medes, not distinguishing Medes from Persians. Likewise, we today don't distinguish among the Greeks (Hellenes), but the Hellenes were not a united force before the Persian invasions. Individual poleis could make their own political decisions. Panhellenism (united Greeks) became important during the Persian Wars.

"Next, when the barbarian invaded Hellas, they say that they were the only Boeotians who did not Medize; and this is where they most glorify themselves and abuse us. We say that if they did not Medize, it was because the Athenians did not do so either; just as afterwards when the Athenians attacked the Hellenes they, the Plataeans, were again the only Boeotians who Atticized." ~Thucydides

Individual Battles During the Persian Wars

The Persian War was fought in a series of battles between the earliest at Naxos (502 BCE), when Naxos repelled the Persians to the final battle at Prosopitis, where Greek forces were besieged by the Persians, in 456 BCE. Arguably, the most significant battles of the War included Sardis, which was burned by the Greeks in 498 BCE; Marathon in 490 BCE, the first Persian invasion of Greece; Thermopylae (480), the second invasion after which the Persians took Athens; Salamis, when the combined Greek navy decisively beat the Persians in 480; and Plataea, where the Greeks effectively ended the second Persian invasion in 479.

In 478, the Delian League was formed of several Greek city-states united to combine efforts under the leadership of Athens. Considered the start of the Athenian empire, the Delian League conducted several battles aimed at the expulsion of the Persians from Asian settlements, over a period of twenty years.  The main battles of the Persian Wars were:

  • Conflict Origins: 1st Naxos, Sardis
  • Ionian Revolt: Ephesus, Lade
  • First Invasion: 2nd Naxos, Eretria, Marathon
  • Second Invasion: Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis, Plataea, Mycale
  • Greek Counterattack: Mycale, Ionia, Sestos, Cyprus, Byzantium
  • Delian League: Eion, Doriskos, Eurymedon, Prosopitis

End of the War

The final battle of the war had led to the death of the Athenian leader Cimon and the defeat of the Persian forces in the area, but it didn't give decisive power in the Aegean to one side or the other. The Persians and Athenians were both tired and after Persian overtures, Pericles sent Callias to the Persian capital of Susa for negotiations. According to Diodorus, the terms gave the Greek poleis in Ionia their autonomy and the Athenians agreed not to campaign against the Persian king. The treaty is known as the Peace of Callias.

Historical Sources

  • Herodotus is the principal source on the Persian Wars, from Croesus of Lydia's conquest of the Ionian poleis to the fall off Sestus (479 BCE).
  • Thucydides provides some of the later material.

There are also later historical writers, including

  • Ephorus in the 4th century BCE, whose work is lost except for fragments, but was used by
  • Diodorus Siculus, in the 1st century CE.

Supplementing these are

  • Justin (under Augustus) in his "Epitome of Pompeius Trogus,"
  • Plutarch (2nd century CE) Biographies and
  • Pausanias (2nd century CE) Geography.

In addition to historical sources, there is Aeschylus' play "The Persians."

Key Figures

Greek

  • Miltiades (defeated the Persians at Marathon, 490)
  • Themistocles (highly skilled Greek military leader during the Persian Wars)
  • Eurybiades (Spartan leader in command of the Greek navy)
  • Leonidas (king of Sparta, who died with his men at Thermopylae in 480)
  • Pausanias (Spartan leader at Plataea)
  • Cimon (Athenian leader after the wars supporting Sparta)
  • Pericles (Athenian leader responsible for rebuilding Athens)

Persian

  • Darius I (fourth Persian king of the Achmaenids, ruled 522 to 486 BCE)
  • Mardonius (military commander who died at the Battle of Plataea)
  • Datis (Median admiral at Naxos and Eretria, and leader of the assault force at Marathon)
  • Artaphernes (Persian satrap at Sardis, responsible for suppressing the Ionian revolt)
  • Xerxes (ruler of the Persian empire, 486–465)
  • Artabazus (Persian general in the second Persian invasion)
  • Megabyzus (Persian general in the second Persian invasion)

There were later battles between Romans and Persians, and even another war that might be thought of as Greco-Persian, the Byzantine-Sassanid War, in the 6th and early 7th century CE.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Aeschylus. "The Persians: Seven against Thebes. Suppliants. Prometheus Bound." Ed. Sommerstein, Alan H. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Green, Peter. "The Greco-Persian Wars." Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Herodotus. "The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories." Ed. Strassler, Robert B.; trans. Purvis, Andrea L. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007.
  • Lenfant, Dominique. "Greek Historians of Persia." A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography. Ed. Marincola, John. Vol. 1. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. 200–09.
  • Rung, Edward. "Athens and the Achaemenid Persian Empire in 508/7 Bc: Prologue to the Conflict." Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 6 (2015): 257–62.
  • Wardman, A. E. "Herodotus on the Cause of the Greco-Persian Wars: (Herodotus, I, 5)." The American Journal of Philology 82.2 (1961): 133–50.