First Persian invasion of Greece

Dafato Team | May 27, 2022

Table of Content


The First Medical War consisted of the first Persian invasion of Ancient Greece, during the course of the Medical Wars. It began in 492 B.C., and ended with the decisive Athenian victory at the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. The invasion, which consisted of two separate campaigns, was ordered by the Persian king Darius I, primarily with the aim of punishing the polis (cities) of Athens and Eretria. These had supported the cities of Ionia during the Ionian revolt against the Persian government of Darius I. In addition to retaliatory action for his actions in the revolt, the Achaemenid king also saw an opportunity to extend his empire in Europe and secure his western frontier.

The first campaign (492 B.C.) was led by Mardonius, who re-subjugated Thrace and forced Macedonia to become a vassal of the kingdom of Persia. However, the progress of the military expedition was impeded by a storm that surprised the Persian general's fleet while it was coasting Mount Athos. The following year, having given signs of his intentions, Darius dispatched ambassadors to all parts of Greece asking for submission. He received the same from all except Athens and Sparta, which executed the ambassadors. With Athens defiant and Sparta at war with him, Darius ordered a military campaign for the following year.

The second campaign (490 B.C.) was under the command of Datis and Artafernes. The expedition first headed for the island of Naxos, which was captured and burned, and then moved from island to island through the rest of the Cyclades, annexing them to the Persian Empire. The expedition landed at Eretria, which was besieged, and after a short period of six days, after this, captured and razed to the ground, its citizens were enslaved. Finally, the expeditionary army headed for Attica, landing at Marathon, en route to Athens. There it encountered a much smaller Athenian army, which nevertheless won an outstanding victory at the battle of Marathon.

This defeat prevented the campaign from concluding successfully, and the expeditionary force returned to Asia. Nevertheless, the expedition had achieved most of its objectives by punishing Naxos and Eretria and bringing much of the Aegean Sea under Persian rule. The unachieved goals of the campaign prompted Darius to prepare a much larger invasion of Greece to firmly subjugate it and punish Athens and Sparta. However, internal conflicts in the empire delayed this expedition, and then Darius, already advanced in age, died. His son Xerxes I led the second Persian invasion of Greece, which began in 480 BC.

The main source of the Medical Wars is the Greek historian Herodotus. He was born in 484 BC, in Halicarnassus, a Greek city in Asia Minor, then ruled by the Persians. He wrote his work History between 440 and 430 B.C., attempting to trace the origins of the Greco-Persian wars, which would still have been considered recent history (they ended completely in 449 B.C.) Herodotus' approach was completely novel, and at least for Western society, Herodotus is considered the inventor of History as we know it today. As Holland puts it:

For the first time, a chronicler sets out to trace the origins of a conflict not to a past so ancient or remote as to be fabulous, he does not attribute it to the wishes or whims of any god, nor to the manifest destiny of a people, but to explanations that he himself could verify.

Many later ancient historians, while following in his footsteps, ridiculed Herodotus. The first of these, Thucydides. Nevertheless, Thucydides decided to continue his history where Herodotus left off (at the siege of Sestos), so it is presumed that he considered Herodotus to have done a good job summarizing the preceding history. Plutarch criticized Herodotus in his essay "On the Malevolence of Herodotus," where he described the historian as Philobarbaros (lover of the barbarians), for not being sufficiently favorable to the Greeks. Far from discrediting him, this fact suggests that Herodotus maintained a fairly objective point of view. The negative view of Herodotus reached into Renaissance Europe, although he continued to be widely read. Since the 19th century, however, his reputation has been spectacularly rehabilitated by archaeological finds that repeatedly confirmed his version of events. The modern view considers that Herodotus generally did a remarkable job in his History, but also that some specific details, especially dates and figures, must be viewed with skepticism. In any case, there remain historians who consider that Herodotus invented much of his history.

The Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus, in his work Historical Library written in the first century B.C., also chronicles the Medical Wars, taking as his main source the Greek historian Ephorus of Cime. This account is quite consistent with that of Herodotus. The Medical Wars are also described in lesser detail by a large number of ancient historians, including Plutarch and Ctesias of Cnidus, and are alluded to by many other writers such as the playwright Aeschylus. Archaeological evidence, including the Pillar of Serpents, supports some specifics of Herodotus' account.

The first Persian invasion of Greece had its immediate roots in the Ionian revolt, the first phase of the Medical Wars. However, it was also the result of an older interaction between Greeks and Persians. In 500 B.C. the Achaemenid Empire was still relatively young and expansionist, but vulnerable to uprisings among its subjects. As if that were not enough, the Persian king Darius was a usurper, and had to put down numerous revolts against his reign. Prior to the Ionian revolt, Darius began to expand the Empire in Europe, subjugating Thrace and forcing Macedonia to become his ally. It is quite possible that attempts to invade the rest of politically fractious Greece proved inevitable. The Ionian revolt directly threatened the very integrity of the Persian Empire, and the states of European Greece continued to represent a potential threat to its future stability. Darius therefore decided to subdue and pacify Greece and the Aegean, while chastising those involved in the revolt.

The Ionian revolt had begun with the unsuccessful expedition against Naxos, a common enterprise of the satrap Artafernes and the tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras. After the incident, Artafernes decided to remove Aristagoras from power; but before he could do so, Aristagoras abdicated, declaring Miletus a democracy. The rest of the cities of Ionia, on the verge of rebellion, followed in his footsteps, expelling their Persian-appointed tyrants and declaring themselves democracies as well. Aristagoras turned to the states of European Greece for support, but only Athens and Eretria offered him troops.

Greek participation in the Ionian revolt is the consequence of a complex set of circumstances, beginning with the establishment of Athenian democracy at the end of the 6th century BC, with the help of Cleomenes I, king of Sparta, the Athenians had expelled the tyrant Hippias, who ruled the city.Together with his father Pisistratus, Hippias' family had ruled Athens for 36 of the past 50 years.Hippias fled to the court of Artaphernes, Persian satrap of Sardis, and promised him control of Athens if he would help him regain government. Meanwhile, Cleomenes installed a pro-Spartan tyranny in Athens, personified in Isagoras, and opposed to Clisthenes, leader of the powerful family of the Alcmeonides, who considered themselves the natural heirs to the government of Athens. In a bold maneuver, Clisthenes promised the Athenians that he would install a 'democracy' in Athens, to the horror of the rest of the aristocracy. Clisthenes' reasons for suggesting such a drastic measure, which would significantly reduce the power of his own family, are unclear. It is possible that he perceived that those days of aristocratic rule would end anyway; he certainly wished by any means to prevent Athens from becoming a puppet of Sparta. Unfortunately, as a result of his proposal, Cleisthenes and his family were exiled from Athens by Isagoras, along with other dissidents. Having been promised a democracy, the Athenians seized the moment and revolted, expelling Cleomenes and Isagoras. Cleisthenes then returned to the city (507 B.C.) and began to establish a democratic government at a dizzying pace. The advent of democracy brought a revolution to Athens, which from then on became one of the great powers of Greece. The newfound freedom and self-government of the Athenians implied a further intolerance of the return of the tyranny of Hippias or any other form of subjugation, whether by Sparta, Persia or third parties.

Cleomenes, not surprisingly, was not too happy with the situation, and marched on Athens with the Spartan army. The attempts of the Lacedaemonian to restore Isagoras in the government ended in debacle, however the Athenians, fearing the worst, had already sent ambassadors to Artafernes, to the city of Sardes, asking for help from the Persian Empire. Artaphernes requested that the Athenians give him "land and water", a traditional symbol of submission, to which the Athenian ambassadors agreed. On their return to Athens, they were severely censured for this fact. At some later point, Cleomenes hatched a plot to reinstate Hippias in the government of Athens, which proved futile. Hippias fled again to Sardis, and attempted to persuade the Persians to subdue Athens. The Athenians sent emissaries to Artaphernes to dissuade him from taking any action, to which Artaphernes responded by recommending that they accept the return of Hippias as tyrant. The Athenians objected, as was to be expected, and openly declared war with Persia. Having thus become the enemy of the Achaemenid Empire, Athens was already predisposed to support the Ionian cities when the revolt broke out. The fact that the Ionian democracies were inspired by the Athenian one undoubtedly helped in this decision, especially if it is true that the Ionian cities were originally Athenian colonies.

The city of Eretria also sent aid to the Ionians, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Possibly there were commercial reasons: Eretria was a commercial city on the island of Euboea, whose market was threatened by Persian domination of the Aegean Sea. Herodotus suggests that the Eretrians backed the revolt in gratitude for the support given by Miletus to their city in an earlier war against Chalcis.

Athenians and Eretreians sent an expeditionary force of 25 triremes to Asia Minor. While there, the Greek army surprised Artaphernes, evading him and marching to Sardis, where they burned the lower part of the city. However, this was the greatest of Greek achievements, as they were pursued all the way to the coast by Persian horsemen, losing many men in the process. Although their actions were invaluable, both Eretrians and Athenians earned the eternal enmity of Darius, who vowed to punish both cities. The Persian victory at the naval battle of Lade (494 B.C.) virtually ended the revolt, and in 493 B.C. the Persian fleet quelled the last pockets of resistance. The rebellion was used as an opportunity to extend the imperial frontier to the islands of the eastern Aegean and the Propontide, which had never been part of the Persian dominions. The complete pacification of Ionia allowed the Persians to plan new moves, extinguish the threat posed by Greece, and to chastise Athens and Eretria.

In the spring of 492 B.C. an expeditionary force was created, to be led by Mardonius, the son-in-law of Darius, consisting of a fleet and a land army. It consisted of a fleet and a land army. While its primary objective was to punish Athens and Eretria, as a secondary objective it was to subjugate as many Greek cities as possible. Starting from Cilicia, Mardonius sent the army across the Hellespont, while he traveled with the fleet. He sailed around Asia Minor to Ionia, where he spent some time abolishing the tyrannies that ruled the Ionian cities. Ironically, since the establishment of democratic governments had been a key factor in the Ionian revolt, he replaced the tyrannies with democracies.

From there the fleet proceeded to the Hellespont. When all was ready, he embarked the land troops to cross to Europe. The army then marched through Thrace, reconquering it, for these lands had already been part of the Persian Empire in 512 B.C. during Darius' campaign against the Scythians. When they reached Macedonia, a former ally, they forced this kingdom to become a tributary of Persia, although allowing it to maintain its independence.

Meanwhile, the armada reached Thasos, at the sight of which the city submitted to the Persians. The fleet followed the coastline to Acanthus in Chalkidiki, before attempting to coast the slopes of Mount Athos. There they were surprised by a violent storm, which pushed them against the cliffs. According to Herodotus, 300 ships were wrecked and 20,000 men perished.

While the army was encamped in Macedonia, the Brigians, a local Thracian tribe, launched a night raid against the Persian camp, taking many lives and wounding Mardonius himself. Despite his wounds, the commander ensured that the Brigians were defeated and subdued, and then led his army back to the Hellespont, while the remnants of the army retreated to Asia as well. Although the campaign ended without achieving the main objectives, the lands bordering Greece were firmly under Persian control, and the Greeks had been clearly warned of the intentions that Darius harbored against them.

Probably reasoning that the previous year's expedition against Greece had exposed his plans and weakened the resolve of the Greek polis, Darius returned to diplomacy in 491 B.C. He sent ambassadors to all the Greek city-states, asking for "land and water", the traditional symbol of submission. The vast majority of cities responded favorably to his request, fearing the wrath of the Persian king. In Athens, on the other hand, the ambassadors were tried and executed. In Sparta, they were simply thrown into a pit. This fact firmly and inexorably drew the battle lines for the conflict to come. Sparta and Athens, despite their recent enmity, would fight together against the Persians.

However, Sparta suffered a series of internal machinations that destabilized its situation. The cities of Aegina submitted to the Persian ambassadors, and the Athenians, concerned that Persia might use this island as a naval base, asked Sparta to intervene. Cleomenes traveled to Aegina to deal personally with its inhabitants, but they turned to the other diarch of Sparta, Demaratus, who supported the Aeginetan resolution. Cleomenes responded by accusing Demaratus of illegitimacy, with the help of the priests of Delphi (whom he had bribed). Demaratus was replaced by his cousin Leotychidas. With the two diarchs against him, the Aegineta capitulated, giving hostages to the Athenians as a guarantee of their word. However, in Sparta it became known of Cleomenes' bribes at Delphi, and he was expelled from the city. In exile, he tried to win the support of the northern Peloponnese, at which the Lacedaemonians backed down and invited him to return to the city. Cleomenes, however, had gone too far, and in 491 B.C. he was imprisoned, accused of insanity, and died the next day. Although the official verdict was suicide, it is presumed that he was assassinated. He was succeeded by his half-brother Leonidas I.

Taking advantage of the chaos in Sparta, which left Athens effectively isolated, Darius decided to launch an amphibious expedition to finally punish Athens and Eretria. He gathered an army in Susa, and marched to Cilicia, where he had built a fleet. The command of the expedition was given to Datis the Mede and Artafernes, son of the satrap Artafernes.

Size of Persian forces

According to Herodotus, the fleet used by Darius consisted of 600 triremes. There is no data in the historical sources as to how many, if any, transports accompanied them. Herodotus indicates that 3000 transports sailed with the 1207 triremes during Xerxes' invasion in 480 B.C. Some modern historians accept this proportion of ships, although it has been suggested that the number 600 represents the combined number of triremes and troop transports, or that in addition to the 600 triremes there were horse transports.

Herodotus does not make an estimate of the size of the Persian army, indicating only that they formed a "numerous infantry in very close lines". Among other sources, the poet Simonides, almost contemporary of the facts, counts the campaign force at 200,000 soldiers. A later writer, the Roman Cornelius Nepos estimates the figures at 200,000 infantry and 10,000 horsemen. Plutarch and Pausanias put the Persians at 300,000, the same number mentioned in the Suda. Plato and Lysias state that there were 500,000, and Marcus Junianus Justinus puts the figure at 600,000.

Modern historians generally dismiss these figures as exaggerated. One possible approximation to estimate the number of troops is to calculate the number of marines carried in 600 triremes. Herodotus mentions that each trireme, during the second invasion of Greece, carried 30 extra marines, in addition to about 14 that would form its normal complement. Thus, 600 triremes could easily carry between 18 000 and 26 000 soldiers. The numbers proposed to quantify the Persian infantry are in the range of between 18 000 and 100 000, while the consensus is in the approximate figure of 25 000.

The Persian infantry used in the invasion was probably a heterogeneous group, recruited from all over the Empire. According to Herodotus, however, there was at least a homogeneity in the type of armor they wore and in their style of combat. In general, each infantryman was armed with a bow, a 'short spear' and a sword, carried a wicker shield, and his armor consisted at most of a leather doublet. The only exception to this rule might be ethnic Persian troops, who might have worn a breastplate or scale armor. Some contingents might carry a different panoply; for example, the Scythians, known for their affinity for the axe. The 'elite' forces of Persian infantry seem to have consisted of ethnic Persian troops, plus Medes, Kassites and Scythians. Herodotus specifically mentions the presence of Persians and Scythians at Marathon. The style of combat used by the Persians probably consisted of keeping clear of the enemy, using their bows (or equivalent) to decimate the opposing ranks before approaching melee to execute the coup de grace with their spears and swords.

Estimates for the cavalry range from 1000 to 3000 horsemen. The Persian cavalry was usually composed of ethnic Persians, Bactrians, Medes, Kassites, and Scythians, most of whom probably fought as light cavalry. Most of these probably fought as light cavalry. The fleet must have contained at least a small proportion of transport ships, since the cavalry was transported by sea. Herodotus writes that the cavalry embarked on the triremes, although this is highly unlikely. Lazenby estimates that about 30-40 transports were needed to embark 1000 horsemen and their horses.


Once assembled, the Persian force left Cilicia for Rhodes. A chronicle of the sanctuary of Athena Lindia mentions that Datis unsuccessfully besieged the city of Lindos.


The fleet then sailed north, following the Ionian coast to Samos, where they turned west into the Aegean Sea. Their next destination was Naxos, in an attempt to punish its inhabitants for the failed siege a decade earlier. Many of its inhabitants fled to the mountains, but those who fell into Persian hands were enslaved. The Persians then burned the city and its temples.

The Cyclades

Continuing on its route, the Persian fleet approached Delos, at the sight of which many Delians also abandoned their homes. After the demonstration of power carried out on Naxos, Datis intended to show clemency to the rest of the islands, if they would submit to his yoke. He sent a herald to the island, proclaiming:

Sacred men, why have you fled, misunderstanding my intentions? It is my wish, as well as the command of my king, not to harm the land where the two gods were born, nor its inhabitants. Return, then, to your homes, and dwell in your island.

He then burned 300 talents of incense on the altar of Apollo, to show his respect for one of the island gods. The fleet then sailed from island to island along the Aegean, taking hostages and recruiting troops on its way to Eretria.


Finally, the Persians reached the city of Caristo, on the southern coast of Euboea. Its citizens refused to give hostages to the Persians, so they were besieged and their fields razed, until they submitted to Persia.

Eretria Site

Departing from Euboea, the Persian fleet headed for the first of its main objectives: Eretria. According to Herodotus, the Eretrians hesitated as to the best course of action: flee to the hills, resist a siege, or surrender to the Persians. The majority decision was to remain in the city. The Eretrians did not attempt to hinder the Persian landing, nor their advance, thus allowing them to initiate a siege. The Persians attacked the walls for six days, with losses on both sides. On the seventh day, however, two reputed Eretreians opened the city gates, betraying the square to the Persians. The city was razed to the ground, the temples and shrines looted and then burned. The surviving inhabitants, according to Darius' orders, were enslaved.

Battle of Marathon

The Persian fleet subsequently headed south, down the Attic coast to land at Marathon, approximately 25 miles (40.2 km) from Athens, on the advice of Hippias, son of the former tyrant of Athens Pisistratus. The Athenians, joined by a small force from Platea, marched to Marathon, and succeeded in blocking the two exits to the Marathon valley. Meanwhile Philipides, Athens' best runner, was sent to Sparta to request the mobilization of the Lacedaemonian army in support of Athens. Philipides arrived during the festival of the Carneas, a sacred period of peace, and received the reply that the Spartan army could not leave for war until the next full moon. Consequently, Athens could not expect to receive reinforcements for at least ten days. They decided to hold out at Marathon for the time being, being reinforced by a contingent of Plataean hoplites.

The positions were held for five days, after which the Athenians, for reasons still unclear, decided to attack the Persians. Despite the Persian numerical superiority, the hoplites showed devastating effectiveness, defeating the Persian wings and then turning back towards the center of the Median army. The remnants of the Persian army left the battlefield and fled to their ships. Herodotus recounts that up to 6400 Persian bodies lay on the ground after the battle. The Athenians lost only 192 men.

Immediately after the battle, Herodotus states that the Persian fleet sailed around Cape Sunion to attack Athens directly, although some modern historians place this attack just before the battle.In any case, the Athenians perceived the threat that still loomed over their city, and returned as quickly as they could.The Athenians arrived in time to prevent the Persian landing, and the latter, seeing that they had lost their chance, returned to Asia.The next day, the army of Sparta arrived, after covering 220 km in three days. The Spartans visited the battlefield of Marathon, acknowledging that the Athenians had won a great victory.

The defeat of Marathon ended for the time being the Persian invasions of Greece. However, Thrace and the Cyclades islands had been absorbed by the Achaemenids, and Macedonia had been reduced to a vassal kingdom. Darius was still determined to conquer Greece, to secure the western frontier of his empire. Moreover, Athens had gone unpunished for its participation in the Ionian Revolt and, like Sparta, for its treatment of the Persian ambassadors.

Because of all this, Darius began to recruit a new, more powerful army, with the intention of subjugating all of Greece. His plans were disrupted in 486 B.C. by the rebellion of his subjects in Egypt, which indefinitely postponed preparations for the expedition. This rebellion indefinitely postponed preparations for the expedition. Darius died as he was about to march on Egypt, and the throne of Persia passed to his son Xerxes I. Xerxes crushed the uprising in Egypt, and quickly resumed preparations to invade Greece. The expedition was ready in 480 B.C., thus beginning the second invasion of Greece, under the command of Xerxes himself.

According to Pliny the Elder, alfalfa was introduced into Greece during this conflict, possibly in the form of seeds that arrived with the fodder of the Persian cavalry. It became a common crop for horse feed.

For the Persians, both expeditions had essentially succeeded: they had captured new territories for the empire, and Eretria had been punished. The defeat at Marathon, therefore, was for them only a minor defeat, which had little effect on the enormous resources of the Achaemenid Empire. For the Greeks, however, it represented a victory full of meaning. It was the first time that the Greeks had defeated the Persians, showing them that they were not invincible and that resistance was an alternative to subjugation.

The victory at Marathon represented a turning point in the young Athenian democracy, showing the power of unity and self-confidence. Indeed, the battle did indeed mark the beginning of a 'golden age' for Athens and for Greece as a whole, as Holland mentions:

The victory gave the Greeks a faith in their destiny that would last for three centuries, during which the basis of Western culture was formed.

For his part, John Stuart Mill was of the opinion that:

The Battle of Marathon, even when viewed from the perspective of British history, was of greater significance than the Battle of Hastings.

Militarily, it showed the Greeks the potential of the hoplite phalanx. This formation was developed during the everlasting clashes between the Greeks themselves, and since each city-state fought in the same way, it had been impossible to ascertain the advantages of the phalanx. Marathon was the first conflict in which a phalanx faced light troops, and revealed how devastating the hoplites were in battle. The phalanx formation was nevertheless vulnerable to cavalry - the reason for the Greek precautions in the later battle of Platea - but used under the right conditions, it proved to be a potentially devastating weapon. It seems that the Persians ignored the military lessons of Marathon, in light of their second expedition: the composition of their infantry remained similar, despite the availability of hoplites and other heavy infantry in Persian-controlled lands. Having triumphed against the hoplites in previous battles, it is possible that they regarded the defeat of Marathon as an exceptional case.


  1. First Persian invasion of Greece
  2. Primera guerra médica

Please Disable Ddblocker

We are sorry, but it looks like you have an dblocker enabled.

Our only way to maintain this website is by serving a minimum ammount of ads

Please disable your adblocker in order to continue.

Dafato needs your help!

Dafato is a non-profit website that aims to record and present historical events without bias.

The continuous and uninterrupted operation of the site relies on donations from generous readers like you.

Your donation, no matter the size will help to continue providing articles to readers like you.

Will you consider making a donation today?