Greco-Persian Wars

Dafato Team | May 29, 2022

Table of Content


The Median Wars opposed the Greeks to the Persians of the Achaemenid Empire at the beginning of the 5th century B.C. They were triggered by the revolt of the Asian Greek cities against the Persian domination, the intervention of Athens in their favor leading to reprisals. The two military expeditions of the Achaemenid rulers Darius I and Xerxes I constitute the main military episodes of this conflict; it concludes with the spectacular victory of the European Greek cities led by Athens and Sparta.

They traditionally mark the passage from the Archaic to the Classical period. Even if one should not exaggerate its scope - for the Achaemenid Empire this conflict seems initially rather peripheral -, the Median wars appear as the starting point of the Athenian hegemony in the Aegean Sea, but also as the awareness of a certain community of interests of the Greek world vis-a-vis Persia, an idea that Alexander the Great took up, nearly two centuries later.

The historian who studies the Medieval wars is faced with a major difficulty: he has only Greek written sources and the only exhaustive account is that of Herodotus and his Enquiry. To grasp the real stakes and nature of the confrontations, the historian must submit this account to a critical and careful analysis.

Herodotus was a Greek born around 480 during the Second Medieval War in Halicarnassus, a city located in Asia Minor, at the crossroads of the Ionian and Persian worlds. This origin, as well as his numerous travels in the Achaemenid Empire and in the Mediterranean, explains his good knowledge of the two belligerents. His work, known as Histories or Inquiry, is crucial for the knowledge of the conflict. Considered as the father of History, Herodotus is not satisfied to enumerate the events, he tries to explain the deep reasons of the war and to give as well the point of view of the Greeks as that of the Persians. This real concern for objectivity earned him criticism from certain ancient authors, such as Plutarch, who accused him of preferring the "barbarians" to his own people.

Historians took Herodotus' account into their own hands until the 1950s. Thereafter, the school of annals, multiculturalism and especially the progress of Achaemenid studies have allowed to criticize, relativize and sometimes even totally question Herodotus. However, archaeological, anthropological and ethnographic research in the 1990s and 2000s has demonstrated the accuracy of Herodotus.

The Athenian Thucydides is the other great historian of the 5th century B.C.; his History of the Peloponnesian War deals partly with the aftermath and consequences of the Medieval Wars. Xenophon, also an Athenian, is of the next generation, but he knows the Persians well because he served them as a mercenary during the expedition of the Ten Thousand in 401 (recounted in the Anabasis). Other details are reported by Plato in book III of the Laws and by later chroniclers such as Ephorus, Diodorus of Sicily, Plutarch and Pausanias. The Library of Photius and the Souda, Byzantine compilations of the ninth century, offer glimpses of ancient texts now lost.

The Greek theater includes certain "topical plays" commenting on the events in the heat of the moment, and thus particularly instructive for the study of the mentalities of the time. The Fall of Miletus of Phrynichos, played in 493, moved the Athenians to tears and exacerbated passions in favor of war. Aeschylus fought at Marathon and Salamis; his play The Persians, written in 472 and celebrating the Athenian victory, was performed throughout the Greek world, from Sicily to Asia Minor.

The Achaemenids did not leave chronicles or written testimonies of their own history; their memory was transmitted orally and was thus essentially lost. Some of these accounts were however collected by Herodotus and Ctesias, Greek doctor at the court of Artaxerxes II. The Persian texts at the disposal of contemporary historians are of an administrative or religious nature; they hardly offer any information on the Mediæan wars, but sometimes allow to cross-check or to contradict the information provided by the Greeks, like certain tablets of Persepolis recording the journeys of the civil servants. Epigraphy provides a lot of information thanks to the inscriptions and iconography of the Persian monuments, for example by providing the list of the defeated countries and peoples : the Greeks, whether they are from Asia Minor or Europe, are considered as subjects by the Great Kings of the Medieval wars, Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes.

These wars are called "Medieval" because the Greeks confused the Persians and the Medes, two peoples unified by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC.

In the 6th century B.C., the Persian king Cyrus II, of the Achaemenid dynasty, transformed his small vassal kingdom of the Medes into an immense empire, stretching from India to the Mediterranean, through a series of wars of conquest. In 547, he annexed the Lydia of Croesus, which dominated Asia Minor, then subjected the Greek coastal cities of Ionia and the Dardanelles.

The Median wars are initially the consequence of the Persian imperialism, the Greek economic and commercial operation and, to a lesser extent, the internal political fights of the cities.

The revolt of Ionia represents a decisive episode towards the confrontation. It has for origin the will of Darius Ier to extend his empire towards Propontide (sea of Marmara) and the Pont-Euxin (Black sea), among other things to control the sources of supply in wheat, gold and wood of naval construction. For that, it must attack the Scythians, masters of a powerful empire in southern Russia and whose commercial relations with the Greeks are fruitful and active.

On the way of the conquest, with the assistance of Ionian Greek contingents, Darius ensures the control of Thrace, while king Amyntas Ier of Macedonia recognizes his suzerainty (513). The ports of Byzantium and Chalcedon are subjected: Persia controls thanks to them the maritime traffic between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The final objective of the expedition against the Scythians is a failure, those applying the technique of the burned ground. Important detail, the Persian army escaped the disaster and the encirclement thanks to the loyalty of the Greek contingent which keeps the bridge on the Danube (Ister).

In 508, it is the island of Samothrace which falls under the Persian yoke. Even Athens solicits towards 508 their alliance. Of the campaign against Scythes, Darius draws the conclusion that it can count on the fidelity of Ionian Greeks. On the other hand, those estimate that they could revolt without excessive risk, because the expedition proved that the Achaemenid empire is not invulnerable.

The reasons for the revolt

The root causes of the revolt are economic, social, political and cultural.

Ionia is constituted of twelve Greek cities founded since at least the VIIIth century before the Christian era: Milet, Ephesus, Phocée, Clazomènes, Colophon, Priène, Téos, Chios, Samos, Erythrée, Myonte and Lébédos. It is necessary to add the cities of Aeolus, region located at the northwest of Ionia, of which that of Smyrna. Autonomous, they are all subjected to the Persian power. Milet has a statute with share: its treaty of friendship concluded with Cyrus before the conquest of the area ensures him a relative independence. It is however Milet which is at the origin of the uprising of 499.

These cities are united within the Ionian League, an alliance forged in the VIIth century BC which does not play any more a military role since the conquest of Cyrus but which preserves a religious, cultural and political role through an amphictyony in charge of the worship of Poseidon Helikonios to the sanctuary of Panionion, with the Mycale Cape. This institution facilitates the exchanges necessary to a common revolt.

Theoretically, the Persian domination is not crushing. Each city preserves its institutions, on the condition of paying a tribute and possibly of maintaining Persian garrisons. Darius Ier and his successors respect the customs of the various people of their empire and are sometimes responsible for calling to order the zealous civil servants.

This changes with the reform of the taxation under Darius which fixes a precise amount of gold and silver to be paid for each satrapy. The annual tribute required amounts for the whole of Ionia to 400 talents or 2 400 000 drachmas. These taxes are moreover unfairly distributed within each city: the families related to the tyrants (officially friends of the Great King) in power are exempted, and the tax pressure on the poor supports the supporters of the democracy and a political and social revolution.

Since 512, the Black Sea is a "Persian lake", Thrace became a satrapy. However, Milet supplies itself there in wheat and in all kinds of raw materials. The Persian colonization closes the access of the northern seas at the time when Sybaris, the western warehouse of Miletus, falls under the blows of Crotone (510). Moreover, the Persians systematically favored the Phoenician rivals of Tyre and Sidon. Finally, the capture of Byzantium closes the straits and the trade towards the Pont-Euxin. Thus, the foreign policy of Darius impoverished the Ionian merchants, very influential within the cities.

Persians remain, in the eyes of many Ionian Greeks, barbarians resistant to the "charms" of the civilization which preserve their language, their religion and their customs. Many "intellectuals" preferred exile to foreign domination. There is a will of emancipation of the Ionian cities which pushes them on the one hand to reject the tyrants imposed by Persians, as well as many colonists, and on the other hand to release itself from the achéménide yoke. When the revolt bursts, it has as first consequence, in many cities, the ousting of the tyrants and the proclamation of the isonomy. It is exaggerated to speak about revolt following the awakening of a "national conscience" against the occupier; it is preferable to speak about a social and political crisis.

The strategy of Aristagoras, trigger of the revolt

The situation lends itself to a rebellion, and Aristagoras, the tyrant of Milet, will take advantage of it.

The island of Naxos, in the heart of the Aegean Sea, is considered "the richest". In 500, its people drive out the aristocrats who direct it. These last ones take refuge in Milet where they ask for the assistance of Aristagoras to take again the capacity. This one solicits the authorization and the assistance of Artapherne, brother of the Great King Darius Ier and satrape of Lydia, one of the provinces of the empire. Artapherne accepts, but during the expedition, Persians and Milesians quarrel: their divisions force them to withdraw after four months of seat.

The Persians hold Aristagoras as responsible for this failure and require that he assumes the expenses of this sterile war. Aristagoras starts to fear to be deposed or even assassinated: he has no other choice than to revolt. The war is declared and the Milesians seize by surprise the Persian fleet which took part in the expedition. Aristagoras renounces tyranny (in words only according to Herodotus), proclaims the isonomy and the equality of the Ionian cities which get rid of their tyrants.

In spite of this union, Aristagoras knows that he is in military inferiority vis-a-vis Artapherne. In 499, he thus embarks for Sparta, which has the most powerful army, in order to seek its assistance. The moment is not very favourable, because Sparta is divided by the rivalry of its two kings Cléomène Ier and Démarate. In spite of promises of booty, the call to the "brotherhood" between Greeks and the common gods, the Spartans refuse to engage.

Aristagoras turns then towards Athens. The listening is better, because the city worries about the intrigues of Hippias, tyrant driven out of Athens in 510, refugee in Sardes, seat of the satrapy of Lydia, where he counts on the Persian support to restore his tyranny. Athens sends 20 triers, followed by Érétrie with 5 others, by recognition for Milet which had formerly helped it against its enemies. No other city answers the call.

Six years of war

It takes more than six years to Artapherne to subdue the uprising. Indeed, the first fights are favorable to the Ionians. At the beginning of 498, the Greek fleet put to flight the Phoenician fleet during a first fight on the coasts of Pamphylia. On ground, Persians were preparing to besiege the city of Milet when Charopinos, the brother of Aristagoras, with the assistance of the Athenian and Eretrian contingents, organized a diversion and ravaged Sardis, without managing to take its acropolis defended by Artapherne himself. The Persian army which besieged Milet returns towards Sardes with forced march, obliging the Greeks to withdraw. Artapherne, after having made its junction with these reinforcements, intercepted them on the heights of Ephesus and gained a complete victory.

At the end of the summer 498, the expeditionary force - or at least what it remains of it - folds up to return on Athens or Érétrie. This defection does not prevent the revolt from gaining momentum.

In the autumn 498, the revolt gained Cyprus, Propontide, Hellespont until Byzantium, then all Caria, satrapy located at the south of Ionia. At the beginning of 497, the situation is critical for Persians, which raise then simultaneously three armies and a new fleet. The revolt was crushed in Cyprus, then in the cities of Hellespont. Slowly but systematically, the bodies of Persian troops reconquered one by one the rebel cities. Aristagoras tried to carry the combat in Thrace, but he found the death there in obscure circumstances.

As for the Carians, they are defeated on the river Marsyas in the autumn 497, then with Labranda at the time of the summer 496, in spite of the assistance of Milésians. The Carians are resumed and inflict a serious defeat to Persians in the following autumn with Pédassos. After long negotiations, they put down the weapons definitively in 494. Milet is then alone.

Contrary to the Persians, the insurgents had difficulty in financing fleets and mercenaries. Defections in their ranks are numerous.

At the beginning of the year 494, Persians mass their troops against Miletus. The city is assailed at the same time by ground and sea. A naval battle opposing approximately 350 Greek ships to 600 Phoenician, Egyptian and Cypriot ships takes place off the islet of Ladé during summer 494. The Greek fleet was annihilated. Miletus was taken and razed soon after (the Persian poliorcetics generally prevailing on that of the Greeks), and its population deported on the banks of Tigris.

During the year 493, Persians subject the last cities and rebel islands (Chios, Lesbos and Tenedos) while their fleet skirts victoriously the coasts of Hellespont and Chalcedon.

The consequences of the Ionian defeat

This defeat involves in continental Greece, in particular in Athens, a deep reaction of sadness. However, in 493, the poet Phrynichos, author of a tragedy entitled The catch of Milet of which it is already subject higher in this article, is condemned to a fine of 1 000 drachmas for having pointed out unhappy events and made burst into tears the public. This curious condemnation could come from men anxious to spare the alliance of Persians in the power struggles of the great Athenian families.

This revolt drew the attention of Darius towards the Occident and perhaps aroused in him expansionist ideas, or at least the desire to establish in Greece itself regimes which are favorable to him. The role played by Athens and Eretria shows him the need to impose his authority on the two banks of the Aegean Sea. However, if one excepts the fate of Milet, Darius uses a relative moderation: it imposes a strong tribute to the mutinous cities but leaves them the autonomy.

The aborted campaign of 492

To punish Athens and Érétrie of their assistance to the Ionian insurgents and to ensure their domination on the Aegean, Persians prepare an expedition against continental Greece Mardonios to take again in hand Macedonia and Thrace, theoretically subjected, but whose Persian garrisons had been evacuated at the time of the revolt of Ionia. In spring 492, Mardonios gathers his fleet and his army in Cilicia, then crosses the Hellespont and crosses Thrace and Macedonia. The fleet made sail towards Thasos, subjected it to the passage, and followed the European coast until Acanthos.

Assailed by a violent storm at the time of doubling the course of the mount Athos, the fleet loses half of its ships. Mardonios had to give the order of retreat, which was worth to him to be temporarily relieved of his command.

The Persian expedition of 490

All the year 491 is devoted to the military and diplomatic preparations of this offensive. Many Greek cities receive ambassadors asking for "the ground and water", i.e. their submission. Some carry out, but Athens like Sparta refuse and put to death the Persian ambassadors, without however taking true measures to precede the future offensive.

The Persian army is directed by the admiral Datis and the general Artapherne, son of the satrap of Lydia which had to face the revolt of Ionia and thus nephew of Darius. The beginning of the expedition is a success: it crosses this time directly the Aegean Sea, right on Euboea and Attica, after having taken with the passage the control of Naxos and Delos (490). Thanks to the assistance of the Phoenician navy, the Persian domination is thus established relatively easily on the Cyclades.

Herodotus did not leave any data for the number of Persian soldiers. Other later ancient authors have put forward totally fanciful figures ranging from 100,000 to 500,000 men. Contemporary historians consider that about 25 000 men could have participated, which is already considerable for the time. In total, the fleet of Datis gathers at least 200 triers.

The capture of Eretria

The Persian expedition reached the southern point of Eubée, ravaged Carystos, which refused to open its doors, then reached Erétrie. 4 000 Athenian clerics sent in reinforcement take the flight and Erétrie finds itself alone. After six days of a murderous siege, traitors open the doors to Persians. The city is plundered, its temples burned, its population is captured, chained then deported in Lower Mesopotamia, thus marking the first stage of the revenge of the Great King.

The battle of Marathon 490

The Persian army is advised by Hippias, the former tyrant of Athens which hopes to take again the power. The landing takes place on September 12, 490 BC (date most commonly admitted) on a beach of approximately four kilometers length which borders the plain of Marathon, in the demesne of the same name, forty kilometers from Athens. The Athenians do not await the enemy behind their ramparts, but, led by the strategist Miltiades, the Athenian and Platanian hoplites, approximately 10 000 men, go to the meeting of Persians. They are accompanied by an unknown number of slaves freed a little before and serving as light infantry provided with slings and javelins. On September 17, 490 (date most commonly admitted), Persians decide to attack Athens by ground and sea.

The Athenians must beat the Persians in the plain of Marathon, then return to their city to protect it from an attack by the sea. Miltiades knows the weak points of the Persian army to have fought with them at the time of the offensive against the Scythians. Indeed this army is composed of soldiers of different origins, not speaking the same dialects and not having the practice to fight together. Moreover, the Persian armament, with wicker shields and short pikes, does not allow hand-to-hand combat.

On the contrary, the armament of the Greeks is that of a heavy infantry: the hoplites are protected by a helmet, a shield, a cuirass, leggings and armbands made of brass (bronze). In addition, they have a sword, a long spear and a shield made of skin and metal blades. Finally, the hoplites fight in tight ranks (phalanx) with their shields forming a real wall in front of them.

The shock is favorable to the Greeks: Herodotus claims that 6 400 Persians were killed, the majority drowned while fleeing, and that Athens loses only 192 citizens. Once the landing pushed back, the Greeks had to return hastily to Athens to prevent the Persian fleet from attacking the city left without defense. The Persian ships need about ten hours to double the cape Sounion and to reach Phaleres. By a forced march of seven or eight hours, already tired by the battle which they have just led, the Greek hoplites arrive approximately one hour before the enemy fleet. Noting the failure of the manoeuvre, Persians give up to unload and beat in retreat.

The Athenian victory

The victory of Marathon became symbolic for the Greeks and confers a great prestige to Athens. It is used during the second Medieval war: from now on, the cities know that they can beat the Persians on the battlefield, and without this moral data, it is probable that the resistance to the invasion of Xerxes ten years later would have been much less.

For the Athenians, this victory represents a double reality: first of all an incontestable military success which makes it possible to push back the Persian expeditionary force, but also a victory which emphasizes the role of the soldiers-citizens that are the hoplites in the defense of the city and the democracy. The Athenian diplomats use thereafter Marathon to justify their hegemony on the Greek world.

On the Persian side, Marathon is a minor failure. The campaign led by Datis and Artapherne reached its objectives: the control of the Aegean Sea and the installation of friendly governments in almost all the insular cities. Darius turns away from the Greek front, because a revolt broke out in Egypt, led by the satrap Aryandes. According to Herodotus, this prevents him from launching an expedition against Greece that he planned to lead himself, because he spends the last months of his reign to suppress the rebellion and dies in 486. At this date, the Persian empire is at its territorial apogee. His son Xerxes I succeeded him.

In 485, one year after having succeeded his father, Xerxes decides to avenge this humiliating defeat. He is encouraged by his brother-in-law Mardonios, who already directed the expedition of 492, as well as by the many Greek renegades taken refuge at his court, like the Athenian aristocratic party or Démarate, Spartan king fallen for bastardy.

The preparations lasted four years, from 485 to 481. Xerxes set up a gigantic expedition which made blow "a wind of terror on Greece". It decides to carry out an invasion by ground and sea.

The forces at work

The Persian empire, with its 7 500 000 km2 and a population which reached perhaps twenty million inhabitants, seems much more powerful than the Greek states which count hardly one million inhabitants (approximate estimate) on a territory of 103 000 km2. Moreover, the Greek cities are divided: hundreds remain cautiously neutral or, like Thèbes, ally themselves with the enemy (the "medisants"). Many changed sides throughout the war.

The number of troops is subject to controversy, because the figures of the ancient historians appear to be fanciful. One suspects the Greeks of having overestimated the number of their enemies to develop their combat and there are no Persian sources on the subject. Thus, Ctésias evokes 800 000 men and 1 000 trières. For his part, Herodotus evaluates the troops at 1 700 000 infantrymen, 80 000 horsemen and 1 200 triers, while being based on the inspection which would have made Xerxes with Dorisque, a large plain of Thrace. According to the historian of Persia Pierre Briant, all these estimates would lack foundation and the "argument of verisimilitude" cannot be transformed into historical data. However, there is no doubt that Xerxes, wanting to take his revenge after a humiliating defeat, had set up an extremely numerous troop, both on land and on sea.

Contemporary historians have generally revised these figures downwards, if only for logistical and water supply reasons implied by Herodotus' figures, but their estimates vary quite widely. Persian numbers are estimated to have ranged from 75,000 men (according to the German historian Hans Delbrück) to 300,000 (for Hanson), but the modern consensus is that they were somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 men. In addition, there were some 20,000 to 60,000 cavalrymen divided into six army corps. The fleet would count as for it approximately 600 vessels, provided primarily by the Phoenicians, the Egyptians and the Ionians. More than the figures, what is important for the contemporaries of the event is the impression of a gigantic rise in mass: "Asia emptied itself of all its males" writes Aeschylus in his tragedy The Persians.

The coalised Greeks would have been from 7 000 to 35 000 hoplites (to which it is necessary to add 40 000 men more roughly armed). On the other hand, they do not have cavalry. On sea, they would have only approximately 370 trières or pentecontores. If one admits that each ship has a complete crew (approximately 150 oarsmen, a dozen officers, a dozen crewmen and approximately 15 soldiers) that represents approximately 70 000-75 000 men. The 200 Athenian triers alone mobilized about 40,000 men, of which 34,000 were citizens of the lower classes.

Historians still debate the respective value of the Persian and Greek armies. Some consider that Persians were much more evolved and perfected, with a superior mastery of cavalry and archery, poliorcetics, military engineering, espionage, sophisticated military operations still unknown to Greeks. On the contrary, others insist on the superiority of the hoplite armament, with its shield, its iron lance and its bronze cuirass, as well as on the discipline of the phalanx. The exacerbated and exceptional warlike culture of the Greeks, in a permanent state of war because of the perpetual fights of neighborhood between cities, is also put forward to explain their resistance to the invasion.

Although Xerxes had a standing professional army, his soldiers came from all the satrapies of a huge multi-ethnic empire, so their weapons varied greatly depending on the regiment: spears, clubs, axes, double-edged copper swords, bows, javelins, daggers, etc. Leather or metal helmets were common, armor and shields more rare. Finally, Greek mercenaries and medieval cities brought them the military know-how of the enemy.

Persian military campaigns started in spring. On the battlefields, their tactics often consisted in placing the foot archers in front of the light and heavy infantry, with the cavalry framing the whole and the general-in-chief in front.

The Persian cavalry, on horse and camel, being able as well to deliver frontal charges as to harass the enemy with bow and javelins, outclasses that of the Greeks. On the other hand, the Persian infantry is lower than the Greek hoplites. Lastly, if Persians are not a maritime nation, they can count on the Phoenician and Egyptian fleets, at least as powerful as those of the Greeks for navigation or boarding.

From 484, Xerxes planned the invasion of Greece, leaving nothing to chance. The greatest Greek military power is in Sicily, in the hands of Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, who leads an annexationist and aggressive policy since his taking of power. It represents a potential ally of weight for the Greeks, this is why Xerxes encourages Carthage, big rival of Gélon in Sicily, to attack him. The combination of the two expeditions in 480, that of Xerxes and that of the Carthaginians on Agrigento and Syracuse, is not a simple coincidence and is part of a skilfully developed plan.

Most of the Greek cities remain for a long time without worrying about the "Persian peril", in particular after the Athenian victory of Marathon. The Greeks resume their internal quarrels as soon as the peril is passed. Thus, Miltiades, after a failure in front of Paros in 489 BC, is struck of a heavy fine by Athens and dies shortly afterwards. From 487 to 486, Athens tries in vain to seize its old rival Aegina, while Sparta continues its hegemonic policy in the Peloponnese, thus becoming the most powerful city of Greece.

The ancestral hatreds between certain cities and the immediate interests push many Greeks towards Xerxes. For Herodotus, the majority does not wish the war and even "showed much inclination for the Medes". Persians thus allied themselves with certain people or certain cities in continental Greece even, without counting the Ionians again become vassals of the empire since the crushing of their revolt 15 years earlier. Thus, the Macedonians and especially Béotie with Thèbes line up on the side of the invaders, yielding thus to what one calls the "médisme". The natural refuge of the political opponents spartiates and Athenians is with the court of Suse. Hippias, former tyrant of Athens, advised Darius during the first Median war; Demaratus, fallen Spartan king, guided Xerxes during the second.

Finally, Xerxes manages to corrupt Delphi and its very influential oracle of Apollo. Spared during all the hostilities, the divinations of its pythia are largely favorable to the Persians. After the Greek victory, Delphi justifies itself by affirming to have been protected by a divine intervention.

The plan of the invasion was conceived by Mardonios, son of a sister of Darius I and thus cousin of Xerxes I. This plan consists in taking again the project of 492, while passing by ground through Thrace and the Macedonian coast. For that, it is necessary according to Mardonios to have a considerable land army corps, supported by a fleet bringing the provisioning and charged to avoid the counter-attacks of the Greek fleet on the backs of the Persian army. To avoid the storms of the northeast, frequent and brutal in the area of the mount Athos, and not to repeat the disaster of 492, Xerxes orders the drilling of a channel in order to cut the isthmus of Acté. It is 2,4 km long and broad enough so that two trières circulate there of face. Bridges are built on Strymon by detachments of Persian scouts.

To carry out the terrestrial invasion, Xerxes charges the Phoenicians and the Egyptians to build a double floating bridge on the Hellespont from Abydos to a promontory located between Sestos and Madytos, on a distance of 1 400 m. According to Herodotus, the first bridge having been broken by a storm, Xerxes makes build a second one by assembling 674 vessels by means of cables whose each half-meter weighed 26 kg. Then one poses boards which one covers with ground while high barriers of wood, being used as parapet, are installed so that the animals are not afraid by the sight of sea.

Finally, cities are selected to become the principal stores centralizing the supply necessary to such an army. They are the cities of Doriscos, Eïon and Therma located respectively at the exits of the fertile valleys of Hèbre, Strymon and Axios as well as Leukè Actè on Hellespont and Tyrodiza.

In spring 480, the mobilization of the Persian troops takes place as envisaged. The fleet gathers in the roadstead of Phocée and in that of Cymé in Ionia while the ground troops winter in Sardes and Cristalla in Cappadocia. With the arrival of Xerxes with his elite troops, the immense army shakes, joined Abydos then crossed the bridges of boats on May 10. Then the army moves towards Sestos, then Doriscos where on June 16 the junction with the fleet is carried out.

The reaction of the Greeks

After the death of Miltiades, Athenian political struggles opposed the democrats led by Themistocles, who came to power just after Marathon, and aristocrats such as Xanthippus, the father of the future Pericles, and Aristides, more moderate. They are both ostracized by Thémistocles, archon in 493 and strategist in 490. Ambitious and unscrupulous, he was eloquent, courageous and tenacious. He considers that the future of Athens passes by the creation of a great permanent fleet and by the construction of a new deeper and better sheltered port in Piraeus. The arguments which it advances are multiple: to protect itself from the piracy of its neighbor and rival Aegina, to protect itself from a Persian attack like that of Marathon, to provide the provisioning vis-a-vis the fast growth of the population, to control the commercial routes. Finally, a fleet represented work for many poor or modest citizens (rowers, construction and maintenance of ships).

The discovery of the silver mines of Laurion in the south-east of Athens makes it possible to Thémistocles to finance this very expensive project. He obtained that the product of the farm of the mines, approximately 50 to 100 talents per annum, is devoted to the construction of this fleet. The hundred richest citizens receive in more each one a loan of a talent to build and arm a trière. In 480, Athens had the most powerful fleet of Greece, 200 triers ready to take the sea.

The Persian preparations obviously did not pass unnoticed. Athens fears the revenge of Persians and Sparta notes that its great rival in Peloponnese, Argos, is contacted by the envoys of Xerxes. The idea of a panhellenic union imposes itself and a congress of the various Greek cities is convened on the isthmus of Corinth at the end of the autumn 481. Sparta, whose army is regarded as most powerful, chairs the congress. For once the immediate interests of Sparta and Athens merge. A general reconciliation intervenes, as between Athens and Aegina. However, by fear or by interest, many cities remain neutral and only 31 of them engage by oath in a defensive alliance, the Hellenic league, and prepare contingents of soldiers. The command of the troops is entrusted to two Spartans, the king Léonidas Ier for the infantrymen and Eurybiade for the Greek fleet.

Called for help by the Greeks, Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, demanded the command of the Greek allied armies, which was refused. He was especially busy fighting against the Carthaginians, who were defeated on land and sea at Himera.

During the winter 481-480 the Greeks prevaricate on the plan of campaign and cannot be opposed to the Persian advance in spring 480. The first line of defense at the level of the Tempé valley (between Thessalia and Macedonia) is abandoned, which throws the Thessalians immediately in the arms of Persians.

In August, while Persians invaded Piérie, Léonidas chooses a very strong defensive position with the defile of Thermopyles which commands the access to Béotie and central Greece. As for Eurybiade, it settles in the north of Eubée in a place named Artemision in order to prevent the Persian ships from circumventing this position. The Persians, to keep the contact with their fleet, must borrow the only important road which passes by Thermopyles. There, between the Maliaque gulf and the mountain, the narrow roadway passes in a defile whose narrowest passage is of four meters of width and which, moreover, is barred by the vestiges of a wall built in zigzag. Finally, the marshes are numerous and form an additional obstacle. Between the 4 000 hoplites approximately of which has Léonidas and the fleet of Eurybiade (with Thémistocle with the head of the contingent of the Athenian triers, by far the most numerous) the connections are constant.

The Persian victories

With the exit of Thessalia, the troops of Xerxes made movement towards the south. The infantrymen left the city of Therma and arrived towards July 24 in the Trachinian plain at the edge of the Maliaque gulf. Its fleet set out ten days after so that the arrival of the ground and naval troops is joint.

Eurybiades, in front of the importance of the enemy forces, left Artemisia and skirted the channel of Euboea to occupy the choke point of Chalcis, leaving Léonidas at the mercy of a landing on its backs. This maneuver forces the Persians to advance more in the south than envisaged and to anchor at the cape Sépias, close to a rocky and steep coast where they cannot haul out their ships on the dry land and where the depth of water prevents many ships from being firmly moored. A violent three-day storm destroyed some of the ships, and several thousand men drowned. The principal consequence is that Xerxes, although it keeps the numerical superiority, is not any more able to divide its naval forces so as to convoy the army while delivering combat to the Greek fleet.

In Chalcis, Eurybiades regains confidence and goes up to take his guard in Artemisia to protect the back of Leonidas. The confrontation enchained skirmishes and pitched battles with rammings and boardings. The two fleets fought three days and the losses were heavy on both sides. When the Greeks learn the death of Leonidas, they take the flight. The Persian victory is laborious but incontestable.

At first, on ground, the allies commanded by Leonidas hold firmly their position and push back the Persians, inflicting them great losses. But when he realizes that the Persians are about to bypass him, he decides to sacrifice himself with a few hundreds of men, to let the Greeks the time to organize their defense and the army to withdraw in good order. The 300 Spartans remaining at Thermopylae are all massacred, including Leonidas. This battle became the emblem of the Greek resistance and the spirit of sacrifice of the Spartans.

Xerxes resumed his progression on sea and on ground. He gained Béotie, was joined by the medisantes cities and razed Thespies and Platées. He penetrated then in Attica and advanced towards Athens.

For the Athenians, the situation is difficult. At the time, the city does not have ramparts and there are few fortified points in Attica likely to delay the enemy. Also under the impulse of Thémistocles, the population is evacuated in particular towards Aegina, Trézène and Salamine while the ostracized are recalled, such Aristide, with the cancellation of all the decrees of exile carried for political reasons. Cimon, the son of Miltiades, however one of the adversaries of Thémistocles, deposits his ex-voto on the Acropolis to mean well that the time of the "Sacred Union" came and that it is time to fight not on horseback but on the ships. The city is thus abandoned except for a few hundreds of die-hards who wish to defend the Acropolis and its sanctuaries.

On September 28, 480 B.C., the Persians invested the city, stormed the Acropolis and sacked it, massacring all those who still resisted. The Persian victory seems close, Xerxes took only three months to reach Athens since he passed the Dardanelles.

The turning point of the war: Salamis 480

After the death of Léonidas, the ground army of the coalesced Greek cities withdraws towards the south and the fleet leaves Artemisia. The situation for the Greeks is dramatic. The defeat of Thermopyles, the submission of Béotie and the catch of Athens sow discouragement in the spirits. Cleombrote Ier, the brother of Léonidas and king of the Spartans, thinks only of protecting the Peloponnese by the construction of a wall towards the Isthmus of Corinth, narrow strip of ground easy to defend. In the same logic, Eurybiades wishes, now that the fleet ensured the evacuation of Attica, to return near the ground forces in order to undertake combined actions. This point of view is shared by Corinthians, second fleet of the coalition. Logically, Sparta and Corinth prefer to defend at all costs the Peloponnese in order to save their territory.

Thémistocles has another plan which it imposes on Eurybiade thanks to the support of Aegina and Mégare, it is true, directly threatened in the event of withdrawal on the Isthmus of Corinth. It is a question of fighting in the narrow roadstead of Salamine because it is persuaded, rightly, that Persians will not be able to undertake a maneuver of encirclement and that their ships will be mutually embarrassed and will be as many preys for a boarding or a ramming by the solid Greek trieras. Lastly it is persuaded that by cutting the Persian army of its fleet it will make turn over.

Themistocles, according to Plutarch and Herodotus, uses the ruse and makes send by his slave Sicinnos a message to Xerxes informing him of the desire of escape of a part of the Greek generals by the western pass of the bay of Eleusis still free. This maneuver functions fully and a part of the Persian fleet, the Egyptian ships, finishes the encirclement of the Greeks by blocking the access by Megara while the islet of Psyttalia is occupied by a detachment with for objective to collect the Persian crews and to finish the Greeks when the battle will burst.

On his side, Xerxes must absolutely neutralize the Greek ships if he wants to ensure his provisioning and to be able to circumvent by the sea the impregnable Isthmus of Corinth. His Persian war fleet includes the Phoenicians of Tyre, Sidon directed by the Persian generals Megabaze and Préxaspe. In the center the body of battle is directed by Achéménès, half-brother of Xerxes, which holds the role of Great Admiral and directs more precisely the ships of Cilicia and Lycia. Finally on the left wing are the fleets of Ionia (thus Greek), Pontus and Caria directed by an Achaemenid prince, Ariabignes and where Artemisia I, queen of Halicarnassus fights.

The Greek plan worked as envisaged, on September 29, half of the Persian fleet was annihilated, the remainder took the flight. Contrary to Artemision and in spite of important losses, the Greek victory is brilliant.

The departure of Xerxes

The situation after the bitter defeat of Salamine is not for all that hopeless for Persians. Their army of ground is always as powerful. In spite of the loss of a part of their fleet, the immense resources of the empire can allow the construction of many ships whereas for the Greeks, the destruction of the shipyards of Attica is an irreplaceable loss. But Salamine and the provisional superiority of the Greeks at sea make fear with the Large King an attack on Hellespont to destroy the bridges of ships there. If that occurred, it risked being cut of provisioning, of communication with its empire and thus ran the danger to lose all. At the beginning of October, leaving the command of his army to Mardonios, his brother-in-law, the one who already directed the expedition of 492, Xerxes abandoned his troops to return in Asia Minor. It passes the Hellespont in the last days of the year 480 without difficulty because Northern Greece is entirely under its control. Thessaly, Macedonia and Thrace are always his allies and strategically placed Persian garrisons watch all the road. The Persian king establishes himself in Sardes from where he keeps the contact with Mardonios.

As for the winners they are surprised by the inaction of Persians and do not seem to understand at first the extent of their success. When it appears that Persians make retreat, Thémistocles in the euphoria of the victory proposes to cut the road of Asia to Xerxes by crossing the Aegean. But Aristides and Eurybiades object prudence. Moreover the Greeks lost in Salamine more than 40 ships and cannot replace them as quickly as their adversaries. Finally, to send all the fleet so far from Greece whereas the refugees of Athens are still on the island of Salamine and that the Greek coasts are not protected is rather risky. The season finally becomes dangerous for navigation. For Aristides a possible defeat of Athens would play the game of Sparta, more especially as Sparta is finishing the wall which bars the isthmus of the Peloponnese and thus does not feel any more the Persian threat with the same acuteness.

The 479 campaign

Mardonios, the new Persian generalissimo, declares after Salamine: "The Cypriots, the men of Phoenicia, Cnide and Egypt, only were overcome, not the Persians who could not fight". This state of mind is revealing of the will of Persians to continue the combat in spite of the departure of Xerxes Ier. However Mardonios estimates impossible the continuation of the operations with the approach of the bad season and takes its winter quarters in Thessalia.

On the council of his Theban allies, he took advantage of it to launch intense diplomatic maneuvers aiming at isolating Sparta. He tries to convince those which fear the Spartan hegemony on the Peloponnese, the traditional enemies of Lacédémonians: Argos, Elis and Mantinée. He made a secret agreement with the Argians so that they block the reinforcements of the Greek allies towards the Isthmus. It also endeavours to detach Athens from the remainder of its allies by promising him the hegemony on Greece and to finance the reconstruction of the destroyed city. The king of Macedonia, Alexander, is charged with the negotiations. In spite of the hatred of the Athenians for Persia, Mardonios can legitimately hope for a reversal of alliance: they are tired of the war, despaired by the loss of their houses and their goods, exasperated by their allies who leave Attica at the mercy of the enemies and are satisfied to protect the Peloponnese, and worried about the Spartan monopoly on the military command. However, Alexander is answered that "as long as the sun would follow its usual way" the Athenians would not make alliance with the Persian sovereign. Worried, the Spartans also send an embassy in order to counter the argumentation of Persians. It is received rather freshly by the Athenians furious that one can doubt their determination. They specify that "the fact of being Greek, of sharing the same blood and the same language, of having sanctuaries and common sacrifices as well as similar morals" prohibits them the treason. Lastly, the Athenian priests launch curses on all those which would negotiate with Persians or would give up the alliance.

In spring, Mardonios then invaded again Attica, which was once again evacuated by its inhabitants, reoccupied Athens and settled in Béotie. This time, perhaps by fear of an Athenian defection, the Spartans are decided to react. Pausanias, regent of Sparta at only 20 years and nephew of Léonidas Ier, partisan of a direct action against Mardonios, is named general in chief. He succeeds in gathering under his orders the largest Greek army of Antiquity: it includes troops of Sparta, undoubtedly 10 000 hoplites and 30 000 to 35 000 auxiliaries, more 8 000 Athenians and a few thousands of men coming from the other cities of Greece, such Corinth, Epidaurus, Megara, Platées, Trézène, Chalcis, Phlionte, Égine, etc. The Greeks align in total approximately 110 000 men of which 60 000 hoplites.

The Greeks crossed the Isthmus of Corinth, arrived near Eleusis in order to pass in Béotie. Mardonios chooses a site, in the south of Thèbes close to Platées, which must support its cavalry.

On August 27, 479 BC, during the battle of Platées, the allied troops coming from at least 24 cities and led by Sparta confront the bulk of the Persian and Greek forces. Mardonios, who fights in first line vis-a-vis the spartiates, dies the crushed skull and at once his troops are disbanded. While 40 000 Persians, commanded by Artabaze a rival of Mardonios, retreat without fighting and leave Greece, the fugitives are massacred. In total nearly 10 000 Persians and 1 000 meditative Greeks would have found the death against hardly 1 500 on the side of the allies, an enormous booty is taken in the camp of Mardonios. Thèbes, allied of Persians, is taken quickly and its leaders are executed. There is not any more Persian army in Europe.

The Greek counter-attack: Cape Mycale and the siege of Sestos

The Greek victory is completed by the naval victory of the Cape Mycale, in Ionia (Asia Minor) in the autumn 479, where the enemy fleet which had been drawn with ground close to the Mycale mount is completely burned. At the same time, many cities subjected to the Persians revolt.

The allies then decided to attack the bridge of boats built by Xerxes on the strait of the Dardanelles. Once there, they realize that the Persians have already withdrawn and are entrenched in Sestos on the European side of the strait, the city from which Xerxes had left to conquer Greece three years earlier. The Spartans and the other Peloponnesians return then at home because they judge the final victory, while the Athenians remain to besiege the city. After a siege of several months, Sestos is taken by storm, the Persian commander crucified and the cables of the bridge are brought back in triumph to Athens.

For the Ancients, like Thucydides and Herodotus, the capture of Sestos marks the end of the Medieval wars. In reality, the wars between Persians and Greeks, but also alliances and exchanges, continued until the conquest of Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. This conquest was made possible by the birth of Panhellenism during the Median Wars from 490 to 478 which became in the Greek imagination the symbol of the victorious struggle of civilization against barbarism.

The Greek cities which had taken the party of Xerxes and succumbed to the médisme were not punished, with the exception of Thèbes which had to deliver and let execute two of its most implied leaders. The memory of these divisions remained for a long time a subject of hatred between Greeks.

The Athenians came out of the war strengthened, and compensated the destruction of their city by the booty taken on the Persians. They exploited their victories in their propaganda, by raising the fight between Persians and Greeks in Homeric duel. Especially, their fleet became for 75 years, until the disaster of Aigos Potamos, the great power of the Aegean and the Black Sea.

In 477, thanks to this propaganda and to this power, Athens created the league of Delos gathering the cities which wanted to fight against the Persian danger, with common political and military institutions under its hegemony. At first, the alliance multiplied the offensives by supporting the revolt of Egypt against Artaxerxes Ier (revolt of Inaros which ended in a disaster) or by invading Cyprus in 450. However, Athens also used the league to increase its power in Greece and it ended up running up against the interests of Sparta, which led to the Peloponnesian war.

The Persians, despite the undeniable failure of the invasion, still remained a powerful empire, an object of fear and admiration by the Greeks, who continued to speak of the "great king" (Megas Basileus, Μέγας Βασιλεύς) to refer to the Achaemenid ruler. Despite the death of Mardonius and the retreat of their troops, it is even possible that the Achaemenids considered their offensive a victory: Xerxes defeated the Spartans at Thermopylae, shot their king, razed Athens and enslaved those who did not flee, looted the Greek temples and brought their treasures back to Susa.

In 449, the peace of Callias was concluded with the league of Delos. During more than one century, by diplomacy, gold and the reception of the political exiles, they intervened successfully in the Greek affairs. The Persian way of life and the culture were largely imitated by the Greeks as of the years which followed the Median wars, starting a common culture dedicated to a brilliant posterity.

After the conquest of the Greek cities of Asia by Cyrus, the crushing of their revolt under Darius followed by the submission of the Aegean Sea and half of continental Greece during the first Medieval war, the submission of many cities to Xerxes and even the engagement of their forces in his army at the beginning of the second war, it is difficult to explain the failure of the invasion in 479. Even if the Persians had a certain number of reasons to estimate to have carried off a victory, the failure of their annexation, their retreat and the victorious Greek raids on the Asian coast constitute an indisputable reversal of the situation at the death of Darius. The ancient and contemporary historians wondered a lot to know how a thirty small cities could have overcome an immense empire provided with allies on the spot.

Herodotus puts forward a reason at the end of his work: the rough and hostile land of the Greeks would have produced a people of free and bellicose men, much better warriors than the "slaves" "soft and effeminate" of a too prosperous empire. Simplistic and partial, this idea is however partly taken up by contemporary military historians; Hanson thus claims that in "two centuries, no Greek phalanx could be defeated by Persian troops", forgetting the Persian victories at Ephesus, Thermopylae and many others in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. The military superiority of the hoplitic revolution developed by the Greek cities is regularly advanced by the contemporary authors.

For Thucydides, it is the unit of the Greeks which enables them to overcome the barbarians. It is the same idea that develops one century later Isocrates by calling the Greeks to the panhellenism, only means to annihilate Persians. In the XXth century, the American historian Peter Green insisted much on this parameter in his work Les Guerres médiques.

Pierre Briant, modern historian of Persia, underlines the tactical errors committed by Xerxes and Mardonios, in particular the bad use of their cavalry. More determining still according to him was the revolt of Babylon in August 479 which forced the Persians to fight on two fronts, that of Babylon being privileged because in the center of their territory. This revolt would be responsible for the defeat of Xerxes just as the Egyptian revolt prevented his father Darius from continuing his conquests during the first Medieval war. The lack of stability of the immense Achaemenid empire would thus be its greatest weakness.

The Medieval wars quickly became a literary subject in Athens, first of all among tragic authors. The first two plays to deal with this subject are due to Phrynichos, and they were lost: The Sack of Miletus relating this event of the Revolt of Ionia and was prohibited for having moved too much the public, and The Phoenicians which takes place during a naval victory, Salamine or the Cape Mycale, which had Themistocles for chorus. But the great work dealing with the Medieval wars is The Persians by Aeschylus, who had himself fought in these conflicts, and whose chorus was financed by Pericles. The wars against the Persians thus quickly became themes worthy of being treated in the same way as the heroic stories which were until then the only subjects exploited by Greek playwrights. But this was short-lived, because the plays written afterwards only took mythical stories as a backdrop, even if they had an updated political message. It does not remain about it less than the writings of Aeschylus, like those of Herodotus who writes his Histories shortly after, make it possible to preserve the memory of these conflicts and to confer an epic dimension to them.

In the same way, artistic representations of the Medieval wars are carried out, whereas usually the Greek artists privilege the mythological conflicts. From the first half of the 5th century, numerous Attic potteries show oppositions between Greek and Persian warriors, and the relief on the south side of the temple of Athena Nike of the Acropolis (built at the latest in the years 430-425) figures a fight between Greeks and Persians.

Thereafter, the Medieval wars remain important in the memory and the identity of Athens. Politicians and scholars of the city gradually reconstructed the great victories of the Medieval wars, above all that of Marathon which was perceived as a true legendary battle. In the political struggles of the 4th century, it is an unavoidable reference. It is invoked by the opponents of democracy as a symbol of the greater value of a moderate regime in front of the more open democracy, which would represent the victory of the rowers of Salamis, which is seen as the source of the imperialism which would have led Athens to the defeat during the Peloponnesian War. Demosthenes uses it to justify the resistance to Philip II of Macedonia, whereas his opponents use it to justify the panhellenism and an expedition against Persians.

In fact the companies of Philip II of Macedonia then Alexander the Great against Persia are on several occasions presented like a revenge of the Mediæan wars. Thereafter the topos is taken again by other sovereigns and ancient authors: Attalides of Pergamon put in parallel their triumph vis-a-vis the Galates with those of the Mediated wars; Augustus and his successors assimilate their Parthian rivals with Persians; the memory of the Mediated wars is thus preserved in the Greek culture of Roman time, in particular at the orators of the second sophistry which often refer to it.

In contemporary times, by becoming a literary topos integrated by European culture, the conflicts of the Medieval wars are still used as a reference: in Greece at the time of the war of independence where the Turks are assimilated to the Persians, in the rest of Europe where on several occasions the attacked countries see themselves as the Greeks having to resist the barbarism and tyranny of an enemy who takes the features of the Persians. For example, the French during the French Revolution against the First Coalition, or the Spanish against Napoleon I, or again the French during their rivalry and struggle against Germany in the First World War.

The topos of the victory of the Greeks defending their freedom and identity against the threat of despotic Persians put forward by ancient authors has also had an influence on historians specializing in the history of ancient Greece, who have often taken it up as it stands, which has been facilitated by the absence of ancient Persian sources on the conflict. Recent studies have, however, put this approach into perspective by highlighting the lack of unity of the Greek world in the face of the Persians, and the progress of knowledge about the Persian empire has given a more balanced image of its domination, which runs counter to the traditional vision of a despotic and cruel hold. In any case it did not imply a cultural domination which threatens the Greek identity.

In the field of mental representations, Herodotus' account of the Medieval wars occupies an important place in the image of the "East" and the "Orientals" in the West. One could thus propose to trace a continuity between it and the discourses of the Western media on the East during the first Gulf War.


  1. Greco-Persian Wars
  2. Guerres médiques