Second Persian invasion of Greece

Dafato Team | May 28, 2022

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The Second Persian War was the second attempt at aggression, invasion and conquest of Greece by the Persians, commanded by Xerxes I of Persia: it took place between 480 and 479 B.C. within the broader landscape of the Persian Wars, military campaigns with the ultimate goal of the subjugation of Greece to the Achaemenid empire.

This war was the direct consequence of the unsuccessful First Persian War, which took place between 492 and 490 B.C.E., conducted on the orders of Darius I of Persia and ended with the aggressors retreating following defeat at Marathon. After the death of Darius, his son Xerxes took several years to plan the second expedition, as he had to gather a fleet and army of colossal size. The Athenians and Spartans led the Hellenic resistance, overseeing a military alliance agreed upon among some thirty-one poleis, and called the Panhellenic League; however, most of the cities remained neutral or spontaneously submitted to the enemy.

The invasion began in the spring of the year 480 B.C., when the Persian army crossed the Hellespont and marched in the direction of Thessaly, crossing Thrace and Macedonia. The Persian forces' land advance was halted, however, at the Pass of Thermopylae, where a small army led by the Spartan king Leonidas I engaged in an unsuccessful but historic battle with the enemy. Thanks to the resistance put up at Thermopylae, the Greeks managed to block the Persian army for two days: however, the latter had the upper hand the moment they managed to outflank the adversary, due to the help of the Greek Ephialtes of Trachis, who through another entrance on the mountain, controlled by a few sentries, got them through, trapping and massacring the Greek rear guard.

At the same time, the Persian fleet was blocked for two days by that stationed by Athens and its allies near Cape Artemisius: when news of the defeat at Thermopylae reached them, the Hellenic fleet moved further south, in the direction of the Island of Salamis, where it would later engage with that stationed by the Achaemenid empire in the naval battle of the same name. In the meantime, Persian forces had subdued Boeotia and Attica, managing to reach as far as Athens, a city that was conquered and burned down: all its inhabitants had already fled to safety. However, Hellenic strategy succeeded in preventing the Persian advance as it had provided for a second line of defense at the level of the Isthmus of Corinth, which was fortified to protect the Peloponnese.

Both sides believed that the battle of Salamis could be decisive for the development of the clash. Themistocles convinced everyone that a naval battle should be engaged in the narrow arm of sea that separated the island from the Attic coast. The latter succeeded in defeating the Persian fleet, which was beaten back because of its disorganization due to the small size of the arm of sea that hosted the battle, which lay between the coast of Attica and the island of Salamis. The victory was an omen of a quick conclusion to the clash: following the defeat, Xerxes, fearing that his soldiers might be trapped in Europe, decided to return to Asia and leave a force of 300,000 soldiers in Greece under the leadership of General Mardonius.

The following spring, the Athenians and their allies managed to assemble a large Hoplite array, which they then marched northward against Mardonius, who was supported by the host city of Thebes. Under the leadership of Pausanias the Hellenic army was later able to fight the Battle of Plataea, during which it proved its superiority again, inflicting a severe defeat on the Persians and succeeding in killing Mardonius. On the same day the Greek fleet proved its superiority by destroying the Persian fleet during the Battle of Mycale, after crossing the Aegean Sea.

After this double defeat, the Persians were forced to retreat and lost their historic economic and commercial influence over the Aegean Sea. The last phase of the war, identifiable as its conclusion and ending in 479 B.C., saw a counterattack by the Hellenic forces, which in fact decided to go on the offensive, going so far as to drive the Persians out of Europe, the Aegean islands, and the Greek colonies of Ionia.

In the same days as the battle of Salamis was being fought, other Greeks had been fighting on a distant front, Sicily, against the Carthaginians. Present in the western part of the island, the latter had seized the opportunity of Xerxes' invasion of Greece to try to extend their dominions to the whole of Sicily; again, however, the quarrelsome poleis of the island managed to come to an agreement and inflicted a crushing defeat on their opponents at Imera, although they failed to expel them permanently from Sicily.

The main primary source relating to the Persian Wars is the Greek historian Herodotus, not mistakenly considered the father of modern history, who was born in the year 484 B.C. in Halicarnassus, a polis in Asia Minor under Persian control. He wrote his work Histories (Ancient Greek: Ἱστορίαι, Hístoriai) roughly between 440 and 430 BCE, attempting to identify the origins of the Persian Wars, then considered a relatively recent event, as these did not finally end until 450 BCE. Herodotus' approach to narrating these events is not comparable with that of modern historians, since he uses a fictional style: nevertheless, it is possible to identify him as the founder of the modern historical method, at least as far as Western society is concerned. For, as Tom Holland put it, "for the first time a chronicler set out to trace the origins of a conflict that did not belong to a time so long ago as to be called fanciful, not by the will or desire of some deity, not by the claim of a people to foresee destiny, but by means of explanations that they could have personally verified."

Some ancient historians after Herodotus, although they followed in the footsteps left by the famous historian, began to criticize his work: the first of these was Thucydides. However, Thucydides chose to begin his own historiographical research where Herodotus had finished, that is, beginning with the siege of the polis of Sextus, evidently believing that his predecessor had done work that did not need revision or rewriting. Plutarch, too, criticized Herodotus' work in his work On the Malignity of Herodotus, describing the Greek historian as close to the barbarians: this observation, however, allows us to understand and appreciate the attempt at historical impartiality promoted by Herodotus, who did not take the side of the Hellenic hoplites excessively.

Further criticisms of Herodotus were made in the cultural landscape of Renaissance Europe, in spite of which his writings remained widely read, however. However, Herodotus was rehabilitated and resumed to be considered reliable during the 19th century, when archaeological findings confirmed his version of events. The prevailing opinion today in relation to Herodotus' work is one that reads it as a work that is yes remarkable in historical terms, but less reliable in terms of the accuracy of the dates and the quantification of the contingents allocated for the various clashes. However, there are still some historians who regard the work done by the Greek historian as unreliable, the result of personal elaborations.

Another author who wrote in relation to these fights was Diodorus Siculus, a Sicilian historian active during the first century B.C.E. and best known for his work on universal history known as Bibliotheca historica, in which he treated this subject by leaning on the studies already made by the Greek historian Ephorus of Cumae. The writings from that source do not deviate from the data provided by Herodotus. Other authors also touched on this issue in their writings, although they did not elaborate on it and did not provide numerical accounts: Plutarch, Cthesia of Knidos and the playwright Aeschylus. Archaeological findings, including the Serpentine Column, also confirm Herodotus' claims.

The Greek poleis of Athens and Eretria had supported the unsuccessful Ionian revolt against the Achaemenid empire of Darius I of Persia between 499 and 494 BCE. The Persian empire was still relatively young, and therefore an easy victim of internal revolts unleashed by the subjugated peoples. What is more, Darius was a usurper, and occupied a great deal of time to quell revolts against him and his power. Having quelled the Ionian revolt, which had threatened to undermine the integrity of the Achaemenid empire, Darius decided to punish the rebels and those who had assisted them even if not directly affected. Darius also saw an opportunity to expand his empire by subduing the polis of Greece. In 492 BCE he sent a preliminary expedition led by General Mardonius to the Balkan Peninsula, with the aim of reconquering Thrace and forcing Macedonia to become a vassal kingdom of Persia.

In 491 BC. Darius sent ambassadors to all the Greek polis, demanding "land and water" as a sign of submission. Having been given a show of power by the Persian empire, most Greek cities submitted to him. The reaction of Athens and Sparta was different. In the former the ambassadors were tried and sentenced to death; in Sparta they were simply thrown into a well. This reaction corresponded to the Spartans' final entry into the conflict. So Darius began the offensive in 490 B.C. by sending an expedition led by Dati and Artafernes: this attacked Naxos and obtained the submission of all the polis of the Cycladic islands. The Persian deployment then began to march in the direction of Athens, after reaching the polis of Eretria, which was besieged and destroyed: it landed near the bay of Marathon, where it faced the deployment that had in the meantime been collected by Athens, supported by the small polis of Plataea: the victory of the Hellenes was so great that it forced the enemies to retreat, after the latter had unsuccessfully attempted a second maritime attack on Athens.

Darius therefore began for a second time to gather another mighty army with the aim of subjugating the entire Hellenic peninsula: however, this attempt had to be postponed permanently because of the insurrection of Egypt, which broke out in 486 BC. Darius died before he could put down the Egyptian revolt: the throne passed to his son Xerxes, who suppressed this insurrection and resumed the planning of the attack against the Greek polis.

Since this was a large-scale expedition, its planning proved extremely long and laborious. This undertaking was accompanied as well by the realization of some monumental works, such as the construction of a colossal floating bridge over the Hellespont to enable the army to cross this arm of the sea and that of a channel cutting through the promontory formed by Mount Athos, which was considered extremely dangerous for the fleet because a previous expedition led by Mardonius had previously sunk there in 492 B.C. These feats reflected boundless ambition far removed from contemporary reality. However, the campaign was postponed for a year because of a second insurrection by Egyptian and Babylonian subjects.

In 481 BCE, after about four years of preparations, Xerxes began to assemble his troops in preparation for the aggression of Greece. Herodotus lists the names of the various nationalities of the soldiers serving in the Persian army, a total of forty-six. The Persian army was assembled in the summer and fall of that year in Asia Minor. A different route was taken by the armies of the eastern satrapies, assembled in Cappadocia and led by Xerxes himself to Sardis, where they spent the winter. In early spring they moved in the direction of the city of Abydos, where they joined those from the western satrapies. Thereafter the entire army marched toward Europe, crossing the Hellespont via pontoon bridges built by the king. During the approach there was a meeting between Xerxes and Pythius.

Persian forces

The number of troops Xerxes is said to have assembled for the Second Persian War has been the subject of much debate, as the figures given to us by ancient sources appear patently excessive, if not surreal. Herodotus claimed that troops totaling 2.5 million had been assembled, accompanied by an equally large auxiliary staff. The poet Simonides, contemporary with the conflicts, even speaks of four million units; Ctesias of Cnidus, basing his research on Persian records, states how the troops consisted of about 800,000 soldiers, excluding support personnel. Although it has been assumed that ancient historians had access to Persian records, modern scholars tend not to believe such data to be true, based on their study of the Persian military system, the logistical possibilities of the deployment itself, the Greek landscape, and the possibilities of the deployment to receive supplies along the way.

Modern scholars generally look for the causes of such errors related to the quantification of the forces at the disposal of the Achaemenid empire in hypothetical miscalculations or exaggerations on the part of the victors, or in the lack of definite information provided by the Persians in connection with this subject. The subject has been widely debated: most modern historians estimate Persian forces as between 300,000 and 500,000. However, whatever the actual figure may have been, it is not difficult to read into Xerxes' plans, which aimed at amassing an army vastly superior to that of the Greeks, his eagerness to ensure a victorious expedition on both the land and sea fronts. However, much of the army died of starvation or disease, and thus did not return to Asia.

Herodotus reports that the army and fleet, before moving against Thrace, stopped at Dorisco so that Xerxes himself could inspect it. Taking advantage of that opportunity, Herodotus gives an account of the troops serving the Achmenid empire, reporting the presence of the following units.

Herodotus doubles this figure, as he also takes into account support personnel: in fact, he reports that the entire army consisted of 5 283 220. Other ancient sources also provide similar numbers. The poet Simonides, who was almost a contemporary of the conflict, reports the figure of four million; Ctesias of Knidos, on the other hand, reports that there were about 800,000 soldiers present at the time of the review.

A particularly influential modern English historian, George Grote, was astonished by the data provided by Herodotus and incredulously stated that "to consider this high figure, or anything close to it, to be true is obviously impossible." The main objection raised by Grote concerns the problems of supply, although he does not dwell particularly on this aspect. He did not, however, while pointing to the contradictions in the ancient sources, completely reject the data provided by Herodotus, referring to the passage in which the Greek historian dwells on calling the Persian accounting methods precise and describing the embarked supplies as plentiful. Something more realistically capable of limiting the tonnage of the Persian army was the water supply, as was first suggested by Sir Frederick Maurice, a transport officer of English nationality. Maurice first suggested how only an army of no more than 200,000 men and 70,000 animals could find enough water, later speculating that the error might have been generated by a lexical misunderstanding. Indeed, he argued that perhaps Herodotus had come to support the presence of such a large army by having confused the Persian term for chiliarch, commander of a thousand soldiers, with that for miriarch, leader of ten thousand soldiers. Other modern scholars believe that the forces used for the invasion amounted to 100,000 soldiers or even less, based on the logistical system available at the time of the conflict.

Munro and Macan highlight another aspect of the narrative made by Herodotus: he, in fact, records the names of six of the major commanders and only twenty-nine miriarchs, the leaders of the Baivarabam, basic units of Persian infantry consisting of ten thousand.

Assuming there were no other miriarchs not mentioned, this would correspond to quantifying the forces available to the Persians as equivalent to 300,000. Other scholars, advocating higher figures, however, do not exceed 700,000 in quantifying the available forces. Kampouris, distancing himself from other voices, accepts as realistic the figures proposed by Herodotus, stating that the army consisted of about 1 700 000 infantrymen and 80 000 cavalrymen. These numbers also include auxiliary personnel. This assumption is supported by several reasons, including the vastness of the area of origin of the military personnel employed (from modern Libya to Pakistan) and the proportion between land and sea troops, between infantry and cavalry, and between opposing sides.

The tonnage of the Persian fleet has also been discussed, although perhaps less widely than has been said about the land army. According to Herodotus, the Persian fleet comprised 1,207 triremes and 3,000 ships for transporting troops and supplies, including 50 pentecontere (ancient Greek: πεντηκοντήρ, pentekontér). Herodotus gives us a detailed list in which he lists the origin of the various Persian triremes:

Herodotus also records that this was the number of vessels used for the battle of Salamis: it should be noted that this number was also affected by losses due to a storm off the island of Euboea and the battle of Cape Artemisius. It also adds that the losses had been replenished with reinforcements. In contrast, the fleet allocated from Greece and Thrace consisted of only 120 triremes, to be added to an unspecified number of ships from the Greek islands. Aeschylus, who fought at Salamis, also claims the presence of 1 207 warships, including 1 000 triremes and 207 fast ships. claim that there were 1 200 ships at the time of the review. The number 1 207 is also given by Ephorus of Cumae, while his master Isocrates claimed there were 1 300 ships at the time of the review and 1 200 on the battlefield off Salamis. Ctesia gives a different number and states the presence of 1 000 ships, while Plato, speaking in general terms, mentions 1 000 and more ships.

These numbers, remarkable when contextualized in the time of the conflict, could be given as correct given their concordance. Among modern scholars some accept these figures, while others suggest that the number should have been lower than at the Battle of Salamis. Other recent works on the Persian wars reject this figure, arguing that it is a reference to the fleet stationed by the Greeks during the Trojan War, narrated in the Iliad. They argue that the Persians would not have been able to allocate a fleet of more than 600.

The Athenians had been preparing for war against the Persians for a long time, roughly since 485 BCE. However, the decision to build a massive fleet of triremes that would be needed to fight the Persians was not made until 482 B.C. under the leadership of the politician Themistocles. The Athenians did not have enough soldiers to fight against their enemies both by sea and land: it was therefore necessary to create an alliance of several cities to fight the Persians. In 481 BC. Xerxes sent his emissaries to the various Greek cities, demanding through them land and water as a sign of submission, but without Sparta and Athens submitting. Although many cities decided to submit, others decided to ally themselves against the Persians.

To broaden the front of the field forces, a delegation of Athenians and Spartans arrived at Gelon's court in Syracuse. He initially refused help because of a failure to take action against the Carthaginians in Sicily. But then he asked for command over all, both Athenians and Spartans effectively dropping the possibility of support:

The Hellenic alliance

In the late autumn of 481 B.C. a congress was held in Corinth attended by representatives of the various Greek states: an alliance was succeeded in being formed among thirty-one of the Greek polis. This confederation had the power to send ambassadors to the various members, asking them to send troops to agreed points of defense after mutual consultation. Herodotus does not, however, provide a collective name for such a confederation and identifies them as the Greeks (in ancient Greek: οἱ Ἕλληνες, hoi Héllenes), or alternatively as "the Greeks who had sworn to ally themselves" (Godley's translation) or "the Greeks who joined together" (Rawlinson's translation). Henceforth they will be referred to by the generic name "Allies." Sparta and Athens played a central role during the congress but had an interest in all states having their own importance in the joint decisions of defensive strategy. Little is known about the conduct of the congress and the internal discussions that characterized it. Only seventy of the seven hundred or so Greek polis sent their representatives. Nevertheless, it was a great success for the unity of the Hellenic world, especially since many of the assembled cities were involved in the internecine wars that periodically affected Greece.

However, most of the Greek city-states decided to remain more or less neutral, waiting for what the outcome of the clash would be, which looked difficult for the Hellenic side. Thebes was among the most celebrated absences: it was suspected that it was waiting for the arrival of enemy troops to ally with them. Not all Thebans agreed with the position taken by their city: in fact, four hundred hoplites close to Athens decided to join the Hellenic alliance during the Battle of Thermopylae (at least according to one possible interpretation.). The most important polis that sided with the Persians was Argos, which had always been at odds with Sparta because of the latter's expansionist attempts against the Peloponnese. It should be noted that the Argives had previously been weakened by their clash in 494 B.C. near Sepeia with the Spartans, led by Cleomenes I. The battle of Sepeia was won by the Spartans, who thus took full control over the Peloponnese. Cleomenes exterminated the survivors of the Argivian army by setting fire to the forest where they had taken refuge.

Consistency of Greek forces

The Allies did not have a real standing army, nor were they obliged to form a unified one, since, fighting on home territory, they would be able to raise contingents as and when needed. For each battle they therefore allocated different contingents: the figures are presented in the section on each individual battle.

Having reached Europe in April 480 BCE, the Persian army began its march in the direction of Greece. Five points had been established along the route for the accumulation of food supplies: Lefki Akti, in Thrace, on the banks of the Hellespont; Tyrozis, on Lake Bistonides; Dorisco, on the estuary of the Evros River; Eione, on the Strimon River; and Therma, a city later transformed into modern Thessaloniki. At Dorisco the Balkan contingents joined the Asiatic ones. At these locations food was sent from Asia for several years in preparation for battle. Many animals were bought and fattened, while the local people were ordered to grind grain to produce flour. It took the Persian army about three months to reach Therma from the Hellespont, making a journey of about 600 km. It stopped at Dorisco where it had a chance to rejoin the fleet. Xerxes decided to reorganize the contingents at his disposal according to strategic units, replacing the previous national armies where the division was by ethnicity.

The congress of the Allies met for a second time in the spring of 480 B.C.E. A delegation from Thessaly suggested that the Allies should gather their armies in the narrow valley of Tempe, located in the northern part of Thessaly, and there block the Persian advance. A contingent of 10,000 Allies commanded by the Spartan polemarch Euenetus and Themistocles was then sent into the pass. However, once they reached the site, they were warned by Alexander I of Macedon that the wall could be passed as well by two other passes, and that Xerxes' army really had colossal proportions: the Allies withdrew. Shortly thereafter they learned that Xerxes had crossed the Hellespont. The abandonment of the valley of Tempe corresponded to the subjugation of the whole of Thessaly to the Persians: the same choice was made by many cities located north of the pass of Thermopylae since it seemed that guaranteed arrival and support from the Allies was not forthcoming.

Themistocles proposed a second strategy to the Allies. To reach southern Greece (Boeotia, Attica, and Peloponnese) the Persians would have had to pass through the narrow pass of Thermopylae: during this operation they would have been easily blocked by the Allies despite their numerical disproportion. In addition, to prevent the outflanking of Thermopylae by sea, the Allied fleet was to blockade the opponents near Cape Artemisius. This two-pronged strategy was adopted by the congress. However, the Peloponnesian polis created a contingency plan to defend the Isthmus of Corinth, and the women and children of Athens were evacuated en masse to Trezene, a city located in the Peloponnese.

When the Allies received the news that Xerxes was about to march around Mount Olympus with the intention of passing the pass of Thermopylae, the Greek world was enlivened by the festivities that accompanied the ancient Olympic games and the Spartan festival of the Carneas: during both events fighting was considered sacrilege. Nevertheless, the Spartiates considered the threat serious enough to send their king Leonidas I to the battlefield, accompanied by his personal escort of three hundred men. Noting the danger of the clash, however, the Spartans preferred to replace the younger soldiers with others who had already borne children. Leonidas was also joined by contingents dispatched from other Peloponnesian cities allied to Sparta and by squadrons of soldiers gathered on the march toward the battlefield. The Allies proceeded to occupy the pass: having rebuilt a wall that had been erected at the narrowest point of the gorge for its defense from the inhabitants of Phocis, the troops awaited the arrival of the Persian army.

When the Persians arrived at Thermopylae in mid-August the infantry waited three days because of the resistance put up by the Hellenic array. When Xerxes understood that the Allies' intention was to keep his soldiers in the pass, he ordered them to attack the Greeks. However, the position of the Greeks was favorably placed to the Hoplite deployment, and the Persian contingents were forced to attack the enemy head-on. The Allies might have been able to hold out for longer if a local peasant named Ephialtes had not revealed to the enemy the existence of a path through the mountains that allowed them to circumvent the resistance put up by the phalanx. Through a night march Xerxes had his elite corps, the Immortals, outflank the enemy. When he was made aware of this maneuver, Leonidas decided to send back a large part of the Hellenic army: only three hundred Spartiates, seven hundred Thespian soldiers, and four hundred Thebans remained in the field, to which perhaps a few hundred soldiers of other nationalities must be added. On the third day of the clash, the Greek soldiers remaining in the field came out of the previously rebuilt wall with the aim of trying to kill as many of the enemy as possible. However, this sacrifice was not enough: the battle ended in a decisive victory for the Persian forces, who annihilated their opponents and crossed the pass.

At the same time as the Battle of Thermopylae a fleet allocated by the Allies, consisting of two hundred and seventy-one triremes, engaged in a naval clash against the Persian fleet off Cape Artemisius. Immediately before the Battle of Artemisius the Persian fleet had suffered severe damage from a storm that broke out in the seas of Magnesia: despite heavy losses, the Persians had managed to allocate about eight hundred ships for this battle. This clash broke out on the same day as the one at Thermopylae. On the first day, the Persians sent a small fleet of two hundred ships in the direction of the eastern coast of Euboea to block the enemy fleet in case of retreat. The Allies and the Persians remaining in the stretch of sea that would host the battle clashed in the late afternoon: the Allies prevailed and managed to capture thirty enemy ships. During the evening, a second storm destroyed most of the ships that were part of that detachment that had been sent by the Persians to prevent the enemies from escaping.

On the second day of the battle news reached the Allies that the ships sent to prevent their escape had been sunk: following this, they decided to keep their positions unchanged. They also staged a quick attack on the Cilician ships, capturing and destroying them. On the third day, however, the Persian fleet attacked the Allied lines with great force: it was a day of intense fighting. The Allies managed to hold their positions, but they were not exempt from heavy losses: in fact, half of their fleet was damaged. Equally, they managed to inflict equal damage on the enemy. That evening the Allies learned that Leonidas and the Allies fighting at Thermopylae had been defeated by the Persians. Since the fleet had been badly damaged and was on positions that were now useless, the Allies decided to sail south, in the direction of the island of Salamis.

The victory at the pass of Thermopylae corresponded to Xerxes' conquest of Boeotia: only the cities of Plataea and Thespiae resisted, which were later conquered and raided. Attica had no defenses to protect itself from enemy invasion: the evacuation of the city was completed, which was possible through the use of the fleet allocated by the Allies, and all the citizens of Athens were taken to Salamis. The Peloponnesian cities allied to Athens began to prepare a line of defense at the level of the Isthmus of Corinth, building a wall and destroying the road leading there from Megara. Athens was left in the hands of the enemy army: the city soon gave way, and the few citizens who had not taken refuge in Salamis and were entrenched on the Acropolis were defeated: Xerxes ordered the city to be burned.

The Persians now had most of the Greeks in their power, but Xerxes had probably not expected such intense resistance from his enemies. Xerxes' priority now was to finish the campaign as soon as possible: such a large army could not remain active for too long because of the amount of supplies needed, and moreover he probably did not want to remain on the fringes of his empire for such a long time. The clash that had taken place near Thermopylae had shown how a frontal attack had little chance of success against a position of the Greeks; since the Allies had occupied the isthmus there was little chance of the Persians succeeding in conquering the remaining part of Greece by land. However, if the isthmus defensive line had been bypassed, the Allies would have been easily defeated. But an outflanking of the land army would have required the fleet, which could intervene only after annihilating the opposing one. In sum, Xerxes' desire to destroy the enemy navy had as its ultimate goal to force the Greeks to surrender. This confrontation gave hope for a quick conclusion to the war. The battle ended in the opposite way to Xerxes' predictions: the Greeks resisted Persian aggression and, what is more, succeeded in destroying the enemy fleet, realizing Themistocles' ambitions. We can therefore say that on this occasion both sides wanted to try to heavily alter the course of the war in their favor.

That was why the fleet stationed by the Allies stayed off the coast of Salamis despite the imminent arrival of the Persians. Even when Athens was taken by the Persians it did not return, trying to lure the enemy fleet there to begin a confrontation. Thanks in part to a subterfuge devised by Themistocles, the two fleets found themselves fighting the final confrontation in the narrow straits of Salamis. Once they reached the battlefield, it began to be difficult for the Persian fleet to maneuver and therefore plunged into disorganization. Taking advantage of this opportunity, the Allied fleet attacked, achieving a great victory: at least two hundred Persian ships were either captured or sunk. In this way the tragic prospect of a Peloponnesian bypass was foiled.

According to Herodotus' claims after this defeat Xerxes attempted to build a causeway across the strait to attack Salamis, although Strabo and Ctesias claim that this action had been attempted even before the naval clash. In any case, this project was soon abandoned. Xerxes feared that the Greek fleet, having defeated the Persian fleet, might head for the Hellespont to destroy the pontoon bridge that he had had built to allow the transit of his army. According to Herodotus' account, Mardonius offered to stay in Greece to complete the conquest along with troops, advising the king to return to Asia with the bulk of the army. All Persian troops left Attica to spend the winter in Thessaly and Boeotia, allowing the Athenians to return to the mainland and move into the burned city.

Siege of Potidea

Herodotus reports that the Persian general Artabazo, after escorting Xerxes to the Hellespont with 60,000 soldiers, began the return journey to Thessaly to reunite with Mardonius. However, as he approached the peninsulas known as the Pallenes, he thought to subdue the people of Potidea, finding them in revolt. Although he attempted to subdue the rioters through treachery, the Persians were forced to prolong the siege for three months. A second attempt was made to conquer the city from the sea side, taking advantage of an unusually low tide. However, the army was surprised by the high tide: many died, and the survivors were attacked by soldiers sent from Potidea aboard ships. Artabazo was thus forced to abandon the siege, continuing the march to reunite his men with those commanded by Mardonius.

Siege of Olinto

At the same time as the siege of Potidea Artabazo engaged in another venture, the siege of Olinthus, a city that was attempting revolt. Perched in the city was the tribe of the Bottians, who had been driven out of Macedonia. After taking it, Artabazo handed the city over to the inhabitants of the Chalkidiki peninsula and massacred its inhabitants.

After the winter, tensions seemed to arise among the Allies. In particular, the Athenians, who were not protected by the isthmus but at the same time were the largest contributors to the establishment of the fleet that protected the entire Peloponnese, demanded that the Allies allocate an army to make it clash with the Persians. Since the other Allies failed to keep this condition, the Athenian fleet probably refused to take part in the Hellenic fleet in the spring. The fleet, now under the control of the Spartan king Leotychidas, took refuge in Delos, while the Persian fleet took refuge in Samos: both sides did not want to venture to start the battle. Mardonius, at the same time, also remained stationary in Thessaly, knowing that the isthmus attack was futile. The Allies refused to send an army out of the Peloponnese.

Mardonius moved to break the stalemate by offering pacification, self-government, and territorial expansion to the Athenians. This maneuver was aimed at drawing the Athenian fleet away from the coalition, using Alexander I of Macedon as an intermediary. The Athenians ensured that a Spartan delegation was sent by Mardonius to hear his proposal, which was, however, rejected. Athens was then evacuated again. The Persians marched south again and regained possession of the city, while Mardonius repeated his peace offer to the Athenian refugees on the island of Salamis. Athens, Megara and Plataea sent emissaries to Sparta, threatening to accept Persian terms if they did not send an army in their support. The Spartans, who were celebrating the feast of Hyacinthus, delayed the decision for ten days. However, when Athenian emissaries issued an ultimatum to the Spartans, they were surprised to hear that an army was already on its way to clash with the Persians.

Mardonius, when he learned that the Allied army was already on the march, retreated to Boeotia near Plataea, trying to lure the Allies into open ground where he could use his cavalry. However, the Allied army under the command of Pausanias, king of Sparta, stationed itself on high ground near Plataea to protect itself against Mardonius' tactics. The Persian general ordered a quick cavalry charge against the Greek ranks, but the attack failed and the cavalry commander was killed. The Allies moved to a position closer to the Persian camp, but still on the heights. As a result, however, the Allied supply lines were exposed to Persian attacks. Persian cavalry began to intercept food deliveries and even managed to destroy the only water source available to the Allies. Pausanias' position was now impossible to maintain: the Spartan ordered a night retreat to the original positions, leaving, however, the Athenians, Spartans, and Tegeans isolated on separate hills, with other contingents scattered farther away, near Plataea itself. Seeing the Greek disorganization, Mardonius advanced with his army. However, as at Thermopylae, the Persian infantry was no match for the heavily armored Greek hoplites: the Spartans attacked Mardonius' bodyguard and killed him. After the general's killing, the Persians were put on the run: 40,000 of them managed to escape via the road to Thessaly, but the rest fled to the Persian camp, where they were trapped and exterminated by the Allies, who won a resounding victory.

Herodotus tells us that, on the afternoon of the same day as the Battle of Plataea, news of the Greek victory reached the Allied fleet, at that time off the coast of Mount Mycale in Ionia. Heartened by the good news, the sailors of the Allies defeated the remnants of the Persian fleet in a decisive battle. As soon as the Spartans had crossed the isthmus, in fact, Santippus' Athenian fleet had joined with the rest of the Allied fleet. The fleet, now able to match the Persian fleet, had sailed to Samos, where the Persian fleet was based.

The Persians, whose ships were in a poor state, had decided not to risk fighting and to get their ships to the beach near Mount Mycale. A contingent of 60,000 men, left there by Xerxes, built together with the sailors who had come over a palisade around the fleet to protect it. However, Leotychidas decided to attack the camp with the sailors of the Greek fleet. Seeing the small size of the Allied force, the Persians left the camp, but once again the Hoplites proved to be superior to Xerxes' infantry and destroyed much of the Persian force. The Allies abandoned the ships and burned them: this act crippled Persian sea power and began the rise of the Allied fleet.Athens then conquered Sextus, on the Hellespont, where Xerxes had built the pontoon bridge. With this conquest the war was won by the Greeks. There may have been, but it is not certain, the Peace of Callia.

With the double victory at Plataea and Mycalea the second Persian war could be said to have ended. In addition, the risk of a third invasion diminished: the Greeks nevertheless remained on the alert despite the fact that it was evident that the Persian desire to take over Greece had greatly diminished.

In a sense the Battle of Mycale corresponded to the beginning of a new phase of the conflict, the Greek counterattack. After the victory at Mycale the Allied fleet sailed to the Hellespont with the aim of bringing down the pontoon bridge, but found that this had already been done. The divisions consisting of soldiers from the Peloponnese returned home, while the Athenians remained there to attack the Thracian Chersonese, still under Persians' control: there was a new victory of the Allies over the Persians and their allies controlled by the city of Sextus, the most powerful city in the region, which was besieged by the Greeks and conquered. Herodotus' narrative ends after the episode of the siege of Sextus. The next thirty years are marked by the attempt of the Greeks and particularly the Delio-Attic League commanded by Athens to expel the Persians from Macedonia, Thrace, the Aegean islands, and Ionia of Asia. Peace with the Persians was reached in 449 B.C. with the stipulation of the Peace of Callia, which marked the end of a conflict that had lasted about half a century.

The Greeks' style of warfare had been refined in previous centuries. It was based on the category of the hoplite, members of the social class known in Athens as the zeugites: they, constituting the middle class, were able to purchase their own hoplite armor. The hoplite was heavily armored compared to the levels common at that time: in fact, he had cuirass (originally made of bronze, but later replaced by one made of leather, which was more flexible), shinguards, full helmet, and a broad round shield called an aspis. Hoplites were armed with a long spear called a doru, which was much longer than those held by the Persians, and a sword called a xiphoi. Hoplites fought in phalanx, a formation in some respects still unknown but certainly compact, being composed of a uniform array of shields and spears. If structured properly, the phalanx was a very viable mode of warfare in both attack and defense: indeed, a huge number of lightly armed soldiers were needed to counter a small oplitic array. The validity of the oplitic armament manifested itself both in hand-to-hand duels (where heavy armor and long spears played a decisive role) and in the case of ranged attacks; a special case in which the fragility of this system was revealed was the clash on unsuitable terrain with cavalry.

The Persian infantry employed for the invasion was a motley mix of ethnicities, as soldiers were hired from all the provinces of the empire. However, according to Herodotus, uniformity had been achieved in terms of armaments and style of warfare. In general, troops were armed with a bow, short spear, and sword as offensive weapons and with a wicker shield and at most a leather juxtaposition as defensive weapons. The only exception to this pattern consisted of troops of Persian origin, who wore body armor. However, some contingents could have even slightly different armor, such as the Saka, who were equipped with axes. The most important contingents of the army were those made up of Persian soldiers, medi, saka, and khūzestāni. The most prestigious units were those that made up the royal guard, the so-called Immortals, who were, however, armed in the same way as the others. The cavalry units were composed of Persians, Bactrians, Medes, Khūzestāni, and Saka: most of these were lightly armed. The war strategy of the Persians consisted of starting the clash by standing at a distance from the enemy and beginning to strike him by taking advantage of the archers and then approaching and concluding the clash with hand-to-hand duels against an already worn-out enemy.

A previous clash between Persian troops and Greek phalanx had already occurred during the Ionian revolt, at the Battle of Ephesus. On that occasion the clash, perhaps compromised by the fatigue of the Hoplites, had been won by the Persians. However, the Greeks had overwhelmed the Persians during the Battle of Marathon, which was also marked, however, by the absence of cavalry units. It is surprising that the Persians did not lead hoplites with them from Ionia of Asia. Similarly, despite the fact that Herodotus tells us that the Egyptian navy could compete with the Greek navy in weapons and capabilities, no Egyptian contingent took part in the land expedition. This choice could be due to the fact that both peoples had recently rebelled against Persian rule, but this theory loses credibility when considering the presence of Greek and Egyptian contingents in the navy. The Allies may have been trying to make it seem to the Persians that the Ionians were untrustworthy, but from what we know, both the Ionians and the Egyptians fought zealously for the Persians. More simply, there may not have been Ionian and Egyptian contingents in the land army in accordance with what happened to the other coastal peoples who, serving with the fleet, had not served in the land army.

During the two main land battles of the invasion, the Allies were able to move in such a way as to nullify the Persians' numerical advantage, occupying the narrow pass during the Battle of Thermopylae and entrenching themselves on high ground during the Clash of Plataea. At Thermopylae, before the route around the Greeks' position had been revealed, the Persians failed to adapt their tactics to the military situation. However, the position the Persians were in was disadvantageous. At Plataea, the strategy of preventing the enemy ranks from being supplied with food and water by cavalry led to success: the Allies were forced to retreat, but the inferiority of the Persian troops to the Greeks gave victory to the latter. The superiority of the Greek hoplites was also confirmed by the clash at Mycale. During the Persian wars, strategies were applied that were not particularly complex but still managed to bring victory to the Greeks. The Persian defeat may have been due to the fact that the Persians had underestimated the real potential of the Hoplites: the Persian inability to adapt to the Hellenic style of warfare would thus have contributed to the failure of the aggression.

At the beginning of the invasion the Persians were clearly in an advantageous situation. Regardless of the number of soldiers actually available to the Persians, it is clear that their deployment was truly impressive compared to the Greek one. The Persians had a very centralized system of army control, at the apex of which was the king, to whom everyone was responsible. They also had an effective bureaucratic system, a guarantee of good planning. The Persian empire having been formed through an eighty-year sequence of clashes, the Persian generals had great military experience. Moreover, the Persians excelled in the application of diplomacy to warfare contexts: in fact, they had almost succeeded in dividing the Greeks in order to conquer them. In contrast, the Greek alliance consisted of thirty city-states, some of them in conflict with each other, and was therefore highly unstable and fragmented. They had little experience in relation to large military campaigns, as the polis of Greece, devoting themselves mostly to internecine wars, were accustomed to fighting in geographically circumscribed contexts. Greek leaders themselves were chosen more for their political activity and social rank than for actual skill and experience. Lazenby therefore came to wonder why the Persians, in spite of these premises, had failed in their invasion attempt.

The strategy devised by the Persians for the 480 B.C. attack was probably to focus on contingent size. Cities that would be in the path of the Persians would be forced to submit in order to avoid destruction, which would be risked if they refused. This happened with the Thessalian, Phocian, and Locrian cities, which initially opposed the Persian advance but were later forced to capitulate. In contrast, the strategy of the Allies was to try to block the enemies' advance as far north as possible, to prevent the Persians from adding to their deployment soldiers sent by any Hellenic allies obtained by forced capitulation. At the same time, the Allies understood how, because of the large number of soldiers brought to Europe by the Persians, it would be difficult for them to gain the upper hand in the open field. They therefore attempted to bottle up the opposing array: the entire Allied strategy can be seen according to this key. At first they attempted to defend the Tempe valley to prevent Persian penetration into Thessaly. After this position had become indefensible, they had fallen back to the south and positioned themselves at the level of Thermopylae and Artemisius. The first results achieved by the Allies during the Battle of Thermopylae were victorious, but their failure to defend the route that might have allowed them to outflank their lines led to their defeat. Instead, the Artemisius position was abandoned despite the fleet's early successes because of the many losses suffered and because of the defeat at the loss of Thermopylae by the land soldiers, which had rendered resistance on that front useless. Up to this point it seemed that Persian strategy had been able to prevail over Allied strategy. However, the Allied defeats had not turned out to be a disaster.

The defense of the Isthmus of Corinth by the Allies changed the very nature of the war. The Persians did not attempt a land attack, realizing that they could not overcome the defense made by the enemy. This situation led to a naval confrontation. Themistocles proposed doing what in hindsight would have been best: drawing the Persian fleet inside the Bay of Salamis. However, given the manner in which the war had unfolded up to that point, there was no real need for the Persians to fight at Salamis in order to win the war: it has been suggested that they underestimated the enemy or wanted to end the military campaign quickly. Consequently, the victory of the Allies at Salamis must be at least partly attributed to an error in the strategy implemented by the Persians. After the battle of Salamis the tactical style of the Persians changed. Mardonius attempted to exploit the disruptions among the Allies to break their alliance.

In particular, he sought to defeat the Athenians: if the Athenians did not provide the allied fleet with their contingents, the Greek fleet would no longer be able to counter the Persian landing in the Peloponnese. Although Herodotus tells us that Mardonius was eager to fight a final battle, his actions seem to conflict with this desire. He seemed willing to go into battle on his own terms, but waited for the Allies to attack or disband. The Allies' strategy for the year 479 B.C. presented problems: the Peloponnesians agreed to march north to save the alliance, and it appeared that the Athenians were planning a final battle. During the Battle of Plataea, seeing the difficulty of the Allies who were attempting to retreat, Mardonius was perhaps impatient to win: there was no real need to attack the Greeks, but doing so benefited the enemies by going into hand-to-hand combat. The victory of the Allies at Plataea can thus also be understood as the result of a Persian strategic error.

Thus the failure of the Persians can be partially seen as the result of strategic errors that handed tactical advantages to the Greeks, causing the Persian defeat. The stubbornness in the struggle that led the Allies to victory is often seen as a consequence of the struggle of free men for their own freedom. This factor may have collaborated in part in determining the outcome of the war, and certainly the Greeks interpreted their victory in these terms. Another important element in the Allied victory was the preservation of the alliance that bound them together, which was undermined by internal disagreements that erupted in several instances. After the Persian occupation of most of Greece, the Allies nonetheless remained loyal to the alliance: this is exemplified by the fact that the citizens of Athens, Thespias, and Plataea chose to fight away from their homeland rather than submit to the Persians. Ultimately, the Allies won in that they avoided disastrous defeats, remained steadfast to their alliance, knew how to exploit the advantages offered to them by Persian mistakes, and understood the validity of the Hoplitean deployment, their real only force capable of prejudicing the clash at Plataea to their advantage.

The Second Persian War was a major event in European history. A large number of historians claim that if Greece had been conquered, the Greek culture that underlies Western culture would never have developed. Of course, this is an exaggeration, since it is impossible to know what would have happened in the case of a Persian conquest of Greece. Even the Greeks themselves understood the importance of this event.

As for the military aspect, no war strategy of particular note was employed during the Persian Wars, which is why one commentator suggested that it was a war waged more by soldiers than by generals. Thermopylae is often pointed to as a good example of an army's exploitation of topography, while Themistocles' stratagem before the Battle of Salamis is a good example of deception in warfare. But the greatest lesson from the invasion is the importance of the oplitic deployment, also already demonstrated with the Battle of Marathon, in the case of hand-to-hand confrontations with more lightly armed armies. Understanding the importance of the oplitic deployment, the Persians would later begin recruiting Greek mercenaries, but not until after the Peloponnesian War.


  1. Second Persian invasion of Greece
  2. Seconda guerra persiana