The Persian Wars In the 5th century BC the vast Persian Empire attempted toconquer Greece.
If the Persians had succeeded, they would have set up localtyrants, called satraps, to rule Greece and would have crushed the firststirrings of democracy in Europe. The survival of Greek culture and politicalideals depended on the ability of the small, disunited Greek city-states to bandtogether and defend themselves against Persia’s overwhelming strength. Thestruggle, known in Western history as the Persian Wars, or Greco-Persian Wars,lasted 20 years–from 499 to 479 BC. Persia already numbered among its conqueststhe Greek cities of Ionia in Asia Minor, where Greek civilization firstflourished. The Persian Wars began when some of these cities revolted againstDarius I, Persia’s king, in 499 BC.
Athens sent 20 ships to aid the Ionians. Before the Persians crushed the revolt, the Greeks burned Sardis, capital ofLydia. Angered, Darius determined to conquer Athens and extend his empirewestward beyond the Aegean Sea. In 492 BC Darius gathered together a greatmilitary force and sent 600 ships across the Hellespont.
A sudden storm wreckedhalf his fleet when it was rounding rocky Mount Athos on the Macedonian coast. Two years later Darius dispatched a new battle fleet of 600 triremes. This timehis powerful galleys crossed the Aegean Sea without mishap and arrived safelyoff Attica, the part of Greece that surrounds the city of Athens. The Persianslanded on the plain of Marathon, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Athens. When the Athenians learned of their arrival, they sent a swift runner,Pheidippides, to ask Sparta for aid, but the Spartans, who were conducting areligious festival, could not march until the moon was full. Meanwhile the smallAthenian army encamped in the foothills on the edge of the Marathon Plain.
TheAthenian general Miltiades ordered his small force to advance. He had arrangedhis men so as to have the greatest strength in the wings. As he expected, hiscenter was driven back. The two wings then united behind the enemy.
Thus hemmedin, the Persians’ bows and arrows were of little use. The stout Greek spearsspread death and terror. The invaders rushed in panic to their ships. The Greekhistorian Herodotus says the Persians lost 6,400 men against only 192 on theGreek side. Thus ended the battle of Marathon (490 BC), one of the decisivebattles of the world.
Darius planned another expedition, but he died beforepreparations were completed. This gave the Greeks a ten-year period to preparefor the next battles. Athens built up its naval supremacy in the Aegean underthe guidance of Themistocles. In 480 BC the Persians returned, led by KingXerxes, the son of Darius.
To avoid another shipwreck off Mount Athos, Xerxeshad a canal dug behind the promontory. Across the Hellespont he had thePhoenicians and Egyptians place two bridges of ships, held together by cables offlax and papyrus. A storm destroyed the bridges, but Xerxes ordered the workersto replace them. For seven days and nights his soldiers marched across thebridges.
On the way to Athens, Xerxes found a small force of Greek soldiersholding the narrow pass of Thermopylae, which guarded the way to central Greece. Leonidas, king of Sparta, led the force. Xerxes sent a message ordering theGreeks to deliver their arms. “Come and take them,” replied Leonidas.
For two days the Greeks’ long spears held the pass. Then a Greek traitor toldXerxes of a roundabout path over the mountains. When Leonidas saw the enemyapproaching from the rear, he dismissed his men except the 300 Spartans, whowere bound, like himself, to conquer or die. Leonidas was one of the first tofall. Around their leader’s body the gallant Spartans fought first with theirswords, then with their hands, until they were slain to the last man. ThePersians moved on to Attica and found it deserted.
They set fire to Athens withflaming arrows. Xerxes’ fleet held the Athenian ships bottled up between thecoast of Attica and the island of Salamis. His ships outnumbered the Greek shipsthree to one. The Persians had expected an easy victory, but one after anothertheir ships were sunk or crippled. Crowded into the narrow strait, the heavyPersian vessels moved with difficulty.
The lighter Greek ships rowed out from acircular formation and rammed their prows into the clumsy enemy vessels. Twohundred Persian ships were sunk, others were captured, and the rest fled. Xerxesand his forces hastened back to Persia. Soon after, the rest of the Persian armywas scattered at Plataea (479 BC).
In the same year Xerxes’ fleet was defeatedat Mycale. The threat of Persian domination was ended.