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date: 19 January 2021

Persian Warsfree

  • John F. Lazenby

Term usually applied to the two Persian attempts to conquer Greece in 490 and 480/79 bce. The origins of the conflict go back to mainland Greek involvement in the rebellion of the Asiatic Greeks against Persian rule, earlier in the 5th cent. (See ionian revolt), but although Herodotus (1) dramatizes their desire for revenge, the Persians already ruled many European Greeks in Thrace and Macedonia, and their primary reason for seeking to conquer the rest may well have been that their rule over existing Greek subjects would never be secure while others remained independent.

The first attack was by sea. After ravaging Naxos (1) and subduing other islands, forcing Carystus (see euboea) to terms, and taking Eretria by treachery, an invasion-force eventually reached Marathon, where it was confronted by an army of Athenians and Plataeans (see plataea). After several days' delay during which the Persians possibly hoped for support to materialize for the ex-tyrant of Athens, Hippias (1), who had accompanied them, they perhaps provoked a battle by beginning to move on Athens, but were decisively defeated. See marathon, battle of.

The death of Darius (1) and a revolt in Egypt delayed renewal of the attack, but when it came, it was on a more massive scale and led by Darius' successor, Xerxes I, in person. How large his forces actually were is an intractable problem: the fleet may have contained the 1,207 triremes of tradition, but the army is unlikely to have had more than 100,000 men at most. Persian strategy clearly involved co-operation between the two, but the view that the army depended on sea-borne supplies is probably mistaken, since it continued to operate in 479 after the fleet had been defeated. More likely, naval forces were intended to prevent Greek ships from interfering with communications or in Asia Minor, and also, possibly, to turn Greek defensive positions on land.

Once aware of the Persian preparations, the Greeks consulted the Delphic oracle and received a series of gloomy prognostications. The Athenians, in particular, were advised to flee to the ends of the earth, and even a second approach only elicited the enigmatic response to rely on the ‘wooden wall’. But interpreting this to refer to their newly-built navy, they determined to resist, and probably late in 481, conferred with others of like mind. It was decided to patch up quarrels, to send spies to Asia Minor, and to appeal for help from uncommitted states. The appeals failed, and the spies were caught, to be released on Xerxes' orders to spread alarming reports of his power. But, crucially, under Spartan leadership, an alliance was created.

At a second meeting, probably in spring, 480, a Thessalian appeal to defend the Tempe pass led to the dispatch of 10,000 hoplites by sea via the Gulf of Pagasae. These withdrew before Xerxes even crossed the Hellespont, allegedly because of a warning from the Macedonian king about Persian numbers, and the realization that the pass could be turned. But the episode clearly shows that there was as yet no Peloponnesian reluctance to defend northern and central Greece, and that preparations by both land and sea were well in hand.

It was then decided to defend the Thermopylae pass and to send the fleet to Artemisium on the north-east coast of Euboea. But Thermopylae was turned through treachery, and what was probably a rear-guard under the king of Sparta, overwhelmed (see leonidas(1); thermopylae, battle of), while at sea, though the Persians suffered severely in storms, and the Greeks held the initiative for two days, they were so battered in the third day's fighting that they had virtually decided to withdraw before the news from Thermopylae arrived. See artemisium, battle of.

Falling back to Salamis (1), the Greek fleet helped the Athenians to complete the evacuation of Attica, which had probably been decided upon and largely carried out some months previously, but there then followed a pause. Eventually, either because of a message from Themistocles or because it was decided to try a surprise attack before the onset of winter, the Persian fleet entered the channel between Salamis and the mainland where its numbers and manoeuvrability were nullified. Decisively defeated (24 September?), it withdrew to Asia. See salamis, battle of.

Xerxes himself now also returned to Asia, but probably left most of his army in Greece under Mardonius, who wintered in Thessaly and offered Athens generous terms to weaken her resolve. When this failed, he reoccupied the city (June 479), sending another envoy over to Salamis with a renewed offer. Despite stirring expressions of an undying will to resist, and the lynching of an unfortunate councillor who suggested the offer be considered, Athenian resolution was severely tested by Sparta's reluctance to take the offensive. But in the end, a combination of scarcely veiled Athenian threats and allied warnings broke the deadlock.

Mardonius withdrew from Attica, allegedly because it was not suitable for cavalry and a potential trap, but possibly, in reality, to avoid confrontation and thus continue to let diplomacy do his work, The Greeks followed him to Boeotia, but clung to the foothills of Cithaeron (the mountain range which separates this part of Boeotia from Attica) until a success against the Persian cavalry in which its commander was killed, led them to move nearer to the Asopus, where Mardonius' main camp lay. There followed a delay during which they suffered increasingly from the harassment of Persian cavalry, and eventually, with their supply-lines severed and their water-supply at risk, they had to retreat.

Despite modern suggestions that the withdrawal was skilfully planned to lure Mardonius into attacking the apparently isolated right wing, whereupon the centre and left would converge to crush him, it is more likely that everything went wrong, as Herodotus suggests, with the centre's precipitate retirement to Plataea leaving the wings dangerously divided. However, in the ensuing battle, the Lacedaemonians (i.e. Spartans) and Tegeates (see tegea) on the right routed the Persians, while the Athenians on the left defeated their Greek allies. Mardonius himself was killed and most of his Asiatic troops with him, either on the field or in their palisaded camp. Only the Persian centre which had never become involved, managed to retreat in good order. See plataea, battle of. According to Greek legend, on the very same day, across the Aegean, a Greek fleet under Leotychidas, king of Sparta, landed its men on the Mycale peninsula, defeated a Persian army and stormed the palisaded base where their ships had been beached. Thus the Greek triumph was complete.

Some modern explanations for their victory can be discounted. There is no reason to believe, for example, that Persian soldiers, even those conscripted from subject peoples, fought any less conscientiously for their king than the Greeks for their freedom. Fighting for freedom is no guarantee of success, and the Indian army under the Raj shows that subjects of an imperial power can make superb soldiers. Nor is there any reason to believe that the Greeks, with the possible exception of the Spartans, were more highly trained or more disciplined than their opponents (see military training, greek). Indeed, at sea, the reverse was probably the case. However, it is true that even if most hoplites were untrained and inexperienced, they were at least accustomed to the idea of hand-to-hand combat, whereas this was not true of the Persians.

Again, Greek commanders were certainly no more highly trained or experienced than their Persian counterparts. If anything, the latter had probably had more experience, but the officers of both sides largely owed their positions to social standing. Thus it is unlikely that tactics or strategy played a decisive part. Only at Marathon is there any good evidence for Greek tactics, and even there the thinning of the Greek centre was probably defensive, and the converging of the wings accidental.

As for strategy, it has been alleged that the positioning of the Greek fleet at Salamis virtually compelled the Persians to fight it under unfavourable circumstances, even that the Greeks had decided, from the start, to fall back on Salamis and the Isthmus, and to win the war at sea, while, in effect, refusing their land forces. But these views largely depend on the erroneous notion that the Persian army depended on their fleet for supplies. Nevertheless, it is true that the Greeks both achieved a sufficient measure of unity to put up a defence in some strength, and that they acted together to a simple but effective plan, occupying defensive positions to nullify the enemy's strength in numbers and mobility, and as far north as possible. In the end there is no simple explanation for what happened. Perhaps the simplest is that in the two decisive battles the Greeks were better equipped. At Salamis, in confined waters, their possibly more stoutly constructed ships—Herodotus has Themistocles describe them as ‘heavier’ (βαρυτέρας‎‎: 8. 60α‎‎)—stood up better to ramming head-on; at Plataea, as he emphasizes (9. 62. 3, 63. 2), their hoplites were certainly better equipped for hand-to-hand fighting. The Persians could have avoided both battles, and thus, as Thucydides (2) has some speakers from Corinth imply (1. 69. 5), it might be truer to say that they lost through their own mistakes.


  • C. Hignett, Xerxes' Invasion of Greece (1963).
  • A. R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks (2nd edn. 1985).
  • J. F. Lazenby, The Defence of Greece (1993).
  • P. Green, The Greco-Persian Wars (1996).
  • G. Cawkwell, The Greek Wars (2005).