Dr. Ioannis Parisis
The Greco-Persian Wars were a series of wars fought in the first half of the 5th century BC (492-479 BC) between the Persian Empire and an alliance of Greek City-States. Although the Persians were at the peak of their strength, the collective defence mounted by the allied Greek City-States succHerodotuseeded in defeating the much stronger Persian Empire against all odds.
The political geography of the period was vastly different from that of the present day. The Mediterranean Sea was the center of the world. The rugged geography of the Greek peninsula afforded city-states a terrain that favored defense and allowed them to defeat more powerful opponents. Greek geography has crafted Greek strategy. Control of the Aegean was of paramount importance. Securing the Aegean was also crucial in repelling two major Persian invasions, and each major land battle had its contemporary naval battle to sever Persian supply lines. (“The Geopolitics of Greece: A Sea at its Heart”, Stratfor).
What is known today of the Greco-Persian Wars is derived primarily from the Herodotus’ Histories. The Greek historian Herodotus is widely referred to as “The Father of History”. He blends together history, ethnography, geography, anthropology and political critique in the course of explaining the cause of the Persian wars.
The early conflicts
The Greeks (Hellenes) first came into conflict with the Persians in Asia Minor, as a result of the conquest of Ionia (in the cost of Asia Minor), especially Lydia region (the today region of Izmir, Turkey) by Cyrus the Great, probably in 546 BC. Following an abortive Lydian revolt in which some of the Greek city-states participated, many of the Ionian towns were taken by assault, and the rest acquiesced in Persian rule.
In the early years of the 5th century BC there was a wide-spread rebellion from Byzantium to Caria, in which Cyprus, which had a substantial Greek population, joined. On the mainland of Asia Minor, with the advantage of “interior lines” and superior numbers, the Persians were able to operate in more than one theatre at once.
Battle of Marathon (September 490)
Two Greek mainland cities, Athens and Eretria, helped the Ionian Greeks in the early stages of their rebellion, and this led, in 490, to the first Persian attack on Greece (Hellas) proper. A fleet of perhaps 600 ships, carrying possibly some 25.000 men including cavalry, led by Datis and Artaphernes, first subdued the Cyclades islands, and then took Carystus and Eretria, in Euboea. But when it landed its troops at Marathon (to the eastern coast of Attica), they were defeated by the Athenian army, led by General Miltiades, with the support of their Plataean allies, totally 10.000. Allegedly, 6.400 Persians were killed for only 192 Greeks.
Battle of Thermopylae (September 480)
Ten years later, in 480, the Persians were back, this time overland by way of Thrace and Macedonia, and led by King Xerxes in person. The size of his forces was perhaps something like 50.000 to 100.000 strong, and his navy perhaps contained over 1.000 warships. Resistance in Greece centred on Sparta and her Peloponnesian allies, but Athens also join the alliance, with a scattering of other states in central Greece and nearby islands, and at first other states as far north as Thessaly were willing to fight.
Following an appeal from Thessaly, a force was sent to hold the pass of Tempe. But this with-drew after a warning of the size of Xerxes’ forces, and realizing that Tempe could be turned. It was then decided to hold Thermopylae, while stationing a fleet at Artemisium, some 40 miles to the east, on the north coast of Euboea. Here for three days the Greeks more than held their own, although the losses they sustained and the fall of Thermopylae eventually compelled withdrawal.
Battle of Salamis (September 480)
Attica was evacuated and the fleet of Greeks took station at the channel between the mainland of Attica and the island of Salamis. It was here that the first decisive encounter of the war took place, when the Persian fleet ventured into the channel, perhaps as a result of a message from the Athenian commander, Themistocles, and was badly beaten. It had more ships than the Greeks, but its morale had gone, and it now withdrew to Asia Minor, followed by Xerxes himself.
Battle of Platea (August 479)
Salamis certainly did not end the war. The Persian army still remained undefeated, and Xerxes probably left the bulk of his army behind, under his cousin, Mardonius. Wintering in Thessaly, Mardonius tried by diplomatic means to woo Athens to his side, and when this failed, marched south again in late spring of 479, compelling the re-evacuation of Attica. A second embassy, this time to Salamis, still failed to win the Athenians over. On the other side, the Spartans realized that their defences across the Isthmus would not save them if the Athenian navy passed under the control of Persians, and mobilized their army.
Mardonius fell back to Boeotia, and it was here, just east of Platea, that the final encounter took place, probably in August, when the largest army of hoplites ever assembled – eventually more than 38.000 – under the Spartan regent Pausanias, annihilated most of Mardonius Asiatic troops.
Battle of Mycale (August 479)
On same day, a small Greek fleet destroyed Persian ships drawn ashore at Mycale in Asia Minor, and in the following years, now under Athenian leadership, the Greeks swept the Persian from the Aegean. But attempts to liberate Cyprus and Egypt failed and between 412 and 386 the Persians largely recovered control of western Asia Minor.
It was left to Alexander the Great (between 334-323) finally – leading of the “Common of the Greeks” – to bring the conflict to a close.