When you hear the word Greek, it probably isn’t too hard for something to come to mind. With how Greek culture managed to spread and last even to this today, it’s surprising to think that Greece was once considered a nobody. It was their war with the Persian empire that changed all that, and showcases how valuable strategy is in a battle.
The first Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, was founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC, and is one of the largest and longest empires to have existed, lasting for over 200 years until 330 BC ruled by Alexander the Great. Despite conquering many cities, the Achaemenid Empire’s early years are remembered as successful and peaceful, allowing for art, technology, and religion to flourish freely. This is mostly thanks to Cyrus the Great, who allowed for the citizens to speak their own language and practice their own religion.
The Persian wars, sometimes known as the Greco-Persian wars, were a series of battles between the Persian empire and the Greeks. It started when Darius I or Darius the Great came to power and lasted for about 50 years from 492 to 449. In the span of 50 years there were only a couple moments of fighting during the war, as there were many years of standstills and battles would happen in succession. Darius I was the third king of the Achaemenid Empire from 522 to 486 BC and during his rule he conquered a part of Greece in 499 BC, leading to the unsuccessful Ionian revolt (499-493 BC). After stopping the revolt, Darius set out to conquer the rest of Greece. He was unsuccessful in the first invasion, the battle of Marathon, Darius planned for a second invasion. Darius died before he could see it through, so his son Xerxes was the one to invade Greece. Xerxes I or Xerxes the Great was Darius’ successor and the fifth king of the Achaemenid Empire from 486-465 BC.
The two most memorable battles were the Battle of Marathon (490 BC), and the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), remembered for the tactics that the Greeks used and their unexpected outcome.
The battle of Marathon was the Greeks first victory, and the beginning of a new era for the Greeks. I mentioned earlier that the Greeks were considered nobodies, this caused the Greeks to face two major disadvantages. First, the Greeks were not united, its citizens more concerned about their individual city-states. Second, the size of each respective army is drastically different. The size of the Achaemenid Empire ‘national army’ was claimed to be 120,000 soldiers by Greek philosopher Xenophon (430-350 BC), but the size of the Persian army is debated. The Greek army despite being much smaller was better skilled in combat despite being largely made of citizen soldiers, and won using smart battle strategy. Which was benefited by the Persians lousy fighting ability.
The Persian army may seem incompetent, especially in wars, but that isn’t a fair reputation. Keep in mind that this army managed to conquer from “Present day Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine—to the Indus River Valley in northwest India and south to Egypt.” (https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-middle-east/persian-empire) The Persian army was unable to utilize many of their strengths, for example their cavalry. The Persians had a large cavalry that typically did the most damage, which was ineffective as traveling across the sea limited the amount of cavalry they could bring. The Persians also depended heavily on their archers to do most of the damage, so their most of the footmen were poor when it came to combat, and wore light armor.
The Greeks were made up mostly of citizen-soldiers known as the hoplites. The hoplites were not professional soldiers, and lacked proper training. But the hoplites were strong; they were required to be in order to carry their armor consisting of bronze breastplates, helmets and shields. And their stronger armor protected them from the arrows.
In 490 BC the Persian army lead by the generals Datis and Artaphernes crossed the Aegean Sea and landed on the Plain of Marathon. The Persian army had already defeated Cyclades, a group of Greek islands southeast of mainland Greece, and Eretria, a town on the island of Euboea with an army of around 20,000 soldiers, give or take 5000 soldiers. The Greek army was significantly smaller, with 11,000 citizen soldiers composed of 10,000 Athens and 1,000 men from Plataea. The Athens sent for help from the Spartans but due to religious reasons the Spartans could not help. Their army was lead by ten generals, including the famous Miltiades, who came up with the strategy that won the battle.
What Miltiades decided to do was to have his army form a Hoplite Phalanx, a line of 100 soldiers “Standing close together, half of the shield of one man protected his neighbour on his left side,” (https://www.ancient.eu/hoplite/) and reinforce the sides of the line. The when the armies clashed the Persians quickly broke through the center of the line, only to find themselves surrounded by Greek soldiers. Seeing that their soldiers were being slaughtered the rest of the Persian army retreated. This battle ended up with 192 casualties on the Greek side, and 6,400 casualties on the Persians side.
This win greatly benefited Greece, their unlikely win inspired more confidence and national pride which helped to unite Greece, and support the wars. The next battle would occur ten years later, but by then the Greeks now had more support, a bigger army and a plan.
The Battle of Thermopylae happened in 480 BC, ten years after the first invasion of Greece. It was lead by Xerxes who was determined to conquer Greece on behalf of his father. Xerxes had his men dig a canal through an isthmus, a thin strip of land, on Mount Athos more than a mile long, known today as Xerxes’ canal. In 481 BC all Greek city-states that weren’t under Persian control sent representatives to meet in Corinth to discuss what to do. There the Athenian General Themistocles came up with a strategy which would render the enormous size of the Persian army useless.
There was main passage in Thermopylae that lead into central Greece which the Persians had to cross in order to invade, the Spartan king Leonidas defended this pass with an army of a couple thousand; sources vary. Despite Xerxes bringing an army of over 100,000 (again sources vary), the size of his army had no impact in the battle. The pass at Thermopylae was narrow, and so his soldiers would have to enter in smaller groups on foot. Leonidas’ superior army slaughtered the Persians as they entered until eventually Xerxes had his army retreat until the next day. This repeated on the second day until a Greek traitor told Xerxes of another path that circled around the pass, the Persian snuck up on the army and attacked from behind. Leonidas and a number of soldiers fought at the pass holding off the invasion for about a day, but were all eventually killed. The Persians rampaged through Greece and burned Athens to the ground when they reached it, but Greece was empty as Themistocles convinced them to evacuate.
The end of the Battle of Thermopylae leads to other battles, but this battle is interesting because the Greeks were winning. In the Battle of Marathon Miltiades employed a very risky strategy and stole an unlikely win, here the carefully planned battle was ruined by a single person. Themistocles had a very good strategy, and it likely would have won if not for the Greek traitor.
The Persian wars continued with the Greeks winning the rest of the battles, until the Greeks and Persians signed a peace treaty in 449 BC known as the Peace of Callias. The story of the Greeks vs. the Persians echos a lot of underdog stories that we see today. The definition of underdog, according to Google is, “a competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest” featuring the smaller and insignificant Greeks facing the superpower that is the Persian empire. So the Greeks war with the Persian Empire is not only the rise of Greece and the fall of the Persian empire, but also the ultimate underdog story.