Probably most people have heard of the Greco-Persian wars and the battle of Marathon, but don’t really know the details. Peter Green has written a book telling them all: how and why everything happened, and it’s pretty fascinating, like the ultimate David and Goliath story. But, like the story in the Bible, the contest wasn’t as unequal as it appeared.
The beginning is with the expansion of the Persian empire. Persia had conquered Babylonia, Egypt, Syria, the territories of the Assyrian empire which had disintegrated about a generation before, then had expanded through Asia Minor and across the Black Sea. In doing all this it had put pressure on Athens. Attica, where Athens is located, has never been good agricultural land, and Athenian population had risen so far that most food had to be imported; mainly wheat from either Egypt or what is now southern Russia, north of the Black Sea.
The Persians had also conquered the Greek cities of Asia Minor. Most of them had little objection to the Persians—until heavy taxes were imposed on them. They tried rebelling, Athens sent a squadron of ships to assist, and the city of Sardis was burned. The Athenians became alarmed and left, and the Great King, Darius, reconquered all the cities. Had the Athenians stayed, it might have been different. They might have helped prevent the Persians from taking the naval bases on several of the islands off the coast of Asia Minor, which might have made the rebellion successful. Instead, they had drawn the attention of Darius to mainland Greece.
Darius sent envoys to Athens and Sparta, demanding earth and water, symbolic of their submission to him. Athens imprisoned the envoys; Sparta threw them into a well, telling them that they were now in the right place to obtain what they asked for. After that, war was inevitable. From the Persian point of view, the Greeks had interfered with internal problems of the Persian empire, which couldn’t be tolerated. About 490 BC the Persians invaded northern Greece and made their way south.
It might make a nice story if the Greeks had all patriotically united to throw the invaders out, but that wasn’t what happened. Northern Greek cities in particular submitted, and even Athens was not united. Athens had become a democracy about 20 years before when Cleisthenes, in an internal power struggle, had extended the franchise so that others besides the landowners became allowed to vote. He’d also reorganized the administration in ways that lasted for hundreds of years, so that Athens was in relatively good shape, and mostly optimistic. But some conservatives were quite willing to let the Persians rule in exchange for power for themselves—the Persians generally allowed locals to rule beneath them. The lower classes weren’t much interested in that, though.
An Athenian who had previously held power, Hippias, was now an advisor to Darius, and on his advice the Persian army landed at Marathon. This was an area of fields where the Persian cavalry could operate, and it was only 24 miles from Athens. When the Athenians heard of the landing they decided this was the place to confront the Persians, and not allow them to proceed further, so they hurried an army to the area, and asked the Spartans (with the best military in mainland Greece) to join them. The Spartans declined, saying that for religious reasons they couldn’t leave until the full moon was past. So the Athenians were there by themselves.
At Marathon they were outnumbered, but they had advantages over the Persians nonetheless. The Iranians were the elite fighters in the army, but a large percentage of the troops were of subject nations, whose motivation was sometimes questionable, and who weren’t nearly as well-equipped as the Greeks. The Greeks had long spears, shields at least partly of metal, and short swords. The Persian auxiliaries had javelins and knives, and little in the way of armor. So for several days the two forces watched each other and made no move.
The move came when the Persians decided to send a large part of their navy to Athens. Subject Greeks apparently informed the Athenians, and they quickly held a council. The Persian ships couldn’t reach Athens for probably 9 to 10 hours. If the Athenians could quickly defeat the army, they could manage to get back to Athens in time to prevent the navy from taking the town. And that’s exactly what they did.
Knowing that the Iranians usually fought in the middle of the battle line, the Greeks put some of their best fighters there, but made the line thin, while putting most of their soldiers on each wing, where the Persians stationed their fighters from subject nations. The two wings were quickly able to overwhelm the wings of the Persians, and rather than loot the Persian camp (always a temptation in such circumstances), they turned around and reinforced the middle of the battle line, driving the Persians back into defeat. Then they all headed back to Athens with barely a pause, arriving there just about the same time the Persian ships did. The Persians sat in the harbor and thought about the situation, then turned around and sailed back to Asia. All of Greece, and especially Athens, was euphoric.
With one exception. Themistocles was a successful politician, but an outsider in Athens, his family coming from a lower class. The author draws an analogy between him and Winston Churchill, similarly an outsider, both of whom saw further into the future than most. Themistocles saw that Persia would not be satisfied to leave the Greeks unpunished and that Athens would have to employ a different strategy to defeat them a second time. Conservatives thought the army could do it all, as they had in this instance. Themistocles foresaw that both the Persian army and navy would be much larger the next time. He thought that the only way to win was to evacuate Attica, send the refugees somewhere safe, and use a much more numerous navy to destroy the Persian navy. This was not a popular idea.
But by 484 or so, it became clear that Persia was preparing to invade Greece. Themistocles and those who agreed with him managed to take over the Board of Generals, which allowed them at least the possibility of remaining in power for more than one year at a time, giving them the opportunity to plan ahead for the defense of Greece. This was made possible by the discovery of a new and immense vein of silver in the mines of Laurium, which had been worked for a long time. Without this economic bonanza, the defense could never have succeeded. Politically, the method of ostracism was used to get rid of anyone who opposed the building of many new triremes to be used for defense, and the fortification of Piraeus, the harbor of Athens. The author suggests that the discovery of silver in Laurium wasn’t entirely an accident, since Themistocles must have been looking for anything he could find to finance the sort of defense he considered necessary.
And what he found turned out to be just barely enough, as the Great King Xerxes (Darius had died in the meantime) mounted a gigantic operation to invade. He built a bridge of ships across the Hellespont, lashing them together, and putting boards and earth on them so that horses and other beasts of burden could cross, and also cut a canal through one of the peninsulas just west of the Hellespont so that ships could travel into the Aegean Sea safely, without being subject to sudden storms (which had wrecked much of the navy on a previous invasion attempt). So the army marched through Thrace and Thessaly, and down through northern Greece, paralleled by its navy, which kept the army supplied. Such a huge force couldn’t supply itself adequately on the produce of the land they crossed through, so the navy was their lifeline.
Themistocles saw the best defense as being as far north as possible, and managed, with a great deal of diplomacy, to get the various Greek cities to put aside their quarrels for the duration of the emergency, which was a great feat, considering the tendency of the Greeks to quarrel. It was decided to meet the Persians in two places: by the armies at Thermopylae, the Hot Gates, where there were hot springs, and a very narrow passage between northern and central Greece; and by the navies at Artemisium, an area along the water between Euboea, a long narrow island, with a narrow strait between it and the mainland. Leonidas of Sparta was in command of the armies at Thermopylae, and expected to get reinforcements, though there was both a religious festival and the Olympics being celebrated at the time. His armies were no more than an advance guard. So he repaired a defensive wall, gathered supplies from the countryside, talked to the various towns in the area and acquired some more troops, then settled down to wait.
The navy had the good fortune that a storm hit the Persian fleet headed south, and damaged a large amount of them. It took them some time to get the fleet battle-ready again, and meanwhile the navy got some news about their number and disposition. They were somewhat staggered at the huge number, and weren’t exactly sure what to do, but Themistocles persuaded them to bring the Persians to battle, and find out how good they were. They did so, and most of the Greeks were better sailors than most of the Persian navy, with the exception of the Egyptians and Phoenicians, who were very good sailors. The battle was inconclusive, though the Greeks seem to have done slightly better than the Persians, but not long after that came the news that the Persians had sent a fleet to the southern end Euboea, where they could seal up the strait and trap the Greeks. Luck was with the Greeks, however, and a storm wrecked much of that fleet, and a fleet sent from Athens was able to mop them up. The Persian navy hadn’t been destroyed, but its numbers had been substantially reduced. This is probably why the Persians refused a strategy that might have worked well for them: to send a large part of their fleet to the southern Peloponnese, where they could probably land unopposed and bring the war directly to Sparta, which would then be unable to help the other Greeks.
Meanwhile, the battle of Thermopylae had begun, and the Persians were unable to make any headway against the Spartans and the few other troops there. There were only 300 Spartan warriors, but there were volunteers from Thebes and Thespiae who fought with them. They had a perfect spot to defend, a very narrow valley with a defensive wall across it. The only thing they had to fear was being outflanked.
This, of course, is the part of the war that most people have heard of. Someone volunteered to guide Persian troops along a mountain path that came out behind the Spartan position. Troops from Phocis were guarding the area, but were caught napping and driven away. Had Leonidas reinforced them with other troops, things might have been different, but the Persians had outflanked the Spartans (who heard about it not much later), and the Spartans knew that their position was hopeless. Leonidas apparently asked for volunteers to stay and fight anyway, but sent anyone who didn’t volunteer away, deciding to make a last stand to inspire the Greeks to continue resisting. Had relieving troops arrived sooner, the Spartans might have been able to hold out indefinitely, but no one had expected Thermopylae to fall so quickly, so once what had happened was known, the troops weren’t sent. It still took the Persians a long time to defeat the Spartans, eventually having to kill everyone (or almost everyone) of the defensive force. Xerxes had won, but at a staggering cost. The Greeks had lost, but because they had done so well both on land and sea, they had a confidence that they could continue the struggle.
Once the defeat at Thermopylae was known, the Greek navy retreated to the gulf between Attica and Peloponnese. Most of the inhabitants of Attica had already been taken to the island of Salamis as a relatively safe spot until the war was over, and there were troops and ships guarding the area. The navy returned, the Persian army moved down through Attica, plundering and burning as they went, and the war leaders conferred.
Some wanted to make their stand at the isthmus that connected central Greece with the Peloponnese. Themistocles argued that it would be better to fight at Salamis, and if unsuccessful, to fall back on the isthmus. A lot of discussion and politicking followed, and Themistocles made his point by threatening to have the Athenian part of the navy (the greater part) ferry all Athenians to Italy to start a new colony. He also pointed out that if the navy sailed to the isthmus, they would have to fight the Persians in the open sea, which would put them at a disadvantage. The allies reluctantly agreed. Once the Persians were in position, Themistocles seems to have made sure the fight would be off Salamis by sending a message to Xerxes that he was going to lead his ships away. What he did in fact was to send a group of Corinthian ships away, the Persians thought the whole Greek navy was leaving, and left their anchorages to destroy them. But the strait between Salamis and the mainland was narrow, so that the Persians couldn’t deploy their whole navy effectively, and the Greeks were able to fight a few at a time, the Persians crowded each other and fouled their ships together, and it was the Persian navy that was destroyed.
The Persians then withdrew, but though the navy limped home, an army was left was left which occupied Athens, and drew things out, waiting to see if any of the different Greek groups would withdraw from their coalition. Had the leader of this army, Mardonius, had more time, this strategy might well have worked. Greek alliances didn’t tend to last long, and each city had its own parochial interests. But although he had a fairly large number of troops (about 30,000), he didn’t have supplies for all of them, and had to withdraw, burning and destroying Athens to the extent he could on his way north.
He settled in fairly near where Themopylae had been fought, and gathered more troops and supplies while he waited. The Greeks went through much political discussion, Athenians threatening to go over to the Persians, while the Spartans called their bluff, but eventually deciding they did need to fight the remaining Persian troops. The Spartans were reluctant to send their troops outside the Peloponnese, but finally decided that it was better to fight elsewhere and finally rid Greece of the Persians. So the allied troops followed the Persians and caught up with them at Plataea. Here both sides sat and waited for awhile.
Pausanias, the commander of the Spartans, and overall commander, had had an oracle say that he would win as long as he didn’t attack first. So he sat and waited. Mardonius did the same, even though the Greek troops moved up to an exposed position in an attempt to draw a Persian attack. It’s unclear just why both sides waited so long. Mardonius could probably have inflicted a lot of damage earlier on the Greeks, but didn’t. In the end, the reason for the attack coming when it did was probably because both sides were running out of food and water. The Greeks sent the Athenians and some of the Spartans to withdraw where they could be seen doing so, and the Persians attacked. They attacked without a great deal of discipline, but the Greeks still had a hard fight before they began to gain the advantage. Mardonius was killed, which led the Persians to begin withdrawing, the Thebans who had fought with the Persians withdrew to Thebes, while the remaining Persian troops found an abandoned fortress and took it over. It took Athenian sappers to break down the wall before the Greeks were able to finally defeat the Persians, and the war ended.
There are few historical analogies to this war. We might compare it to the American Revolutionary war, in which Great Britain had similarly long supply lines to the Persian ones, but were never able to commit such overwhelming numbers to the war. The American colonies didn’t always get along, but they didn’t have the ancient rivalries of the Greek cities. The different Greek governments had been in place for at least hundreds of years, in some cases in excess of a thousand, so there had been plenty of time for rivalries to develop. And Green insists that part of the Greek success must be attributed to their political experience, Greek politics being “vicious.” Not all Americans were in favor of our revolution: a good many remained loyal to the King, and after the war an estimated 10% of the population emigrated to either England or Canada. But there were still relatively few who committed what would be defined as treason. In Greece treason (however it is defined) was something that always had to be considered. It was nothing short of miraculous that the Greeks were able to cooperate as well, and for as long as they did.
Green points out that Herodotus, who provides one of the most important chronicles of the war, was strongly biased against Themistocles. The reason for this, he says, is because Herodotus got most of his information from conservatives who loathed Themistocles. They didn’t want to win the war by his tactics, though their own were, in hindsight, inadequate. They didn’t want to abandon their farms to the enemy, much less the city of Athens, and they also didn’t want to owe their deliverance to lower-class sailors and fighters. But without Themistocles’ strategy it’s doubtful the Greeks could ever have won. Xerxes would have been able to split his forces and invade many parts of Greece at once, and the Greeks wouldn’t have been able to summon the manpower to repulse them. They barely had enough to win a one-front war as they did.
But conservatives could and did make Themistocles look as bad as possible, and shortly after the victory of Salamis he is no longer found in the record of the war. A story tells of his walking as a boy with his father, and passing some remains of ships rotting. His father said that this was an example of the way Greeks treated political leaders: once they had used them they threw them away. Themistocles entered a political career, and after his greatest success, experienced the truth of what his father had told him.
The victory also gave the Greeks, and especially the Athenians great confidence. At the time they were some of the greatest fighters in the world, and frequently hired out as mercenary troops. But it would be about 150 years before Alexander the Great invaded Asia, destroyed the Persian Empire, and brought Greek influence to the east, and Oriental influence to the west. And if one believes in freedom, the Greeks struck a blow for it against great odds by defeating Persia. The Greeks, and especially the Athenians, would do some not so wonderful things with their freedom, but Athens in particular would reach unprecedented cultural heights too. If Athens and Sparta could have avoided the Peloponnesian war, who knows what other wonderful things the Greeks might have accomplished? But they didn’t, and Alexander of Macedon inherited the best of the Greek tradition. Like any other culture, they had their time, and eventually declined into a lower quality. But the war against Persia was, with all its political messiness, one of the finest hours of ancient Greece.