The Greco-Persian Wars were a series of armed conflicts between the Greek City-States and the Persian Empire. They began in 492 BC and ended in 449 BC. During this period, there were two invasions of Greece by Persia; the first one was organized by Darius I and commanded by General Mardonius, while the second one took place under Xerxes I. However, the huge Persian Army could not conquer Greece due to the superior Greek military tactics and training. The direct cause of Greco-Persian Wars was what is known as the Ionian revolt.
When Darius I came to power in Persia in 522 BC, the Ionian Greek city-states in Asia Minor were under Persian control. However, they rose up unsuccessfully in what is known as the Ionian revolts (499 – 494 BC). These revolts were sparked off by the actions of Aristagoras, the ruler of the Ionian city of Miletus at the end of the 6th century BC and beginning of the 5th century BC. The Ionians had early success with the sack of Sardis, but the ensuing Persian counterattack by both the army and navy was too strong: the Ionians were decisively defeated at the Battle of Lade off the coast of Miletus in 494 BC. As Athens had helped the Ionians with ships and troops, specially during the sack of Sardis, Darius I swore vengeance upon them, invading Greece in 492 BC.
First Persian Invasion
Mardonius’ Campaign: In the spring of 492 BC, an expeditionary force commanded by Darius’ son-in-law Mardonius was assembled in Cilicia. The objective was to subdue as many as they could of the Hellenic cities. Mardonius sent his army to the Hellespont while he took the fleet up the Aegean coast to Ionia. There he removed the Greek authorities and established puppet governments in the Ionian cities.
Mardonius continued on to the Hellespont, and, when his army and fleet had been assembled, he crossed the Hellespont into Thrace and Macedon, subjugating all the people on his path. Thrace, which surrendered without defending themselves, was reorganized as a satrapy, while Macedonia was reduced to a client state.
The Persian fleet conquered Thassos and reached Acanthus (in the isthmus of the Athos peninsula), but as they attempted to sail around the peninsula, the fleet was destroyed in a storm off Mt. Athos. 300 ships and 20,000 men were lost. Mardonius thus ordered the remnants of his troops to return to the Asian side of the Aegean.
Destruction of Eretria: In 490 BC, the Persian generals, Datis and Artaphernes, gathered another Persian expeditionary force in Cilicia with the intention to go to Attica and Eretria to punish them for their assistance to the Ionians. The Darius’ navy moved north along the Ionian coast to Samos and then to Naxos, where the inhabitants fled to the mountains. The fleet spread across the Cyclades, which surrendered to the Persians, and then to Eretria. Eretria was besieged and surrendered after only six days; the city was razed, and temples and shrines were looted.
Battle of Marathon (490 BC)
On the advice of Hippias, a former Athenian tyrant turned traitor, the Persian army landed in Attica near Marathon with 30,000 troops. The Athenians, with their Plataean allies, had 10,000 men, who were led by Miltiades, who knew the Persian army and its tactics.
Pheidippides, a professional messenger, was sent by the Athenians to Sparta for aid but the Spartans were prevented from leaving the city, either because of a religious festival or because of a helot revolt mentioned by Plato. Thus the only ally the Athenians had in the Battle of Marathon were the Plataeans, with whom Athens had formed an alliance since the late sixth century BC.
Miltiades marched his army to Marathon to meet the invading force. After a period of about five days, Miltiades ordered his forces to attack at a run. The rapid advance prevented the Persian archers taking position and loosing their arrows from afar. Miltiades knew that in hand to hand combat the Greek hoplite was superior. In spite of the rapid advance, the centre of the Greek formation maintained formation. When the Persian centre counterattacked, the Greeks retreated in order. The Greek wings then closed in. They were able to defeat their opposites and join force behind the Persian centre, encircling it. A great slaughter followed. 6400 dead Persian bodies were counted on the battlefield and buried against only 192 Athenian and 420 Plataean dead.
The effects of the battle of Marathon were dramatic for both sides of the conflict. The Athenians had proven their ability to fight and win against the Persian forces, which was indeed no small feat if Herodotus’s words are to be accepted. The Greeks saw that they had the option to stand and fight, and soon after Marathon a number of city-states renounced their submission to Persia and joined with the Athenians and Spartans.
Perhaps more important was the impact Marathon had upon the Persians. Marathon was the first defeat of regular Persian infantry forces since before the reign of Cyrus, over two generations before. While the Ionian rebellion, the Persian inadequacy at sea, and the burning of Sardis all constituted a threat to Persian holdings in the region, Marathon signaled a threat to the whole of the Western part of the empire.
Second Persian Invasion
In 480 the Persians under Xerxes I again invaded Greece, seeking to avenge the defeat. This time all Greece fought together, with Sparta in charge of the army and Athens of the navy. At the Thermopylae pass, 300 Spartans under the command of king Leonidas withstood for several days with tenacity and superhuman resistance the assault of a 600,000-men army, blocking their way and gaining time. The Battle of Thermopylae gave the Athenians and the rest of the Spartans time to organize and engage the enemy.
Battle of Salamis (480 BC)
Athens was evacuated, and the Greek fleet withdrew to Salamis to aid in the transfer of the population of Attica to the island. The Peloponnesians proposed a defensive line at the Isthmus of Corinth, relying on the ground forces and using the fleet to keep the Isthmus supplied. Themistocles instead forced a confrontation with the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis and routed the Persian fleet, forcing it to withdraw to the Ionian coast. According to a story related by Herodotus, before the battle, Xerxes had set up a throne on Mt. Aegaleo, so he could watch his great victory over the smaller Greek fleet. However, once again the narrow gulf provided little room for his heavy triremes to maneuver, allowing the lighter Greek ships to flank and destroy them.
Battle of Platea (479 BC)
The battle which marked the defeat of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, Plataea was fought about 5 miles (8 km) east of the ancient town, near the modern Erythrai. After defeating the Persian cavalry at the foot of Cithaeron, the Greeks under the Spartan regent Pausanias, and eventually over 38, 000 hoplites strong, moved down to a position along the Asopos. Here, however, they were increasingly harassed by Persian mounted archers. This led to the army dividing, the centre back near Plataea, the Spartans on the right, the Athenians on the left. The Persian commander, Mardonius, perhaps as he had intended, had got the enemy on the run, and should have been content with a moral victory which might have brought about the disintegration of the fragile Greek alliance. But whether because he lost control of overenthusiastic men or because he thought he saw a chance to annihilate the Spartans, who, being on higher ground, were all the enemy in view, he made the mistake of engaging them in hand-to-hand battle and was routed. Meanwhile, the Athenians managed to successfully fight off the Boeotians on the Persian side.
Aftermath: According to tradition, the Battle of Mycale occurred on the same day, with the Greek fleet destroying the Persian fleet in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Ionia. The Persian army, under the command of Artabazus tried to retreat all the way back to Asia Minor. Most of the 43,000 survivors were attacked and killed by the forces of Alexander I of Macedon at the estuary of the Strymon river. This ended the defensive phase of the Persian Wars, although the Persians continued to interfere in Greek politics until they were conquered in the 4th century BC by Alexander the Great. However, this was the last time the Persians tried to invade the Greek mainland with the goal of total conquest.