Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Persian Invasion of Greece
Achaemenid Persian Empire (Click to enlarge)
main sources for early Hoplite warfare come from the writings of
Herodotus, who was born in the Greek city of Halicarnassus, on the
southwest coast of Asia Minor, in 484 BCE. He was an Ionian who
traveled widely and lived for a while in Athens, before settling in Thurii,
a Greek colony in southern Italy. He died about 424 BCE.
We also get information from Thucydides, an Athenian who wrote of the
Pelopponnesian Wars. We can also find references in the works of several
of the Greek playwrights' material on Hoplite warfare. We can find an
account of the Second Persian Invasion in the play "Persae" by
Aeschylus, who fought at Marathon during the First Persian Invasion, and
possibly took part in the Second Persian War also. Apart from these
sources, we must rely on later writers for this time period.
The First Persian War
Cyrus the Great, through
a series of daring attacks upon his neighbors, blended with masterful
diplomacy, had created the Persian Empire in a very short period of time.
From his base territory around Susa, situated just east of the Persian
Gulf, Cyrus quickly defeated and annexed the Medes. From there, he turned
his attention to the Lydians in Asia Minor, conquering Croesus, the Lydian
King, and taking Sardes, the Lydian capital.
Cyrus then divided his Empire into several provinces (Satrapis) governed
by "Satraps". The Aegean Coast was soon subjugated by Haspagus,
while Cyrus concentrated upon the capture of Babylon in the east. Shortly
after this, Cyrus met his death fighting the northern barbaric tribes. His
son, Cambyses, conquered and added Egypt to the Empire before he was
overthrown by a usurper, who ruled for a short period, until the usurper
was in turn overthrown by Darius the Great, who was of the royal
reorganized the Empire into 20 satrapies. He decided to expand his Empire
into southeast Europe, and led his Imperial army in an invasion across the
Bosphorus, and even northward beyond the Danube. In battles with the Scythians,
his armies fared badly, and the Imperial force likely would have been
surrounded and destroyed if not for the Ionian Greeks contingent, which
stood fast and guarded the Danube bridgehead while Porius withdrew his
From this, the Ionians decided the time was ripe for a revolt against
Persian rule. An envoy was sent from Miletus, the main city of the
Ionians, to mainland Greece, petitioning the Greek city-states for armed
aid against the Persians. The Spartans refused aid, but the Athenians
chose to contribute twenty ships to the cause of Greek independence in the
east. Eretria, on the island of Euboa, also sent five ships as aid. At
first the revolt of the Ionian cities was successful, with the Greeks
marching into and burning Sartus, where the Persian Satrap had his
capital. But this success was short-lived, as the Persians retaliated and
the Greek fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Lade in 494 BCE. The city
of Miletus was destroyed by the Persians, and its inhabitants were
massacred or enslaved.
Due to the aid given to the Ionians by Athens and the other city-states of
the mainland, Darius prepared a punitive strike against the Greek
mainland. His fleet, under the command of his son-in-law, set sail in 492 BCE.,
sailing along the northern Aegean coastline. The fleet was badly damaged
in a storm off the coast of Mount Athos, forcing Darius to send a second
The second fleet, under new commanders, crossed the central Aegean,
hopping from island to island. Eretria was quickly captured and destroyed
by the Persians. The Persians then crossed to the northwest coast of
Attica, and disembarked on the plain of Marathon,
from which the road ran south straight to Athens. The road was the only
practical route south, as it skirted Mount Pentelicus. At Marathon, the
Persians found an Athenian army deployed across the road, blocking their
route. The Athenian army, in a desperate battle, routed the Persians on
the plain. The surviving Persians and those who had not been committed to
the battle were then transported around Cape Sunium by their fleet to
attack Athens from the Saronic Belf. But they found that the victorious
Athenian army had arrived back from Marathon and had manned the defenses
of Athens shortly before the Persians arrived. The Imperial fleet returned
to Asia Minor.
Battle of Thermopylae (Click to enlarge)
Second Persian War
During the ten years following the First Iranian
Invasion of Greece, Darius the Great' son Xerxes became the new Persian
King of Kings and began preparations for another invasion of Greece.
started his preparations by sending envoys to spread propaganda designed
to induce as many areas of Greece to capitulate without a fight as
He also made plans to bridge the Hellespont and his engineers devised a
plan that used over 600 ships to construct two huge pontoon bridges. He
also ordered a canal to be dug across the isthmus to avoid the Cape of
Mount Athos to protect his fleet from storms rounding that dangerous Cape.
Emperor Xerses conscripted the Imperial troops from every satrapy of the
Persian Empire, amassing the largest army that had been seen to this date.
In 481 BCE, he had his headquarters at Sardes in Lydia. He sent out envoys
to all of the Greek city-states except Athens and Sparta, demanding the
earth and water of submission. It is estimated that Xerxes' force
contained over 150,000 (Herodotus claimed that the Persian army were over
1,000,000 soldiers and Athenians and Spartans only 300!) combatants,
approximately half of which would have been Iranian troops consisting of
Persian and Medes soldiers. It included the very best cavalry of the
Mediterranean area, fast cavalry armed with spear and bow. His Imperial
fleet contained approximately 1200 ships, of which many would have been
transports carrying supplies and the horses for his cavalry (the cavalry
of the day did not use horseshoes, and most of the horses would have came
up lame if they had made the long trek from Persian territory to the Greek
mainland). He would also have had to carry a large amount of supplies of
all kinds for such a large force to be able to live in such an arid land
as Greece. The fleet would need to provision the army from the sea if
there was to be any chance of success.
It was the plan of Xerxes to subjugate the whole of Greece, and it was for
this reason he had made such extensive preparations, including agreements
with the Carthaginian and Phoenician Cities of the Western Mediterranean
to attack the Greek Western Colonies and tie up Greek resources.
In the Spring of 480 BCE, Xerxes crossed the Hellespont with his army into
Thrace, where he was met by his fleet and proceeded to make his way in
three separate columns toward Thessaly.
The Greeks gathered at Corinth in 481 BCE to discuss strategy and what was
to be done to defend Greece against the coming Persian invasion. All of
the Greek city-states that were not already under Persian domination sent
representatives to this meeting. An alliance led by Athens and Sparta was
formed to deal with this crisis. At this time the Delphic Oracle predicted
that disaster would befall the Greeks and advised the Athenians that their
only hope lay in a wooden wall. Most people took this to mean the wooden
palisades around the Acropolis, but Themistocles interpreted it to mean
the Greek fleet.
The Spartans and the other Peloponnesian States held the view that the
main defense should be at the Isthmus of Corinth, as it was the entryway
to the Pelopponnese. This plan was objected to by Athens and the
city-states of Central Greece, as it would lay them open to pillage by the
Imperial Persian Army. The plan also was unsound in the fact that it would
leave the defenders open to being outflanked by sea and attacked from two
sides at the same time. It was consequently decided that a force would be
sent to hold the Persians in Thessaly; because the Greeks had an
inferiority of numbers, this would only be possible if the narrow passes
could be defended. Due to a request of the Thessalonians, a force of
10,000 Hoplites was sent under the command of Evaenetus and Themistocles.
These were transported by ship to Hallos and from there marched to the
Vale of Tempe. On arrival, Evaenetus determined there were too many passes
to be held with the forces at hand, and so retreated to the Isthmus of
The Greek Council of Corinth decided to attempt a defense of Central
Greece in the area west of the Euboean Channel. This was a position that
would be favorable to the Greeks due to its narrow, easily defended
passes. Also, because any outflanking movement by the Persian fleet would
carry it into the Euboean Channel where its numbers would cause it to be
at a disadvantage. It was thought that if the land forces could hold long
enough to cause the Persians to attempt such a move with their fleet, the
Greek Navy would have a chance to inflict a defeat upon the Persian fleet
that would be sufficient to prevent the Persians from carrying forward
their invasion. It was the Greek plan to stand at Thermopylae supported by
their Navy in the Malian Gulf. Led by Leonidas, a King of Sparta, the
Greek army consisted of some 7000 to 8000 Hoplites and light troops. Some
of these were Boeotians who were of dubious loyalty. It also included the
famous 300 (which archaeological and historical evidence today suggest
that they were 3,000), the Spartan King's Bodyguard. Themistocles
commanded the Greek fleet of approximately 300 (3,000) triremes, of which
147 were from Athens. This was based in the Bay of Artemision, just to the
north of Euboea.
Many think it was the Persian plan to arrive simultaneously at Thermopylae
with their army and at the northern end of the Euboean Channel with their
fleet while Phoenician Naval Contingents went to enter the channel from
the south, trapping the Greek fleet. This plan, if there was such a plan,
was defeated by the weather. The Imperial Fleet was mauled by a storm off
the East Coast of Magnesia and according to Herodotus lost 400 warships.
The Phoenician Contingent was also scattered by the storm, allowing the
Greek ships guarding the Chalcis Channel to escape back to the main Greek
fleet at Artemision.
Themistocles was determined to take advantage of the disorder of the
Persian Fleet and persuaded the Greeks to attack. The battle which
followed was inconclusive, but demonstrated that the Greeks had a
superiority in mobility, which caused problems for the larger Persian
forces. The next day, the Persians mounted a counter-offensive, but again
the outcome was inconclusive, and despite heavy destruction of ships on
both sides the Greeks managed to hold the Persians, preventing them from
supporting their army at Thermopylae.
During this period, the Persians had been attempting to break through the
pass at Thermopylae. The pass was formed of three narrow defiles, the
central one of which was chosen by Leonidas to defend. These defiles in
contemporary sources are called gates, and there were two other gates, a
west gate just east of the mouth of the Asopus River, and the east gate
lying near the town of Alpeni. These gates were an equal distance on
either side of the central gate that Leonidas had chosen to defend. To the
south of the pass was the escarpment of Mount Oeta, and through this ran a
pass which ran from the East gate to the Asopus, by which means the
central gate of Thermopylae could be outflanked. Leonidas deployed his
troops in the middle gate, which was probably only four meters wide,
meaning a few men would be able to hold it against a much larger number.
It was the intention of the Greek city-states to reinforce Leonidas' small
army eventually, but for the present time he would have to make due with
what troops he had available to him. To prevent himself being flanked from
the south, Leonidas placed 1000 Phocian troops, which were all the troops
he could spare, in a position to guard the pass through the escarpment and
then prepared to await Xerxes' arrival.
Upon reaching the Malian plain, Xerxes delayed his attack for four days,
probably hoping to hear of a Persian naval victory at Artemision before
engaging the Greek Hoplites in the pass. Xerxes finally began his attack
on the fifth day, but was repulsed by the Greek Hoplites due to their
superior training, armour, and equipment, giving them a superiority in the
close confines of the pass over his lighter armed and equipped troops.
Xerxes repeated his attack on the second day, and was once again repulsed.
Xerxes by this time realized some other means of breaking through the
Greek position would have to be found. With his navy engaged at Artemision,
he was running short of supplies and so must find a quick resolution.
The answer to his problems was found in one,
Ephialtes, who told Xerxes of
the existence of the pass guarded by the Phocians. Xerxes sent his
Immortals across this path guided by Ephialtes to attack Leonidas'
position from the rear. The Immortals made short work of the Phocians,
routing them and clearing the path. Leonidas was soon apprised of the
imminent danger to his troops, and it is thought that he began a strategic
withdrawal, sending his contingents from central Greece southward,
retaining only the Spartans, their Peloponnesian allies, and some Theban
and Thessalonians troops. He moved the troops he retained to a small
hillock east of the middle gate, and prepared a rearguard stand. It is
thought by some historians that the contingents from central Greece
actually broke and ran away, leaving Leonidas with only his Spartan and
Peloponnesian troops to withstand the Persian onslaught. Leonidas sent
word of the disaster to the fleet at Artemision before he and his
remaining troops were overran by the sheer weight of numbers of the
Persian troops. It is said only the Thebans asked for quarter. The Persian
troops encircled Leonidas and probably destroyed his remaining troops with
massed missile fire.
Upon hearing of the fall of Leonidas and his troops at Thermopylae, the
Greek fleet withdrew to the Saronic Gulf, where it finally was positioned
off Salamis. The whole of Attica was now open to the invader, and the
Persians moved into Boeotia, setting up their headquarters at Thebes. The
Athenians, seeing that it was hopeless trying to defend Athens alone,
withdrew their non-combatant population to Aegina, Troezen, and Salamis,
while all of their able-bodied men manned their ships to await the next
battle. Only a small garrison was left to defend the Acropolis of Athens.
The Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies built a fortification across
the Isthmus of Corinth, and the Greek army was now in the defensive
position the Spartans had wanted all along.
Battle of Salamis
Battle of Salamis (Click to enlarge)
All of Attica soon fell to the Persian army, but as long as the Greek
fleet remained there was no possibility of Persia's total mastery of
Greece. Xerxes knew he must meet and defeat the Greek fleet if he was to
accomplish his aims.
Themistocles favored an early battle with the Persian fleet, preferably on
Greek terms, but as usual other Greek leaders disagreed with him. The
Peloponnesians preferred that the fleet concentrated on the defense of the
Isthmus. However, as the Athenian contingent made up more than half of the
total fleet, Themistocles was able to force a decision by threatening to
withdraw all of the Athenians if battle was not offered in the Straights
of Salamis. Themistocles could see that this position was favorable to the
Greeks because of the tactical disadvantages the large Persian fleet would
have trying to maneuver there. The narrow confines of the Straights of
Salamis would limit the Persians' ability to maneuver.
On September 22, 480BCE, the Greek fleet held a position between the north
coast of the Island of Salamis and the coast of Attica to the northwest of
Piraeus. The Persians had deployed facing north in a line three deep,
ranging from the Cynosura Promontory on Salamis to Piraeus. Themistocles
purposely left the channel between Salamis and Magara open and unguarded,
possibly to tempt Xerxes to divide his fleet in the type of tactics the
Persians had attempted at Artemision. Xerxes did exactly this, sending his
Egyptian contingent around Salamis to take and seal the western channel.
The Greek fleet drew up in battle formation facing Heracleion on the shore
of Attica, with the Athenians taking the left wing and the Aeginetans the
right. The Greek fleet had some 300 warships at its disposal.
On the morning of the battle, the Persians deployed with their right wing
held by the Phoenicians and the Ionian ships on the left. While still
trying to get into position, the Persians were attacked by the Greeks, who
forced the leading Persian ships back upon their comrades, causing
disorder in the Persian formation as the Persian ships were already close
packed in the narrow confines of the Straight. This was immediately
followed by an Athenian flank attack on the Phoenician ships which were
pushed back into the Persian center and onto the coast of Attica.
Eventually the Greeks made an encircling movement behind the Persian
center which proved decisive, and the Ionian Greeks, with their resistance
broken, retreated. Xerxes' navy had suffered heavy losses, which were
according to Herodotus over 200 ships, and withdrew to Phaleron, from
whence it returned eventually to Hellespont. Xerxes was now faced with the
impossible task of provisioning his huge army with such a depleted fleet,
and he had no option but to withdraw the majority of his forces from
This defeat of the Persians was caused by a combination of superior Greek
tactics and the Persians' own ineptitude in tactical and strategic
planning. Xerxes failed to see that a smaller, well-trained and equipped
force could prevail over a much larger and less trained and equipped foe.
Also, he failed to see that independence was a powerful motivating cause
for the Greeks. The victory at Salamis strengthened both the morale and
the will of the Greeks, and dealt a fatal blow to the reputation and
morale of Xerxes' army.
Xerxes was forced to return to his Empire to prevent widespread revolt
encouraged by his defeat. He left part of the Imperial army in Thessaly,
Thrace, and Macedonia under Mardonius and Artabazus, while taking the bulk
of his army back across the Hellespont to restore control on his Eastern
Aegean Coast, where he also sent his fleet for the same purpose. Mardonius
had in his force 12,000 cavalry and about 50,000 infantry, of whom some
where contingents from Central and Northern Greece. He also had included
in this force the Immortals and the Guard Cavalry. The Persian forces in
Thessaly, Thrace, and Macedonia were a continued threat to Greek
independence and the Greeks soon made plans to deal with them.
Plataea and Mycale
There was an attempt made to entice the Athenians into a treaty with
Persia, which met with failure, and Mardonius, in hopes of threatening
them into submission, marched on Athens. This motivated Athens into making
an agreement with Sparta to make an immediate offensive against the
invader. Also, it was felt that at any time Xerxes might send a
refurbished fleet to assist Mardonius.
While Sparta was advancing through the Corinthian Peninsula in 479BCE,
Mardonius set fire to Athens, and retired to Boeotia, where he would have
terrain suited to his cavalry. Deploying his force opposite Mount Citherae
on the Asopus Plain, between Thebes and Plataea. He also cleared a number
of trees from the area, giving more room for his cavalry to maneuver. He
was waiting, deployed in this position, when the 35,000 Greek Hoplite
force commanded by Pausanius traversed Mount Citherae and camped near
Plataea on a slope overlooking the Plain.
Mardonius gave away whatever advantage the ground gave him by immediately
attacking with his cavalry against the Greeks on ground which was
unsuitable for a cavalry action. Predictably, the Persian cavalry lost the
action and was forced to retreat. Some have put forth the idea that
Mardonius was willing to sacrifice the cavalry he did to draw the Greeks
forth onto the plain in a more open position, which is what eventually
happened. Pausanius marched his men onto the Plain and deployed them
between Plataea and Asopus. The Spartan Hoplites were deployed on the
right flank, the Athenians on the left, with the remainder of the allies
deployed in the center. Mardonius
deployed his forces facing them on the other side of the river, and in
this position, according to Herodotus, the opponents remained for eight
days. Each commander seems to have been waiting for the other to make the
first move. Persian raids in the mountains behind the Greek lines was
threatening Pausanius' supplies, a situation that could no longer be
sustained by the Greeks in a stationary position. This was alleviated when
Mardonius decided to commit hiself and attacked with his cavalry, his
missiles pinned down the Greeks.
The Persians managed to outflank the Greeks and push them away from their
one source of water, the Gargaphia Spring, which had lain behind the
Spartan position. The Persians had cut the Greek supply routes through
Mount Citherae, and it was now clear that Mardonius was content to pursue
a policy of attrition against the Greeks, which might succeed if Pausanius
did not manage to reestablish a route of supply and bring in provision for
The Spartan commander was now faced with retreating under very hazardous
conditions into Mount Citherae to attempt to hold the main passes.
Pausanius proposed to withdraw the Spartans deployed on the Greek right to
Mount Citherae, in order to reopen the supply lines, while the allied
forces in the Greek center would retreat south toward Plataea, and at the
last the Athenians would move southeastward across the path taken by the
allies and position themselves as the new Greek center.
Several things factored to hamper this maneuver. The attempt was made in
darkness, severely limiting coordination. Some believe that the Athenians
refused to obey Pausanius' order to withdraw, which caused them to be cut
off from the rest of the army which had proceeded as planned toward Mount
Citherae. There seems to have been some dissention in the Spartan ranks,
which delayed the Greek right flank, and the maneuver was not executed
Mardonius sent his cavalry to harass the Spartans until his infantry could
be brought up to engage them, and directed the Boeotians on the Persian
right to attack the exposed Athenians while he threw the bulk of his army
against the Greek right. Realizing that he and his Spartans would have to
take the brunt of the Persian attack, Pausanius sent to the already
embattled Athenians requesting assistance, but they were by now pinned
down and could not respond.
When the Persian infantry was engaged with the Spartans, Pausanius decided
to take advantage of the congestion caused in the Persian ranks by their
numbers and launched a counter-attack. There followed a bloody and fierce
battle which remained undecided until Mardonius fell and his men fled. The
Athenians had in the meantime managed to right the Boeotians and the Greek
forces captured and destroyed the Persian camp.
Following this victory, the Greeks besieged Thebes, which surrendered
after twenty days and handed over to Pausanius those leaders who were
aligned with the Persians. These leaders were summarily executed. The
remainder of the Persian army was in full withdrawal toward the Hellespont
under the command of Artabazus.
A message was received from the Ionian Greeks in the summer of 479BCE
suggesting that if they were given the support of a fleet they would rise
and revolt against the Persians. A Greek fleet left Delos under the
command of the Spartan King Leotychidas sailing for Samos off the Eastern
Aegean Coast, and from there it proceeded to Mycale in Ionia, where Xerxes
had amassed a large army to maintain control of the Ionian Greeks.
Leotychidas landed his force near Mycale and assaulted the Persian
position and destroyed the Persian fleet, which was beached there.
The Greeks, by destroying the Persian sea power, secured protection for
themselves against further invasion from Asia, and were now masters of the
Aegean Sea. The victory at Mycale lead to the Ionian Greeks rising in
rebellion throughout the Ionian coastal areas and expelling the Persian
tyrants and garrisons.
The Greeks then moved against Sestos to take control of the Hellespont
from the Persians, and destroy their gateway into Greek territory.
Xanthippus led the Athenians in a siege of Sestos and the city fell in the
spring of 478BCE. Hostilities did not cease immediately, and after many
years there were still Persian troops remaining in Thrace. The conflict
did not finally end until the Peace of Callias in 449-48BCE.
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies