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The Persian Invasion of Greece


By: Thomas Setzer



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  The Achaemenid Persian Empire (Click to enlarge)



Our 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 Achaemenid family.


Darius 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 forces.

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 fleet.

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.



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  The Battle of Thermopylae (Click to enlarge)


The 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.


He started his preparations by sending envoys to spread propaganda designed to induce as many areas of Greece to capitulate without a fight as possible.

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 Corinth.

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.


The Battle of Salamis

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  The 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 Greece.

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 his troops.

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 until daylight.

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.





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