Much of what we know about the Persian Wars comes from the writings of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, called the “father of History.”
The Persians, ancestors of modern Iran, conquered a huge empire that included the Greek city-state of Ionia. Though the Persians allowed the Ionians to govern themselves, the independent Greeks hated Persian rule, and rebelled in 499 bc. Athens sent ships to help them.
The Persians soon crushed the rebel cities, but the Persian ruler Darius I was furious that Athens had jumped in. He sent a huge invasion force across the Aegean to destroy Athens for its interference.
The Greek foot soldier (infantryman) was called a hoplite. On his side was a razor sharp short sword, but his main weapon was a long spear, sometimes up to 20 feet in length.
Hoplites fought in a huge, heavily-armed formation called a phalanx. Rows of men stood shoulder to shoulder, so that each man was protected his own shield and the shield of his comrade. Layers of spears pointed toward the enemy. They were the tanks of their time.
The Persian infantrymen were similarly armed, with shields and spears. They wore much less armor, and carried lighter wooden shields. Their purpose was speed over power.
Among the Persian army was a group of highly-trained, highly motivated soldiers called the Immortals. They usually fought with their faces covered.
The Persian army landed near Marathon, a plain north of Athens. As they marched into the plain, they encountered the much smaller Athenian army.
The Greeks broke into three divisions, and as the Persians approached, the center retreated. Thinking they had them on the run, the Persians rushed forward. Then the Athenian center stopped and advanced, the two wings closed on the Persians, and they were surrounded.
The Athenians slaughtered the Persians on the plains of Marathon, and the Persians ran to their boats and escaped.
According to legend, an Athenian warrior named Pheidippides ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens. He made it to the city, announced, “We are victorious,” and dropped dead. It probably didn’t happen, by the way. Another story says he ran over 100 miles in 2 days.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, three hundred Spartans filled the narrow pass. Their leader was King Leonidas, the great warrior-king. The Persian army was massive: some say there were 150,000 men, some say a million. Standing between them and the heartland of Greece, in the little pass of Thermopylae, stood 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans. A Persian messenger told the Spartans to surrender. He said, “Our archers are so many, our arrows will block out the sun.” The Spartan soldier Dienekes replied “Good. Then we will fight in the shade.”
For three days the Persians attacked the tiny force, over and over, raining arrows down on the Greeks. They attacked with the Immortals, they attacked in the dark.
Finally, a local resident betrayed the Spartans, showing the Persians a path behind their army. Still the Spartans stood until Leonidas was struck by an arrow in the eye, and his body pulled away. The Spartans rushed forward to recover his body and were cut to pieces. Almost every man was killed. Leonidas
Don Juan. Canto iii. Stanza 86. 7 Lord Byron Earth! render back from out thy breast A remnant of our Spartan dead! Of the three hundred grant but three, To make a new Thermopylae! A. E. Housman from The Oracles : The King with half the East at heel is marched from land of morning; Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air, And he that stands will die for nought, and home there's no returning. The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair. References to Thermopylae:
The Persians then marched on to burn Athens, but found the city abandoned. The citizens had fled to safety. The Battle of Thermopylae gave the Athenians time to assemble a fleet of warships. They lured the Persians into the narrow Strait of Salamis, and slammed into the Persian ships with underwater battering rams. On the shore, Xerxes watched helplessly as his fleet sank.
The Greek ships were called triremes. They were powered by three levels of rowers with long oars, and attacked with their battering rams, or by sliding along the side of an enemy ship, snapping the oars off and leaving it helpless.
The Athenians prospered and grew to dominate Greece under the leadership of Pericles. They formed the Delian League, an alliance of 140 city-states.
The Spartans came to resent Athenian power, and formed their own alliance, the Peloponnesian League. In 431 bc warfare broke out. This long, 27 year conflict is called the Peloponnesian War. Sparta eventually sided with the Persians, and the two captured Athens. Despite the urging of their Persian allies, the Spartans refused to destroy Athens.
We study the history of the Greek city- states in detail today for many reasons. The honor, nobility, bravery, intelligence, and learning of the ancient Greeks stands as an example to us still. Also. We should remember that the principles of democracy that guide our government were invented by the Athenians.