Persian Invasion of Greece Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Persian invasion of Greece was repulsed by Greek city-states, who joined together to defeat Persia, halting future invasions.

Summary of Event

Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, subjugated the Ionian Greek states of western Asia Minor to Persia. The Ionians resented the loss of their sovereignty, and in 499 b.c.e., they rebelled against Cyrus’s successor, Darius the Great. Their action was supported by two states in Old Hellas, Eretria and Athens. At first the Ionian Revolt went well, but Darius soon gathered overwhelming forces and had reimposed Persian authority by 494 b.c.e. He then determined to invade Old Greece, to punish the states that had assisted the Ionian cities, and to end a vexatious frontier problem. Persia had been reasserting its strength along its western boundaries, but a campaign against Greece required different strategies, including a much greater reliance on naval battle than Persia had experienced before. Xerxes I Eurybiades Themistocles Adeimantus Leonidas Pausanias of Sparta

Darius’s first attack in 492 b.c.e. miscarried when much of the Persian fleet was wrecked in a storm, and his second attempt in 490 b.c.e. failed when his army was driven into the sea at Marathon in Attica. He therefore planned a third invasion on a lavish scale. Darius, however, died in 486 b.c.e., and it fell to his son Xerxes I to complete the preparation of his empire’s forces.

The Battle of Thermopylae.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The great invasion finally began in the spring of 480 b.c.e. An enormous host of more than one hundred thousand soldiers was supported by a fleet of six hundred warships. For fifty years, part of the Persian military strategy had been to let the opponents know that the Persian army was coming. They counted on terror and the effects of psychological warfare rather than the element of military surprise. The Greeks could not fail to learn about the assembling of such masses, and in the winter of 481-480 b.c.e., representatives of the larger states met at Corinth to discuss resistance. The Delphic Oracle had to be persuaded to modify its initial prophecy of doom to one of doubtful outcome, and it was with some trepidation that a decision was taken to fight under Spartan leadership. Appeals to other Greek states to join the patriotic cities were rejected by some of the more important ones, notably anti-Spartan Argos. Ultimately, only thirty-one states fought on the Greek side. There were actually more Greek states on the side of Xerxes, although these served under compulsion.

The Greeks decided to delay the Persians’ advance by holding the narrow pass at Thermopylae with eight thousand men and the adjacent strait between Thermopylae and the island of Euboea with their fleet. It was not until August that the Persians came up against these fortified positions. Three days passed as Xerxes vainly sent his best troops against the well-armored Peloponnesian infantry fighting under King Leonidas of Sparta. Simultaneously, a series of inconclusive but costly naval engagements were fought off Cape Artemisium on Euboea; the Persians had earlier lost about two hundred warships in a storm. Xerxes, however, turned the position at Thermopylae by marching around it through the mountains. Most of the Greeks escaped encirclement in time, but Leonidas with his bodyguard of three hundred Spartans and the seven-hundred-man army of Tespiae were cut off and could only die resisting bravely to the end.

With the position on land lost, the Greek fleet retreated and took station on the island of Salamis off the western coast of Attica. The population of Athens had already been evacuated to the Peloponnesus. There was more wavering among the Greeks at Salamis, some even considering defection, but at last honor prevailed, and led by Eurybiades of Sparta, Themistocles of Athens, and Adeimantus of Corinth, the Greek sailors prepared to fight. The Persians, fearing that the Greek fleet might escape westward, decided on an immediate attack, and late in September the Battle of Salamis was fought in the narrow strait between the island and the mainland. The Persians had about 350 ships, the Greeks probably 310, of which the majority were Athenian. The conflict lasted most of the day, and by sunset the Greeks were victorious. With the campaigning season nearly over, Xerxes withdrew from devastated Attica and left half his army to winter in Boeotia. The rest of the army and the shattered fleet retired with the king to Asia.

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The war was resumed the following spring. After a second Persian devastation of Attica, a hard-fought land battle took place at Plataea, a small state between Athens and Boeotia. Under the command of the Spartan regent Pausanias, the Greeks gained the victory, and the Spartan infantry showed once more their undoubted excellence. The Persian army was forced into rapid retreat.

While this campaign was being fought in Greece, the Hellenic fleet had crossed the Aegean to seek out the remnants of Xerxes’ navy. Off the island of Mycale, the Greeks completed its destruction. Thus, the great force that Xerxes had led against the Hellenes was either destroyed or forced back into Asia, and, as the poet Simonides wrote, “Hellas put on the crown of freedom.”

These victories did not end the war with Persia, but they did end Persian efforts to invade Greece. The liberation of Ionia now became the goal of the Greek states, and by 477 b.c.e. most of it had been freed. As a result of these campaigns Athens became one of the most important military powers of Greece.

Significance

After these wars, the Persian Empire never again seriously threatened the Greek city-states. Greece became the major power in the Mediterranean Sea, and this allowed the city-states to prosper through trade and to increase their political power. Athens’ role in leading the fight against Persia continued in time of peace, as Athens was the most influential of the Greek city-states and the center of Hellenic cooperation. In contrast, the Persian Empire began its slow shrinking that set the stage for Alexander the Great’s conquest nearly one hundred fifty years later.

In the centuries after the Greco-Persian wars, Greek culture blossomed, expanding into the greatest variety of its classical period. The cultural vibrancy came to expression in literature such as the drama of Aeschylus of Athens and the poetry of Pindar of Thebes, as well as in the philosophy, mathematics, and athletics that flourished in this period. Greek hegemony over the eastern Mediterranean allowed its wealth to grow and its Hellenistic culture to begin its spread throughout the region, preparing the way for the later military conquests of what became Alexander the Great’s empire.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bengston, Hermann, ed. The Greeks and the Persians from the Sixth to the Fourth Centuries. New York: Delacorte Press, 1968. A collection of essays dealing with different aspects of Persian-Greek relations surrounding the invasion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boardman, John, N. G. L. Hammond, D. M. Lewis, and M. Ostwald, eds. Persia, Greece and the Western Mediterranean, c. 525 to 479 b.c. Vol. 4 in The Cambridge Ancient History. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. The most complete analysis of events from before the invasion through Persia’s defeat.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burn, A. R. Persia and the Greeks. 2d ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1984. A narrative covering events from the sixth century to Xerxes’ defeats in 479 b.c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dandamaev, M. A. A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire. 1989. Reprint. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1997. A remarkably thorough treatment of the Persian involvement in the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Peter. The Greco-Persian Wars. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. An engaging history of the wars, offering exciting narrative as well as analysis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herodotus. The History. Translated by David Grene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. The standard translation of the famous Greek historian who records (and interprets) the Persian invasion from the Greek perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olmstead, A. T. History of the Persian Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948. A somewhat uncritical account of the wars from the Persian viewpoint.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Cyrus the Great; Darius the Great; Leonidas; Pausanias of Sparta; Themistocles; Xerxes I. Greece;Persian invasion of Persian Empire;invasion of Greece

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