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date: 20 October 2017

Persian Wars

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome

Cindy Nimchuk

Persian Wars 

The Persian Wars, more accurately called the Greco-Persian Wars, became a pivotal moment in history for the Greeks. To the Persians, the conflicts were necessary but minor skirmishes and far less important than, for example, the maintenance of control in Egypt. Much of our narrative of the wars comes from Herodotus and other Greek authors who had clear biases; consequently, their works must be used with caution.

The Aegean area was important to both the Greek states (particularly Athens) and the Persian Empire. By the late sixth century, Athens had expanded its commercial and political presence into the Aegean islands and Chersonesus. The Persians had expanded into Thrace, were allied with Macedon, and controlled trade routes and port cities in the eastern Mediterranean. In this context, it is not surprising that conflict arose. The immediate origin of the wars, however, is traced to the Ionian revolt of 499 bce. Herodotus attributed the revolt to the personal ambitions of the tyrant of Miletus; scholars have suggested an underlying cause in dissatisfaction with the taxation assessment for the region. Several Ionian cities joined Miletus, while Athens and Eretria sent modest naval support. The bulk of the revolt was suppressed relatively quickly (by 493 bce). For the Persians, rebellion was a sacrilege; it was the king's duty to restore order and punish the offenders, including the Athenians, who had aggressively sent ships into Persian territory and broken their treaty (dated to 507/506) with Persia.

The first phase of the wars occurred in 490 bce when a punitive Persian force was sent in response. The Persians successfully sacked Eretria, but were unexpectedly routed by a joint Athenian-Plataean force at Marathon. Further action against the Athenians was delayed by a rebellion in Egypt and the death of Darius in 486 bce. The Persian defeat at Marathon seems to have made little impression on the stability of the empire; both Darius and his successor, Xerxes I, felt confident in turning their attention to Egypt, and power passed smoothly from Darius to Xerxes. For the Athenians and other Greeks, however, the victory at Marathon was the stuff of legends and was memorialized in poetry, painting, and a monument at the site to the fallen Greeks.

Phase two of the Greco-Persian Wars took place in 480/479 bce. The defeat at Marathon had raised the stakes for the Persians. Xerxes crossed the Hellespont with an army and navy of tremendous size, having already gained the alliance of many Greek states. The Persian strategy was to move the army south along the coast of Greece toward Athens and rely on the fleet for supplies and support. Control of the sea was thus crucial for the Persians’ numerical advantage on land. The strategy of the Spartan-led Greek coalition was to slow the Persian army's approach long enough to allow the Greek navy to attack the Persian, turning Persian logistics to their own advantage. The concurrent actions at Thermopylae and Artemisium exemplify these strategies. The successful Persian push allowed their capture of Athens. The strategy of the Greek coalition, however, paid off when they enticed the Persian fleet into battle at Salamis and crippled it badly enough to forestall further action at that time. Xerxes and the bulk of the Persian forces returned to the empire, leaving a portion in Greece. Persian strategy at this point aimed at weakening the Greek coalition by offering peace terms to the Athenians. The Athenian refusal led ultimately to a confrontation at Plataea (479 bce), in which the Persian commander was killed and the Persians routed.

Phase three of the wars saw the Greek coalition follow up its victories by moving aggressively into the eastern Aegean and making pinpoint attacks at strategic Persian bases, particulary Mycale, thus forcing the Persian empire to relinquish control of Macedon, Thrace, and the Hellespont.

For the Persians, the stability of Xerxes’ reign and of the empire as a whole was not shaken by these events. The Persian kings thereafter adopted the strategy of playing the Greek cities against one another to distract them from interference in Persian affairs. For the Greeks, however, the wars conditioned the next hundred years of Hellenic history. Athens was able to use its prestige resulting from Salamis and its impressive navy to gain political hegemony throughout much of the Aegean for seventy years. The prestige from the Spartan role at Plataea as saviors of Greece allowed Sparta to end Athenian hegemony and substitute its own (with Persian help). More generally, the wars were crucial in shaping a positive Greek identity, in opposition to a negative Persian “other,” as heroic, courageous, and noble in their defense of a common Greek good.


Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Translated by Peter T. Daniels. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2002. English translation of Histoire de l’Empire perse, first published in 1996. The “bible” of Achaemenid Persian studies. The author combines a topical approach and a chronological framework; readers are advised to use the index to find all pertinent discussions of a subject.Find this resource:

Cawkwell, George. The Greek Wars: The Failure of Persia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Places the Persian Wars into the larger historical context, including the conflict with Alexander, emphasizing the military (as opposed to moral) superiority of the Greek fighting style.Find this resource:

Green, Peter. The Greco-Persian Wars. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996. Revision of Xerxes at Salamis (in the United States) and The Year of Salamis (in England), first published in 1970. Somewhat dramatic in tone.Find this resource:

Cindy Nimchuk

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