The Graeco-Persian Wars Compared (490 and 480/79 BCE)

James Batchelor, Dickson College 2009

Greek hoplite in conflict with Persian warrior (5c BCE)
Greek hoplite in conflict with Persian warrior (5c BCE)
The invasions of the Greek mainland by the Persians in 490 and 480-479 BCE revealed much about the cultural values of each side, and perhaps only with the exception of the Hellenes at Troy, established for the first time in Greece what it meant to be part of a collective identity. A key difference between the two conflicts was that at Marathon the Athenians were virtually alone in their defence, whereas the much larger invasion of Xerxes saw the Greeks valuing freedom to such an extent that they defended not just their own city-states, but unified to fight for a common cause. The successes and failures of both sides at Marathon lead to the development of new tactics and approaches, which made the second wave of invasions quite physically different from the first, and suggest a considerable level of growth; particularly within the Athenians through their development of a strong naval force. Yet while the Persians may have been fighting for power and revenge, the Greeks were defending their freedom; a commonality of both invasions which perhaps not only saw the Greeks their victory, but reveals much more about their pride in cultural identity.

Unlike the Persian invasion of 490 BCE, in which the Athenians were assisted only by a small contingent of Plataeans[1] during their struggle with the ‘barbarian’[2] , the second wave of invasions united many of the antagonistic city-states to defend as one. At Marathon the Spartans had refused the urgent request of the Athenians for aid, as according to Herodotus; ‘it was the ninth day of the month, and they said they could not take the field until the moon was full.’[3] Although Herodotus also suggests that the Spartans were genuine in their excuse and were otherwise willing to help,[4] they entirely missed the battle of Marathon, and hence the Athenians fought only with the Plataeans. Even when the Spartans at last arrived, they seemed only driven by their curiosity in seeing the Persian’s bodies, rather than by any level of concern for their neighbours;

‘Such was their passion to see the Persians, that they went to Marathon to have a look at the bodies. That done, they praised the Athenians on their good work, and returned home.’ Herodotus. V. 120. 4 - 7.[5]

Yet during the lead up to the second invasion, the Serpent Column[6] indicates that approximately thirty one city-states formed an alliance, the Hellenic League, in order to fight for the ‘Greek cause’, as is detailed by Herodotus in the following;

The Greeks who were loyal to the Greek cause now assembled and gave each other promises and guarantees, deciding in their discussion that the most important thing of all was to reconcile enmities and put a stop to existing wars between each other.[7]

However this alliance, despite its being perhaps a major reason why the Greeks were able to repel both invasions,[8] dissolved shortly after, and Thucydides reports that the Athenians felt that the ‘little’ help they got from the Spartans was hardly for selfless reasons;

‘So our view [the Athenians] is that we have helped you no less than you have helped us. For you came to fight from inhabited cities and ones you wanted to preserve for the future, and because you were afraid on your own behalf much more than on ours…’.[9]

This demonstrates that the alliance itself was indeed a remarkable occurrence quite unique to the second invasion, as the concept did not last.[10] Hence the Greeks must have valued their freedom to such an extent, that they were willing to abandon this deeply rooted antagonism. Motivations aside, the Greeks managed to cooperate during the second Persian invasion as in contrast to Marathon, and saw the concept of a somewhat unified Greek entity emerge for the first time as a powerful force to be reckoned with.

There are significant differences between the two Persian invasions in terms of the preparations made by each side and the tactics used in battle, that reflect a certain level of growth from their initial encounters at Marathon. Perhaps the most important Greek development which occurred during the inter-war period, was the construction of a much larger and stronger Athenian navy:

When the mines at Maroneia were found and the city had a surplus of a hundred talents from the workings, [Themistokles] had a hundred triremes built…and with these they fought the naval battle of Salamis against the barbarians. [11]

Battle of Thermopylae
Battle of Thermopylae
As Aristotle suggests, the conception of a powerful Athenian navy was key to the Greek victory at Salamis, and hence the Greeks tactfully ensured that unlike at Marathon, parts of the second invasion were fought at sea. The Corinthian decoy movement, was a tactic used by the Greeks to lure the Persian fleet into narrow waters and hence their large numbers and preference for close formations were at a disadvantage. This is incidentally not unlike the strategies used by the Greeks at Thermopylae and Marathon, where conflict was located in narrow passes to limit the obvious advantage the Persians had in numbers.[12] In attempt to avoid the disaster of 492 BCE, whereby the Persians suffered great losses to their fleet,[13] the second invasion saw the Persians operating largely by land. Hence the fleet they brought was comparatively smaller than the first invasion and no match to the newly developed Athenian fleet. However, unlike Marathon, the Greeks were faced with a much larger contingent of land-based units, and despite the undeniable skill of the Greek hoplite[14] , their comparatively low numbers were not able to see them through Thermopylae. As such the second invasion saw the development of new strategies and tactics from both the Greeks and the Persians, as was testament to what was learnt, and thus prepared for, from their previous successes and failures at Marathon. This indicates that in these circumstances the Athenians in particular were relatively progressive and forward thinkers, as they were able to develop strategies to face their problems head on.

The consistency of motivation within each of the invasions reveals much about both Greek and Persian ideology, and the core difference in values from which inspired their conflict. The Persians first and foremost invaded Greece in order to punish the Athenians and Eretrians for their involvement in the Ionian Revolt.[15] Hence the motivation of the Persians was, as is made evident in the following iconic passage of Herodotus, centred on revenge:

He paid no attention to the Ionians, knowing well that they would not escape punishment for their revolt, bust asked who the Athenian’s were, and, after learning this, called for his bow, took it, fitted an arrow and shot it up in the sky, and as he did so said, ‘Zeus, grant that I may punish the Athenians!’[16]

The second invasion was once again largely punitive, as the Persians wished to make the Greeks pay for the insult on their strength at Marathon.[17] Yet it is clear that in both of the invasions, the Greeks were fighting for something much closer to heart; their freedom. In refusing to submit to the Persians, the Greeks were defending their much valued independence, despite the all too apparent likelihood of them losing.[18] The following oath which was supposedly sworn by the Greeks before the battle of Plataea, exemplifies their tenacious hold on freedom which perhaps ultimately ensured their victory: I shall fight as long as I live, and shall not consider being alive more important than being free. [19] Thus in contrast to consistently portrayed Persian ideals of domination and supremacy,[20] the commonality of values held by the participating Greek city-states within both invasions indicates that they were peoples who valued principles such as freedom and independence to such an extent, that they were willing to risk everything in their defence.

In the process of comparing the Persian invasions of Greece in 490 and 480 - 479 BCE, one can interpret them in a way that also identifies ideological commonalities among the poleis that participated in the defense of the Greek mainland. Unlike at the battle of Marathon, traditionally antagonistic city-states were able to cast their grudges aside and hence fight as a united front against the Persians in the second invasion. This unusual level of cooperation, may suggest that the Greeks valued the ideals of freedom and independence to such an extent that they were willing to momentarily suspend their evidently deep-rooted domestic antagonism. The development of an Athenian navy and the continuance of location-dependent tactics used at Marathon set the second invasions apart from the first in terms of Greek military achievement and demonstrated the empowering nature of cooperation and the progressiveness of particularly the Athenians. The juxtaposition of Persian oppression and domination further highlights the central value of freedom as an important component of Greek ideology. Such a concept would then become further evident in some city-states, through their pursuit of personal freedoms within democracy and equality in the years to come, concepts which would perhaps not have developed had the victory been with the Persians.

Join the discussion on The Graeco-Persian Wars Compared by James Batchelor.

See Also

The Greek Victory At Marathon by Emily Hood
The Nature of Athenian Democracy by Nick Ewbank
The Persian Wars by Frazer Brown


Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, 440 B.C.E, (Translated by George Rawlinson), The Internet Classics Archive.

Balcer. J. 1987. Herodotus & Bisitun; Problems in Ancient Persian Historiography. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden GMBH.
This source points out some of the problems in Herodotus’ historiography such as his biases towards the Athenians, mythical aspects and events. It also a critical analysis and review of his possible sources, which according to Herodotus was the stories of the people. However this source, being a little dated, does not offer any modern viewpoints on the subject, especially considering that there have been recent discoveries which have increased the validity of Herodotus.

Dillon, Mathew. Garland, Lynda. 2000. Ancient Greece; Social and Historical Documents from Archaic Times to the Death of Socrates. 2nd ed. Great Britain: Routledge.
An invaluable source which contains primary sources and documents from Ancient Greece accompanied by brief interpretations and discussions of each. It is a fairly recent publication and hence includes a reasonably up to date catalogue of sources.

Cartledge, Paul. 2006. Thermopylae; The Battle that Changed the World. London: Pan Books.
A comprehensive overview of the battle of Thermopylae and an assessment of its significance within the Persian invasions. Carteledge, a professor of classics at Cambridge, is considered an expert on Sparta and hence its involvement in Thermopylae. It has been useful when making campaign based comparisons.

Green, Peter. 1996. The Greco-Persian Wars. United Sates: University of California Press.
Peter Green is a world-renowned historical-novelist, and is often credited as being a contemporary expert on the Greco-Persian Wars. While his work is indeed a secondary source, Green offers a modern and seemingly impartial insight into what he refers to as the ‘big why’. It has been incredibly valuable in learning the overall narrative of the Persian Wars without being too reliant on Herodotus alone.

Herodotus. Betty Radice ed. Aubrey Selincourt trans. 2003. Herodotus; The Histories. Victoria: Penguin Group.
Herodotus is our major source for the Persian invasions, and was the first person to write about them in a historical way. However there may be some biases within his depictions as influenced by his personal life. The use of direct speech (mimesis) suggests some level of fabrication, however he claims that it is grounded on what he has learned through his own investigation and experiences. Yet some of his information has been cross-referenced to other primary documents and appears to be consistent. His claims of being well traveled and his suspected location of birth see him presenting and reasonably unbiased viewpoint. It is however a problem, that he writes mainly from the perspective of the Athenians as a representation of the Greeks, and we do not have any sources of his calibre from the Persian side.

Lawless, Jennifer. Cameron, Kate. 1994. Studies in Ancient Persia. 5th ed. Melbourne: Nelson.
This is a secondary source written from the perspective of the Persians. However its sources are not unlike any written from a Greek perspective, as Herodotus is one of the only sources to go by. Once again we have the problem of narrowness in perspective which is testament to the paucity of sources.

Nardo, Don. ed. 2001. The Complete History of Ancient Greece. United Sates: Greenhaven Press Inc.
This is a textbook on ancient Greece which has a basic overview of the Persian Wars. Much of the information is derived from peter Green (see above), hence it was useful to look at the invasions with a broader perspective than Green’s work itself. It is fairly recent and presents an unbiased viewpoint of both Persian and Greek perspectives.


  1. ^ A small city-state from central Greece and old allies of the Athenians.
  2. ^ The term barbarian is derived from the ancient Greek work ‘barbaros’ and usually described non Greek speaking peoples. During the Persian invasions, the word appears to have been expressly synonymous with ‘Persian’ as is shown in the opening lines of Herodotus.
  3. ^ Sparta were probably celebrating the Carneia, a religious festival in which Dorians would abstain from warfare. Herodotus. VI.106. 11 - 13.
  4. ^ The Spartans did eventually dispatch two thousand warriors after the full moon, and according to Herodotus; ‘They were so anxious not to be late that they were in Attica on the third day after leaving Sparta.’ Herodotus. V. 120. 1-3. The validity of this statement is questionable since Herodotus does not justify the feelings of anxiety. If they had in fact been so anxious, perhaps they would have come sooner.
  5. ^ Although it may appear that Herodotus is biased towards the Athenians and perhaps believed the Spartans never intended on coming, there is the empathy within V.120.1-3 (above) that does make his viewpoint a little more impartial and perhaps trustworthy. Yet once again it is almost impossible to tell whether that statement was grounded on any collective evidence, rather than what was wished to be portrayed.
  6. ^ The Serpent Column at Delphi, was dedicated by the allies after Plataea in 479, but refers to the whole of the war and not just to this battle. The names of the 31 states are listed. Today it stands in Constantinople. Dillon, Mathew & Garland, Lynda. 2000
  7. ^ VII.145.1
  8. ^ While at Marathon the Athenian and Plataeans may have been able to scrape a victory, there is no way that any single polis would have been able to repel Xerxes’ enormous forces alone. The exact number is still debated. Herodotus suggests 1 700 000. Yet modern historians discredit these claims as severe exaggeration and instead estimate somewhere in the region of 200 000 - 300 000 fighting men, and 750 000 following supporters. The army was in regardless of staggering proportions. It would of course be to the benefit of the Greeks to increase the number of Persians that they were so ‘courageously’ able to repel. (Lawless, Jennifer. Cameron, Kate. 1994, p.121).
  9. ^ I.73.2-74.3. This was supposedly said during the debate at Sparta in 432 when the Spartans voted that the Athenians had broken the Thirty Years Peace made in 446/5. (Thucydides, 1.73.2-72.3 Sourced from Dillon, Mathew. Garland, Lynda. 2000) p.208. It is questionable how Thucydides knew these words were even said, but as in the case of Herodotus, Thucydides probably used the technique of mimesis in order to gather the gist of ‘what must have been said’ based on the evidence he had.
  10. ^ The only other example whereby the independent city-states may have fought sides by side before this conflict is in the legendary Trojan War, as is described in the ‘Catalogue of Ships’. Although this may never have happened, it demonstrates that concept was alive before the Persian Wars. The fact that the unification did not last may be simply down to the long-standing ill feelings that the city-states felt towards one another, and the long history of neighbouring antagonism.
  11. ^ Aristotle. Athenian Politeia 22.7. Sourced from Dillon, Mathew & Garland, Lynda. 2000, p.197. In doing so, Themistokles had to argue against distributing the wealth among the citizens. He managed to convince the people that the construction of a powerful navy was required to ensure their victory in a neighbouring dispute with Aegina. (A dispute which they in fact cast aside in order to fight the second invasions). Yet all the while he knew the Persians were coming back, and it is generally agreed that it was the imminent second invasion which he intended the fleet for. This was a fundamentally undemocratic move, as the ‘people’ did not wish to spend the money in this way, but rather were manipulated to believe so.
  12. ^ The Persians unwisely chose Marathon, but the Greeks were able to set the stage for Thermopylae in a narrow mountain pass, with steep mountains on either side. Hence the confined space meant that the Persian cavalry could not be deployed. (Lawless, Jennifer. Cameron, Kate p. 126).
  13. ^ This is in reference to the disaster that Mardonius’ fleet encountered in 492 BCE, where majority of the fleet was destroyed by gale. Ships were sunk, and many drowned or were attacked by sharks. To avoid this disaster Xerxes ordered the epic creation of a canal through the low land of Mount Athos.
  14. ^ A heavily armed foot soldier of ancient Greece.
  15. ^ An uprising from Persian rule led by the Ionians of Greek colonies along the coast of the Mediterranean at Asia Minor. Both the Athenians and Eretrians provided aid for the revolt, which ultimately failed. (Lawless, Jennifer. Cameron, Kate. 1994, p.108).
  16. ^ Herodotus. V.105.1-2 P.185. By Zeus, Herodotus means Ahura Mazda; the Persian equivalent. (Lawless, Jennifer. Cameron, Kate. 1994, p.185)
  17. ^ It is however thought that Xerxes was reluctant to pursue his father’s plans, yet he was influenced by a close sphere of family members who wished to follow through with the ongoing struggle with the Athenians. (Lawless, Jennifer. Cameron, Kate. 1994, p.115).
  18. ^ Not an uncommon theme in warfare throughout history. One side is usually fighting to oppress and conquer, the other is defending their freedom. Eg. Dutch conquest of Indonesia. Afghanistan, Vietnam etc.
  19. ^ Tod II.204. 21-22. Although Herodotus does not mention any oath being sworn before the Battle of Plataea, he does mention a similar oath being sworn before Thermopylae. The Antiquity of this source is questioned. (Dillon, Mathew. Garland, Lynda. 2000)
  20. ^ Although Herodotus was primarily writing from the Greek perspective, and hence his portrayal of the Persians must be questioned, it is known from other sources such as the Susa, that the Persians were particularly oppressive in nature.