The Persian Wars

Frazer Brown, Dickson College 2009

The Persian invasions of 490 and 480/79 played a major role in the Athenian rise to power and the political climate of Greece, particularly during the interbellum period and the second invasion. Unity between Sparta and Athens was also influenced by the invasions. Beginning in a period when fear of Persia was rife and the Greek city-states were constantly quarrelling, the repulsion of the first ‘invasion’[1] , proved the Athenians’ own worth to themselves, and gave prestige to their population. As a result of this new confidence, politics in the interbellum period were quite different to the period before the war, which caused the second war to be fought in a different way, and on a different scale. Instead of attempting a naval invasion, Xerxes implemented a land-based attack, supplemented by the Persian Navy rather than following his father’s example by using a fleet. Both the Persians and the Greeks utilised larger armies. Athens gained naval supremacy as a direct result of the second invasion.

The prelude to the ‘invasion’ tells us something quite important about Greek society: that they valued their freedom, even at the expense of human life. Darius “sent out heralds in divers directions round about Greece, with orders to demand everywhere earth and water for the king” [2] . Earth and water was a symbolic token of submission, which meant accepting the role of subordinate ally [3] . Most states complied with this demand out of fear of the Persian army, as Macedon did [4] . Neither Athens nor Sparta complied, however, and this tells us that they valued freedom over life; they would rather have control over their own territory, but with half the original population, than have a full population subjected to Persian hegemony. The Greeks’ view of the Persians, as barbaric in their practices, effeminate, and excessive [5] , meant that Persian control over Greeks would have been offensive and demeaning. This situation tells us that Greek society was by no means homogeneous, as most city-states submitted to the Persians, but not Athens and Sparta. The other states had less to lose by having Persian control than did Athens and Sparta as their system of government was similar to that which the Persians implemented in their subject states. Persia’s policy in Ionia and in other parts of her own Empire indicate that the city-states that submitted on the Greek peninsula would probably have been ruled by either existing pro-Persian Greek tyrants, or by newly appointed tyrants[6] . Athens had, in the recent past, instituted the beginnings of a democratic system. Sparta had a functional system that worked very well for them. The Spartan system of dual kingship had served Sparta well, allowing the Spartiates to become truly elite warriors. Having a foreign ruler imposed by a foreign people would have damaged Spartan society, and would have also significantly loosened the Spartan grip on the Peloponnese. The main reason for Spartan and Athenian resistance was that both of their systems would be destroyed if the Persians were allowed the chance to instate tyrants in the Persian fashion[7] .

The first ‘invasion’ itself, particularly, the battle of Marathon, influenced Greece quite significantly. It gave Athens a large confidence boost. The Athenians and Plataeans at Marathon felt that the gods were on their side, and that they had thus won a moral victory, a victory of good over evil [8] . It also demonstrated to the Greeks that Persia could be defeated, and showed them the weaknesses in Persian armour and tactics. This is one of the reasons that the Spartans, upon arriving late for the battle, “viewed the slain” [9] . Many Athenians saw the victory at Marathon as a victory for democracy. The skill of Miltiades and Callimachus (two strategoi, Callimachus was Polemarch) in planning the battle [10] reinforced the concept of meritocracy. As a result, after 487BCE the strategoi were elected by popular vote [11] . One of the outcomes of the enhanced confidence and optimism of the Greeks was that they gained hubris; they became so confident of their abilities that they assumed the Persians were dealt with for good, and continued with their internal quarrels [12] . This ended the first invasion, and began the interbellum period.

Shortly before 480, envoys were again sent to the city-states demanding earth and water, this time most complied, only thirty-one states did not, and they became the ‘Greeks’ at the ‘Congress at the Isthmus’ [13] . Athens and Sparta were not approached by envoys at all though, as the two states had killed the envoys ten years earlier [14] which was a grievous offence. They would not be given the chance to redeem themselves but would be ruthlessly punished. The confidence that the Spartans and Athenians had gained from the first invasion was helpful to them. This can be seen from the resolve and enthusiasm shown by the Spartans and allies at the battle of Thermopylae. The battles of Thermopylae and Salamis were momentous events, the latter being the beginning of Athenian naval supremacy, and the moment that tipped the war in Greece’s favour, this is substantiated by their move to offensive strategy, confronting Persia at Plataea and later Mycale. As the Athenians furnished many of the ships used at Salamis, Athens gained the credit for the victory and became a naval power. This gave the Athenians and their close allies the upper hand, and inspired them to go on the offensive, attacking Mycale and Sestos, and freeing the Ionian cities from Persian rule in 479 BCE.

In the first invasion, the Athenians sent to Sparta for help, but were told that they must wait until the end of the festival that the Spartans were celebrating, as it would be sacrilegious to leave it early [15] . Regardless of the veracity of the excuse, it demonstrates the fact that the Spartans were reluctant to act unless they could really see the value of their action[16] . In the case of the first invasion, the threat was in Attica, the territory of their rival city-state, and it was of little significance to them if their rival was defeated. In the second invasion, the Spartans, although still reluctant to act, could see that the Persians were a real threat to them; they had been convinced by the Persian subjugation of central Greece [17] . The Spartans were reluctant to act, preferring to protect the Peloponnese alone [18] . To the Spartans, as in the first invasion, threat to their rival was not important to them, and a festival was given as an excuse [19] . However, the congress decided that Sparta would go and fight. The repeated Spartan reluctance to fight with and for the other city-states reinforces the fact that Greece was not homogenous, and shows that some of the city-states operated in their own interests.

Throughout the course of the Persian invasions of 490 and 480/79 the Athenians rose to great power. They began by becoming aware of their own strength at the battle of Marathon. This strengthened them and made them capable of defeating the Persians again a decade later, after which they became the supreme naval power of the region. The Persian wars also increased the freedom of Greek peoples as a whole, the victory in 479 deterred the Persians from any further attempts at conquest of the peninsula, and the Athenian navy freed the Ionian Greeks from Persian rule. However, Spartan compliance with the wishes of Greece was reluctant, and Greek society was diverse and heterogeneous.

Comment here.

See Also

The Graeco-Persian Wars Compared by James Batchelor
The Greek Victory At Marathon by Emily Hood
The Nature of Athenian Democracy by Nick Ewbank
Slavery in Ancient Greece by Ursula Cliff


Aeschylus, The Persians, Potter, Robert [trans], accessed 6/9/2009.
A play from 472 BCE, approximately seven years after the end of the second invasion, this play outlines a popular opinion of Persian custom following the wars. It is a pro-Athenian take on the Persian side of the hostilities. It is a tragedy, and thus deals with wrath of gods, and Xerxes’ hubris. It is also designed as entertainment, and therefore cannot be taken as gospel, however, as a source for opinions regarding Persians at the time, it is reasonably accurate.

Bradley, Pamela, Ancient Greece: Using Evidence, Edward Arnold, Victoria, 1988.
High school text book outlines agreed upon events and interpretations. Uses simple language and comprehensive selection of sources. Does not dwell on the myths of the Persian wars, like Marathon and Thermopylae.

Burn, Andrew Robert, Persia and the Greeks: The Defence of the West, c. 546-478 B.C., Edward Arnold, London, 1962.
A scholarly and thorough examination of Ionian Greece from the Persian conquest to the liberation of Ionia. Comprehensive selection of sources, and considered interpretation of information. Language slightly dry, although not overly difficult. Slight pro-Greek bias, but not overt.

Hammond, N.G.L, Scullard, H.H [eds], The Oxford Classical Dictionary 2ed, OUP, Oxford, 1970.
A dictionary of the classical world, deals with names, dates and documented facts. Little to no interpretation is presented, and no bias is evident.

Herodotus, The Histories vol.2, Everyman’s Library, London, 1964.
Commenced in the 450s BCE, The Histories is Herodotus’ research on Greek history up until the time of writing. As a source for the Persian wars, it must be noted that it was commenced approximately thirty years after the event, although Herodotus would have been able to converse with people with firsthand experience of many of the events. Having been born in Ionian Greece (Halicarnassus) in the 480s, Herodotus had some knowledge of Persian rule and customs, although given his age at the time, probably only through other people i.e. parents, friends etc.

Lawless, Jennifer & Cameron, Kate, Studies in Ancient Persia, Nelson, Sth Melbourne, 1994.
Excerpt from textbook on ancient Persia, it is thus from the Persian perspective, but details effects of the wars on Greece as well. Could not ascertain the selection of sources.

Martin, Thomas R., An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, Accessed 9/8/2009.
A long and in depth history of Greece, contains lots of detail and uses fairly extensive sources. Does not display any overt bias, but that which can be detected is pro-Greek.

Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of Athens, Penguin, 1960.
Writing over five hundred years after the events of the Persian wars, Plutarch’s accounts may not be entirely veracious, however, he seems to analyse other sources, and therefore is not entirely unreliable.

Roebuck, Carl, The World of Ancient Times, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1966.
1960s high school and college text book is quite readable. The bias displayed differs throughout the book, as different civilisations are covered, but nowhere is there any strong bias (in the sections relevant to this topic, at least).

Sealey, Raphael, A History of the Greek City States ca. 700 – 338B.C. UCP, Carolina, 1976.
A Greco-centric textbook focusing the development of city-states, the factors that influenced this development, and their relations. Pro-Greek, but not to the extent that it warps facts, it is easy to ignore the bias and focus on the merits of Sealey’s arguments or interpretations.


  1. ^ The first invasion was not technically an invasion, as all the sources agree that the intent was punitive, not expansionist. The second invasion, however, was expansionist in aim, and was thus a true invasion.
  2. ^ Herodotus, 6.48
  3. ^ Lawless and Cameron, p104
  4. ^ Herodotus, 5.19
  5. ^ Aeschylus, The Persians “Soft sons of luxury” (chorus), “in Greece the one, on the barbaric coast the other” (Atossa).
  6. ^ Roebuck describes the period of c. 650-500BCE as ‘The Age of Tyrants’ (p191). The first Persian war being only a decade after the approximate end of the epoch, and Athens being quite progressive at this point, it is reasonable to assume that most states (other than Sparta) were either under tyrannies still, or very recently freed from them. Lawless and Cameron agree that most city-states were ruled by tyrants at this time, meaning that their political system would not be jeopardized to the same extent as the systems of Athens and Sparta.
  7. ^ This was, in fact, one of the reasons that the Ionian revolt occurred in the first place. The Ionian Greek cities were beginning to develop more representative forms of government, and the Persian system of state sponsored tyranny oppressed the freedom of the Ionian cities.
  8. ^ Herodotus, 6.109
  9. ^ Herodotus, 6.120
  10. ^ Herodotus, 6.110-111
  11. ^ Bradley, pp128-9
  12. ^ Plutarch, p80
  13. ^ Bradley, p137
  14. ^ Herodotus, 7.133
  15. ^ Herodotus, 6.106
  16. ^ It would seem unlikely that the Spartans would refuse to fight due to a religious celebration if the Persian army were actually in Sparta, but as the threat was distant, they were more than happy to honour the gods correctly.
  17. ^ Oxford Classical Dictionary, p 802
  18. ^ Their plan consisted of blockading the Isthmus of Corinth; this was intended to stop the Persians gaining entrance to the Peloponnese. However, even if they had done this, if Athens did not have naval supremacy, the Persians would have been able to gain access to the Peloponnese via the sea.
  19. ^ Burn, p362