Marathon, Thermopalae, and How the Persians Lost.

Under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, the Persian Empire overpowered every great river civilization (aside from China), and became the first polyglot multi-ethnic empire in history. Cyrus ruled by encouraging the people he had conquered to join with his own Persian forces and receive equal treatment as well as honor and respect. Darius, who followed Cyrus’ rule, adapted to this approach, and continued running the Persian empire along the same lines. But while most people who were conquered by the Persians appreciated this leniency, which allowed the people to keep their own cultural identities and beliefs, the Greeks did not. The Ionian Greeks were flustered by the generosity shown to them by the Persians and saw it as a sign of weakness by the people who had overpowered them. As a result, the Ionian Greeks revolted and were supported by Athens. This led to Persia taking on all of Greece in a number of battles. The Persian Wars lasted for two decades and were eventually won by the Greeks for a multitude of reasons. While they had far fewer numbers of men enlisted in their infantry, the Greeks were fighting on their homeland and had knowledge of the terrain. They also had a stronger motivation and desire for victory than the Persians, for the Greeks were fighting for their own freedom and for that of their families.

The seedlings of the Persian War were planted when King Cyrus conquered Lydia in 546 B.C. as part of an ongoing attempt to spread the Persian empire. While Lydia was not on mainland Greece, there were several Greek city-states that were on the land the Persians had just taken. The Greek people who lived here were the Ionians and the Persians greatly underestimated these people. The Persians assumed the Ionians would respond to being conquered in much the same way as other people that they had conquered, such as the people of Medes. They expected the Ionians to be content with being allowed to keep their cultural beliefs and maintain the same positions of power that they had held before being conquered. But to the Ionian Greeks, “Persia’s tolerance for its subject peoples seemed only a strategy for making bondage less offensive,” (Judge,147). The Persians, meanwhile, considered the Greeks to be no more intelligent or aware of what they were doing, (trying to create a situation where the Greeks would be conquered, but have no desire to rebel), than any of the people they had conquered previously.

But the Greeks refused to accept the Persians attempts at generosity. Any Greek leaders who agreed to work with the Persians immediately lost the respect of their peers. The Greeks considered these offers by the Persians to be hand-outs and felt that they were demeaning. “Many of the people who lived in the Greek colonies were rich merchants, used to running their own affairs and making their own decisions about the administration of their cities, jointly and independently. They had no wish to be ruled by a Persian King, nor would they pay him tribute,” (Gombrich,38).

The Ionian Greeks refused to work with the Persians and instead sent out word to mainland Greece that they were planning a revolt and requesting aid. The Athenians responded, sending ships to help the Ionians. In 499 B.C., the Ionians revolted with the Athenian fleet backing them up. The Persians were caught off guard by this attack, and it took them five years to eventually put down the rebellion. Darius was now the King of Persia and the year was 494 B.C. He could not believe that these Ionians, who he had never heard of before, had challenged his great empire.

Darius now sent messengers to the city-states of mainland Greece, demanding their submission to the Persian ruler. He had no intention of conquering these people before the Ionian revolt, but the Athenians who supported the Ionians made him especially angry. The Persian messengers came to the city-states and barked the orders of Darius. “We demand submission of earth and water,” they said. The Spartans and Athenians responded to these commands by throwing the messengers to their deaths. When Darius received word of this insubordination, he grew even more furious than before and set his sights on Athens.

The Battle at Marathon was the result of this. Marathon was on the coast of the Aegean Sea and it was 26 miles northwest of Athens. Darius sent 70,000 Persians to Marathon and they were met there by only 10,000 Athenians. This meant the Persians outnumbered the Athenians 7 to 1. While the Persian army was much greater in size, the Athenians were more unified and immediately formed ranks. They used a military strategy known as a phalanx, where the soldiers stayed together in a single block and fought as one cohesive unit. The soldiers, known as hoplites, used their circular shields not only to protect themselves, but also to protect the shoulders of the men beside them.

With the number of men on the battlefield favoring the Persians, the Athenians knew they needed to establish a clever tactic. They knew that in a phalanx formation, the center was usually the strongest and the wings were weak. As a result, an enemy would attack the center first, to defeat the strongest part of the opposition. With this in mind, the Athenians substituted their positions and strengthened the wings of their phalanx while weakening the center. The Persians then ran right through the center of the Athenian phalanx and were left confused. Suddenly the Athenian wings closed in on the Persians from both sides.

This strategy of outmaneuvering the oppositional force won the battle at Marathon for the Athenians, and when Darius heard of the result, he planned to retaliate with an even bigger army. Darius died in 486 B.C. before he could follow up on his plans and strike again. He was replaced by Xerxes who continued what Darius had started.  Xerxes summoned all armies from the Persian empire to attack Greece. He sent one army to attack by sea and another to attack by land. The Spartans and Athenians now made an alliance with each other to stop the Persians. Xerxes was bringing 250,000 soldiers into Greece, and the Spartans and Athenians knew the only way to survive was to work together. “Sparta provided leadership on land while Athens mobilized a formidable navy,” (Judge,149).

The Spartans knew of a narrow pass in an area of northern Greece known as Thermopylae. The pass was through the mountains and the Spartans used their knowledge of the land to determine this as the best location to block the Persians from advancing. 10,000 Persians came to Thermopylae where a group of only 360 Spartans attempted to hold them back. The battle lasted for days until every Spartan warrior had been killed. The Spartans had a saying that their soldiers were told before leaving home. The Spartans would tell their soldiers, “come back with your shield or on it,” meaning either fight until you win, or fight until your death. There was no other option. The Spartans at Thermopylae all fought until their deaths, and for a Spartan, this was the most glorious way to die.

While the Spartans were not successful at Thermopylae, and were eventually killed, they held the Persians back for a long enough time that other Greek forces were able to assemble. These Greek soldiers now setup in the plains behind the pass and after finally defeating the Spartans, the Persians now saw the new armies that they would have to face. This was cause for the Persians to withdraw, making Thermopylae a victory for the Greeks, despite the deaths of the Spartans.

The Persians attacked one more time, and went straight into the city of Athens. The Athenians had expected this attack and were not in the city when the Persians arrived. The Athenians had evacuated long before the Persian attack and were now situated on the nearby island of Salamis. The Persians set fire to the city of Athens while the Athenians on Salamis could only watch and think of vengeance. When the Persians came to Salamis, the Athenians made true to this promise. A battle in the sea took place around the island with the Athenians spawned on not only from the burning of their city, but also the confidence that came from being victorious at the battle at Marathon ten years earlier. The Athenian ships were heavier and more strongly built. Like the Spartans at Thermopylae, the Athenians also used their knowledge of the land to win the battle. They “trapped the enemy fleet in a narrow strait and destroyed half the Persian ships,” (Lewis,117). The Persians left this battle, and then after their land army was defeated at Plataea, the Persians retreated and went back home.

There were many reasons for the Greek victories during the Persian Wars. The most notable of these reasons was their knowledge of the land, as the battles took place in Greece. The Persians were foreigners and did not know the terrain in the same way the Greek soldiers did, and the Greeks used this to their advantage. In Thermopylae, the Spartans knew of the pass through the mountains where they could potentially hold the Persians back. At Salamis, the Athenians knew of the narrow straight where the Persian ships could be trapped.

The Greek soldiers and their knowledge of the land also enabled them to be better outfitted to fight in the rocky terrain. The Persians were used to fighting on wide open plains, and were dressed lightly to make themselves more mobile. The Greeks knew there was little room for mobility in the mountains and this was why their Phalanx technique of staying together was so effective.

While the knowledge of the land was extremely advantageous to the Greeks, they also had a stronger desire for victory than the Persians. The soldiers of the Persian army were fighting for their king and his conquests. The soldiers of Greece were fighting for themselves. For them, the battles weren’t just about victory, but about freedom and the ability to continue with their existence as they saw fit. With the strong will of the Greeks urging them on, the Persians were surprised by the forces that met them in battle. When news of this Greek resistance reached other parts of the Persian Empire, more rebellions took place. One of these revolts took place in Babylon, giving Xerxes yet another reason to flee Greece in order to go back to Mesopotamia and put that rebellion down. The Greeks were strong-willed and determined in ways that none of the other peoples conquered by the Persians had been.  It was this unflinching desire combined with a military knowledge of how to best use the terrain that led to Greek victory in the Persian Wars.