previous next

The Beginning of the Persian Wars

The most famous series of wars in ancient Greek history—the so-called Persian Wars which took place in the 490s and in 480-479—broke out when the Persian king decided to punish Greek states he regarded as rebellious subjects. The trouble started with a revolt in Ionia1, on the west coast of Anatolia (modern Turkey), where the Greek city-states had earlier come under Persian control.

Croesus of Lydia and the Ionian Greeks

The Ionian Greeks2 originally lost their independence not to the Persians but when they were overpowered by Croesus3 (*c. 560-546), king of Lydia4. The Lydians5 were a non-Greek people whose land bordered on Ionia on the east. Since Croesus gained confidence from this conquest and was emboldened by his vast wealth, he resolved to attack the Persian kingdom, whose territory lay to the east of Lydia. Persia was just now becoming powerful and thus a potential threat to Lydia. Croesus sent an emissary to request advice from the oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi6 in central Greece on the advisability of the Lydian army attacking Persia. The oracle responded,7 “If Croesus crosses into Persian territory, he will destroy a great kingdom.” When Croesus attacked the Persians in 546 B.C., his forces were crushed by Cyrus8, the Persian king. Lydia, along with Ionia, fell to the Persians. Later, Cyrus allowed Croesus, now his prisoner being treated with respect in honor of his former royal status, to complain to the Delphic oracle9 that its advice had been wrong and that the god had not repaid the favor that Croesus had earlier shown him by sending splendid gifts to his Delphic sanctuary. The oracle pointedly replied to the complaint by answering that, if Croesus had been wise, he would have asked a second question: whose kingdom was he going to destroy with his expedition, Cyrus' or his own?10

Revolt in Ionia

As overlords of Ionia11, the Persian kings installed and supported tyrants in its city-states. By 499 B.C. the Ionians were tired of Persian-backed tyranny and suffered from internal unrest. They rebelled, sending representatives to mainland Greece to ask for help in their revolt against Persia. The Spartan king Cleomenes declined to help12 after he saw the map the Ionian representative had brought and learned that an attack on the Persian capital would entail a three months' march inland from Ionia. He, like the other Spartans, had no idea of the geography of the Near East. The men of the Athenian assembly responded differently to the Ionian plea. They voted to join the city-state of Eretria on the neighboring island Euboea and send military aid to the Ionians13. The combined Athenian-Eretrian force actually got as far as Sardis14, Croesus' old capital, now the headquarters of a Persian provincial governor. After burning Sardis to the ground, however, the Athenians and Eretrians returned home15 when a Persian counterattack caused the Ionian allies to lose their coordination. Subsequent campaigns by the Persian king's commanders crushed the Ionian rebels16 by 494 B.C.

Persian Vengeance against Athens

King Darius was doubly furious when he learned that the Athenians had aided the Ionian revolt: not only had they dared attack his kingdom, they had done so after earlier having offered him earth and water17, thereby signifying—in the king's eyes—their submission to him in order to secure an alliance. Insignificant though Athens was in his opinion because its resources were so puny compared to those of his kingdom, Darius vowed to exact vengeance from Athens as punishment for its disloyalty to him. The Greeks later claimed that, to keep himself from forgetting his vow in the press of all his other concerns, Darius ordered one of his slaves to say to him three times at every meal, “Sire, remember the Athenians.” 18 In 490 B.C. Darius dispatched a flotilla of ships19 carrying troops to attack the disloyal Greeks. After burning Eretria20, the city-state on the island of Euboea whose troops had joined those of Athens in the attack on Sardis, the Persian expedition landed on the northeastern coast of Attica near a village called Marathon21. The Persians had brought with them the elderly Hippias22, the son of the former tyrant of Athens named Pisistratus. Hippias had himself been tyrant of Athens until he was forced into exile in 510 B.C. by an Athenian democratic uprising backed by Spartan military force. The Persians expected to reinstall Hippias as tyrant of Athens under their sway, in similar fashion to the tyrannies they had once installed in Ionian city-states. Since the Persian troops at Marathon outnumbered the citizen militia of Athenian hoplites23 (heavily armored infantry men armed with spears and swords, the principal component of Greek land armies), the Athenians asked the Spartans and other Greek city-states for military help. The Athenian courier dispatched to Sparta24 became famous because he ran the hundred and forty miles from Athens to Sparta in less than two days. By the time the battle of Marathon took place, however, the only allied troops to arrive were a contingent from the small, nearby city-state of Plataea25.

The Battle of Marathon

Everyone expected the Persians to win at Marathon26. The Athenian and Plataean soldiers, who had never seen Persians before27, grew afraid just gazing at their unfamiliar and (to Greek eyes) frighteningly outlandish outfits. Nevertheless, the Athenian generals—the board of ten men elected each year as the civil and military leaders of Athens—never let their men lose heart. Led by the aristocrat Miltiades28 (c. 550-489 B.C.) and carefully planning their tactics to minimize the time their soldiers would be exposed to the fire of Persian archers, the generals sent their hoplites across the plain of Marathon at a dead run29 against the Persian line. The Greeks in their metal armor30 clanked across the open space between the two armies under a hail of Persian arrows31 fired like an artillery barrage. Once engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Persians, the Greek hoplites benefited from their superior, more protective armor and longer weapons, which allowed them to strike their enemies while they themselves were still out of reach. After a furious struggle, the Greek infantry men drove the Persians back into a swamp32, where the invaders who failed to escape to their ships could be picked off safely at the attackers' leisure.

Announcing the Victory

At the end of the battle of Marathon an Athenian messenger ran the twenty-six miles from the plain of Marathon to the city of Athens to report the victory and warn the people in the city to guard against a naval attack by the Persian fleet, which was sailing around the peninsula of Attica33 (the territory of Athens as a city-state) to see if the city could be taken by an approach from the coast to its west. When the Persians ended up sailing home without taking Athens34, the Athenians rejoiced in disbelief. The Persians, whom they had feared as invincible, had retreated. For decades afterwards, the greatest honor an Athenian man could claim was to say he had been a “Marathon fighter35.” The run of the messenger who reported the victory is commemorated in today's marathon races, whose name and distance are derived from this run in 490 B.C.

Aftereffects of the Battle of Marathon

The symbolic importance of the battle of Marathon36 in 490 B.C. far outweighed its military significance. The defeat of his punitive expedition enraged Darius37 because it insulted his prestige, not because it represented any threat to the security of his kingdom. The Athenian men who comprised the city-state's army, on the other hand, had dramatically demonstrated their commitment to preserving their freedom by refusing to capitulate to an enemy whose reputation for power and wealth had made a disastrous Athenian defeat appear certain. The unexpected victory at Marathon gave an unparalleled boost to Athenian self-confidence, and the city-state's soldiers and leaders thereafter always boasted that they had stood fast before the feared barbarians even though the Spartans had not arrived in time to help them.38

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide References (1 total)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: