Persian Wars (490 BCE to 479 BCE) between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire were predicated by various circumstances, ranging from cultural ideologies to political connivances. For the Greeks, particularly the Ionians and the Athenians, Persian rule was unwanted and unacceptable. The Persian leaders Darius and his son Xerxes, however, following in the example of Cyrus the Great, saw the Greek city-states as puny colonies that were to be taught submission. And while the Greeks often fought among themselves, the threat of a Persian invasion spelled the virtual annihilation of each of them if they did not choose to set aside their squabbles for the common good of all (Siegel, 2005).
Were the Greeks Victorious Because They Were More Motivated than the Persians?
Motivation for Victory
Although the Greek city-states formed an alliance to repel the Persian armies, the Persian Wars did not put an end to the enmity that existed among the Greek states, for the Peloponnesian Wars would soon be fought between Athens and Sparta. However, a Greek cause did exist, as noted by Herodotus, and the Greeks were able to set aside differences to keep the foreign army from taking over. In this sense, the motivation for Greece was their own Greekness, their desire to rule themselves, and not be subject to a “barbaric” foreign power (Batchelor, 2009).
The motive behind the Persian invasion was purely revenge. The Persians had taken great umbrage at the Greek participation in the Ionian Revolt. The first Persian invasion was meant to punish the Athenians for their role in it. When Darius, the “Great King” sent heralds into Greece to demand a tribute of earth and water (meaning that the city-states should make themselves subject to Persia), the Athenians threw the heralds into the ditches where they put the bodies of criminals; the Spartans threw them into a well and said, “There you will find both earth and water for your master” (Haaren, 2000, p. 65). These responses infuriated Darius. And although his invasion failed at Marathon, another attack was planned. The passion with which the Persian kings sought to bring the Greeks into submission can be seen when Xerxes commanded the sea to be whipped to show that Xerxes was its master.
But as for the motivation of Athens and Sparta to withstand the Persian assault, Frazer Brown (2009) says,
Most states complied with [Darius] demand out of fear of the Persian army, as Macedon didThe Greeks view of the Persians, as barbaric in their practices, effeminate, and excessive, meant that Persian control over Greeks would have been offensive and demeaning. This situation tells us that Greek society was by no means homogeneous, [since] 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. Persias 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.
Because Athens had recently fashioned a democratic system of government, and Sparta had a system of two kings, neither city-state was willing to have its structure altered. Sparta feared losing control of the Peloponnese, and Athens feared losing its own freedom.
What Inspired Them to Fight
Inspired by a sense of duty, honor, pride and livelihood, the Athenians blocked the Persian invasion at Marathon, which was “a vote of encouragement for Greek confidence in the hoplite phalanx” (Rufus, 2010). Following the victory, a runner sprinted back to Athens to declare the news, collapsing upon arrival. The battle also inspired a Greek Renaissance in architecture, drama, and music (Fosten, 2007). To this day the world remembers Marathon by running marathons every year. Such is the example the Greeks gave the world of fortitude and perseverance. Because they possessed such virtues as these and valued their own freedom so highly, they fought well, and considered themselves above the Persian race, which they viewed with scorn. In a sense their hatred of the Persians is what put an end to the later wars between Athens and Sparta, when Cimon asserted that the best way to unite the Greeks was to make war on Persia.
The battle of Marathon, which repulsed the first Persian invasion, was also believed to have been won through the assistance of the god-like hero Theseus (Haaren, 2000).
According to legend, Theseus had ruled over Athens many years before and had destroyed the Minotaur, which had been devouring Athenian men and women. Although Miltiades had boldly and brazenly led the Athenians into battle at Marathon, and then doubled back to protect Athens from an attack when traitors signaled to the Persians that the city was empty and ripe for looting, many Athenians believed their protection came from the gods who favored them by returning to them their hero Theseus to give battle to the Persians at Marathon.
The second Persian invasion led by Xerxes prompted the formation of the Hellenic League, which was another factor in the Greek victories over Persia.
Part II: The Persian Desire for Expansion and the Outbreak of War
The Initial Cause of the War
Cyrus the Great had virtually created the Persian Empire by conquering the Medes and the Lydians of Asia Minor. Conquering Lydia made Cyrus the king of Ionian Greeks. “The Greeks objected to the strains the Persians put on them, including the draft, heavy tribute, and interference in local government” (Gill). The son of Cyrus took Egypt, was overthrown by an usurper, and the usurper was overthrown by Darius.
Darius was called the “Great King” as if no other king existed but him. At the beginning of the fifth century BCE, Persia was indeed the most powerful kingdom; however, it had not yet traded blows with the Greeks.
Darius attacked the Scythians, but “fared badly,” and was only saved by the Ionian Greeks who guarded Darius retreat. The Ionians, seeing the strength of their own force, decided to throw off the Persian yoke and revolt (Setzer, 2009). The revolt was at first successful, the Darius regained control, enslaving or massacring the rebellious subjects. Since Athens had offered assistance in the revolt, Darius went on to punish them.
Meanwhile, the death of Pisistratus gave the rule of Athens to his two sons, Hippias and Hipparchus, both of whom governed well. However, when Hipparchus was assassinated by his enemies, Hippias became so cruel in his governance that the Athenians finally drove him from the city-state. Hippias then went to the “Great King” Darius of Persia, and pledged to help him gain power over the Greeks.
These factors, along with the treatment of his heralds by the Athenians and Spartans, led to the first Persian invasion.
Why the War Was Fought in Ionian, Athens, and Sardis
Because the Ionian Greeks revolted, Darius was forced to wage war. “A Greek tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras, first tried to ingratiate himself with the Persians and then led a revolt against them” (Gill). In 499 BC, Aristagoras organized the rebellion in Ionia. When Darius learned of the rebellion, Aristagoras left for the Greek mainland to get help from the city-states. Even though King Cleomenes was disposed to help, Sparta refused; Athens, however, pledged its support (Papakyriakou, 2011). An Athenian fleet was dispatched to Ephesus, where it joined the Ionian Greeks. Together they marched to Sardis, where they pillaged and burned the capitol to the ground (Knox, 2009).
Meanwhile, Persian reinforcements gave chase. The Athenians boarded their fleet and sailed back to Athens. The rest of the Greeks were furiously put down by the reinforcement. However, the rebellion was soon taken up by Greek city-states in Cyprus. The Persians laid siege, Aristagoras fled to Thrace, and the Ionian rebellion was finally put down by 494 BCE, thanks to the command of Artaphernes.
The wrath of Darius, however, was now awakened. Bent on punishing the upstart Greeks, he sent heralds, and when these were repulsed by Athens and Sparta, he sent armies. Miltiades commanded the Athenian soldiers, and thwarted the land attack at Athens by marching outside the city to the fields of Marathon. Though his soldiers were outnumbered fifteen to one, Miltiades “determined to attack the enemy at once” (Haaren, 2000, p.66). The Greeks utterly thwarted the invasion, losing only 192 men in the contest, and proving their mettle to the most powerful nation in the world.
Part III: Individuals Who Helped Determined the Outcome of the War
Who They Were and What They Did
Miltiades was the Athenian hero of the battle of Marathon. Leonidas was the Spartan hero at the pass of Thermopylae. Themistocles was the Athenian naval commander who led the Greek fleet to victory against Xerxes. Aristides the Just helped lead alongside his rival Themistocles (who had had him banished from Athens previously), and also went.