Persian Wars

Ancient History: An Overview of the Historic Persian Wars

The Greco-Persian Wars, often known as the Persian Wars, lasted nearly half a century and were fought between Greek states and Persia. Persia launched two invasions against mainland Greece between 490 and 479, which saw the most fierce combat. Although the Persian empire was at its pinnacle of power, the Greeks’ collective defence defeated seemingly impossible odds and even liberated Greek city-states on the outskirts of Persia. Moreover, the Greek victory ensured the continuation of Greek culture and political systems long after the Persian empire had fallen.

Athens rose to become the Delian League’s leader during the Persian Wars. The Persian Wars (499-449 BCE) occurred between the Achaemenid Empire and the Hellenic world during the classical Greek period. The struggle saw Athens come to power and usher in the Golden Age.

The Conflict’s Beginnings

Greek-Persian Duel
Credit: Wikipedia

As per the Greeks of the classical period, historians generally agree that many Greek tribes moved and settled in Asia Minor after the demise of the Mycenaean civilisation. The Aeolians, Dorians, and Ionians were three tribal groups represented among the settlers.

The Ionians settled around the shores of Lydia and Caria, founding 12 towns that were politically distinct from one another yet had the same cultural legacy. It served as the foundation for a prestigious Ionian “culture league.” The Lydians of western Asia Minor seized the cities of Ionia, putting the territory at odds with the Median Empire, which was the forerunner of the Achaemenid Empire of the Persian Wars and a power that the Lydians despised.

The Persian prince Cyrus launched a victorious insurrection against the last Median monarch Astyages in 553–550 BCE, establishing the Achaemenid Empire. The legendary Lydian king Croesus saw an opportunity in turmoil and asked the oracle at Delphi whether he should invade the Persians to expand his territory. “If Croesus were to cross the Halys [River], he would ruin a huge empire,” Herodotus claims he received an equivocal response. Nevertheless, Croesus chose to assault, destroying his empire, with Lydia falling to Prince Cyrus.

The Ionians fought the Persians militarily for a period to protect their autonomy under the Persians. It was the same like that happened under the Lydians. However, they were not offered preferential terms because they had refused to rise against the Lydians in past confrontations. The Persians put dictators in every city as a control measure because the Ionians were difficult to command.

The Ionian Uprising

Greco Persian War
Credit: Pinterest

The Ionian Revolt took place in 499 BCE when Greeks in the region revolted against Persian control. Deep dissatisfaction with the tyrants appointed by the Persians to control the local Greek communities was at the root of the insurrection. Aristagoras, a Milesian dictator, started the riot. After a failed effort to take Naxos, they used Greek dissatisfaction against the Persian monarch Darius the Great for his political benefit.

Athens and other Greek towns offered aid but were forced to retreat after losing the Battle of Lade in 494 BCE. As a result, Persia regained control over Asia Minor. The Ionian Revolt is the first major struggle between Greece and the Persian Empire. It is the beginning of the Persian Wars. Darius pledged to avenge Athens and devised a strategy to conquer all Greeks to maintain the integrity of his realm.

The support of dictators by Persia and demands for tribute and service produced discontent in the Greek states of Asia Minor. Two unscrupulous tyrants took advantage of this policy. Miletus’ tyrant, Histiaeus, had been imprisoned at Susa. Aristagoras, his son-in-law and his deputy at Miletus, had backed the Persian invasion of Naxos. When the invasion failed, Histiaeus and Aristagoras plotted to revolt against the Greek states of Asia Minor, fearing Persian retaliation. At Miletus, Aristagoras established a constitutional government, and tyrants were ejected from the other states.

Aristagoras sailed to Greece in need of help during the winter. The Spartans refused to send troops because they recognised their limitations as a land force, but the Athenians pledged 20 triremes and the Eretrians 5 triremes. When these ships arrived in 498, the Ionians immediately went to work seizing and burning the majority of Sardis, the satrapy’s capital. This victory sparked revolts throughout the Greek states of the Bosporus and Hellespont, Caria, and Greek cities in Cyprus. The Athenians withdrew their ships at this point, and the Eretrians most likely followed suit.

Ongoing Uprising

The rebels needed to launch a maritime operation to secure Cyprus and confine the Phoenician navy to the southern Mediterranean. However, the Persians were quick to recognise Cyprus’ value. With the help of a Phoenician fleet, one army group landed in the north of the island and attacked Salamis on land and sea. The Ionians beat the Phoenician fleet, but the Persian army routed the Cyprian Greeks. In 496, the final Greek fortress on the island surrendered.

Meanwhile, the Bosporus and the Hellespont were retaken by two Persian army groups. They mounted a final campaign in 495, although being delayed by a defeat at the hands of the Carians in 496. While the Persian army defended the shore near Miletus, a large fleet of Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Cypriots moved to army-controlled harbours. It engaged the Ionian fleet of 353 triremes around the island of Lade off the coast of Miletus. At sea, the Persian triumph was significant. In 494, Miletus fell, and the insurrection was put down in 493.

The Ionian Revolt was extremely beneficial to the Greek cause. It delayed the Persian attack on Greece until the Greek mainland nations were able to unify, undermined Persian confidence, and taught the Greeks some critical lessons. Individually, the Greeks had defeated the Persians on land and at sea, so resistance did not appear futile. However, close collaboration and strong leadership are essential in future.

The Ionians had established a council of deputies drawn from the several states and entrusted it with strategic direction. Still, they had failed to include the Greeks of the Bosporus, Hellespont, and Cyprus in the council. They also neglected to name a commander in chief of the allied forces until the night before the battle of Lade, when it was too late.

Greece’s First Persian Invasion

Greece's First invasion of Persia
Credit: Alamy

Mardonius, a Persian general, launched an expedition across Thrace and Macedonia in 492 BCE. During this expedition, Mardonius re-subjugated Thrace and compelled Macedonia to become a fully obedient client of the Persian Empire, although they had previously enjoyed a degree of autonomy.

Despite his victory, he was injured and had to retire back to Asia Minor. A storm occuring off Mount Athos coast also cost him his 1200-ship naval fleet. Except for Athens and Sparta, who both murdered their respective embassies, Darius despatched ambassadors to every Greek city. It was to demand complete submission in light of the recent Persian triumph. However, Sparta was drawn into the conflict due to Athens’ continuing defiance.

Approximately 100,000 Persians landed in Attica in 490 BCE to conquer Athens. Still, they were destroyed in the Battle of Marathon by a Greek army. THe army has 9,000 Athenian hoplites and 1,000 Plateans led by Miltiades, an Athenian general. The Persian navy continued to cruise to Athens but chose not to attack because it was garrisoned. The Battle of Marathon became the crucial turning point in the Persian Wars because it showed the Greeks to beat the Persians. It also highlighted the superiority of the Greek hoplites, who were more heavily armed.

Postbellum (490-480 BCE)

After the first Persian invasion failed, Darius gathered a massive army to attack Greece again. However, Darius’ Egyptian subjects revolted in 486 BCE, delaying any push into Greece. While preparing to march on Egypt, Darius died, and his son, Xerxes I, acquired the throne. Xerxes destroyed the Egyptians quickly and resumed his plans to invade Greece.

Greece’s Second Invasion

Greece's Secodn invasion of Persia
Credit: Greek City Times

Xerxes dispatched a far larger force of 300,000 soldiers across a double pontoon bridge across the Hellespont in 480 BCE, with 1,207 ships in support. While the Persian fleet skirted the coast and resupplied the ground forces, this army captured Thrace before descending on Thessaly and Boetia. Meanwhile, the Greek fleet rushed to blockade Cape Artemision.

Then, after being held back in the Conflict of Thermopylae by Leonidas I, the Agiad Dynasty’s Spartan monarch (a battle noteworthy for the extreme imbalance of troops, with 300 Spartans facing the entire Persian Army), Xerxes pushed into Attica, capturing and burning Athens. However, the Athenians had left the city by water and destroyed the Persian navy at the Battle of Salamis, led by Themistocles.

A vein of silver ore was discovered in the Laurion (a small mountain range near Athens) in 483 BCE, during the era of peace between the two Persian invasions. The ore extracted there paid for the construction of 200 wars to battle Aeginetan piracy. The Greeks, led by Spartan Pausanias, defeated the Persian army at Plataea a year later.

Meanwhile, at the Battle of Mycale, the allied Greek navy defeated the Persian fleet, crippling Xerxe’s naval strength and establishing the Greek fleet’s dominance. The Persians began retiring from Greece after the Battles of Plataea and Mycale and never attempted another invasion.

Greek Retaliation

The Battle of Mycale was a watershed moment for the Greeks, who then attacked the Persian fleet. The Athenian fleet subsequently moved to pursue the Persians out of the Aegean Sea, eventually capturing Byzantium in 478 BCE. In the process, Athens enlisted all of the island kingdoms and several mainland states in the Delian League, whose objective was to continue battling the Persian Empire, prepare for future invasions, and create a mechanism of splitting the spoils of war.

Despite their participation in the war, the Spartans retired into isolation afterwards. The liberation of the mainland Greece and the Greek towns of Asia Minor, the Spartans believed, had already accomplished the war’s goal. According to historians, Sparta was similarly sceptical of the Delian League’s potential to provide long-term security for Asian Greeks. With the removal of Sparta from the League, Athens was able to build unrivalled naval and commercial strength in the Hellenic world.

The Persian Wars’ Aftereffects

Greco-Persian War
Credit: Blog

Despite their successes in the Persian Wars, the Greek city-states emerged more divided than united from the fight.

The Persian Wars’ Aftermath

The combined Greek victory destroyed a substantial component of the Persian fleet and the expulsion of all Persian garrisons from Europe, thereby ending Persia’s progress westward into Europe. Ionian cities were likewise emancipated from Persian rule. However, despite their victories, the spoils of war provoked more internal strife in the Hellenic realm. For example, Pausanias’ aggressive acts during the siege of Byzantium alienated many Greek nations from Sparta, leading to the Delian League’s military authority shifting from Sparta to Athens. It precipitated Sparta’s final exit from the Delian League.

Two Divisions

Following the two Persian invasions of Greece and during the Greek counterattacks that began after the Battles of Plataea and Mycale, Athens formed the Delian League, which had the goal of pursuing combat with the Persian Empire, preparing for future invasions, and distributing the spoils of battle. Despite their participation in the war, the Spartans left the Delian League early on, claiming that the war’s original goal was achieved with mainland Greece’s independence and Greek cities in Asia Minor.

Historians also argue that Sparta left the League for pragmatic reasons, believing that long-term security for Greeks in Asia Minor was unguaranteed due to their dissatisfaction with Athenian ambitions to expand their influence. Sparta was once a powerful city-state.

After withdrawing from the Delian League following the Persian Wars, it reconstituted the Peloponnesian League, founded in the 6th century and served as the model for the Delian League. The removal of Sparta from the League, on the other hand, allowed Athens to develop unequalled naval and commercial strength across the Hellenic world. Athens began to use the League’s navy for its own goals soon after the League’s founding, which frequently led to conflict with other, less powerful League members.

Delian League Uprisings

A series of revolts broke out between Athens and the League’s lesser city-states. In 471 BCE, for example, Naxos attempted to secede from the League for the first time. It was eventually defeated and compelled to demolish its defensive city walls, forfeit its fleet, and lose its League voting privileges.

Another League member, Thasos, deserted after Athens established the colony of Amphipolis on the Strymon River in 465 BCE, threatening Thasos’ interests in the Mt Pangaion mines. Thasos allied with Persia and petitioned Sparta for help, but Sparta could not assist due to the largest helot revolution in its history.

Nonetheless, the circumstance strained relations between Athens and Sparta. Finally, there was reclamation of Thasos and it went back into the Delian League after a three-year siege. It was despite losing its defensive walls and fleet, having its mines over to Athens, and paying yearly tribute and fines. The siege of Thasos, according to Thucydides, signalled the League’s transition from an alliance to a hegemony.


The Persians developed a divide-and-rule approach after defeating the Greeks and being beset by internal rebellions that hampered their ability to combat external invaders. In 449 BCE, the Persians attempted to inflame tensions between Athens and Sparta by bribing politicians to achieve their goals. They planned to keep the Greeks occupied with internal strife to prevent a wave of counterattacks from reaching the Persian Empire. Their approach was most effective, and the Greeks and Persians did not engage in open warfare until 396 BCE when the Spartan ruler Agesilaus invaded Asia Minor for a brief period.

Leave a Reply