Persian Wars

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The Aegean Sea during the Persian Wars

As Persian Wars or shortly Perserkriege generally means the fifth in the early century BC. Attempts made by the Persian kings Darius I and Xerxes I to incorporate Greece into their empire by force . These ventures failed, however, despite the enormous Persian superiority, when about 30 Poleis, led by Athens and Sparta, decided to resist. By the victorious Greeks was successful, but very soon self-sacrificing rich defending their motherland for political myth applied that also in plays like The Persians of Aeschylus put it. This myth has partly survived into the 21st century and has historically been interpreted as an alleged defense of the freedom of the West against "oriental despotism and tyranny".

The Persian Wars were triggered by the so-called Ionian Uprising (500/499 to 494 BC). The highlights of the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) in the first and the Sea Battle of Salamis (480 BC) and the Battle of Plataiai (479 BC) in the second Persian War. The defeat of the Persians had far-reaching effects on further Persian, Greek and ultimately European history. The most important contemporary source for the events is the ancient historian Herodotus .

initial situation

Greece in the 6th century BC Chr.

Greek settlement area in the middle of the 6th century BC Chr.

After the end of the Mycenaean palace period at the beginning of the 12th century BC Parts of Greece had experienced an enormous decline in population and material culture. Another decline took place - also in regions that were affected by the upheavals around 1200 BC. Were spared or those in which there was a certain re-bloom of the Mycenaean culture in SH III C medium (second half of the 12th century BC) - in the course of the 11th century BC. Around the 8th century BC. This process began to reverse itself. The population increased again, while influences from the Orient brought forth new art forms and also a new writing system. The various Greek tribes had already settled the islands of the Aegean Sea and the west coast of Asia Minor beforehand. Due to the strong population growth and the resulting lack of land, the Greek colonization of the rest of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea area began. At the same time, in the mother country and in the new colonies, the political organization was established on the basis of the polis , the city-state that was autonomous in terms of domestic and foreign policy. Nevertheless, parts of the Greek population continued to be divided into tribal associations.

At the turn of the 6th century BC The Greek Poleis of Asia Minor came under the rule of the Lydian Empire , while the European Greeks and the inhabitants of the colonies remained independent. In the mother country, a few larger poleis soon began to play a dominant political role. Especially Sparta with its superior army and the economically dominant Athens should be mentioned here. By the middle of the 6th century BC, Sparta had developed itself. Developed in numerous wars to become the largest Greek polis in terms of area and either subjugated most of the Peloponnese peninsula or forced it into a system of alliances, the so-called Peloponnesian League . In Athens, the nobleman Peisistratos could in the second half of the 6th century BC. BC, similar to what had already happened in other Greek cities, set up a tyranny and even passed it on to his sons Hippias and Hipparchus . In 510 BC Chr. The tyrannical rule was amended by Athenian aristocrat Cleisthenes from the family of Alcmaeonids and with the help of the Spartan king Cleomenes I. abolished. After Cleomenes tried to install Isagoras, a pro-Spartan politician as archon in Athens, he was overthrown by Kleisthenes and his supporters, who then introduced democracy in Athens. The new political system was strong enough to fend off a Spartan invasion that would bring Isagoras back to power, as well as attacks from Boeotia , Aegina and Chalcis . Like Sparta and Athens, the other Greek poles of the mother country were involved in constant conflicts with one another and hardly seemed capable of joint political action. The turmoil in the Greek world went so far that different groups fought for power within the individual poleis.

Persia in the 6th century BC Chr.

The Persian Empire around 500 BC Chr.

Middle of the 6th century BC The states of the Near East, which had developed after the end of the New Assyrian Empire , experienced a profound transformation with the rise of the Persian Achaemenid Empire . The trigger for this was the expansion policy of the Persian King Cyrus II , who ruled over a small empire in southwestern Iran. Around 550 BC He started a war against the neighboring Iranian Mederreich , which he was finally able to subdue, so that he suddenly ruled over an area that stretched from Iran to the east of Asia Minor. Less than a decade later, Cyrus brought Asia Minor under his rule with his victory over Kroisos , the king of the Lydian Empire. Here the Persians came into contact for the first time with the Greeks settling on the west coast of Asia Minor, who had previously been under the sovereignty of the Lydian king and who surrendered to the Persians after a short resistance.

After some fighting in the east of the empire, the conqueror soon turned south against the New Babylonian Empire , which extended over Mesopotamia and the Levant . Disputes between the local royal family and the local priestly elite made the conquest easier. After Cyrus had fallen in the fight against Central Asian nomads, his son Cambyses II succeeded in the battle of Pelusium around 525 BC. Chr. Egypt to conquer and thus to bring the great phase of Persian expansion to a close, although later smaller territorial acquisitions followed.

Internal turmoil followed the death of Cambyses, and it fell to his successor Dareios I, who was presumably basically a usurper , to consolidate the young empire again. He achieved this through numerous reforms, such as the administrative and fiscal division of the empire into satrapies , the expansion of the transport network or the creation of new residences in Susa and Persepolis . His military ventures included the conquest of parts of India and Thrace . The latter was related to the persistent struggle of the Persians with the nomads of Central Asia and southern Russia. Darius crossed 513/512 BC. BC crossed the Bosphorus to Europe with a ship bridge to take action against the Scythians north of the Danube. On the way north he incorporated Thrace into the imperial union and made the kingdom of Macedonia tributary. The fight against the nomads was unsuccessful, but Darius had helped the Persian Empire to its greatest extent with his campaign and made it a direct neighbor of the European Greeks. These now faced the greatest empire the world had seen until then.

The Ionian Rebellion

The Ionians formed one of the great Greek language groups. In the course of the displacement of peoples that Greece experienced during the Dark Ages , they had spread in Attica and over numerous islands and coastal areas of the Aegean Sea. Among other things, they had established themselves on the central part of the west coast of Asia Minor (roughly from today's İzmir in the north to north of Halicarnassus in the south). This area has since been known as Ionia . The cities that arose here formed at the beginning of the 8th century BC. The Ionian League . With the conquests of Cyrus, the Ionian Greeks in Asia Minor had also come under Persian rule. The Persians did endeavor to grant the subjects a certain internal autonomy, but they also tried to secure their rule by installing tyrant regimes loyal to them in the Poleis of Asia Minor. A certain Aristagoras held this position in the great Ionian metropolis of Miletus . Around the year 500 BC BC, however, he decided to fall away from his masters, to give up his position as a tyrant and instead to put himself at the head of an anti-Persian revolt. Why he did that is pretty unclear. Herodotus reports that Aristagoras was the leader of a failed expedition against the island of Naxos and then turned against the Persians in order not to be held responsible for the failure. But it is also possible that he joined an uprising that was already looming so as not to be pushed out of office by it. The discontent of the rich Ionian trading cities with Persian rule seems to have increased at that time due to economic problems.

Aristagoras first tried to woo support for his cause in motherland Greece. He fell on deaf ears with King Cleomenes I in Sparta. To the Spartans the theater of war seemed too far away and the prospects too little promising. In addition, Sparta was about to start a war against the old archenemy Argos . In Athens, Aristagoras was luckier. The local government was persuaded to stand by the Ionians with twenty warships. Also Eretria on Evia sent five ships. Overall, the contribution of the European Greeks to the uprising was rather small, but nevertheless very momentous, as later became apparent.

The uprising was initially quite successful. He apparently found the Persian Empire unprepared. 499 BC The rebels succeeded in Sardis , the old Lydian royal city and the most important Persian center in the west, and set it on fire. Despite a defeat at Ephesus , the war spread to the Hellespont region and to Caria and Lycia . Even in Cyprus the Greeks rose up. Then the tide began to turn in favor of the Persians. Cyprus was recaptured and the Greeks had to withdraw from Sardis too. 494 BC The Greek fleet was destroyed in the naval battle of Ark and the revolt collapsed. The ships of Athens had already withdrawn after a change of government at home. Aristagoras too had left Asia Minor early and fled to Thrace, where he lived in 497 BC. Died in the fight against locals. To set an example, the Persians destroyed Miletus, which would never again occupy such an important position as it did before the uprising. Most cities got off rather lightly. Attempts were made to calm the region down again, above all by peaceful means. The land was re-measured and entered in cadastre, proper court hearings between members of different communities were made possible, and tyranny was by no means reintroduced in all cities. The Persians also refrained from increasing the tribute.


Attic grave stele depicting a Greek hoplite, end of the 6th century BC Chr.

Dareios I had the Persian domain as early as the end of the 6th century BC. Extended to Europe. The involvement of the European Greeks in the Ionian Uprising, however minor, drew his attention again to the West. The independent Greek states on the other side of the Aegean represented a threat to Persian rule in western Asia Minor. Athens and Eretria were also to be punished for helping the insurgents. In addition, some prominent political refugees from Greece were staying at the Persian court, such as the Spartan ex-king Demaratos , who was expelled by his colleague Kleomenes I, or Hippias, the former tyrant of Athens.

In 492 BC The Persian general Mardonios , a son-in-law of Darius, was sent to Thrace and Macedonia with an army consisting of land and sea forces in order to restore Persian rule in this area, which had also suffered as a result of the Ionian uprising. In addition, he succeeded in conquering the island of Thasos . He was denied further advances to the south, however, as the Persian fleet near the Athos Mountains was destroyed by a storm.

490 BC The punitive expedition followed by Datis and Artaphernes , a nephew of Darius. As early as 491 BC The Persians had sent envoys who demanded the submission of the Greek poleis in the form of a symbolic surrender of earth and water. Many states in northern and central Greece gave in to the pressure. Only a few, especially Athens and also Sparta with its Peloponnesian allies, refused and killed the embassies. The two great Poleis had nothing good to expect from Persian rule. The Athenians feared a return to tyranny, while the Spartans saw their primacy in the Peloponnese threatened. In response to this outrage - envoys were considered inviolable - Persia sent a fleet to the Aegean Sea to force Greek submission by force. The Cyclades surrendered. Eretria was conquered, burned down for its involvement in the Ionian Uprising, and its population abducted according to media . Finally, a Persian expeditionary force landed in Attica near Marathon . She was accompanied by Hippias, whose position in Athens was to be restored.

Athens, which was in immediate danger, sent couriers to Sparta in order to receive military support from it. The Spartans, however, did not put their troops immediately on the move, on the grounds that it gives them for the duration of the currently held Karneia was forbidden -Festes to go to war. They should only be two or three days late. So in 490 BC the Athenians BC only the troops of the allied Plataiai in the battle aside.

The most important military leader of the Greek associations was Miltiades , the leader of the conservative aristocratic party of Athens. He advised the Athenians to leave their city to face the Persians in open field battle. So the Greek army blocked the way to Athens. Due to different traditions, the course of the battle cannot be precisely reconstructed. For example, it is unknown whether it was the Persians or the Greeks who opened the battle. What is certain, however, is that it was the heavily armored Greek hoplites marching in close formation who ultimately won the day. Only 192 full citizens of Athens are said to have died in the battle. The Greeks then withdrew to Athens to shield the city from a Persian attack. The Persian armed force was therefore far from being destroyed and continued to pose a threat. However, the expected attack did not materialize, the Persians instead withdrew to their homeland.

The first Persian attack on the Greek motherland had thus failed. The extent of the Battle of Marathon should not, however, be overestimated. Dareios had sent only a relatively small expeditionary force to punish a few Greek poleis, and the battle itself appears to have been little more than a skirmish. However, this first defensive battle was of enormous importance for Athens' self-confidence. In addition, for the first time in history the beginnings of a panhellenic policy had become recognizable, even though only a few Greek states were prepared to fight for this idea.

Between the wars

The victory of Marathon saved Athens from the reestablishment of tyranny for the time being. The conflict itself, which is now known as the “First Persian War”, was still relatively small. Sparta, the second Greek supremacy, had not yet been involved at all. The Persians may not have attached much importance to the defeat. Their rule over large parts of the Greek world was still safe. In the long run, however, the Greek resistance could not be tolerated. It was time to take further action against the Greek motherland.

Herodotus describes how Darius initiated a large-scale armament campaign by the Empire:

“Immediately he sent out messengers to gather an army; all provinces and cities had to provide far more troops than before, as well as warships, horses, grain and barges. Now all of Asia was on the move for three years, and all the brave gathered and armed themselves against Hellas. "

- Herodot VII, 1, translated by A. Horneffer.

However, the king had to interrupt his plans because a rebellion had broken out in Egypt . As Darius in 486 BC Died, his son Xerxes I, a grandson of the great Cyrus, succeeded him on the throne. Endeavored to resume his father's campaign plans, he began again to mobilize the Persian Empire. Mardonios in particular, who had already been denied a campaign against the Greeks, seems to have encouraged him to do so.

In Greece the political situation did not seem to have changed much after Marathon. Even the victory of Athens did not change the fact that most of the Greek states were against war with Persia. Rather, the climate was shaped by the old rivalry between the individual poleis. Argos z. B., who had a permanent hostility towards Sparta, a Persian victory would have come in handy. Elsewhere, too, there were conservative circles who hoped that the Persians would weaken the democratic groups in their respective cities. The Oracle of Delphi , the most important Panhellenic authority, made no secret of the fact that it considered any resistance to be pointless.

In the meantime, domestic political battles were being fought in Athens and Sparta. The Spartan King Cleomenes I was deposed and took his life a little later in captivity. (Herodotus VI, 75). Meanwhile, the fall of the marathon winner Miltiades was in Athens. This had wanted to continue the fight after its great success and 489 BC. BC initiated a naval expedition against the island of Paros , which failed completely. His enemies from the Democratic camp took advantage of this to bring him to justice. Although he escaped a death sentence, he died shortly afterwards of the wounds he had suffered during the last campaign. The expansion of democracy has now continued. The introduction of ostracism , for example, coincided with this period. But the armaments for the threatening Persian war were not forgotten either. Here a man named Themistocles did particularly well. Already in the run-up to the first Persian War he had advocated reinforcement of the Attic fleet. At that time the Athenians had preferred to implement the Miltiades' plans for a battle on land. Now things seemed to have changed. Even the Delphi Oracle was harnessed to the new strategy . After initial hesitation, the Apollo priests advised the Athenians to hide behind a “wooden wall”, which Themistocles immediately interpreted as a fleet. From 483 B.C. The construction of the warships began. The major project was financed by mining recently developed silver deposits from Laurion . The new naval policy, in turn, had a beneficial effect on the development of Attic democracy. For the crews of the ships, numerous, also poorer Attic citizens (thetes) were called in, who also gained more political weight, since in ancient thought the military and state constitution were closely linked.

481 BC In the 2nd century BC those Greek states came together near Corinth , which were ready to confront the Persians. It was only a minority of Poleis, as the majority of the Hellenes were willing to recognize Persian suzerainty. But those who refused to do so included the two most powerful poles in the form of Athens and Sparta. They formed the Hellenic League under the leadership of Sparta. Even the fleet of the allies should be commanded by the Spartans, who were actually inexperienced in naval warfare. In addition to Athens, Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies, the union also included a few poleis from central Greece and the Cyclades, as well as the island of Aegina, which had recently been in dispute with Athens. They had hoped for help from the colonies of Sicily , but the Greeks there were threatened at the same time by an invasion by the Carthaginians and could not contribute to the fight against the Persians. The powerful tyrant Gelon of Syracuse had made his support dependent on the fact that he was given supreme command of the allied armed forces, which was not to be combined with Sparta's claim to leadership. So again it was only a small part of the Greeks who wanted to resist the Persians.

The invasion of Xerxes

The beginning of the campaign

Persian (right) and Median foot soldiers on a relief from Persepolis

480 BC Xerxes began his large-scale attack on Greece. He planned a combined action by the army and the navy. Herodotus' statements on the strength of the army in the range of several million are far exaggerated. Today's estimates, on the other hand, range from 50,000 to at most 200,000 soldiers - a huge armed force by the standards of the time. Its core was formed by 10,000 Medico-Persian elite infantrymen, the so-called immortals , Persian archers as well as Median, Bactrian and Scythian horsemen. Similar reservations about the strength of Herodotus apply to the strength of the fleet; modern estimates assume 600 ships rather than 1207.

At the Hellespont the army and the entourage were supposed to cross over to Europe. Xerxes overcame the strait at Abydos, which is still more than a nautical mile wide, by having two floating bridges built from hundreds of ships. Herodotus describes the construction of the ship bridges over the Hellespont very precisely. The ships lying parallel to the coast were tied together with ropes and held in position by large, heavy anchors because of the strong winds. Very strong and heavy ropes made of papyrus and flax were laid across the ships from coast to coast and tensioned with the help of rope winches . On them were planks laid, which were associated with both the ships and from each other. A layer of compacted earth over the planks turned the bridge into a normal military road for cavalry and foot troops. They put up mats on both sides because they feared the horses might shy away from the sea. Practically all of these details, however, are controversial.

However, a storm that destroyed the bridges temporarily halted the Persian advance. New bridges had to be built, supposedly after Xerxes punished the stubborn strait with three hundred strokes of the rod. After that, the train continued unhindered through northern Greece. In order to save the navy following along the coast from failing on the Athos Mountains, as had happened during the first attempt at invasion of Mardonios, even the eastern peninsula of Chalkidike was cut through by the so-called Xerxes Canal .

First successes of the Persians

The allied Greeks disagreed as to where best to face the Persians. The Peloponnesians suggested fortifying the Isthmus of Corinth and waiting for the enemy there, leaving the whole of northern and central Greece defenseless. The inhabitants of these areas, especially Athens, did not agree and pleaded for a line of defense further north. Finally, it was agreed to block the way south for the Persians in the Tempe valley in northern Greece. The position there turned out to be easy to circumvent, so that the Greeks positioned themselves further south , surrendering Thessaly . The Thermopylae bottleneck between the Kallidromos Mountains and the Malian Gulf was chosen as the battlefield . The Greek army consisted of contingents from the Peloponnese, from Thespiai , from the Phoker tribe , whose settlement area was directly behind the pass, and, according to Herodotus, also from the actually pro-Persian Thebes and was under the supreme command of the Spartan king Leonidas I , the Brother of the fallen Cleomenes I. A total of about seven thousand men were gathered. The Hellenic League sent only a small part of its total available armed forces north, especially since troops from important allies such as Athens were completely absent.

The exact numbers are uncertain, but it can be said that the Greeks had a much smaller army than the Persians when the clash finally occurred. Their strategically favorable position could more than make up for this, however, as the Persians could neither exploit their numerical superiority nor their cavalry in the narrow pass. Moreover, the Greeks were predominantly heavily armored hoplites , while most of the Persian soldiers were only lightly armed and wore no armor. For several days they ran unsuccessfully against the Greek positions. Even the personal guard of the Persian king, the immortals, could do nothing. Eventually, Xerxes tried a circumvention tactic. According to Herodotus, a Greek named Ephialtes had shown the Persians a path that led directly behind enemy lines. After the thousand or so Phokers that Leonidas had assigned to guard the path had been overcome, the position of the Greeks had become untenable. The Spartan king ordered the withdrawal of the Greek troops. He himself remained behind with a force of about three hundred Spartans and seven hundred thespians and fell in battle.

At about the same time, a sea battle between the Persian and Greek fleets took place further east at Cape Artemision on the island of Evia. The outcome was uncertain for a long time, but when the Greeks found out about the defeat of Leonidas, they also withdrew on this front, so that the Persians also remained victorious here. After these two successes, the way to central Greece was clear for Xerxes.


Course of the Battle of Salamis

The Persian army moved further south without encountering any resistance. Delphi , the symbol of the Hellenes' feeling of togetherness, fell into Persian hands. Xerxes , however, did not make the mistake of looting the sanctuary. What seemed to be made possible for the Greeks in retrospect only through divine intervention was probably due to the efforts of the great king not to unnecessarily strengthen the Greek resistance. In fact, this has actually decreased. The city of Thebes now went openly to the Persian side. With the cities and tribes that belonged to the Hellenic League, the Persians showed less restraint than in Delphi. So also in Attica. The population of Athens had already been evacuated according to the Themistocles plan. From the nearby island of Salamis , some of them witnessed the destruction of their hometown. Not only Athens, about the fate of which the so-called Persian rubble on the Acropolis still provides information, but also the surrounding sanctuaries were devastated and the loot was transported to Persia. Xerxes must have been aware of the demoralizing effect on the Athenians. Allegedly they even came up with the plan to move to Italy as a group. In the meantime the fleet that had withdrawn at Cape Artemision had arrived off the island of Salamis and had united with the rest of the Greek naval units. The Spartan commander in chief Eurybiades planned to face the Persians at the Isthmos of Corinth for the sea battle, where the land army was already blocking access to the Peloponnese. The Athenians under Themistocles, who provided the majority of the ships, wanted to fight on the spot for their lost homeland and were finally able to prevail.

It can no longer be determined whether the Persians who arrived soon afterwards also had a clear numerical superiority at sea, as suggested by the numbers mentioned by Herodotus, albeit very inflationary. A storm seems to have decimated the fleet, at least in the run-up to the battle. It probably consisted mainly of ships from the Phoenicians , Egyptians and the Greeks from Asia Minor and Aegean. To prevent an encircling attack on the part of the Persians, the ships of the Hellenic League retreated into the strait between Salamis and the Attic mainland, where their better local knowledge gave them an advantage. And in fact the Persian ships wedged into the narrow space were defeated by the Greek units after several hours of fighting. The result of the battle marked the turning point in the second Persian War. The invading army was decisively defeated for the first time. Xerxes, who had observed the defeat from the land, then withdrew his troops for the time being, the land army to Thessaly, where it was to winter, and the fleet to the island of Samos . He himself went back to his realm, but tried to stay close to the events from Sardis. Revolts that broke out in Ionia and Babylonia were intended to divert his attention away from Greece. The land forces he left behind under Mardonios remained undefeated and still a threat to the allied Greeks. But the Athenians were able to return to their destroyed city for the time being.

The end of the invasion

The serpent column consecrated by the victorious Greeks in Delphi . today: Istanbul, Hippodrome Square

In the spring of 479 BC The dispute continued. Mardonios tried to detach the Athenians from the bloc of the allied Greeks by making extensive concessions to them. For this, the Macedonian king Alexander I was sent to Athens as a negotiator. The Athenians should receive forgiveness from the Great King, preserve their land and autonomy, and even get permission to appropriate the land of other Greek poles. Such an agreement would have meant the de facto recognition of the sovereignty of Persia. Athens refused the offer and the fighting began again. Mardonios once again moved south with his armed forces towards Attica and once again destroyed an evacuated Athens. The Central Greek members of the Hellenic League sent urgent requests for help to the Peloponnesians.

In the middle of the year a Greek army, led by the Spartan prince regent Pausanias , a half-brother of Leonidas I, who fell in Thermopylae, left the Peloponnese and united with the troops of the allies from central Greece. In total, the armed forces should have numbered 30,000 to 40,000 full citizens. The Greeks followed Mardonios, who had withdrawn to the Persian-friendly Boeotia. The battle broke out near the city of Plataiai, which was destroyed by the Persians. Here, too, the course of events is difficult to reconstruct. Mardonios had already expected the enemy and carefully positioned his troops. In the open area he was finally able to play out one of the strengths of his army: the cavalry, which he personally commanded. The Greeks, on the other hand, relied primarily on their traditional heavy infantry, the hoplites. However, it turned out to be a disadvantage for them that their army was made up of the contingents of numerous different poleis and that communication between them was apparently anything but perfect. The Persian archers were able to achieve initial successes, but were then repulsed. When Pausanias ordered a tactical retreat, the Greek army got into disarray. Mardonios tried to take his chance and led his cavalry to attack. The disciplined Spartan troops under the direct command of Pausanias were nevertheless able to hold out and even counter-attack. In the following close combat, Mardonios fell. After losing their leader, the Persians gave up the battle and withdrew. Despite the sometimes chaotic conditions within his army, Pausanias had led the Greeks to victory. After about twenty days, the city of Thebes, Persia's most important ally in central Greece, also capitulated. Mainland Greece was freed from the Persian threat. In Delphi, precious consecration gifts were donated to commemorate the victory and in Plataiai regularly held competitions commemorated the triumph.

The Greek fleet had meanwhile had the order to shield the mainland from a naval attack by the Persians. It was commanded by Leotychidas II , the only Spartan king who ever personally commanded an enterprise at sea. When the latter received a cry for help from the inhabitants of the island of Samos, where the Persian ships were still moored, he gave the order to sail despite the advanced season. The Persians then withdrew to the Mykale Peninsula and brought their ships ashore. Leotychidas ordered the pursuit. In the battle that followed, Samians and Ionians also took part in the Greek armed forces. In the end, the Persian fleet went up in flames. With the renewed uprising of the Ionian Greeks that followed, the war had returned to its place of origin. The invasion of the Xerxes had finally failed while the Greeks were about to counterattack.

The Greek counterattack

With the Greek victories at Salamis, Plataiai and Mykale, the defensive struggle of the European Greeks was over. No Persian army ever crossed to Europe again. With the renewed uprising of the Ionian Greeks, however, the Hellenic League was faced with a new task. The Ionians had to be protected from the revenge of the Persians. The utopian proposal by the Spartans to simply evacuate the threatened population to Europe and assign them the land of Persian-friendly poleis shows how little Sparta was still interested in a war in Asia Minor. Instead, the Greeks of some of the offshore islands in Asia Minor such as Samos, Chios and Lesbos were accepted into the Hellenic League. Together with the new armed forces, Leotychidas set out for the Hellespont. However, he soon withdrew with his Peloponnesian troops and left the Athenians under their leader Xanthippos to capture the Thracian Chersonese, today's Gallipoli peninsula on the Hellespont. This was the first time that Athens was in charge of an all-Hellenic company.

Sparta, however, continued to be the leading force in the Hellenic League. Under the command of Pausanias, the Greeks collided in 478 BC. BC to Cyprus and Byzantion on the Bosporus. In the conquered Byzantion, however, there were disputes between the allies. According to Thucydides , the Greeks in Asia Minor in particular felt repulsed by the arrogant demeanor of Pausanias. Sparta then withdrew his general and sent a man named Dorkis to replace him. However, this could not prevail and had to withdraw together with the Peloponnesian contingents. The struggle against the Persians overseas was hardly of any interest to the land power Sparta anyway. The leading position was now taken by Athens, which of all the Greek states had by far the largest fleet. The entire incident is sometimes referred to as the change of symmachy before Byzantium ( Symmachie : term for an alliance treaty in ancient Greece).

In the year 478/477 BC A new alliance was concluded under the hegemony of Athens, in which numerous Asian Minor and Aegean Poleis participated in order to be protected from attacks by the Persians. Since the maintenance of a fleet was much more expensive than that of a land army, each ally had to pay a certain amount of money if they could not provide their own ships. The conference venue for the new alliance was the island of Delos . This was the hour of birth of the Delisch-Attic Sea Confederation . The federation should develop more and more into an instrument of power of Athens, which made it impossible for the other partners to leave again.

The most urgent task, however, remained the fight against Persia. Alexander I of Macedonia had meanwhile freed himself from Persian rule and began to enlarge his own territory. He thus laid the foundation for the rise of Macedonia in the 4th century BC. At the same time, the Athenians under the leadership of Kimons , a son of Miltiades, who had succeeded Themistocles as a leading politician, took action against the Persian positions in Thrace. Persian rule in Europe began to collapse.

It was not until the beginning of the 460s that the Persians took the initiative again. A large Phoenician fleet was stationed in southern Asia Minor. But Athens' ships under the leadership of the Kimon anticipated the attack. At the mouth of the Eurymedon it happened in 465 BC. In a great double battle on land and sea, from which the Greeks emerged victorious. With the Battle of Eurymedon , the Delisch-Attische-Seebund had passed its first major test. Athens had now risen to become a major power in the eastern Mediterranean. Further military actions in Thrace and Cyprus followed. Around 460 BC In BC Athens even sent 200 ships to Egypt to support an uprising, which, however, was nevertheless suppressed by the Persians.

Around 449/448 BC With the support of the Athenian statesman Perikles, the so-called Callias Peace was concluded between the Greeks and the Persians under their great king Artaxerxes I , who died in 465 BC. He followed his murdered father Xerxes to the throne. However, this peace is controversial in research - perhaps there was never a real contract. While the exact nature of the peace agreement therefore remains legally unclear, the result brought the provisional independence of the Ionian Greeks from Persia, for Cyprus, however, Persian rule and the closure of the Aegean to Persian warships.

Greco-Persian relations after the war

The attempt to subjugate Greece had not only failed, it had ultimately cost the Persian Empire its rule over Macedonia, Thrace, and the Greeks of Asia Minor and Aegean. Except for the nomads of Central Asia, no one had succeeded in repelling the Persian armies. However, this setback was by no means a serious threat to the continued existence of the Persian empire. It would continue to exist as an intact great power for more than 100 years and continue to play an important role in Greek politics. In the second half of the 5th century BC The Hellenic-Persian antagonism that had dominated the first half of the century receded more and more in comparison to the emerging Spartan-Athenian conflict in Greece. 431 BC Finally there was a great war between the two Greek powers and their allies, which is known today as the Peloponnesian War . Persia supported Sparta financially and was supposed to regain supremacy over the Greeks of Asia Minor. After Athens' final defeat in 404 BC. In Sparta, however, they didn't want to know anything more about it, which led to war.

The train of the "ten thousand" through the Persian Empire

401 BC The Persian prince Cyrus the Younger rose against his brother, the great king Artaxerxes II , and tried to usurp power himself. For this purpose he recruited an army of several thousand Greek mercenaries and asked for the support of Sparta. The uprising failed, however, and Cyrus fell at the Battle of Kunaxa in Babylonia. Xenophon , who took part in the campaign , reports in his anabasis about the subsequent withdrawal of the Greek contingents, the so-called "train of the ten thousand" .

Between 396 and 394 BC BC the Spartan king Agesilaus II led a successful campaign against the Persians in Asia Minor, which, like the unscathed retreat of Xenophons Ten Thousand , exposed the military weakness of the Persian Empire. Once again, however, it was the quarrel between the Greek states that had a beneficial effect on the great king: Sparta saw itself threatened by other Greek poles, and Agesilaos returned in 394 BC. Back to Greece. In the 395 BC When the Corinthian War broke out in the 5th century and forced Agesilaus to retreat, Persia sided with the cities of Argos, Corinth, Athens and Thebes, allied against Sparta. 387 BC The war was ended by the so-called King's Peace . In addition to Sparta, which became the guardian of the independence of the European poleis, the great king Artaxerxes II, who regained sovereignty over the Greeks of Asia Minor, benefited from this.

Middle of the 4th century BC The Persian Empire showed some signs of disintegration on its fringes in India, Central Asia and also in Asia Minor, but its existence was still safe overall. This only changed with the campaign of Alexander the Great . His father Philip II had already made the kingdom of Macedonia the leading power in the Balkans and largely united the Greek poleis in an alliance under his leadership. The aim of this alliance was an attack on Persia. Alexander took over these campaign plans after the death of his father. At the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC The Achaemenid Empire finally succumbed to the conqueror.


Bust of Herodotus from Athens

By far the most important source of the Persian Wars are those around 430 BC. Published histories of the Greek Herodotus (5th century BC) from Halicarnassus in Asia Minor. The first four books describe the development of the Persian world empire, including numerous ethnological and historical digressions. From book five the work then deals with the actual Persian Wars, beginning with the beginning of the Ionian Uprising in 500 BC. With the siege of the city of Sestos on the Hellespont by the Athenians in 479 BC. Herodotus' historical account ends in the ninth book.

This is where the Athenian Thucydides (5th century BC) begins with his work on the Peloponnesian War. In his first book, with the presentation of the situation before the outbreak of war between Athens and Sparta, a picture of the late phase of the Persian Wars is sketched, which Herodotus no longer goes into.

In addition to these two contemporary authors, a number of works by later authors who deal with the subject have been preserved, including Ktesias of Knidos in his (only fragmentarily preserved) Persika . Ktesias apparently wanted to "correct" Herodotus, but his description is largely worthless, although he allows (partially reliable) insights into the conditions at the Persian court. In some cases, information about the Persian Wars can be obtained from the biographies of the people involved in them. The Roman Cornelius Nepos (1st century BC), for example, provides the life descriptions of some famous Greek generals, including Miltiades, Themistocles or Pausanias, and thus also descriptions of the battles in which they took part. Diodorus also went into the Persian Wars in his Universal History. The Greek Plutarch (1st / 2nd century AD) also provides us with a collection of parallel biographies of famous Greeks and Romans.

The Greek travel writer Pausanias (2nd century AD) (not to be confused with the Spartan general) also repeatedly provides information on places or sights related to the Persian Wars in his travel description of Greece.

The Suda should also be mentioned , a Byzantine lexicon from the 10th century AD, which gets its information mainly from older, mostly lost ancient lexicons and provides information on the battle of Marathon, for example.

Later historians used the conflict with Persia partly as a foil for contemporary disputes between Rome and the neo-Persian Sassanid Empire , as in the case of Publius Herennius Dexippus .


  • Jack Martin Balcer: The Persian conquest of the Greeks 545-450 B.C. (= Xenia. H. 38) Universitäts-Verlag, Konstanz 1995, ISBN 3-87940-489-5 .
  • Pierre Briant : From Cyrus to Alexander. A History of the Persian Empire. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake IN 2002, ISBN 1-57506-031-0 (standard work on the Achaemenid Empire).
  • Andrew R. Burn: Persia and the Greeks. The Defense of the West, c. 546-478 B.C. 2nd edition. Duckworth, London 1984, ISBN 0-7156-1711-7 (standard work).
  • George Cawkwell: The Greek Wars. The Failure of Persia. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005, ISBN 0-19-929983-8 (critical presentation, in which some explicit arguments are made against the prevailing research opinion).
  • Werner Ekschmitt : The rise of Athens. The time of the Persian Wars. Bertelsmann, Munich 1978, ISBN 3-570-02431-8 .
  • Josef Fischer: The Persian Wars. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 2013, ISBN 978-3-534-23973-3 ( critical technical review at sehepunkte )
  • Peter Green: The Greco-Persian wars. Revised edition. University of California Press, Berkeley CA et al. a. 1996, ISBN 0-520-20573-1 .
  • Charles Hignett: Xerxes' invasion of Greece. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1963.
  • Tom Holland : Persian fire. The first world empire and the struggle for the west. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-608-94463-1 (popular science, but easily legible representation).
  • Michael Jung: Marathon and Plataiai. Two Persian battles as "lieux de mémoire" in ancient Greece. (= Hypomnemata. Vol. 164) Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2006, ISBN 3-525-25263-3 (also: Münster, Univ., Diss., 2004/2005).
  • Karl-Wilhelm Welwei : Classical Athens. Democracy and Power Politics in the 5th and 4th Centuries. Primus-Verlag, Darmstadt 1999, ISBN 3-89678-117-0 , p. 27 ff.
  • Karl-Wilhelm Welwei: Sparta. The rise and fall of an ancient great power. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-608-94016-2 , p. 106 ff.
  • Josef Wiesehöfer : "Greece would have come under Persian rule ..." The Persian Wars as a turning point? In: Sven Sellmer, Horst Brinkhaus (Ed.): Turning times. Historical breaks in Asian and African societies. (= Asia and Africa. Vol. 4) EB-Verlag, Hamburg 2002, ISBN 3-930826-64-X , pp. 209-232.
  • Wolfgang Will : The Persian Wars. 2nd updated edition. CH Beck, Munich 2019, ISBN 978-3-406-73610-0 .

Web links

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  1. These smaller tribes should not be confused with the large language groups of the Dorians, Ionians, Aiolians and Arcader-Kypriots, into which the ancient Greeks were divided.
  2. The term isonomy is often used for the form of government created by Kleisthenes in order to definitely exclude confusion with what is now generally understood as democracy .
  3. Herodotus V, 30-35
  4. Pedro Barceló : A Little Greek Story. Primus Verlag, 2004, p. 66.
  5. Herodotus V, 126
  6. Both the appearance of Persian envoys in most of the Greek poles and their murder by the Athenians and Spartans can be questioned. At that time, Dareios was hardly planning the submission of the Greek motherland, but only a punitive expedition against the supporters of the Ionian uprising. Karl-Wilhelm Welwei, for example, attributes Herodotus' description of the alleged illegal treatment of the ambassadors to a legend launched after the defense of the Persians, which was supposed to prove how early the Spartans were determined to resist the Persian king. " Sparta. The rise and fall of an ancient great power . (Pp. 118 f. And 133).
  7. ^ Karl-Wilhelm Welwei assesses this in Sparta. The rise and fall of an ancient great power (p. 122) as an excuse, since religious scruples would "certainly not have been an insurmountable obstacle to a marching order that would have guaranteed timely intervention by the Spartans".
  8. For the chronology see Burn, Persia and the Greeks , p. 257.
  9. Miltiades was one of ten strategists who commanded the Attic army during the Battle of Marathon. The actual commander in chief was the then Archon Polemarchos Callimachos . Most of the credit for the Greek victory was awarded to Miltiades.
  10. Literary sources on the battle are handed down in Herodotus, in the biography of Miltiades by Cornelius Nepos, as well as in the Suda, a Byzantine lexicon from the 10th century. See also the Sources section .
  11. Herodotus VI, 117. Herodotus is probably based here on lists of the fallen in inscriptions. The number of dead Plataier and slaves who also took part in the battle is not recorded. The statement that there were 6,400 dead on the Persian side seems rather implausible, especially since the number is almost exactly 33.33 times the number of Athenian dead.
  12. Herodotus VII, 5
  13. The first oracle that the Athenians received in Delphi as part of their preparations for war was unusually unencrypted for Delphic standards and in fact not suitable to encourage them, as it prophesied the inevitable destruction of their hometown. see: Herodotus VII, 140
  14. Herodotus VII, 141-143
  15. Herodotus VII, 184-186
  16. Karl-Wilhelm Welwei, for example, in The Classical Athens (p. 52) assumes almost 100,000 combatants from Asia and some auxiliary troops from the European part of the empire. Charles Hignett thinks a troop strength of 180,000 soldiers is likely. see: Xerxes' invasion of Greece pp. 345–355. For logistical reasons, Burn assumes a maximum number of 200,000 men ( Persia and the Greeks , p. 326 ff.). The military historian Hans Delbrück , whose work created a methodical basis for the estimation of ancient troop strengths, assumes only 50,000 combatants, but this is likely to be underestimated: Delbrück, History of the Art of War , Part 1, Chapter 1.
  17. ^ Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander , p. 527.
  18. Herodotus VII, 34-36
  19. Herodotus VII, 202
  20. Herodotus VII, 213
  21. Herodotus VIII, 62
  22. Herodotus VII, 89-97
  23. see also: Karl-Wilhelm Welwei, The classical Athens . P. 70.
  24. Cawkwell, The Greek Wars , p. 103, even considers (probably not entirely wrong) the victory at Plataiai and not that of Salamis as decisive.
  25. Herodotus IX, 106
  26. Thucydides I, 95
  27. On the campaigns of Agesilaus see Briant: From Cyrus to Alexander. P. 637 ff.
  28. A still useful, only partly obsolete and quite detailed source overview is offered by Georg Busolt : Greek History . Vol. 2, 2nd edition. Gotha 1895, pp. 450 ff. Briant, Burn and Cawkwell also offer brief overviews.