Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Greeks and the Persians (I)

Relief of Darius I
in Persepolis

The Persian Empire

In 480 the fragmented city-states of Greece confronted the greatest empire the world had yet seen. 

In 550 BCE Cyrus the Great defeated the Median Empire that had stretched from northern Mesopotamia into Anatolia and set up a dual monarchy of the Medes and Persians.  In 546 he defeated Croesus the king of Lydia and annexed the Greek cities of Asia Minor. In 539 he marched into Babylon. This conquest delivered Syria and Palestine into his hands. By the time of his death in 530 at the hands of nomadic tribesmen, he had established an empire that united the whole of west Asia, running from central Asia to Libya and from the shores of the Black Sea to the Indus. This empire brought Europe and Asia together in ways never experienced before. 

Between 526 and 525 Cyrus’ son Cambyses, conquered Egypt.  In 522 the usurper Darius I, known as ‘the Great’ was enthroned. Between 520 and 513 he conquered the whole of Sind and probably the greater part of the Punjab. In c. 517 he established control over several islands off the Ionian coastIn c. 512/1 he reached the magnificently wealthy Greek city of Sardis in Asia Minor, and took up his seat in the suburb of that city. This was a cardinal moment in Greek history.  Sardis became the western capital of the Persian Empire. By c. 510 Darius had gained the submission of the king of Macedon, to the north of Greece.   

The Persian Empire at its height

Culturally, the Greeks and the Persians were very different.  Though the king was meant to administer justice, the Persians had no idea of citizenship or political freedom and no concept of a city-state. Their aristocracy preferred hunting in their rural retreats and cultivating beautiful parks (from which we get the word 'paradise') to political activity.  The war between the Greeks and Persians was, among other things, a conflict of values - as the Greeks were very keen to point out. But the Greeks knew that though ‘barbarians’, the Persians possessed a complex and sophisticated civilisation. Greece had nothing like the Royal Road that ran 1,600 miles from Sardis to Susa.

The Ionian revolt

In 499 the Greeks of Ionia and their allies revolted against what they saw as Persian tyranny.  However, only Athens and Eretria, a merchant port on the island of Euboea, were prepared to go to their aid. 

 War fever broke out in Athens. In the spring of 498 a fleet of twenty ships set out for Ionia.  A fire destroyed the lower part of Sardis, including the temple of the goddess Cybele. However, the Greeks failed to take the city.  On their return journey they were overtaken by Persian troops. Finally, in 494 the Persian navy defeated the Greeks at Miletus, the last city to hold out.  Terrible reprisals followed as Asia Minor was brought back into the Persian fold.

When he had heard of the burning of Sardis and the sacrilegious destruction of the temple of Cybele, Darius vowed to punish Athens and Eretria. It is said that every day as he sat down to eat, a servant would whisper in his ear, ‘Sire, remember the Athenians.’ He was determined to defeat the democracy and turn the Aegean into a Persian lake. According to Herodotus, Darius was persuaded into launching the invasion by his wife, Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus. But he did not need persuading. Persia was an inherently expansionist power. 

In 492 BC the brilliant Persian general Mardonius conquered Thrace and Macedon before a storm at sea destroyed his fleet and forced an early end to the campaign.  Both the Athenians and the Spartans refused Darius’s demand for earth and water – the tokens of submission. However, other Greek cities submitted, giving the Persians a foothold in Europe.

The invasion of 490

Map illustrating the Greek-Persian Wars

In 490 BC a second force was sent to Greece. A large army, totally perhaps some 25,000 men, under the command of Datis the Mede and Artaphernes, the great-nephew of Darius, crossed the Aegean. Eretria was captured and razed to the ground. The Persians then sailed south and landed on the plain of Marathon, twenty-six miles from Athens. After a bitter debate in the Assembly, the Athenians adopted the strategy of their greatest general, the flamboyant  Miltiades, and voted to engage the enemy rather than simply try to defend the city. The runner Pheidippides (Philippides) was sent to Sparta 140 miles south to ask for its help. However, the Spartans were occupied with a religious festival and would not be able to send help for a week. Would Athens be able to hold out that long?


A force of about 25,000 Persians massed on the plain of Marathon just north of Athens. Opposite them were 9,000 Athenians. In the ensuing battle 6,400 Persians were killed and only 192 Athenians.

The danger was not yet over. The Athenians despatched the herald Eukles from Marathon to Athens with the news of the victory. He fell down dead after he had announced the news. The surviving Persian ships set sail for Athens, but because the Athenians were forewarned they were able to defend the city. The Persians gave up and sailed back to Asia. 

The Athenian victory over the Persians at Marathon was a victory for the hoplite (infantry) warrior against the more lightly armed Persian cavalry. It has been seen as a defining moment in western consciousness.  A western army had defeated a mighty oriental empire. 192 Athenians died and many more Persians.  The Athenian dead were buried under a vast mound. The Persian graves were not located until the end of the nineteenth century.

Mound under which the Athenian dead were buried at