A History of Greece from the Persian to the Peloponnesian War

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Sparta and its allies accused Athens of aggression and threatened war. On the advice of Pericles , its most influential leader, Athens refused to back down. Diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute failed. Finally, in the spring of , a Spartan ally, Thebes , attacked an Athenian ally, Plataea , and open war began. The years of fighting that followed can be divided into two periods, separated by a truce of six years.

The first period lasted 10 years and began with the Spartans, under Archidamus II , leading an army into Attica , the region around Athens. Within a few months, however, Pericles fell victim to a terrible plague that raged through the crowded city, killing a large part of its army as well as many civilians.

Thucydides survived an attack of the plague and left a vivid account of its impact on Athenian morale. In the meantime — , the Spartans attacked Athenian bases in western Greece but were repulsed. The Spartans also suffered reverses at sea. In they tried to aid the island state of Lesbos , a tributary of Athens that was planning to revolt. But the revolt was headed off by the Athenians, who won control of the chief city, Mytilene. Urged on by the demagogue Cleon , the Athenians voted to massacre the men of Mytilene and enslave everyone else, but they relented the next day and killed only the leaders of the revolt.

Spartan initiatives during the plague years were all unsuccessful except for the capture of the strategic city Plataea in In the next few years the Athenians took the offensive. They attacked the Sicilian city Syracuse and campaigned in western Greece and the Peloponnese itself. In the picture was bleak for Sparta, which began to sue for peace. But led by Brasidas , hero of the Battle of Delium, a Spartan force gained important successes in Chalcidice in , encouraging Athenian subject states to revolt. In a decisive battle at Amphipolis in , both Brasidas and the Athenian leader Cleon were killed.


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The so-called Peace of Nicias began in and lasted six years. It was a period in which diplomatic maneuvers gradually gave way to small-scale military operations as each city tried to win smaller states over to its side. The uncertain peace was finally shattered when, in , the Athenians launched a massive assault against Sicily. The decisive event was the catastrophe suffered by the Athenians in Sicily. Aided by a force of Spartans, Syracuse was able to break an Athenian blockade.

Past tyrants had also tended and needed to be strong and able leaders, whereas the rulers appointed by the Persians were simply place-men.

Greco-Persian Wars - Wikipedia

Backed by Persian military might, these tyrants did not need the support of the population, and could thus rule absolutely. In the Greco-Persian wars both sides made use of spear-armed infantry and light missile troops. Greek armies placed the emphasis on heavier infantry, while Persian armies favoured lighter troop types. The Persian military consisted of a diverse group of men drawn across the various nations of the empire.

My war is bigger than yours

However, according to Herodotus, there was at least a general conformity in armour and style of fighting. They wore a leather jerkin, [45] [47] although individuals of high stature wore high quality metal armor. The Persians most likely used their bows to wear down the enemy, then closed in to deliver the final blow with spears and swords.

Their role was to protect the back ranks of the formation.

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The style of warfare between the Greek city-states, which dates back until at least BC as dated by the ' Chigi vase ' , was based around the hoplite phalanx supported by missile troops. The heavy armour and longer spears made them superior in hand-to-hand combat and gave them significant protection against ranged attacks.

At the beginning of the conflict, all naval forces in the eastern Mediterranean had switched to the trireme , a warship powered by three banks of oars. The most common naval tactics during the period were ramming Greek triremes were equipped with a cast-bronze ram at the bows , or boarding by ship-borne marines. More experienced naval powers had by this time also begun to use a manoeuver known as diekplous. It is not clear what this was, but it probably involved sailing into gaps between enemy ships and then ramming them in the side.

The Persian naval forces were primarily provided by the seafaring people of the empire: Phoenicians , Egyptians , Cilicians and Cypriots. At the heart of the rebellion was the dissatisfaction of the Greek cities of Asia Minor with the tyrants appointed by Persia to rule them, along with opposition to the individual actions of two Milesian tyrants, Histiaeus and Aristagoras. Struggling to rule the independent-minded cities of Ionia, the Persians appointed local tyrants to rule each of them.

The Persians responded in BC with a three-pronged attack aimed at recapturing the outlying areas of the rebellious territory, [61] but the spread of the revolt to Caria meant the largest army, under Darius , moved there instead. By BC the Persian army and navy had regrouped, and they made straight for the epicentre of the rebellion at Miletus. The Ionian Revolt constituted the first major conflict between Greece and the Achaemenid Empire and represents the first phase of the Greco-Persian Wars. Asia Minor had been brought back into the Persian fold, but Darius had vowed to punish Athens and Eretria for their support for the revolt.

Moreover, seeing that the political situation in Greece posed a continued threat to the stability of his Empire, he decided to embark on the conquest of all Greece. After having reconquered Ionia, the Persians began to plan their next moves of extinguishing the threat to their empire from Greece; and punishing Athens and Eretria. The resultant first Persian invasion of Greece consisted of two main campaigns.

The first campaign, in BC, was led by Darius's son-in-law Mardonius , [72] who re-subjugated Thrace , which had nominally been part of the Persian empire since BC. Mardonius himself was then injured in a raid on his camp by a Thracian tribe, and after this he returned with the rest of the expedition to Asia. The following year, having given clear warning of his plans, Darius sent ambassadors to all the cities of Greece, demanding their submission. He received it from almost all of them, except Athens and Sparta , both of whom instead executed the ambassadors.

Athens vs Sparta (Peloponnesian War explained in 6 minutes)

In BC, Datis and Artaphernes son of the satrap Artaphernes were given command of an amphibious invasion force, and set sail from Cilicia. The Persians then burnt the city and temples of the Naxians. The task force sailed on to Euboea , and to the first major target, Eretria. For six days, the Persians attacked the walls, with losses on both sides; however, on the seventh day two reputable Eretrians opened the gates and betrayed the city to the Persians. The city was razed, and temples and shrines were looted and burned. Furthermore, according to Darius's commands, the Persians enslaved all the remaining townspeople.

Stalemate ensued for five days, before the Persians decided to continue onward to Athens, and began to load their troops back onto the ships. After the Persians had loaded their cavalry their strongest soldiers on the ships, the 10, Athenian soldiers descended from the hills around the plain. The Greeks crushed the weaker Persian foot soldiers by routing the wings before turning towards the centre of the Persian line. The remnants of the Persian army fled to their ships and left the battle. As soon as the Persian survivors had put to sea, the Athenians marched as quickly as possible to Athens.

Seeing his opportunity lost, Artaphernes ended the year's campaign and returned to Asia. The Battle of Marathon was a watershed in the Greco-Persian wars, showing the Greeks that the Persians could be beaten. It also highlighted the superiority of the more heavily armoured Greek hoplites, and showed their potential when used wisely. After the failure of the first invasion, Darius began raising a huge new army with which he intended to subjugate Greece completely. However, in BC, his Egyptian subjects revolted, and the revolt forced an indefinite postponement of any Greek expedition.

Xerxes decided that the Hellespont would be bridged to allow his army to cross to Europe, and that a canal should be dug across the isthmus of Mount Athos a Persian fleet had been destroyed in BC while rounding this coastline. These were both feats of exceptional ambition that would have been beyond the capabilities of any other contemporary state. The Persians had the sympathy of several Greek city-states, including Argos , which had pledged to defect when the Persians reached their borders.


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In BC, after roughly four years of preparation, Xerxes began to muster the troops to invade Europe. Herodotus gives the names of 46 nations from which troops were drafted. The armies from the Eastern satrapies were gathered in Kritala , Cappadocia and were led by Xerxes to Sardis where they passed the winter. The numbers of troops that Xerxes mustered for the second invasion of Greece have been the subject of endless dispute.


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Most modern scholars reject as unrealistic the figures of 2. The topic has been hotly debated, but the consensus revolves around the figure of , The size of the Persian fleet is also disputed, although perhaps less so. Other ancient authors agree with Herodotus' number of 1, These numbers are by ancient standards consistent, and this could be interpreted that a number around 1, is correct. Among modern scholars, some have accepted this number, although suggesting the number must have been lower by the Battle of Salamis. These works generally claim that the Persians could have launched no more than around warships into the Aegean.

A year after Marathon, Miltiades, the hero of Marathon, was injured in a military campaign to Paros. Taking advantage of his incapacitation, the powerful Alcmaeonid family arranged for him to be prosecuted for the failure of the campaign. A huge fine was imposed on Miltiades for the crime of 'deceiving the Athenian people', but he died weeks later from his wound. The politician Themistocles , with a power base firmly established amongst the poor, filled the vacuum left by Miltiades's death, and in the following decade became the most influential politician in Athens.

During this period, Themistocles continued to support the expansion of Athens' naval power. Themistocles's motion was passed easily, despite strong opposition from Aristides. Its passage was probably due to the desire of many of the poorer Athenians for paid employment as rowers in the fleet. In what Holland characterises as, in essence, the world's first referendum, Aristides was ostracised, and Themistocles's policies were endorsed. Indeed, becoming aware of the Persian preparations for the coming invasion, the Athenians voted to build more ships than those for which Themistocles had asked.

The Spartan king Demaratus had been stripped of his kingship in BC, and replaced with his cousin Leotychides. Sometime after BC, the humiliated Demaratus had chosen to go into exile, and had made his way to Darius's court in Susa. When the wax was removed, a message was found scratched on the wooden backing, warning the Spartans of Xerxes's plans. The veracity of this anecdote is therefore unclear. In BC, Xerxes sent ambassadors to city states throughout Greece, asking for food, land, and water as tokens of their submission to Persia. However, Xerxes' ambassadors deliberately avoided Athens and Sparta, hoping thereby that those states would not learn of the Persians' plans.

A congress of states met at Corinth in late autumn of BC, and a confederate alliance of Greek city-states was formed. Sparta and Athens had a leading role in the congress but the interests of all the states influenced defensive strategy. Only 70 of the nearly Greek city-states sent representatives. Nevertheless, this was remarkable for the disjointed Greek world, especially since many of the city-states present were still technically at war with one another.

Greco-Persian Wars

Having crossed into Europe in April BC, the Persian army began its march to Greece, taking 3 months to travel unopposed from the Hellespont to Therme. It paused at Doriskos where it was joined by the fleet. Xerxes reorganized the troops into tactical units replacing the national formations used earlier for the march. The Allied 'congress' met again in the spring of BC and agreed to defend the narrow Vale of Tempe on the borders of Thessaly and block Xerxes's advance. Shortly afterwards, they received the news that Xerxes had crossed the Hellespont.

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In , the Athenians under their leader Cleon made an unsuccessful attempt to retake Amphipolis. Both Cleon and the Spartan general Brasidas died in the battle, pushing the war-weary sides to negotiate a treaty. An uneasy peace followed, but six years later Athens launched a seaborne expedition against Syracuse, an ally of Sparta in distant Sicily.

This proved disastrous, and the Athenians were driven from the island in by the combined Sicilian and Spartan forces. Athens surrendered to Sparta in Thucydides is careful to note that at times he records only the gist of what was said, or what he thinks should have been said. At other times the speeches form dialogues, as stronger and weaker parties debate the ethics of war.

The Melian dialogue, from just a few years later, records the leaders of a neutral island pleading with Athens for their survival. The Athenians reply that, although Melos has done nothing to offend them, they are justified in destroying them simply because they can: It took several generations for Thucydides to attain his now-unassailed place as one of the greatest historians of all time.

Aristotle , who lived a few decades later and wrote about the same era, never mentions him. By the first century B. Over the next centuries, numerous copies were made of the work, ensuring its survival past the dark ages. We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!