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The Graeco-Persian Wars

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The Graeco-Persian Wars
The Combatants | The Ionian Revolt | The Battle of Marathon | The Battle of Thermopylae | The Battle of Salamis | The Battle of Plataea | The Battle of Mycale

A Spartan soldier.
It was 2,500 years ago that East and West first went to war. Early in the 5th Century BC, a global superpower was determined to bring truth and order to what it regarded as two terrorist states. The superpower was Persia, whose kings had founded the first world empire, incomparably rich in ambition, gold and men. The terrorist states were Athens and Sparta, eccentric cities in a poor and mountainous backwater: Greece. The story of how their citizens took on the most powerful man on the planet and defeated him is as heart-stopping as any episode in history.
- Tom Holland, Persian Fire.

The outcome of the Graeco-Persian Wars1 would decide the fate of the eastern Mediterranean in the coming years. It would determine the spread of the unique Greek culture, and whether Persia would add another province to their huge Empire. It was truly an epic war, and one that would define the shape of the civilised world for centuries after.

Between the years of 560 and 500 BC, political authority in the east changed quite drastically. The Persian King Cyrus the Great had extended his territories to become a true superpower. The Persian Empire claimed all of Mesopotamia, and stretched from the Persian Gulf in the south, to the Caspian Sea in the North; and from present-day Pakistan to the Aegean and the Black Sea.

At the same time, another culture was rising just 200 miles away, across the Aegean. It would eventually grow into the fabled Greece of the Classical Period, but at this time, most of 'Greece' was nothing but feeble villages governed by local aristocracies. Sparta and Athens were the most powerful cities, but nothing compared to the might of Persia.

It is worth noting here that the majority of information about the conflict comes from the Greek historian Herodotus's The Histories. Though he is considered the father of modern historical writing due to the clinical nature of his techniques, his writings cannot be considered a completely accurate source.

This Entry is an overview, which includes links to the individual entries at the top of the entry.

The Conquests of Darius

Great King Darius2 seized control of the Persian throne after a bloody civil war in 521BC. He worked to reorganise the Empire, and secure and expand its outer boundaries. The year 513BC was important for both nations. Darius I set his ambitious plan of conquest into motion when Persian armies conquered the Greek islands of Chios, Samos, and Lesbos. Later that same year, the Persian king himself crossed the sea and conquered all the land between the Danube and the Aegean, all the way to the borders of Macedonia. In the north he had to fight hard against the nomadic Scythians. His well-trained army was more than a match for the steppe horsemen, but they were left helpless as the enemy withdrew deeper and deeper into the wilderness, stripping the land of all food behind them. In the end, like Napoleon retreating from Russia centuries later, he had to pull out, and was just happy to get back to civilisation alive.

Then Darius turned his eye to the Greek island of Naxos. The invasion failed; the Greek colonies of Asia Minor (Turkey) decided the time was ripe for a rebellion, to shake off the yoke of Persian rule. The revolt was caused, for the most part, by the oppressive socioeconomic conditions imposed by the Persians, and it lasted from 499 to 494BC. The revolt was brought to a close when they were defeated on land at Ephesus, and in a crucial naval battle at Lade. The cities of Athens and Eretria had sent aid to the rebels during the revolt. This caused Darius to make up his mind: the Greek threat had to be eliminated once and for all to ensure the security of the Persian western frontier.

It was not only the Persians who knew this. The Athenians were growing increasingly panicky. It did not help that the city was already in the midst of a war with one of its small but troublesome neighbours on the island of Aegina. Aeginetan pirates proved a persistent menace to Athenian shipping, and Athens had no real navy to speak of. The Athenian aristocracy, although deprived of much of its influence by the establishment of a democracy, saw battles at sea as inglorious things. They were the hoplite class, landed men with enough money for their own weapons and armour, and their place was on land in a phalanx. The Aeginetans could not hope to challenge Athens on land, but the continued war was a nuisance and an embarrassment.

In 496BC, the Athenians elected a new head of state, a man named Hipparchus, a Pisistratid from a family which had long held links with the Persians. Some in the city must have wanted Hipparchus to surrender to the Persian threat before it came, so the city might hope to retain its independence.

In 492BC, Persian forces launched an expedition to gain control of the central Aegean and punish the Greeks for helping the rebels several years earlier. The Persians initially had great success, and an army under Mardonius subjugated Thrace and forced Alexander I of Macedon (now Macedonia) to submit to Persian rule, but were forced to turn back when they lost most of their fleet in a storm.

Darius was undeterred; he planned another expedition and sent heralds to the Greek cities, demanding gifts of earth and water as tokens of submission. Many cities agreed and submitted to Persia there and then, but in the more powerful states the resolve to resist was strengthened. The Athenians threw the messengers from the high cliffs of the Acropolis, while the Spartans hurled them down a well with the typical laconic comment that they could help themselves to all the earth and water they wanted.


So the second expedition, led by the Persians Artaphernes and Datis, was launched in 490. This phase is often called the First Persian War. According to Herodotus the Persian force was transported by a huge fleet of 600 ships. It made good initial progress, sacking Eretria and landing at Marathon, a mere 25 miles from Athens, the jewel of Greek culture. The Athenians pleaded for help to the other cities, especially to Sparta, whose formidable land army was feared even by the Persian war machine - but none came. The Spartans agreed to send men, but only after the completion of a religious festival, which would last six days. Therefore 10,000 Athenian hoplites3 marched to war almost alone, with only 1,000 Plataeans to aid them. Opposing them were an estimated 25,000 Persians. However, they did not lose hope entirely. They had with them the military genius Militiades, who they hoped could negate their enemy's huge numerical superiority.

The battle was a victory for the Greeks, against all the odds. The Persian survivors, after fleeing to the coast and being picked up by their fleet, moved south to threaten Athens. However, when the Athenian army followed, they decided against an assault, and made their way back across the Aegean.

This battle proved the superiority of the armoured Greek infantry to the light Persian forces in close combat, and it worked to greatly raise the morale of all Greeks. However, historians believe that the battle would have been in favour of the Persians if their cavalry was present in the heat of the battle; as the Greeks had no horsemen of their own to protect their flanks, but the damage had been done, and the Greeks realised that the Persians were not invincible. The next time the two sides clashed, the Persians would face soldiers from more than one of the Greek cities.

The Succession of Xerxes: Dark Days for Greece

Darius was understandably furious at the defeat of the army, but he did not consider it to be the terrible disaster the Athenians insisted it was. He had manpower enough to lose a moderately-sized army, and had added new lands to the Empire. The Aegean and Euboea were now under Persian rule. The Eretrians arrived in the Persian city of Susa4 as slaves, but the Great King soon had them freed and settled them in modern Iraq, not far from what is now Basra. Athens' continued independence could not be tolerated, and neither would the belligerence of Sparta, which could never be forgiven for the murder of the Persian ambassadors. It was around that time that one of Sparta's deposed kings, Demaratus, defected to the Persian side. He was tired of being humiliated by his successor Leotychides, and now wanted revenge on the city that had turned its back on him. With the new intelligence provided by this high-profile turncoat, Darius planned anew.

This was to be no tentative expedition to pacify a few cities (although Athens and Sparta were undoubtedly the primary objectives). A new army would be formed and with it would travel a retinue with the aim of transforming Greece into a new satrapy of the Empire. Darius began sending for men and resources in 489BC, but preparations were still underway three years later when Egypt rose in revolt. Darius himself led the army that was assembling to take Greece south to the land of the Nile, but before he reached there, the ageing ruler 'went away from the throne' (in the words of one Persian). It was the end of an era for the Persian Empire.

However, it was not the end of the Empire. Thanks to Darius's careful planning, the transition of power to his heir was smooth and trouble-free, in marked contrast to earlier Persian successions, which were characterised by bitter power struggles. Xerxes, though not the eldest of the old king's sons, had been named as the best man for the job years before, and since then Darius had been meticulous in ensuring the Empire would not fall apart after his death. King Xerxes I led a lightning campaign to crush the revolt in Egypt and then turned his eye back on Greece, where there was unfinished business to attend to.

The invasion was to be planned down to the last detail. Mardonius, having recovered from his wounds, urged Xerxes to take a fairly small, elite force (Persians, Medians, Saka and Iranians), but it was decided that the whole Empire should take part in the campaign, which was seen by many as a prelude to continued Persian expansion into Europe. The logistics of such an invasion were highly complex, but the Persian government was up to the task, and slowly the expedition came together. The site of the wreck of Mardonius's fleet in 492BC, off Mount Athos, was to be bypassed by the construction of a canal which would turn the headland into an island. It was wide enough for two warships to pass abreast, and hewn through one and-a-half miles of rock. To the Greeks, it would have seemed like the gods were coming from Asia against them.

During the lull caused by the death of Darius, Athens had been busy. In 483BC a new silver vein was discovered in the mining district of Laureion, and the Athenian Themistocles persuaded his fellow citizens to invest in a new fleet of warships, so that by the time of the Xerxes-mounted invasion there were more than 200 triremes under their command. As Piraeus's shipyards busied themselves, the citizens of Athens, the hoplite class, were ordered to discard their weapons and armour, and train as seamen.

Persian agents began touring Greece in 481BC, repeating their demand for earth and water, and spreading stories of the size of the advancing army. The Greeks must have thought the whole of Asia was descending on them. Many of the Greek cities surrendered without resistance when they heard of the awesome size of the Persian force, but other, prouder, cities knew they had to resist. Marathon, where the Athenians had fought almost alone, was not to be repeated. An alliance, called the Hellenic League, was forged in a meeting of 31 city-states under the overall leadership of Sparta. It took a while to establish the League's command structure. Although Sparta's leadership on land was guaranteed by its formidable reputation, the allied navy was not dominated by one force. No sea-faring city would suffer an admiral from one of its rivals, and so Themistocles suggested that command of the fleet should be given to a city not contributing any ships. So it was that Sparta had command of all the Hellenic League's forces. Themistocles must have hoped to bag the position of admiral of the League's navy for himself, but he saw that without unity Greece did not stand a chance - and he swallowed his pride.

The Crossing of the Hellespont

Xerxes and his army reached the city of Troy early in 480BC. He ordered offerings to be made there, symbolically taking on the role of avenger for the sacking of one of the greatest cities of Asia by the Greeks. He also made offerings to Athena, proclaiming that the goddess ruling in Athens was nothing but an impostor, and that only with Athens under Persian rule could the Olympian gods return. Then he headed to the Hellespont5, where a bridge made of ships linked together by a pair of immense cables was being built. During the previous winter, the first bridge had been destroyed in a storm. It is said Xerxes had the sea whipped and fetters dropped into the water. From then on the waters of the Hellespont were calm, and the massive army crossed without delay.

Meanwhile, at the Isthmus of Corinth, delegates from all the cities in the Hellenic League were gathering. There was a great deal of uneasiness over those cities who had remained neutral - potential allies of the Persian king, the lot of them. The allies held their nerve; some Thessalians arrived, advising a holding action to be organised at the narrow pass of Tempe beneath Mount Olympus, but when the Greek army reached there, they found it a less than ideal defensive site.

It was then that the news of Xerxes's crossing into Europe reached the Greeks. A new, even narrower pass was found to halt the advance. In May, 480BC, the Greek alliance marched out to Thermopylae - The Gates of Fire6.

A fleet was assembled; half Athenian, the other half from other cities, notably Corinth and Aegina. Contingents of men arrived from across the league, but in rather small numbers. Sparta sent only 300 of its formidable warriors, fearing both an uprising of their huge population of Helot slaves, and uneasy of going to war before the conclusion of the Carneia festival. Surely, one of the reasons would have been that, despite what was proved at Marathon, no-one truly expected victory. For this reason, King Leonidas of Sparta, who was to lead the Greek forces, selected his Spartans from among those veterans who had already fathered sons and fulfilled their duty to the state. These men had done their duty in life, and would fight to the last man.


Thermopylae was chosen as the site of battle because of the highly defensible terrain. At the time it consisted of a pass so narrow two chariots could only just drive abreast. On one side stood the sheer mountainside, while on the other there was a steep cliff with the sea at its base. It was here in the August of 480BC that an army of some 7,000 Greeks, led by 300 Spartans, assembled to halt the advance of the Persian horde. The defensive line on land was also extended into the narrow straits off the coast to the island of Euboea, where the Athenian7 navy waited to bear the assault of the Persian ships.

When Xerxes arrived at the Gates of Fire, he did not believe that such a small force of Greeks would dare to oppose him. He thought these men were just a picket line to slow down the Persians, not the army that intended to turn them back and drive them into the sea. So he waited for them to retreat. Eventually, they grew restless, and Xerxes ordered an attack, confident of an easy victory even in the close confines of the pass. The light Persian infantry were massacred by the heavy phalanx of hoplites, who had increased reach thanks to their long lances. So it was that the Persians were held at the pass with huge losses for two days. Both on land and sea, morale was high, as both components of the Greek force had enjoyed success.

However, on the third day, a turning point came. Ephialtes, a Greek, betrayed his countrymen by informing Xerxes of a small path through the mountains which emerged at the other end of Thermopylae. A strong force of Persians, including many of the Immortals8, were led by Ephialtes through the mountains. Now the trap was closing around the Greek army. On 11 August, Leonidas dismissed all but his own warriors. The remaining men stood their ground to the last and died with weapons in their hands. The result of the naval battle of Artemisium was indecisive, but in any case the navy retreated with the remnants of the Greek land army.

The Evacuation of Athens

With the defeat at Thermopylae, any hope of Athens weathering the storm untouched faded. The city had already been in the process of evacuation while the battle was being fought, with the Peloponnesian city of Troezen taking in the majority of the refugees, safe as it was across the Isthmus of Corinth. However, many refused to leave. Some high-ranking politicians did not like the idea of their wives being out in the open among the common people. (Women were generally kept shut away in Athens: during the democratic reforms it was also decreed that any woman walking the streets should be regarded as a prostitute). This would have proved a major headache for Themistocles when the fleet arrived, exhausted, in the Athens harbour of Piraeus.

Themistocles had been on the retreat down the straits between Euboea and the mainland, no doubt planning all the way. As had been seen, the Greeks had a tendency to panic after every setback, but Themistocles was not finished. He left messages to the Ionians carved in the rock faces on either side of the straits, encouraging them to desert. There was little chance of this happening, but every chance had to be taken.

Attica had been effectively abandoned by the Peloponnesians. Cleombrotus, Leonidas's younger brother, oversaw the construction of a wall across the five-mile Isthmus and the demolition of the roads through it. Themistocles might have despaired, but he did not give up. He renewed the order for evacuation, and by the end of the sixth day from the defeat at Thermopylae, the city was empty. The last people to leave could not risk the journey to Troezen across the sea with the Persian fleet at large, so they congregated on the island of Salamis, just off the Attic coast. They had set up a sort of government-in-exile there, with the city elders, treasury and grain reserves having been on the island since the start of the evacuation.

The remainder of the Greek fleet had stayed at anchor while the Athenian ships ferried the refugees across the narrow straits. Once this job had been finished, the admirals congregated for a council of war. The Peloponnesians there wanted to withdraw to the Isthmus and fight a second Thermopylae with the fleet guarding the army's flank, but this would mean abandoning not only Athens, but Aegina and Megara as well. Themistocles, painting a picture of the Persian fleet trapped in the straits in a similar manner to that at Artemisium, somehow managed to persuade them to stay. Soon after Themistocles had begun to win them round, news came of barbarians in Attica.


The Greek navy was of essentially the same composition as at Artemisium, give or take a few late arrivals or losses. Xerxes was confident in the sheer size of his battle fleet being enough for victory, and arranged for a throne to be set up on the great flanks of Mount Aegaleus, so he could see the battle unfold and record the names of the commanders who fought well or badly. Eurybiades and the Spartans still argued that their fleet should retreat, and withdraw to where they could be sheltered by the land army at Corinth if things went awry.

Themistocles knew that leaving the mighty Persian navy untouched would make the war easy for the Persians, and so staunchly defended his decision to stand and fight. At one point during the debate, spirits flared so badly that Eurybiades raised his staff of office and threatened to strike Themistocles with it. Themistocles responded calmly: 'Strike, but also listen'. Themistocles still believed Eurybiades would overrule his decision, and so he sent a slave, Sicinnus, to Xerxes, to make the king believe that the Greeks were divided and unprepared, and that the fleet would stealthily retreat once night had fallen. Xerxes had his fleet blockade the western outlet of the straits. Artemisia, the queen of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor and an ally of Xerxes, supposedly tried to convince him to wait for the Greeks to surrender, as a battle in the straits of Salamis would be deadly to the larger Persian ships, but Xerxes and Mardonius, his chief adviser and general, pressed for an attack. Throughout the night the Persian ships searched the gulf for the Greek retreat, while in fact the Greeks remained on their ships, sound asleep.

The next morning (thought to be 28 September), the Persians were exhausted from their long and fruitless night search, but they attacked immediately, confident of their numerical advantage. In the tight confines of the straits, the Persian formation was bunched up so tightly that manoeuvres became impossible. The straits became clogged with ships locked together. Others rammed each other, mostly accidentally but sometimes deliberately, in a bid to escape. The heavy Greek hoplites on the ships outclassed the Persians in hand-to-hand fighting and by the end of the day the mighty imperial navy was in tatters, as hundreds of ships had been lost.

The Turn of the Tide: Xerxes Retreats

Xerxes might have been distraught at the humiliation of defeat but Mardonius was indifferent at best. In fact, he probably saw it as a great opportunity to further his own personal interests. He saw no blot on Persian reputation since it was the people of other nations, the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Cypriots and Cilicians who had shamed themselves at Salamis. However, there was still the reality of an independent Peloponnese to deal with. Xerxes had envisaged a complete conquest in Greece without a single setback; now the situation was rather different. He had added new lands to the Empire and was sure that it would not take much to pacify the rest of Greece. Was the King of Kings needed to fight this little border war? Mardonius clearly understood Xerxes's thinking because he advised him to take most of the army back with him to Sardis, a fitting place to govern the Empire, and leave a picked force of men behind to stay in Greece over the winter and finish the job the next year. Xerxes agreed to this and allowed Mardonius to pick his men; these would be only the best.

Xerxes retreated to Asia with little urgency. Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly, Boeotia and central Greece all remained loyal to the King. The Persian fleet actually still outnumbered the Hellenic League's navy, and by the next summer it would be back to full strength. Mardonius went with Xerxes as far as Thessaly, where he planned to winter his army.

While the Persians were changing their plans, the Greek fleet was busy on a tour of the Aegean, collecting money from the islands. After a few weeks it returned to the Isthmus and joined in the general party which was being held to celebrate the victory. However, though the battle had been won, there was still a war to be fought. The Peloponnese was relatively safe thanks to the crippling of Persian sea power and the fortified Isthmus, but Athens was still open to attack. The Persians had left it devastated and as its citizens returned from Salamis and Troezen, they must have worried about their return. Therefore they repeatedly sent demands to the Peloponnesians to send an army north to protect Athens from Mardonius come the spring. The Athenians had always been fond of boasting, and now they could add Salamis to Marathon on their list of great victories. They were right: without the large Athenian navy, Salamis would never have been a victory, but they did like to boast about it, which only served to infuriate their allies and cause them to continue to rebuff the Athenian demands.

Disunity Among the Greeks

Some might have thought bonds of fellowship and unity had been forged at Artemisium and Salamis, but things were looking increasingly like they were before the invasion. The Peloponnesians made sure the award for civic achievement went to Aegina, and that Themistocles was denied the award for individual achievement. The insulted Athenians started making wild accusations, such as insisting that the Corinthians, who had moved off north before the battle of Salamis, had not been scouting for the Egyptian squadron at the fleet's rear, but trying to escape. Themistocles was widely reviled in every other city but Athens, though in Sparta he was tolerated and even encouraged to some extent, since they realised how much the security of the Peloponnese depended on the Greek (mainly Athenian) fleet. In fact, the Spartans invited him to their city and honoured him greatly, though they made several pointed hints regarding their complete lack of support for sending an army north of the Isthmus.

Back at home, Themistocles was in trouble. His old enemy Aristeides was trumpeted as a hero for his part in Salamis, and people were growing angry with the continued activity of the fleet in patrolling the seas, because the farmers, busy crewing the ships, could not return to their crops or their families. In the February elections he was voted out of the office of admiral of the fleet, and replaced by Xanthippus, who had been primarily responsible for the fall from grace of Militiades after Marathon. Aristeides was given command of the army, and this changed Athenian policy greatly.

In the spring the Greek fleet assembled at Aegina, but no Athenian ships would be sent until the Spartans and their allies committed men to a campaign on land against Mardonius. King Leotychides of Sparta, who had been sent to command the fleet, refused this demand and so he had to put to sea in the Aegean with barely a hundred ships under his command. This was nowhere near enough to force another battle with the Persian fleet, so Leotychides could do little more than posture off the island of Delos. Across the sea the Persian fleet did the same off Samos, since they were also under-strength. The Peloponnesians were content to hide behind the Isthmus wall. Mardonius could do little until he could either lure the Peloponnesians north, or defeat the Athenians at sea.

It was May when Mardonius tired of this and sent King Alexander of Macedon, brother-in-law of a Persian general and official 'Friend and Benefactor of the Athenian People' to negotiate with Athens. He told them that they could either remain in the no-man's land between the Empire and Peloponnese, or submit to Persian rule and enjoy great royal favour: autonomous government, compensation for the damage and extra territory. Clearly the spirit of democracy and freedom had been fostered in Athens, and they made it clear that they would never surrender, no matter what the odds against them. Athens soon began to empty once again, as Mardonius would no doubt come to take by force what had been denied him.

Mardonius repeated his terms to the Athenians, once again in exile in Salamis. One nobleman, Lycidas, actually spoke in favour of accepting them. He and his family were promptly killed. In June the Athenians sent a delegation to Sparta, and found them in the midst of a party, (this time the Hyacinthia festival), as they had before Marathon. After ten days of waiting for them to finish their grand knees-up, they offered an ultimatum: send an army north or be obliged to accept Mardonius's terms. It was only then that they were told that the army was already marching. The Argives, medisers9 and arch-enemies of Sparta, were by-passed and taken by surprise, so that they reported the following to Mardonius: 'The whole fighting force of Lacedaemon10 is on the march, and we are powerless to stop it.' Hearing of this, Mardonius trashed a bit more of Athens for good measure and headed back north into Boetia. Guided by Theban allies he chose a perfect spot to fight a cavalry battle against the Greek army.


Around 40,000 men marched in the Hellenic League's army, from city states across Hellas. The Greeks, unified in the common cause of their freedom, followed Mardonius north, where they took up a strong position in the hill above the Asopus river plain, a few miles east of the city of Plataea. Mardonius fortified the other bank, and then set about trying to dislodge the Greeks from their position and lure them onto the plain, where his cavalry could destroy the army.

The cavalry succeeded in cutting the Greeks off from their food and water supplies. Their commander, Pausanias of Sparta, attempted a risky night withdrawal to a new position, but the army got separated. Mardonius attacked, but was defeated in an intense battle with the Spartans and Tegeans, who had been isolated in the retreat, while the Greek allies of the Persians were driven off by the Athenians. The end result was a complete victory for the Greeks and the destruction of the last of the great Persian expeditions into Europe.


On the very same day, (or at least within a few days of one another), the second major battle which destroyed Persian ambition once and for all was fought, at Mycale. While the Spartans were readying themselves to march to Plataea, the Greek fleet sailed across the Aegean in pursuit of the remnants of the Persian fleet which had fought at Salamis. The Persians formed a defensive palisade using boulders and apple trees found nearby and waited, but when the Greeks landed on the beach their marines formed a phalanx and, after a fast advance and a ferocious battle, trampled the Persians into the dust.

The Greek Counter-Offensive

The end of the defensive stage of the war did wonders for Greek morale. They began to realise how important they had become in the affairs of the world, and Greek culture soon began to flourish in a big way. There was much boasting on the Greek side about how their victory had rocked the foundations of the Empire, and that its break-up was imminent11. They presumed Xerxes to be distraught, since he had gone back to the Near East, the heart of his Empire, when he heard of the Greek victories at Plataea and Mycale. In fact he was very worried - but not necessarily because he had been repulsed from Greece. Babylon had risen up in revolt against Persian rule, and it could not be allowed to stay independent. To have the largest city in the world under his control was one of the greatest badges of prestige for the Great King, and he was not going to give it up in exchange for the mountainous cultural backwater that was Greece.

Persian expansion was no longer on the agenda, but Xerxes, once he had cowed the Babylonians, was not about to abandon Ionia. After Mycale, Xanthippus, the Athenian commander, had pledged his city's support to their kinsmen across the Aegean in regaining their freedom from Persia. The seeds of the Delian League (the League would later be called the Athenian Empire by some, although its name was never officially changed) were sown, but for the moment the Hellenic League still ruled.

Pausanias became something of a celebrity in Greece after his victory at Plataea. In 478BC he was given command of a fleet of ships and set off for Cyprus, where he liberated the Greek cities there. He attempted to take the Phoenician cities on the island, but was repelled. Next he journeyed to the Hellespont and the Bosporus and took the strategically-important city of Byzantium. However, Pausanias's fall from grace was equally swift. He is said to have taken to wearing Persian clothes (even - horror of horrors - trousers) and to living in Persian opulence. For Sparta, whose citizens led lives that scorned luxury, this would not do. He was recalled to Sparta to face charges of conspiring with the Persians, but returned to Byzantium soon after without permission. Later he was suspected of planning a helot revolt, and next time he was in Sparta the five Ephors (rulers of the city) planned to arrest him. Pausanias, however, was tipped off and sought sanctuary inside the temple of the Goddess of the Brazen House. He could not be attacked in the temple, so he was barricaded in and starved to death instead.

The Delian League

Soon after, the Spartans withdrew from the Hellenic League. They had never had expansionist tendencies and now had no interest in attacking Persia. With it went most of its Peloponnesian allies, but this was not the end of the war, because Athens had grown in power, influence and confidence greatly. They became the primary Greek enemy of Persia after Sparta signed a ceasefire, and they formed their own league. On the island of Delos in 477BC, delegates from across the Greek world came to sign an anti-Persian alliance. The Delian League controlled territory which included most of the islands and coastline of the Aegean. Led by Athens, it was a primarily naval alliance. Aristeides, called the Just, was the man who decided on each city's contribution to the alliance, which varied according to the city's size. Founded by Athens as it was, there was a strong element of democracy in everything the League did. Each city had one vote, regardless of its size or importance, and delegates met regularly in a council on Delos.

Aristeides died a few years after the formation of the League and Cimon, son of Militiades, took over as the primary politician in Athens. Meanwhile, Themistocles, who had been reviled ever since Salamis for being so infuriatingly right,(this type of fall from grace was typical in Greek, and especially Athenian, politics), had been almost completely pushed to the sidelines in the political scene. In 470 BC he was ostracised from his city by popular vote. Accused of collaborating with Pausanias in a pro-Persian plot, he left Greece, and after years of travelling, found himself in the court of Xerxes' son, who became king in 465BC. He was given a prominent position in Persian government and spent the rest of his days in Sardis advising the satrap on defending against the Greeks. So one of the greatest heroes of Ancient Greece died a traitor, serving the enemy.

The Delian League's fleet, led by Cimon, proceeded to settle scores with both the Persians in Asia Minor, Thrace and the Hellespont, and some of the independent pirate islands in the Aegean. They continued to support the rebellions on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, both in Ionia and Caria (a region south of Ionia of which Halicarnassus, birthplace of Herodotus, was the chief city). One of the League's greatest victories was at the Battle of the River Eurymedon in southern Asia Minor. The Persians had recovered somewhat and sent a combined army and fleet against the Greeks. Cimon first crushed the Phoenicians at sea and then destroyed the army on the shore with his tired marines.

In the years that followed Athens used the Delian League to strengthen its grip on the Aegean. Some members, such as Thassos, withdrew from the League in protest against what it saw as total Athenian dominance. After a three-year siege Thassos was taken and forced back into the League. It is this kind of action which marked the transition from a league of cities to an Empire of the Athenians. Another such action was the moving of the League's treasury from Delos to Athens in 454BC, under the pretence of keeping it safe from the Persians. Thucydides does an excellent job of explaining how the Athenians ruled over the other cities in the League here:

Of all the causes of defection, that connected with arrears of tribute and vessels, and with failure of service, was the chief; for the Athenians were very severe and exacting, and made themselves offensive by applying the screw of necessity to men who were not used to, and in fact not disposed for, any continuous labour. In some other respects the Athenians were not the old popular rulers they had been at first; and if they had more than their fair share of service, it was correspondingly easy for them to reduce any that tried to leave the confederacy. The Athenians also arranged for the other members of the league to pay its share of the expense in money instead of in ships and men, and for this the subject city-states had themselves to blame, their wish to get out of giving service making most leave their homes. Thus while Athens was increasing her navy with the funds they contributed, a revolt always found itself without enough resources or experienced leaders for war.

There might have been a grain of truth in this claim, as will be seen here. In 460BC the League sent a huge fleet to Cyprus and Egypt to aid in rebellions against Persian rule taking place there. After six years of fierce fighting the expeditionary force was destroyed, ending Athenian hopes of colonising the Egyptian region. This defeat left Persia in a position advantageous to a counter-attack across the Aegean, and so the treasury, along with the headquarters of the League, was removed to Athens. The cities in the Delian League appeared to have exchanged Persian slavery for an expensive type of freedom under Athens, whose monetary requirements were growing.

Athenian imperialism did not gain the city many friends. When Sparta had pulled out of the Hellenic League and the war against Persia it took its Peloponnesian allies, over which it had established a kind of hegemony, with it. It then formed a separate Peloponnesian League, which was to remain a far more formidable opponent than Persia. Its opposition to the expansion of Athenian territory eventually ignited into open war in 458BC, but the results of the conflict were inconclusive. The two leagues now eyed each other warily.

The Persians did organise some form of counter-attack after they had regained Egypt by sending a fleet to re-take Cyprus. In 451BC Cimon had returned from his ostracism12 and led 200 ships to counter this threat. They defeated the Persian fleet and army at Salamis (a city in Cyprus, not to be confused with the island off Attica).

The imperial ambition of Athens allowed the construction of some of the greatest monuments to freedom ever built. A bronze statue of Athena, over 30 feet tall, was erected on the Acropolis. In 449BC the Athenians at last tired of war and expansion, and signed a ceasefire with the Persians. Later that year, plans were made for the construction of a great monument on the Acropolis to commemorate the war and the sacrifices the Athenians had made. Before then, the burned temples of the Acropolis had remained in their ruined state as a kind of memorial, as had other destroyed temples across Greece. In 447BC work began on that greatest of all temples, the Parthenon. Its construction was organised by Pericles, who had succeeded Cimon as the primary force in Athens. It was under his leadership that the 'Golden Age' of Athens was to begin.

The Seeds of New Conflict

Athens and Sparta were undoubtedly the two city-states which led the Hellenic League and saw the Greeks to victory. Sparta was infuriated by the arrogance of the Athenians and of their prosperity thanks to their extended Empire. Without a common enemy to fight, the Greeks quickly returned to bickering amongst themselves. For the next few years most of the Greek world would become an ally of either Sparta or Athens. This period of uneasy manoeuvres between the two ushered in the era of Classical Greece.

Once they had recovered from the numerous rebellions across the vast Empire, the Persians continued to work to undermine the spread of the Greeks across the Mediterranean. It was similar to the Cold War of the 20th Century; Greek cities were bribed with copious amounts of Persian gold, and Greek mercenaries were brought into the Persian forces, since the natives had proved themselves unable to stand up to the terrifying world of the hoplite warfare that ruled the eastern Mediterranean. This only ended when Alexander the Great reduced the great Empire to nothing in only a few years. The Greeks had lost a great many men a þW¡”ùN }F nd a huge amount of cash in the wars, but they had definitely got away with a better situation. The wars helped sow the seeds of real unity among the Greeks; but this would be extremely short-lived. In a mere 20 years, the Greek world would be torn apart by the Peloponnesian War, when the Delian League clashed with the Peloponnesian League.

1Sometimes spelled 'Greco-Persian Wars'; called 'the Median Events' by the Greeks; and often referred to simply as the Persian Wars today.2He was also known historically as High King Darius.3Greek citizen infantry fighting in a phalanx.4It is worth noting that it was usual for Persian kings to move their courts with them as they toured their vast territories, and so no one city really held the title of the Empire's capital (though, if one city had to be selected, it would probably be Susa in what is now southern Iraq).5The Hellespont was the Ancient Greek name for the Dardanelles, the narrow strait that separates Asia from Europe.6So named because of the number of sulphurous hot springs which emitted from the mountainside.7Incidentally, commanded by a Spartan, named Eurybiades. The Spartans, though they had little knowledge of naval warfare, knew exactly how to fight this kind of defensive battle: 'holding the line'.8Who were the king's bodyguard and the elite of the army.9When the Persians defeated an enemy, the formal method of surrender was for them to give the Persians earth and water. This was known as medising. So, 'Medisers' are the Greek states which surrendered to the Persians, often without a fight. It was also used as a general term for Greeks who supported or sympathised with the Persians.10Lacedaemon was the region of which Sparta was the capital city.11Aeschylus, veteran of Marathon and Salamis, wrote his play The Persians in 472BC. Set in the Royal court at Susa, it portrayed the terror of the Empire of the new power rising in the west. Aeschylus was an Athenian, and could not help promoting his own city. He claimed Athens had become a beacon of liberty to the world, and that soon other nations of the Empire would rise up to take their freedom.12The Athenians were always very keen on keeping their most promising politicians in check so they did not gain too much power. For this reason Cimon was exiled from the city in 461BC, and was replaced by men like Pericles, architect of the 'Golden Age' of Athens.

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