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The Graeco-Persian Wars: The Combatants

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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

The Graeco-Persian Wars were a series of conflicts which set the scene for the rise of Classical Greek civilisation. Their importance extended beyond the retention of the Greek cities' freedom, since this freedom allowed them to develop some of the ideas which have become fundamental to modern living. Greek philosophy, mathematics and politics might never have happened if it was not for the defence of Greece during the 5th Century BC against the invading Persian forces. This entry profiles the two combatants and gives a little background to each so that the conflict which followed can be more easily understood.

The Persian Empire

The Persian Empire was arguably the world's first real superpower. The territory it occupied was immense, stretching from the Aegean all the way to India. Various Persian Empires have ruled over the area since, but the one we are concerned with is the Achaemenid1 Empire.

The Foundation of The Empire

Before the Persian Achaemenid dynasty took power, the Iranian plateau was ruled over by the Medes, with the Persians as a subject population. It was the son of Achaemenes, Teispes, who led the nomadic Persian people into southern Iran. There they settled and formed, for the first time, an organised Persian state in and around the region of Anshan. Two Persian kingdoms were formed, with one dynasty ruling Anshan, and another the rest of the Persian lands. It was Cyrus II the Great who united the two in around 559BC. However, even this unified kingdom was still just a territory of the Median Empire, and in 550BC Cyrus defeated the Median ruler Astyages and was declared Shah, or Great King of Persia.

Cyrus did not so much conquer the Medians as unify them with the Persians. In fact, the Greeks considered the two peoples to be the same. From this strong, unified territory, Cyrus conquered a huge empire in one lifetime. Alexander III of Macedon (better known as Alexander the Great) is remembered for carving out an empire in just a few years, and though Cyrus did not conquer with the same lightning speed as the Macedonian, his Empire did not fall apart after his death (though it was racked with a series of rebellions and conflicts until the later 6th Century BC). Nonetheless his successors continued the Empire's expansion.

Under Darius I, who ruled from 521 to 486BC, things changed quite dramatically in the Empire. Darius, although of royal blood and once Cyrus's lance-bearer, (an extremely prestigious title in Persia, due to its holder's proximity to the king) was a usurper, part of a conspiracy of seven nobles to assassinate Cyrus' son, Bardiya. Darius claimed that Bardiya had actually died long ago, and the man his co-conspirator and brother, Artaphernes, had cut down was an evil priest named Gaumata, assuming Bardiya's form using powerful magic. Darius dedicated his victory to the chief god of the Persians, Ahura Mazda. One of the central Persian philosophies had come down from Ahura Mazda's prophet, Zoroaster, who had painted a picture of the universe as a vast battleground between Arta, Truth and Drauga, the Lie. Therefore Darius, desperate to fabricate something to give his claim to the throne substance, claimed the killing of Gaumata as a victory against the Lie. This idea would soon develop until it was considered the sacred duty of the Persians to root out outposts of the Lie wherever they found it (say, in another nation), and bring the light of Truth there (by conquering the said nation). Under Darius, expansion became a sacred duty, and the world's first holy wars were fought.


Though the Persians had a reputation for 'virtue and honesty' (unfortunately this cannot be proved), they still required a legal system. Darius I instituted a system of law which was so sound that it was used much later as a basis for Iranian law.

An Empire of this size required careful organisation. Darius was the man who enlarged the Empire to its greatest extent, dividing it into 20 or so semi-autonomous satrapies, or provinces, each under the control of a satrap (governor), who supervised the collection of taxes and the recruitment of soldiers. These satrapies were toured by royal inspectors, called 'the eyes and ears of the king' in order to report back to the king. A key strategy for maintaining peace and good order in the Empire was the movement of large numbers of people between its different regions. This helped to unite the peoples of the Empire (despite their cultural differences) and served as an effective measure for reducing rebellious or nationalistic feelings among the subject populations.

A good postal system was required to ensure good links between far-flung corners of the Empire; the Persian system was modelled on that of the Assyrians2, using a relay system so that mounted couriers could cover immense ground in a short space of time. A message was apparently able to reach any corner of the Empire in as little as 15 days. Over 2,500km of roads criss-crossed the Empire, including the magnificent Royal Highway, built by Darius I, which ran between the capital of Susa and Sardis, a city in the west of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).


Old Persian was instituted as the official language of the Persian Empire, and was used on official inscriptions and Royal decrees, but it was Aramaic that was the most widely-spoken language. Due to the huge number of cultures and peoples subject to the Empire, many other languages were spoken in addition.


Economically, the Empire flourished. Evidence of this is found in the number of words commonly used in trade, which have spread across Eurasia and are now used in modern languages, including English. These include bazaar; shawl; turquoise; orange; lemon; asparagus; and spinach. Coins were made of silver or gold, and trade was encouraged by the sound infrastructure. The fabulous riches of the Empire were attributable to three things: widespread trade; agriculture which made use of the fertile land it occupied; and tribute from subject nations, which was offered every year at the spring equinox festival.


The Persian army was made up mostly of light troops of varying types, nearly all of which were in large numbers (the population of the Empire was immense, both due to sheer land area and relatively dense populations in some regions). Equipment varied greatly depending on where the soldiers originated from, since each man fought according to the national style (and in the national costume) of his homeland.

Persian Cavalry was the elite force of the army, and of a high quality. People who could afford horses could usually afford good-quality armour, making them among the best-protected troops the Empire could recruit. The Empire also had access to (and used) elephants in battle, but none fought in the Persian Wars.

A large number of archers were included in the foot troops, drawn from territories across the Empire. The sheer number of arrows they could fire meant they were a deadly component to the army, if vulnerable when caught in a melee. The infantry was scarcely better off, often fighting in nothing more than soft clothes. Nonetheless, they were extremely numerous.

Also elite in the Persian army was the force of 10,000 infantrymen who were the guards of the king. They were known among the Greeks as the Immortals (the Greek Athanatoi) or simply the Ten Thousand. Among the Persians they were called Anusiya (Companions). Only Persians or Medes were allowed to become Immortals. The force was kept at a constant number of exactly 10,000 - for every soldier fallen, another was called up from the rest of the army to replace him. They used short bows, short spears with counterbalances, and a short sword or long dagger in combat. Under a loose tunic they wore a metal corset, and had a leather and wicker shield. They wore only soft caps on their heads. They were better protected than most Persian troops, but still nowhere near as heavily-armoured as Greek soldiers.

The Greek City-States

Compared with the Persian colossus, the Greek cities were feeble. Each of the major cities was self governing, holding a small territory outside its walls (hence city-states). This led to a great deal of disunity among them: a flaw which would be exploited time and again through the wars and later in history. Culturally, Athens was a leap and a bound ahead of the others, already developing a unique system of government which would eventually evolve into democracy. Over on the Peloponnesian peninsula, Sparta extended its power through most of Greece, with the most powerful army of the mainland, the colonies and the islands, and was the chief member of a large alliance of other Greek city-states that controlled the majority of southern Greece (known as the Peloponnese). When Persia annexed Ionia3 in around 545BC, none of the mainland Greek cities sent any aid to their kinsmen across the Aegean. Sparta did, however, sent a delegation to the Persian king warning him to stay away from Greece, or he would have the Spartans to reckon with. The Great King laughed and asked 'Who are these Spartans?'. This was a very telling episode as in Greece, Sparta was both respected and feared for its power. To the Persians Sparta was nothing but an arrogant little principality on its western frontier. When compared to the Persian giant they were about to challenge to a duel, the Greek cities were but dwarfs.


'Hellas' was the term used to refer to the area of Ancient Greek influence which extended through various colonies throughout the Mediterranean. The 'Greeks' in this case were the heirs of the Mycenaean civilisation (of Trojan War fame) which preceded them. From the 12th to the 8th Century BC there was a 'Dark Age' in Greece, which followed the fall of the Mycenaeans. It was out of this period that the new Greece rose.

From circa 750BC Greek expansion began across the Mediterranean in search of new agricultural land to feed the growing population. Greek colonies were founded in Asia Minor, the Black Sea coast, the Aegean islands, Italy, Sicily, southern France, eastern Spain and north Africa. If these had been governed from a single place it would have been called an empire, but most cities were entirely independent of each other. This independence meant only the states in the war zone of the Greek mainland fought in the war. The others were either very far away; not very powerful; unconcerned by Persia; or a Greek city under foreign control, as was the case with many of the cities of Asia Minor.

There were several major powers in Greece: Athens, Sparta, Corinth and Thebes. Each of these cities had developed from controlling a tiny area of land until they had a larger territory with many towns under their control. In Sparta the aristocracy was king. In fact, Sparta was one of the few states to retain a monarchy, the rest preferring oligarchies. The exception to this was, of course, Athens, where Cleisthenes championed the rights of the citizens and set up a democracy. The city had previously been a battleground of rival noble families, collectively known as the Eupatrids (literally 'Well bred', with several families claiming lineages all the way back to the heroes of the Trojan War; the pre-democratic Athenian aristocracy was widely regarded as the most snobbish in Greece).

Even in the cities which were not wholly democratic, the average citizen was of greater standing than his Persian counterpart. However, it is worth noting that many inhabitants of the Greek cities (including Athens) were not considered citizens: women had limited rights, and slaves had even fewer rights.


Greek military power revolved around that of the hoplite. A hoplite was a heavy infantryman who fought equipped with a large round shield (the hoplon); spear and sword; and wearing a helmet, body armour and greaves (this set of armour was called the panoplia. All hoplites were free citizens of their city, and had to provide their own equipment (which was certainly not cheap). It was standard hoplite tactics to fight in a phalanx.

The phalanx required little directing - only an enemy in front of them, into whom they marched and used the sheer weight of the formation to break them. Officers were used mainly for basic directing of the phalanx and to keep morale high; few complex manoeuvres were utilised4. Elite units were stationed on the right of the phalanx to stop the whole formation 'drifting'. This occurred when men in the phalanx shuffled right so they were better protected by their neighbour's shield (since every man in the phalanx had a shield in his left hand and a sword or spear in his right) - a common problem with nervous or inexperienced soldiers.

Greek light troops were very few in number. Light cavalry (prodromoi) was used for scouting and driving off enemy light troops, and light infantry (peltastai, or peltasts) were skirmishers who did not take part in any heavy hand-to-hand fighting.

The Greek navy was dominated by the trireme, a fast, manoeuvrable ship with three banks of oars and a ram at the prow for sinking enemy ships. Shields were often hung on the rails along the sides of the ship to offer some protection against missiles for the soldiers on deck.

Military organisation differed from city to city, but usually generals were appointed from among the population to command armies (as in the case of Athens, which employed ten strategoi [singular strategos] for the role). A notable exception was Sparta, which nearly always sent one of its two kings to command its forces.

1Founded by Achaemenes, who was the chief of the Persians in around 700BC.2A Semitic people who once ruled part of the territory the Persian Empire now covered.3Ionia was the west coast of what is now Turkey.4Partly because the basic phalanx tactic worked perfectly well to start with, but also because complex manoeuvring of such a large and tightly-packed body of men is very difficult.

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