THE PERSIAN WARS AN EPIC TALE OF AN ELEPHANT AND A
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THE PERSIAN WARS: AN EPIC TALE OF AN ELEPHANT AND A
The beginning of the Athenian Golden Age traces back to a series of battles between a
small coalition of Greek city-states and the mighty Persian Empire. The battles, called the
Persian Wars, started around 500 BC and lasted until the middle of the fourth century BC
They record a remarkable victory by the small Greek coalition over the mighty Persian
The stage was set for the Persian Wars in Ionia. Originally Ionia was under control of
the Lydians, a non-Greek city state. Ionia was conquered by the Lydians in 550 BC.
Fueled with the confidence from his last victory the king of Lydia, Croesus, decided to
attack Persia. Before the battle Croesus sent an emissary to the Orcale of Apollo at
Delphi to seek information about the outcome of the war. The Orcale replied "If Croesus
crosses into Persian territory, a great kingdom will be destroyed." Croesus assumed that
the Orcale meant that he would destroy the Persian empire. Croesus attacked the Persians
in 546 BC. Unfortunately for Croesus, his forces were crushed by Cyrus, the Persian
king. It apparently never occurred to Croesus that Lydia might be the kingdom referred to
by the Orcale. In fact the Orcale said if Croesus had been wise he would have asked a
second question,"Which kingdom will be destroyed, mine or Cyrus'?"
The Persian rulers installed and supported tyrants in Ionia's city-states. By 499 BC the
Ionians were tired of Persian supported tyranny and rebelled. They sent representatives to
the Greek mainland seeking help. The Spartan king, Cleomenes, declined to help, because
the attack on the Persian capital required three months of marching. Athens decided to
join forces with the Eretria city-state on the nearby island of Eudoea and help the Ionians.
The Athenian-Eretria force marched all the way to Croesus' old capital, Sardis.
Initially, they were successful and burned Sardis to the ground. However, the Persians
counterattacked, making the Athenian-Eretria force lose their coordination and their
confidence and they were forced to return home. Subsequent campaigns by the Persian
army crushed the Ionian rebels by 494 BC
Darius, the Persian king, was angry that Athens would assist in the Ionian rebellions,
even after the Athenians offered him earth and water, thereby signifying their loyalty to
him so he could maintain order. Darius vowed to destroy the Athenians for their
disloyalty towards him. An Athenian legend says that, since Darius had so many other
things on his mind, he had a servant remind him every day of Athens' disloyalty.
In 490 BC Darius dispatched a flotilla of ships to attack the Greeks. First Darius'
massive force burned Eretria, the city-state that joined Athens in their attack on Sardis.
Next the Persian expedition landed on the northeastern coast of Attica near the small
village of Marathon. The Persian troops out numbered the Athenian hoplites. Hoplites
were heavily armored infantry with spears and swords. They fought in a close formation
known as a phalanx, with shields overlapping so that each soldier was protecting the next
from the attack. When a hole in the enemy ranks appeared the Greeks would fill it in, so
the enemy would be surrounded. The hoplites were the backbone of any Greek army.
Athens asked many city-states for assistance, including Sparta. Another Athenian
legend says that a courier was dispatched from Athens and ran the 140 mile distance
between Athens and Sparta in two days. However, when the Greeks and the Persians
finally met at the field of Marathon, the only allies to arrive were from the nearby city-
state of Plataea.
The Battle of Marathon
All expected the Persians to win at the Battle of Marathon, even the Athenian soldiers.
The Athenian force grew nervous gazing at the Persians, their outfits and appearance were
foreign and frightening as shown in the figure. But the Athenian generals, ten men elected
each year to lead Athens in military and civil matters, never let their men lose heart. An
aristocrat named Miltades, stated that the best tactic would be to charge the Persian
troops, thus exposing their soldiers for the least amount of time to the Persian archers.
The generals agreed and sent their hoplites charging across the field under a barrage of
When engaged in hand to hand combat the Greeks dominated and the Persian arhcers
were ineffective. The Greek hoplites had longer weapons and more protective armor.
This allowed them to attack their enemies while remaining out of range.
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Military history by country, 1st millennium BC, Military history, Greco-Persian Wars, Battle of Marathon, Battle of Thermopylae, Achaemenid Empire, Classical Athens, Ionia, Siege of Eretria, Second Persian invasion of Greece
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