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Persian Wars


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The two Persian expeditions against Greece in 490 and 480/79 bc. The origins of the conflict go back to mainland Greek involvement in the rebellion of the Asiatic Greeks against Persian rule, earlier in the 5th cent. (see ionian revolt), but although Herodotus dramatizes their desire for revenge, the Persians already ruled many European Greeks in Thrace and Macedonia, and their primary reason for seeking to conquer the rest may well have been that their rule over existing Greek subjects would never be secure while others remained independent.

The first attack was by sea. After ravaging Naxos and subduing other islands, forcing Carystus (see euboea) to terms, and taking Eretria by treachery, an invasion‐force eventually reached Marathon, where it was confronted by an army of Athenians and Plataeans (see plataea). After several days' delay, the Persians perhaps provoked a battle by beginning to move on Athens, but were decisively defeated. See marathon, battle of.

The death of Darius (1) and a revolt in Egypt delayed renewal of the attack, but when it came, it was on a grander scale and led by Darius' successor, Xerxes, in person. How large his forces actually were is an intractable problem: the fleet may have contained the 1,207 triremes of tradition, but the army is unlikely to have had more than 100,000 men at most. Persian strategy clearly involved co‐operation between the two, but the view that the army depended on sea‐borne supplies is probably mistaken, since it continued to operate in 479 after the fleet had been defeated. More likely, naval forces were intended to prevent Greek ships from interfering with communications or in Asia Minor, and also, possibly, to turn Greek defensive positions on land.

Once aware of the Persian preparations, the Greeks consulted the Delphic oracle and received a series of gloomy prognostications. The Athenians, in particular, were advised to flee to the ends of the earth, and even a second approach elicited only the enigmatic response to rely on the ‘wooden wall’. But interpreting this to refer to their newly ‐built navy, they determined to resist, and probably late in 481, conferred with others of like mind. It was decided to patch up quarrels, to send spies to Asia Minor, and to appeal for help from uncommitted states. The appeals failed, and the spies were caught, to be released on Xerxes' orders to spread alarming reports of his power. But, crucially, under Spartan leadership, an alliance (sometimes called ‘the Hellenic League’) was created.

At a second meeting, probably in spring, 480, a Thessalian appeal to defend the Tempē pass led, acc. to Herodotus, to the dispatch of 10,000 hoplites by sea to the Gulf of Pagasae and thence on foot to the pass. They withdrew before Xerxes had even crossed the Hellespont, allegedly because of a warning from the Macedonian king about Persian numbers, and the realization that the pass could be turned.

It was then decided to defend the Thermopylae pass and to send the fleet to Artemisium on the NE coast of Euboea. But Thermopylae was turned through treachery, and what was probably a rear‐guard under the king of Sparta, overwhelmed (see leonidas; thermopylae, battle of), while, at sea, though the Persians suffered severely in storms, and the Greeks held the initiative for two days, they were so battered in the third day's fighting that they had almost decided to withdraw before the news from Thermopylae arrived. See artemisium, battle of.

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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