The Greco-Persian Wars or Persian Wars were a series of conflicts between the Greek world and the Persian Empire that started about 500 BC and lasted until 448 BC.


At the end of the 6th century BC, Darius the Great ruled over an immense realm, from western India to eastern Europe. In 513 BC Darius, for the first time, conquered Thrace and Macedonia. Macedonian king Alexander I became his vassal. But the conquest of Asia Minor (546 BC) left the Ionian Greeks under Persian rule, while the other Greeks were free, a state of affairs that was going to cause trouble sooner or later. Persian satraps (governors of provinces) of Asia Minor installed tyrants in most of Ionian cities and forced Greeks to pay taxes for the "King of Kings".

In 499 BC, instigated by Aristagoras in Miletus, the Ionian Revolt broke out; Ionian cities threw out the "tyrants" that the Persians had set over them, formed a league, and applied for help from the other Greeks. Athens sent twenty ships and Eretria five, and the fleet helped spread rebellion all along the coast. In 498 BC the Greeks captured and burnt Sardis, thereby provoking a Persian response in the form of an invasion. The Greek fleet was crushed at the Battle of Lade in 494 BC, and the Ionian cities sacked, although they were permitted to have democratic governments afterwards.

Darius' Invasion

In 492 BC, an army commanded by Darius' son-in-law Mardonius overran Thrace and Macedonia, followed in 490 BC by the punitive expediation of Datis and Artaphernes. The islands of the Cyclades surrendered, Eretria was captured, and the expedition landed in Attica near Marathon. Phidippides got the message for help to Sparta in record time, but a religious festival was being held that prevented the Spartans from leaving the city. In the end the Athenians and Plataeans alone defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon.

Xerxes' Invasion

In 480, Darius' successor Xerxes I mounted a massive expedition, consisting of perhaps 60,000-120,000 soldiers and 1,000 ships, although a 1,000,000 man army or greater army is said to have invaded by some Greeks, but this is most likely and exaggeration. Additionally, a fleet of "1000" ships is interpreted as a gross exaggeration as well and seems to be derived more from mythology than from an actual accounting of the Persian fleet. A preliminary diplomatic offensive secured the surrender of Thessaly, Delphi, Argos, and much of central Greece. Opposed to Xerxes was a Greek league led by Athens and Sparta, and a fleet hastily built by Themistocles.

Attempts to hold back the Persians, at Thermopylae and Artemisium, both failed. At Thermopylae, King Leonidas of Sparta and his 300 soldiers, as well as Demophilus and his contingent of Thespians proved their bravery trying to slow the Persian advance long enough to give the rest of Greece a chance to prepare. Athens was evacuated, and the Greek fleet withdrew to Salamis. While the Peloponnesians proposed a defensive line at the Isthmus of Corinth, Themistocles instead engaged the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis, destroying many of their ships. Before the battle, Xerxes had set up a throne on Salamis, so he could watch his great victory over the smaller Greek fleet. However, the narrow gulf provided little room for his heavy triremes to manoeuver, allowing the lighter Greek ships to flank and destroy them. Following the defeat, Xerxes and his fleet retired to Asia, where a heavy rebellion had started in Babylon, leaving Mardonius to winter over in Thessaly with the army.

The following spring (479), Mardonius twice offered Athens a separate peace, but was rebuffed. Maneuvers in Boeotia, particularly cavalry harassment of the 38,000 Athenian and Peloponnesian hoplites, ended with the Battle of Plataea; Mardonius was killed, and his army routed. The remnants of the Persian army left Greece. Also in this year a Greek fleet commanded by the Spartan king Leotychides destroyed the remaining Persian fleet in the battle of Mycale.

The Greek Counterattack

Encouraged by Xerxes' failures, the Greeks of Asias and the islands revolted again. In 478, a fleet under Pausanias captured Byzantium and started a rebellion in Cyprus. At this point the Peloponnesians withdrew from involvement (apparently due to various disputes), but Athens carried on, forming the Delian League in 478 BC.

The records become scanty, but Cimon destroyed a Persian army and fleet around 467 near river Eurymedon in Asia Minor.

About 459 Athens sent 200 ships in support of a revolt in Egypt, although after driving the Persians up the Nile, the fleet was lost in a counterattack at Memphis ca. 454.

Another expedition in 450 failed to revive the Egyptian rebellion, and Cyprus was abandoned.

Around 449/448, with the support of Pericles, Callias negotiated the Peace of Callias with the Persians. While the exact nature of the agreement remains unclear (formal treaty or non-aggression pact), the result was independence for the Greeks of Asia, Persian rule for Cyprus, and the closure of the Aegean to Persian warships.

The Persians never really renounced their ambitions, and continued to meddle in Greek affairs in a sort of "cold war"; seducing cities with diplomacy and/or buying them off with gold, and employing Greek mercenaries (most famously Xenophon), until Alexander put an end to the Persian empire. For the Greeks, the Persian Wars engendered a consciousness of Greek unity, but the reality was short-lived, and a mere twenty years later the Greek world was torn apart by the Peloponnesian War. During and after the Peloponnesian War Persians supported Sparta and later, during the Corinthian War, Athens, perhaps in a Divide and rule way.

Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War began in 431 BC between the Athenian Empire (or The Delian League) and the Peloponnesian League which included Sparta and Corinth. The war was documented by Thucydides, an Athenian general and historian, in his work History of the Peloponnesian War. Most of the extant comedies of Aristophanes were written during this war, and poke fun at the generals and events. The war lasted 27 years, with a 6-year truce in the middle, and ended with Athens' surrender in 404 BC.

Causes of the war

According to Thucydides, the cause of the war was the "fear of the growth of the power of Athens" throughout the middle of the 5th century BC. After a coalition of Greek states thwarted an attempted invasion of the Greek mainland by the Persian empire, several of those states formed the Delian league in 478 BC in order to create and fund a standing navy which could be used against the Persians in areas under their control. Athens, the largest member of the league and the major Greek naval power, took the leadership of the league and appointed financial officers to oversee its treasury, which was located on the island of Delos, the League headquarters.

Over the following decades Athens, through its great influence in the League, was able to convert it into an Athenian empire. Though some members of the League embraced Athenian conversion, just as many were bitterly opposed to the governments imposed upon them. Gradually League funds went more directly into Athenian projects, rather than into defending the Aegean and Greece from Persia. Pericles had the League treasury relocated from its home on Delos to Athens, from whence most of the funds were used in vast building projects such as the Parthenon. As the member states of the League gradually lost their independence, it transformed into the Athenian Empire, whose growth Sparta watched with concern.

The League, based around the Ionian and Aegean Sea, was by its very nature reliant on ships for trade and to fend off pirates and Persian fleets. As the League developed into the Athenian Empire, member states gradually lost control of their own ships, which they gave to Athens annually as tribute. Consequently, Athens began to accumulate a huge navy. This increase in Athenian military power allowed it to challenge the Lacedaemonians (commonly known as the Spartans), who, as leaders of the Peloponnesian League, had long been the sole major military power in Greece.

The immediate cause of the war comprised several specific Athenian actions that affected Sparta's allies, notably Corinth. The Athenian navy intervened in a dispute between Corinth and Corcyra, preventing Corinth from invading Corcyra at the Battle of Sybota, and placed Potidaea, a Corinthian colony, under siege. The Athenian Empire also levied economic sanctions against Megara, an ally of Sparta. These sanctions, known as the Megarian decree, were largely ignored by Thucydides, but modern economic historians have noted that forbidding Megara to trade with the prosperous Athenian empire would have been disastrous for the Megarans. The decree was likely a greater catalyst for the war than Thucydides and other ancient authors admitted, more so than simple fear of Athenian power.

The "Archidamian War"Sparta and its allies, with the exception of Corinth, were almost exclusively land based powers, able to summon large land armies which were very nearly unbeatable (thanks to the legendary Spartan forces). The Athenian Empire, although based in the peninsula of Attica, spread out across the islands of the Aegean Sea; Athens drew its immense wealth from tribute paid from these islands. Thus, the two powers were relatively unable to fight decisive battles.

The Spartan strategy during the first war, known as the Archidamian War after its king Archidamus II, who invaded Attica, the land surrounding Athens. While this invasion deprived Athens of the productive land around their city, Athens itself was able to maintain access to the sea, and did not suffer much. Many of the citizens of Attica abandoned their farms and moved inside the Long Walls, which connected Athens to its port of Piraeus. The Spartans also occupied Attica for only a few weeks at a time; in the tradition of earlier hoplite warfare the soldiers expected to go home to participate in the harvest. Moreover, Spartan slaves, known as helots, needed to be kept under control, and could not be left unsupervised for long periods of time. The longest Spartan invasion, in 430 BC, lasted just forty days.

The Athenian strategy was initially guided by the strategos, or general, Pericles, who advised the Athenians to avoid open battle with the far more numerous and better trained Spartan hoplites, relying instead on the fleet. The Athenian fleet, which heavily outnumbered the Spartan, went on the offensive, winning victories off Naupactus (now known as "N‡vpaktos"). In 430, however, an outbreak of a plague (thought by some to be anthrax tramped up from the soil by the thousands of refugees from Attica hiding out in Athens during a siege by the invading Peloponnesians, although no authoritative consensus exists among modern medical authorities as to the correct diagnosis).

The plague ravaged the densely packed city, and in the long run, was a significant cause in the final defeat of Athens. The plague wiped out over 30,000 citizens, sailors and soldiers and even Pericles and his sons, roughly one quarter of the Athenian population. The plague was a disaster which they could never hope to recover from, as Athenian manpower was drastically reduced and even foreign mercenaries refused to hire themselves out to a city riddled with plague. The fear of plague was so widespread that the Spartan invasion of Attica was abandoned, as their troops were unwilling to be near the diseased enemy.

After the death of Pericles, the Athenians turned somewhat against Pericles's conservative, defensive strategy and to a more aggressive strategy of bringing the war to Sparta and its allies. Rising to particular importance in Athenian democracy at this time was Cleon, a leader of the hawkish elements of the Athenian democracy. Led militarily by a clever new general Demosthenes (not to be confused with the later Athenian orator Demosthenes), the Athenians managed some successes as they continued their naval raids on the Peloponnese, stretched their military activities into Boeotia and Aetolia, and began fortifying posts around the Peloponnese.

One of these posts was near Pylos on a tiny island called Sphacteria, where the course of the first war turned in Athens's favor. The post off Pylos struck Sparta where it was weakest: its dependence on the helots. Sparta was dependent on a class of slaves, known as helots, to tend the fields while its citizens trained to become such fine soldiers.

The helots made the Spartan system possible, but now the post off Pylos began attracting helot runaways. To lose these slaves was bad enough, but the fear of a general revolt of helots emboldened by the nearby Athenian presence drove the Spartans to action. Demosthenes, however, outmaneuvered the Spartans and trapped a group of Spartan soldiers on Sphacteria as he waited for them to surrender.

Weeks later, though, Demosthenes proved unable to finish off these irrepressible Spartans. After boasting that he could put an end to the affair in the Assembly, to most Athenians' surprise (and perhaps to his as well), the inexperienced Cleon won a great victory at the Battle of Pylos and the related Battle of Sphacteria in 425 BC. The Athenians captured between 300 and 400 Spartan hoplites. The hostages gave the Athenians a valuable bargaining chip.

The Battle of Sphacteria was more a humiliating surrender than a devastating one, however.After the battle, Brasidas, a Spartan general, raised an army of allies and helots and went for one of the sources of Athenian power, capturing the Athenian colony of Amphipolis, which happened to control several nearby silver mines which the Athenians were using to finance the war. In subsequent battles, both Brasidas and Cleon were killed (see Battle of Amphipolis). The Spartans and Athenians agreed to exchange the hostages for the towns captured by Brasidas, and signed a truce.

The Peace of Nicias

The Peace of Nicias lasted for some six years, but was a time of constant skirmishing in and around the Peloponnese. While the Spartans refrained from action themselves, some of their allies began to talk of revolt. They were supported in this by Argos, a powerful state within the Peloponnese that had remained independent of Lacedaemon. The Argives, allies of the Athenians, succeeded in forming a grand alliance against Sparta.

The Battle of Mantinea was the largest land battle fought within Greece during the Peloponnesian War. The Lacedaemonians, with their neighbors the Tegeans, faced the combined armies of Argos, Athens, Mantinea, and Arcadia. The Spartans, "utterly worsted with respect to skill but superior in point of courage", routed the alliance against them. While the battle was indecisive with respect to the Athenian-Peloponnesian conflict, Sparta succeeded in defeating Argos, thus ensuring their supremacy over the people of Peloponnese.

The Sicilian Expedition

In the 17th year of the war, word came to Athens that one of their distant allies in Sicily was under attack from Syracuse. The people of Syracuse were ethnically Dorian, while the Athenians, and their ally in Sicily, were Ionian. The Athenians felt obliged to assist their ally.

The Athenians people did not act solely from altruism: they held visions of conquering all of Sicily. Syracuse, the principal city of Sicily, was not much smaller than Athens, and conquering all of Sicily would have brought Athens an immense amount of resources. In the final stages of the preparations for departure the hermai (religious statues) were mutilated by unknown persons, and Alcibiades, the Athenian general in charge of the expedition, was charged with religious crimes. Fearing that he would be unjustly condemned, Alcibiades defected to Sparta and Nicias was placed in charge of the mission. After his defection, Alcibiades informed the Spartans that the Athenian planned to use Sicily as a springboard for the conquest of all of Italy, and to use the resources and soldiers from these new conquests to conquer all of the Peloponnese.

The Athenian force consisted of over 100 ships and some 5000 infantry. Upon landing in Sicily, several cities immediately joined the Athenian cause. Instead of attacking at once, Nicias procrastinated and the campaigning season of 415 BC ended with Syracuse scarcely damaged. With winter approaching, the Athenians were then forced to withdraw into their quarters, and they spent the winter gathering allies and preparing to destroy Syracuse. The delay allowed the Syracusans to send for help from Sparta, who sent their general Gylippus to Sicily with reinforcements. Upon arriving, he raised up a force from several Sicilian cities, and went to the relief of Syracuse. He took command of the Syracusan troops, and in a series of battles defeated the Athenian forces, and prevented them from investing the city.

The Second War

The Lacedaemonians were not content with simply sending aid to Sicily; they also resolved to take the war to the Athenians. On the advice of Alcibiades, they fortified Decelea, near Athens, and prevented the Athenians from making use of their land year round. The fortification of Decelea also prevented the shipment of supplies overland to Athens, and forced all supplies to be brought in by sea at increased expense.

The Corinthians, the Spartans, and others in the Peloponnesian League sent more reinforcements to Syracuse, in the hopes of driving off the Athenians; but instead of withdrawing, the Athenians sent another hundred ships and another 5000 troops to Sicily. Under Gylippus, the Syracusans and their allies were able to decisively beat the Athenians on land; and Gylippus encouraged the Syracusans to build a navy, which was able to defeat the Athenian fleet when they attempted to withdraw. The Athenian army, attempting to withdraw overland to other, more friendly Sicilian cities, was divided and defeated; the entire Athenian fleet was destroyed, and virtually the entire Athenian army was sold off into slavery.

Following the defeat of the Athenians in Sicily, it was widely believed that the end of the Athenian Empire was at hand. Her treasury was nearly empty, her docks were depleted, and the flower of her youth was dead or imprisoned in a foreign land. They underestimated the strength of the Athenian Empire, but the beginning of the end was indeed at hand.

Source - Peter Green, The Greco-Persian Wars (University of California Press, 1998) ISBN 0520203135