The Greco-Persian Wars (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.4)

After the end of the Greek Dark Age in about 800 BC, the city-states of Greece began to flourish. The epic of poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were written in about 800 BC and were performed all over Greece. The ideas and practices that made Greece unique began to form and increase in importance. In contrast to the Greek focus on liberty, however, the nearby Persian Empire instead believed that all people should be forced to submit to their emperor, who was viewed as being almost a god. The Persians invaded Greece twice to try to conquer it. These two invasions of Greece by the Persians are called the Greco-Persian Wars.

The Persians invaded Greece the first time in 490 BC. They landed near the Greek polis of Athens and demanded that the Athenians immediately surrender. The Athenians refused and began to prepare themselves for battle. They sent messengers to Sparta, the other very strong Greek polis, but the Spartans were unable to help. The Spartans were in the midst of a religious festival during which they were forbidden by their beliefs to engage in war. The Athenians had to fight the Persians on their own.

The battle took place at Marathon. In the Battle of Marathon, a much smaller and weaker Athenian force was able to defeat the powerful Persian Empire. It was a great victory of Greece. Without this victory, Western Civilization would not exist. The ideas of democracy, medicine, and science would have been lost forever had the Greeks been swallowed up by the Persian Empire. The Athenian soldiers sent a messenger named Pheidippides to bring the happy news back to the people in Athens. Pheidippides ran the entire 26 miles from Marathon to Athens. As he entered the city of Athens, he shouted, “We have won!” and collapsed dead from exhaustion. Today, when people run a marathon, they run 26 miles just like Pheidippides did.

The Persians were very angry at the Greeks for their defiance. The Persian emperor believed that he was a god and that all people should submit to him. Ten years after their first invasion of Greece, they invaded again in 480 BC. This time, the Spartans came to fight alongside the Athenians.

The Spartan soldiers, led by their king Leonidas, fought the Persian soldiers at the Battle of Thermopylae, near a valley between two mountains. At that place, Leonidas and his 300 Spartan soldiers were able to hold off the entire Persian army for several days. By the end of the battle, all 300 of Leonidas’s soldiers were killed but they had killed thousands of Persians. The Greek historian Herodotus guesses that about 20,000 Persian soldiers were killed in the Battle of Thermopylae. While we cannot be sure of the exact number, we know that so many Persian soldiers had been killed that the Persian army was forced to turn back rather than moving to attack the Greek cities. Although Leonidas and all 300 of his men were killed, they won the battle because they were able to protect Greece from the Persians. Today, there is a plaque on the spot where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought that has this inscription:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,

That here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.

The Athenians also fought the Persians again during the Second Greco-Persian War. Because they Athenians had a very large and strong navy, they decided to fight the Persians on the sea. At the Battle of Salamis, the Athenians were able to destroy almost 300 ships full of Persian soldiers, preventing them from landing in and attacking Greece. The Persian navy was almost entirely destroyed in the battle.

Following the defeats by the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae and the Athenians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, the Persians were forced to once again withdraw from Greece. They had been beaten so badly by the Greeks that they never again invaded. As a result, Greek culture was allowed to continue to flourish and grow.

 

Review Questions

 1. List the year each of these battles occurred and which Greek polis was involved in the battle.

a. Battle of Marathon

b. Battle of Thermopylae

c. Battle of Salamis

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