In the hit fantasy action film 300 the valiant Greeks defending the pass at Thermopylae in 480 BC are portrayed as the epitome of heroic manliness. Their Persian opponents, on the other hand, are depicted as effeminate slaves led by debauched and militarily inept leaders.
While this may be in keeping with traditional representations of the ancient Persians, it also begs a couple of questions: How did such a supposedly “effete” people manage to build an empire greater than any in the ancient world until the rise of Alexander the Great? And having built it, how did they maintain it for two centuries? The answer, of course, is simple: The Persian army was one of the most combat-effective forces in history. So, how did the myth of Persian weakness get started, and why has it persisted for 2,500 years? The first Greeks to encounter Persians in battle found their foes anything but decadent and inept. In the 6th century BC the Ionian city-states fell afoul of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid empire. After conquering Lydia, then one of the richest and most powerful states of the ancient world, Cyrus planned to continue west into Ionia before tackling Babylonia. Turmoil in the east forced him to leave Ionia’s subjugation to two of his generals, Mazares and Harpagus, who made short work of Ionian resistance. The Ionians had made the mistake of hiding behind their walls, oblivious to the fact the Persians had learned the art of siege warfare from the ancient world’s masters of the craft, the Assyrians.
After this display of martial prowess no Greek doubted the might of Persian arms. Indeed, the Greeks long manifested a healthy fear of Persia. This is nowhere more evident than in the reaction of mainland Greeks to the plight of their kin during the Ionian Revolt (499–493 BC). Sensing an opportunity for freedom in the wake of a Persian disaster in Scythia, the Ionians revolted and immediately sent envoys to seek aid from the other Greek cities. Sparta and nearly every other Greek city refused outright, and Athens and Eretria only provided some 1,000 hoplites. After burning Sardis, the Lydian capital, these troops scurried home when confronted by a large Persian force keen on retribution.
The Athenian intervention had not gone unnoticed, however. Persia’s Darius the Great (550–486 BC) was so incensed that he ordered a servant to repeat to him three times at dinner each day, “Master, remember the Athenians.” It took another half-decade, however, before Darius was ready to move against Athens. When he did, in 492 BC, the Greek world panicked. Many cities offered dirt and water—symbols of submission—to the “Great King.” Only Athens, Eretria, Sparta and tiny Plataea stood firm. The Persians reduced Eretria in a week. Sparta, apparently in no hurry to test its army against the Persians, then claimed its army could not march until the end of its annual national Carneian festival, at the rise of the next full moon. It was left to Athens, aided by 1,000 Plataean hoplites, to hold back the Persian tide.
They did so on the plain of Marathon in 490 BC, inflicting a resounding defeat on a Persian host that outnumbered them at least 3-to-1. Had they failed and the Persians gone on to occupy Greece, Western civilization might well have been smothered in the cradle. Unwilling to accept defeat, the Persians returned in overwhelming force a decade later. Under their new king, Xerxes, the Persians swept aside a 6,000-man force at Thermopylae, killing Sparta’s King Leonidas and his 300 hoplites in the process. From there the Persians marched into Attica, burning cities as they advanced. Xerxes took Athens without a fight; its panicked citizens had fled ahead of the Persians’ arrival.
The tide turned after the Greeks won a decisive naval battle at Salamis in September of 480 BC. In the wake of this defeat, and fearing the Greeks would trap him in Europe by seizing the Hellespont, Xerxes marched the bulk of his army home. He left one of his generals, Mardonius, with a picked force to finish the conquest. The Greeks, led by Athens and Sparta, defeated this army at Plataea the following year.
The Greek victories at Marathon and Plataea stunned the ancient world, not least the Greeks themselves. Greek pride soared. Those who fought at Marathon were the bronze-armored men “as hard as oak” who had beaten back Darius’ Asiatic horde. Sharing their just pride was the great Greek dramatist Aeschylus, himself a veteran of Marathon, who should be credited with starting the process that converted the Persians from terrible and feared warriors into “those soft sons of luxury,” as he refers to them in his play The Persians. As noted British historian Norman Davies stated, “Aeschylus creates a lasting stereotype whereby the civilized Persians were reduced to cringing, ostentatious, arrogant, cruel, effeminate and lawless aliens.” The Greeks saw only one explanation for their apparently miraculous victory over the Persians: The Persians must be of poor stock. Over the succeeding decades this idea that the Persians were weak and effeminate became ingrained in the common Greek outlook.
The greatest minds in Greece also accepted and promulgated the stereotype. In his Politics Aristotle wrote, “The Asiatic races have both brains and skill but are lacking in courage and willpower; so they have remained enslaved and subject.” Later he declared the Persians barely human and fit only for slavery. Plato conceded the Persians were once mighty warriors, but then claimed success had ruined them. In his Laws Plato wrote, “[Cyrus] overlooked the fact that his sons were trained by women and eunuchs and that the indulgence shown them as ‘Heaven’s darlings’ had ruined their training.”
Greek bigotry grew with each success. It swelled enormously when Xenophon, a contemporary of Plato, helped lead the “10,000” as they cut their way through the heart of the Persian empire—a feat only accomplished, Xenophon said, because the Persians fled rather than test their manhood against hoplite spears. Later, in his Cyropaedia (“Education of Cyrus”), Xenophon said the Persians had fallen into deceit, impiety, cowardice, injustice, gluttony, drunkenness, sloth, love of luxury and disdain for honor in the years after Cyrus’ death.
One can suggest many reasons for the successful march of Xenophon’s 10,000, but lack of Persian courage or fighting spirit is not among them. While there is much fighting in Xenophon’s Anabasis, his account of the expedition, it appears the Persians, who were still recovering from a civil war, were content to let the Greeks depart and used a minimal force to hasten them on their way.
Yet Anabasis not only fed the Greek predisposition to view the Persians as second-rate soldiers, it also fed the ambitions of Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander. As they studied Xenophon, a question formed in their minds: If 10,000 cutoff hoplites could march almost unmolested from Babylon to the Black Sea, how much more could a well-trained army set on conquest achieve? When Alexander finally acted on this impulse, he provided the Greeks with further evidence of Persian decline, if any more was needed. In three major battles between 334 and 331 BC—Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela—Alexander’s Macedonians made mincemeat of three successive Persian armies.
Greek writers thus used the stereotype of the soft and decadent Persians as a foil against which to compare their own courage, discipline, democracy and culture. Unfortunately for later historical accuracy, many 19th and 20th century scholars adopted much the same attitude toward the Persians as had Herodotus in the 5th century BC. They saw the Persians as fascinating and exotic, but weak. Given the quantity and quality of the Greek sources Western historians have been reading and commenting on for centuries—without corresponding Persian sources—it’s little wonder this Persian fallacy has persisted for more than two millennia.
To discover the truth about the ancient Persians, it’s worth taking a closer look at them at war.
Even the Greeks accepted that the Persians under Cyrus the Great were a fearful force. After Persia had successively vanquished the Medes, Lydians, Ionian Greeks and Babylonians, no other conclusion was possible. In the Greek view, however, rot set in after Cyrus’ demise in battle on the empire’s northeastern frontier. Although Herodotus has very little good to say about Cyrus’ son and successor, Cambyses II, it is hard to see any signs of weakness in the Persian military during his short (529–522 BC) reign. In his 525 BC conquest of Egypt, Cambyses and his army obliterated a force composed largely of Greek mercenaries. The bleached bones of the combatants still littered the desert floor when Herodotus passed through the area 40 years later.
Cambyses successor, Darius, compiled an even more illustrious war record. Most of the Persian empire revolted upon his assumption of the throne, and over the next year Darius and several loyal generals conducted wide-ranging campaigns against the rebels. While in themselves most of these battles were relatively unremarkable, Darius excelled in both his logistical preparations and his tactical skills.
Darius then focused his energies on building the administrative infrastructure necessary to run an empire. But the Persians remained a warrior race, and he could not let their calls for renewed war go unheeded. In 513 BC Darius led the Persian host into Scythia (an area incorporating parts of modern Russia, the northern Caucasus, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland). Although it is not known exactly what happened after Darius’ army crossed the Danube, the Scythians seemingly were able to elude him, and the Persians withdrew. That failed campaign exposed Persian invincibility as a myth and did not go unnoticed in many of the still unsettled portions of the empire. In allowing the Ionians to witness his thwarted army marching home, Darius lit a slow burning fuse, which ignited into revolt little more than a decade later. The Ionian Revolt caught the Persians unprepared. It took six years of costly fighting, but Persia’s generals eventually reduced each Ionian city in turn.
To this point in Persian history there is little to support claims of Persian military weakness. That changed in 490 BC on the plain of Marathon. There a Persian army, sent by Darius to punish Athens for its interference in the Ionian Revolt, suffered a decisive defeat. More than 6,000 Persians died for a cost of 192 Athenian hoplites. Despite the lopsided losses there is no sign the Persians fled in panic before Athenian arms. Rather, the opposite is true. Although the Persian flanks broke under the weight of a charging phalanx, the center—the core of the army—not only held, it advanced. In fact, it was on the point of breaking through the Athenian line when the Greek flanks turned 90 degrees and marched into the Persian center’s unprotected flanks and rear. Still, the bulk of the Persians did not break and run but fought and died where they stood. Moreover, the Persian warriors who had run from the earlier advance by the Athenian flanks rallied and fought a prolonged battle on the shore near the Persian ships. Here they held the charging hoplites at bay long enough for some 30,000 troops to escape out to sea.
Similarly, at the Battle of Plataea a decade later the Persians showed no signs of military feebleness. As Herodotus relates:
The Persians were not inferior in courage or strength, but they did not have hoplite arms, and besides, they were untrained [in this kind of warfare] and no match for their opponents in tactical skill. They were dashing out beyond the front lines individually or in groups of 10, joining together in larger or smaller bands, and charging right into the Spartan ranks, where they perished.
The truth is Persia’s generals designed and trained its army to defeat armies that fought like it. It relied on the coordinated action of its combined arms—centered on massed archery— to inflict sufficient losses to shatter an enemy’s cohesion. The infantry would form on the center, with the cavalry on each flank. Once arranged, the infantry stuck their wicker shields into the ground to create a palisade, behind which the mass of archers shielded themselves. As the archers pinned down the enemy force and thinned its ranks, the Persian cavalry would maneuver in a series of flanking or encircling movements. As long as the enemy remained unbroken, mounted archers would also pour arrows into the enemy formations. Periodically, masses of more heavily armored riders would charge in and deliver a volley of javelins.
These actions would continue until an opponent’s lines began to waver. This was the signal for the heavily protected Persian shock cavalry, armed with spears and swords, to close with the enemy. While unbroken infantry could hold off cavalry indefinitely, once an infantry formation wavered, all was lost. At this point the Persian infantry, which had manned the wicker palisade to protect the archers from a sudden rush, started forward. Armed with their acinaces (short swords) and short spears, they delivered the coup de grâce.
But Athenian hoplites fought differently. Hails of arrows did not decide their battles. They settled conflicts in great collisions of wooden shields and iron-tipped spears wielded by heavily armored men. The hoplites—whose modus operandi was face-to-face confrontation—gouged, stabbed and kicked at their opponents until they broke. What followed was a slaughter, as the Athenians rushed forward in murderous pursuit of the fleeing foe. Against such a disciplined, close-quarters fighting force the Persian way of war was ineffective. Arrows never made much of an impression on a phalanx that maintained its order and discipline, and cavalry was useless against an unbroken phalanx—a horse will not run head-on into a barrier of spear points.
Are there any indications moral rot set in as the empire aged? In the 4th century BC war against Alexander, bravery in combat may actually have worked to the Persians’ detriment in the two major battles—Issus and Gaugamela—at which Darius III was present. At Issus the Persians acquitted themselves well, with repeated cavalry assaults that came close to caving in one of the Macedonian flanks. Many have pointed to Darius’ escape, when Alexander approached his position, as evidence of Persian cowardice. But if Darius did run, he only did so after the fight had reached his position. One of the earliest sources we have for the life of Alexander, 1st century Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, described the scene around Darius’ chariot when Alexander examined it the following day:
Around Darius’ chariot lay his most famous generals, who had succumbed to a glorious death before the eyes of their king, and who now all lay face-down where they had fallen fighting, their wounds on the front of their body. Among them could be recognized Atizyes, Rheomithres and Sabaces, satrap of Egypt—all generals of mighty armies—and heaped around these were a crowd of lesser-known infantrymen and cavalrymen.
Such a scene is hardly what one would expect from a ruling class or an army that had gone soft.
Similarly, at Gaugamela Alexander sent his heavy cavalry, the Companions, into a gap in the enemy line at the climax of the battle. Terrified by the Companions’ charge, the Persians broke. At that moment Alexander spotted Darius and turned directly toward him. Darius, still aboard his royal chariot, sheltered amid the closely massed ranks of his horse guards. Whatever they felt at the sight of Alexander bearing down on them, the horse guards stood fast—and were slaughtered to a man.
Darius could expect no succor from his Immortals, as Alexander’s own elite Macedonian infantry and supporting phalanxes had already crashed into them. As at Marathon the Immortals’ wicker shields and light armor proved no match for the heavily armored Macedonian infantry. Courage now worked to the Persians’ disadvantage. They needed room to maneuver but instead stood toe to toe against an unstoppable Macedonian juggernaut. Darius thus witnessed the brutal effects of hoplite warfare only yards from his chariot. Recognizing all was lost, he attempted to flee, but the dead were piled up around his chariot. Only after a Macedonian spear impaled his charioteer did Darius abandon the trapped chariot and escape on a nearby horse. As the battle was already lost, and Darius could always raise a new army to continue the war against Alexander, flight was his wisest move. A disloyal Persian satrap murdered Darius during the retreat.
Despite Greek propaganda regarding the Persians’ deficiencies—still accepted by many modern historians—there is no evidence the Persians were ever any less the warriors they were when Cyrus first created the Persian empire. Rather, in all of their battles with the Greeks they paid a heavy price as a direct result of their courage. Persian failure to best the Greeks in battle was less a matter of manliness or bravery than a result of the Persians’ negligence to adapt their armies to the superior reality of Greek warfare. The Persians never built a force of heavy infantry that could stand up to an advancing phalanx and never learned how to deal with steady, disciplined, better-armored heavy infantry. Manly courage never deserted the Persians; it died on the spear points of the Greek phalanx.
For further reading Jim Lacey recommends his own The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western Civilization, as well as Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, by Kaveh Farrokh, and History of the Persian Empire, by A.T. Olmstead.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.