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The flower of western civilization burst into full bloom five centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ. Never before or since has an outpouring of cultural development on such a grand and far-reaching scale been realized on earth. It was, however, just as Charles Dickens said of Revolutionary France, the best of times and also the worst.

On the eve of its golden age, Greece was in peril. Xerxes, king of kings and ruler of the Persian Empire, which stretched from the Indus River to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and from the Caucasus to the Indian Ocean, had turned his attention toward the Europeans who dared to resist his will.

Persia was, in the truest sense, the greatest superpower of its day. Cyrus the Great launched the era of Persian expansion in the 6th century BC, and his successors held dominion of much of the known world for nearly three centuries. With Persia at the height of its glory, Xerxes ruled peoples of great diversity. Phoenicians, Egyptians, Medes, Cypriotes, Syrians, Levantines and Ethiopians were his subjects, as were those Greeks who had ventured forth from their mainland and established cities on the islands of the Aegean Sea, along the coasts of the Black Sea and Asia Minor.

The Greek city-states, foremost of which were Sparta and Athens, maintained curious relationships with one another. Strained those these relations were from time to time, the Greeks recognized their ancestral ties, and that mutual defense was their best and only hope against outside aggression from such an overwhelming force as Xerxes could place in the field and on the sea. At the time of the Persian threat, that tenuous alliance was all that stood against Persia’s domination of Greece and thereby all of Europe.

To place the situation in perspective, consider that during an average lifetime a citizen of Athens might have known Socrates, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Themistocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. The heirs of western culture in philosophy, medicine, mathematics, drama and democracy owe their existence to such men. Therefore, the names of Marathon, Thermopylae and Salamis are remembered with reverence.

Ten years separated Marathon, where the first Persian invasion force was decisively defeated, from Thermopylae, where the sacrifice of a relative few made ultimate victory possible, and Salamis, the greatest sea fight the world had yet known.It was those battles, fought more than two millennia ago, that preserved a way of life and shaped the future of mankind.

In 500 BC the Ionian Greeks, who had settled in the western coast of Asia Minor, rose up against Persia’s King Darius I. In support of their Greek brethren the Athenians, along with a contingent from Eretria, raided and burned the Persian city of Sardis.

After six years of fighting, the Ionian insurrection was finally put down. Darius vowed to punish the upstart Athenians for their transgression into what he regarded as a domestic affair. Persian forces on land and sea advanced toward Greece in 491 BC, but the fleet was mauled in a storm off Mount Athos and the expedition was called off.

The next year, 490 BC, the Persians once again sallied forth to punish Athens. This force, commanded by Datis and Artaphernes, captured the island of Euboea and used it as a staging area for the invasion of the Greek mainland. In full view of the Athenians and their allies, the Plataeans, the Persians landed on the plain of Marathon and proceeded to divide their forces a few days later. Datis and Artaphernes intended to fight the Greeks at Marathon with 20,000 men while the city of Athens, only lightly defended, would fall easy prey to the second Persian army.

The fact that the Athenians chose to meet their enemy at the point of its entry into their country rather than defending the gates of their city is in itself remarkable. First, the Athenians and Plataeans were overwhelmingly outnumbered, mustering only 11,000 citizen soldiers. Second, the famed historian Herodotus states, the Greeks had never even been able to hold their own in battle against the Persians before. Third, throughout the rebellion in Ionia and the Persian advance toward Athens, the Greeks had repeatedly chosen to defend their cities rather than risk battle in the open. Finally, the Greek penchant for innovation provably had not been extended tot eh battlefield, especially against a numerically superior and battle-hardened foe.

In their hour of crisis the Athenians appealed to their Spartan rivals for military aid, since it should have been obvious that if the Persians were victorious at Marathon all Greece would soon fall before them. Miltiades, the senior Athenian commander, dispatched his swiftest runner, Pheidippides, to Sparta 150 miles away. ‘Men of Sparta,’ read the plea, ‘the Athenians ask you to help them and not stand by while the most ancient city of Greece is crushed and enslaved by a foreign invader. Already Eretria is destroyed and her people in chains, and Greece is weaker by the loss of one fine city.’

Herodotus reports that the Spartans were sympathetic but, because of a religious observance, could not march until the moon was full. At the same time, Hippias-the son of Pisistratus, who had been deposed when Athens adopted democracy-guided the Persians to the plain of Marathon, a scant 25 miles from Athens.

The strategy upon which Miltiades and the Greek commanders settled at Marathon was to close rapidly with the enemy, nullifying the effectiveness of the Persian archers, who on so many occasions had decimated their opponent’s ranks under a torrent of arrows. Once at close quarters, the heavily armed Athenian infantrymen would be on a more than equal footing with their Persian counterparts. Darius’ generals had made good use of cavalry in other engagements, but their numbers were probably quite limited at Marathon because of the logistical difficulty in transporting large numbers of horses by sea.

Athens’ citizen army was made up entirely of infantrymen called hoplites, who wore leather breastplates covered with bronze, as well as skirts of leather strips and thick belts. Crested bronze helmets covered the cheeks and nose. The hoplite was equipped with a steel-tipped spear, a short sword worn on the left side, and a round or oval shield of bronze.

While the Persians had depended heavily on the strength of the bow and arrow, the vast majority of their foot soldiers wore no armor. For close combat the Persian infantry carried daggers or short spears; their horsemen used swords or axes.When the clash of arms began, it was the speed with which the Greeks closed with the Persians and the superiority of their weapons and armor that carried the day. The Greeks attacked in their traditional phalanx formation with two very important modifications. The formation was widened in order to minimize the risk of being outflanked, and as the phalanx reached a distance of about 100 yards from the Persian line, the hoplites broke into a double-quick pace that took the enemy archers by surprise.

Although lengthening the flanks served its purpose, it also weakened the Greek center where, according to Herodotus, the invaders held the upper hand and actually broke the Greek line, chasing the survivors inland from the shore.

The Athenians and Plataeans on the flanks fared batter and put their opponents to flight before joining forces in the center and turning on those Persians who had broken through. ‘Here again they were triumphant,’ Herodotus recorded, ‘chasing the routed enemy and cutting them down as they ran to the edge of the sea. Then, plunging into the water, they laid hold of the ships, calling for fire.’ During this stage of the fight, and Athenian named Cynegirus lost his hand to a Persian ax as he held the stern of one of the ships; he later died.

As the remaining vessels withdrew, they set a course for Athens, hoping to reach the city ahead of the defending army. The Greeks realized that the sight of the still-powerful Persian fleet off its coast in the absence of its army might be enough to induce Athens to surrender. Legend has it that Pheidippides, still thoroughly exhausted by his mission to Sparta, was ordered to run the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens with news of the victory. He reached the city and gasped, ‘Rejoice, we conquer!’ Then he collapsed and died. By the time Datis and the Persian host sighted Athens and the gleaming Acropolis, it was too late. The Athenian army had crowned its battlefield triumph at Marathon by arriving in time to stand off the would-be conquerors, who had no choice now but to turn for home in failure.

Herodotus placed the number of Greek casualties at Marathon at 192 and those of the Persians at a relatively staggering 6,400. When the late-mobilizing Spartans received word that victory had been won without them, they continued onto the battlefield to view the corpses of the fallen Persians. The Greeks buried their dead in a mound that is still visible on the battlefield.

When the news of Marathon reaches Darius’ court, the king’s anger reached new heights and he was more determined than ever to conquer all of Greece. Preparations were made and orders issued to raise an even greater army. The renewed campaign was several years in the making, however, and having reigned for 36 years, Darius died before he was able to exact his revenge. The burden of rule and military judgment passed to his son Xerxes.

Originally, Xerxes was not bent on war with Greece. He crushed a revolt in Egypt and called together a council of war to determine whether he should undertake an expedition against Athens. ‘As you saw Darius himself was making preparations for war against these men; but death prevented him from carrying out his purpose,’ Xerxes concluded. ‘I therefore on his behalf, and for the benefit of all my subjects, will not rest until I have taken Athens and burnt it to the ground, in revenge for the injury which the Athenians without provocation once did to me and my father….If we crush the Athenians and their neighbors in the Peloponnese, we shall so extend the empire of Persia that its boundaries will be God’s own sky.’

According to Herodotus, when the opportunity came to discuss the situation, only Artabanus, Xerxes’ uncle, offered a dissenting opinion. ‘I warned your father-Darius my own brother-not to attack the Scythians, those wanderers who live in a cityless land,’ Artabanus warned. ‘But he would not listen to me. Confident in his power to subdue them he invaded their countryk and before he came home again many fine soldiers who marched with him were dead. But you, my lord, mean to attack a nation greatly superior to the Scythians: a nation with the highest reputation for valor both on land and at sea. It is my duty to tell you that you have to fear from them: you have said you mean to bridge the Hellespont and march through Europe to Greece. Now suppose-and it is not impossible-that you were to suffer a reverse by sea or land, or even both. These Greeks are said to be great fighters-and indeed one might well guess as much from the fact that the Athenians alone destroyed the great army we sent to attack them under Datis and Artaphernes. Or, if you will, suppose they were to succeed upon one element only-suppose they fell upon our fleet and defeated it, and then sailed to the Hellespont and destroyed the bridge; then my lord you would indeed be in peril.’

Xerxes and the rest of the assembly ridiculed Artabanus, and the conference was adjourned. Later that night, Xerxes began taking his uncle’s word to heart and in fact decided that an invasion of Greece would not be wise after all. But as he slept, Xerxes was supposedly visited by a phantom that urged him to proceed with the invasion. With the dawn, however, the king put the apparition out of his mind and canceled the operation.

Again the next night the spirit is said to have appeared and promised doom if Xerxes did not attack the Greeks. This time the king was unnerved by the dream and summoned Artabanus, insisting that his uncle wear the king’s clothes, sit upon his throne and sleep in Xerxes’ bed. If the phantom appeared to Artabanus, then surely it was sent by God. Legend says that indeed the spirit came to Artabanus, threatened to destroy him for interfering and was on the verge of putting out his eyes with hot irons when Artabanus awoke and ran to Xerxes. Xerxes, now with his uncle’s approval, decided that the invasion would go forward.

The Greek belief that the proud are destined to be humbled, that their pantheon of gods did play an active role in the everyday lives of men, and that oracles offered a glimpse of events yet to take place might lead a skeptic to label this episode as more of a Greek invention than an actual fact. Herodotus undoubtedly embellished his account of the incident to suit his audience, but the fact remains that the Greeks were influenced by omens and soothsayers and their actions reflected their beliefs.

While Xerxes prepared to march, his subjects accomplished two major engineering feats. They did bridge the Hellespont, the present-day Dardanelles, with two spans approximately 1,400 yards in length. The bridges were supported by 674 biremes and triremes (ships named for the number of rows of oars each carried) as pontoons, across which the causeway was laid. A great storm wrecked the first bridges, causing Xerxes to fly into a rage. He ordered the designers of those bridges executed and that the Hellespont itself be given 300 lashes as punishment. Two replacement bridges were subsequently constructed. Meanwhile, three years were spent digging a canal across and isthmus 1 1/2 miles wide near Mount Athos, bypassing the treacherous waters where Darius’ fleet had come to grief years before.

Finally, a decade after the embarrassment at Marathon, the great, nay, invincible army of the East was moving inexorably toward its destiny. King Xerxes was 38 years old. Herodotus states that the Persian army numbered 5 million men and drank rivers dry as it passed. More realistic estimates place its strength at 500,000-more than adequate to do the job. The Persian fleet was said to consist of 1,207 triremes.

While Xerxes assembled the Persian juggernaut, the Athenians prepared to fight a decisive battle at sea. A rich vein of silver had been found in the mines at Laurium, and in 482 BC a great debate had raged over the best use of that wealth. The city’s leading politician was Aristeides, but now another voice was heard-that of Themistocles. He argued successfully that the treasure should be used to expand the Athenian navy.

As Xerxes swept irresistibly forward during the summer of 480 BC, opposition melted away. Many Greek cities offered tokens of earth and water in an act of submission. Athens and Sparta, however, remained defianct. In August, Spartan King Leonidas led 6,000 men to hold the pass at Thermopylae, through which the Persian army had to advance in order to reach Athens. At the same time, the Greek fleet advanced to Artemisium to keep the Persian naval forces busy.

Thermopylae, which in Greek means ‘pass of the hot springs,’ provided to setting for one of military history’s great stands. The Persian host drew up before the pass, which was barely 50 feet wide. On August 18, Xerxes ordered a frontal assault. The first troops sent forward against the pass were Medes and Cissians, who attacked repeatedly but were driven back each time with heavy losses. The dead began to pile up in front the line occupied by Leonidas’ core of 300 elite Spartan hoplites, as well as small contingents from several other city-states. Late in the afternoon, the ‘Immortals,’ the elite Persian division whose dash, esprit de corps and combat experience made them the envy of the army, moved forward under their commander, Hydarnes. ‘But, once again engaged, they were no more successful than the Medes had been,’ Herodotus wrote. ‘All went as before, the two armies fighting in a confined space, the Persians using shorter spears than the Greeks and having no advantage from their numbers.’

One Spartan ploy worked spectacularly well. When the opportunity presented itself, the hoplites would turn their backs on their attackers and pretend to flee in confusion. Bolstered by their apparent victory, the Persians would charge forward to complete the rout-only to see the Spartans execute a quick about-face at the least possible moment to bring their heavy arms and long spears to bear, slaughtering scores more duped Persians in the pass. Xerxes, who watched the battle form a nearby vantage point, finally withdrew his battered troops.

For another full day Leonidas and his tiring warriors held their ground. Perhaps a slight doubt now crept into Zerxes’ mind. At that point, however, a Greek traitor named Ephialtes gained an audience with the great king and offered to show his soldiers an alternate route over the mountains that would allow them to attack the Spartans form the rear. Leonidas had detached about 1,000 men from Pohocia to hard his back door, but when the Phocians saw the Persian legion advancing upon them in the gathering light they took to their heels. The Spartans’ fate was sealed.

The Greeks were well aware that the game was near its end. Their soothsayer spoke of death coming with the dawn. Some of the troops at Thermopylae left the scene, and controversy persists to this day as to whether the Spartan king dismissed them to fight another day or sent them home in contempt. Herodotus wrote that he committed to memory the names of all 300 Spartans who remained, ‘because they deserve to be remembered.’

Squeezed into the narrow pass and assailed from two sides, those Spartans who lost their weapons fought on with their hands and teeth. Their courage is best revealed in the words of Dieneces. When told that the Persians would loose so many arrows that their flight would darken the sky, he remarked: ‘This is pleasant news…for if the Persians hide the sun we shall have our battle in the shade.’ Among the Persian dead were two of Xerxes’ brothers. After the war, a plaque was erected to commemorate the stand of Leonidas and his men. It read: ‘Go tell the Spartans, you who read: We took their orders and are dead.’

The Spartan sacrifice at Thermopylae was not in vain. While they held the pass, a pair of violent storms ravaged the Persian fleet. The second gale completely destroyed a squadron of 200 vessels that Xerxes had sent to sail around Euboea to attack the Greeks from behind. In addition, Themistocles led the Greek navy in two victories, at the Gulf of Pagasae and Artemisum. Both sides, roughly handled, were pleased to break off the engagement at Artemisium as darkness fell.

When Themistocles received the news that the Persians had taken Thermopylae, he executed a tactical withdrawal to the island of Salamis. As he had said several years before, the decisive battle in the life of Athens, and indeed the whole of Greece, would take place at sea.

After clearing Thermopylae, the Persians made haste for Athens, which was now almost abandoned. Themistocles had convinced most of his countrymen that their best chance for survival lay in moving to Salamis. All of northern Greece was defenseless against the Persian onslaught, which culminated with the burning of Athens and the Acropolis and the slaughter of the few Athenians who had refused to evacuate.

Xerxes was not satisfied simply with the burning of Athens. His army was already on the march toward the isthmus that connected the Peleponnese with northern Greece. The Spartans and other Peleponnesians had built a wall across the isthmus and placed troops there to defend their homes, but their naval contingents were with Themistocles at Salamis preparing to fight for Athenian territory.

The true military genius of Themistocles now proved critical. Herodotus says that Xerxes acted upon false information that Themistocles deliberately sent to him by way of a slave. ‘I am the bearer of a secret communication from the Athenian commander, who is a well-wisher to your king and hopes for a Persian victory, said the slave Sicinnus. ‘He had told me to report to you that the Greeks have no confidence in themselves and are planning the save their skins by a hasty withdrawal. Only prevent them from slip[ping through your fingers and you have at this moment and opportunity for unparalleled success. They are at daggers drawn with each other, and will offer no opposition-on the contrary, you will se the pro-Persians amongst them fighting the rest.’

Xerxes took the bait and weakened his force by sending an Egyptian squadron west to block a possible escape route; the squadron would not be available during the coming battle. He also ordered that ships cover the channel near Cape Cynosura. Once those movements were completed, he intended to annihilate the Greeks in the narrow waters off Salamis. On the morning of September 20, 480 BC, the main body of the Persian armada, about 400 triremes, moved toward the showdown. Xerxes sat on his golden throne high atop the contested area and watched the battle develop.

The Greek fleet was arranged from the Athenians on the left of the line to the Corinthians to the north, covering the Bay of Eleusis, the Pelopponesians on the right and the ships of Megara and Aegina in nearby Ambelaki Bay. The majority of the Greeks’ 300 triremes were hidden from the approaching Persians’ view by St. George’s Island. To draw the enemy well into the shallow water and narrow confined around Salamis, Themistocles ordered the 50-ship Corinthian contingent to hoist its square sails and feign retreat. Once the Persians were drawn in, the Greeks, in ordered line, would surround them. The Persians’ greater numbers would be no advantage in the narrows. Even worse, they would have no room to maneuver.The Greeks began to sing a hymn to the god Apollo as they struck the Persian vanguard in its exposed left flank. When the commanders of the leading Persian ships realized that they were trapped and began to backwater, the caused a tremendous crush of confusion, because those ships coming behind them had nowhere to go. Aeschylus, remembered as the father of literary tragedy, fought both at Marathon and Salamis. He later described the scene as similar to the mass netting and killing of fish on the shores of the Mediterranean: ‘At first the torrent of the Persians’ fleet bore up: but then the press of shipping hammed there in the narrows, none could help another.’

The Greeks kept outside of the tangled Persian mass and struck virtually at will. The Persian ships seemed more suited for action in the open sea-they were larger, sat higher in the water and were loaded with approximately 30 marine infantry or archers, as opposed to 14 aboard each Greek ship. Therefore, the top-heavy vessels fell easy prey to the bronze rams of the Greek triremes in those confining waters.

The Phoenicians in Xerxes’ fleet broke under the relentless Greek pressure and many of them ran their ships aground. Several of those Phoenicians hurried to the great king and said that the Ionians were the cause of their defeat. Xerxes had watched the Ionians perform well and ordered the Phoenicians beheaded for lying about their allies.

Aeschylus chose to tell the story from the Persian viewpoint and said: ‘The hulls of our vessels rolled over and the sea was hidden from our sight, choked with wrecks and slaughtered men. The shores and reefs were strewn with corpses. In wild disorder every ship remaining in our fleet turned tail and fled. But the Greeks pursued us, and with oars or broken fragments of wreckage struck the survivors’ heads as though they were tunneys and a haul of fish. Shrieks and groans rang across the water until nightfall hid us from them.’ The Persians lost 200 triremes on that momentous day, the Greeks 40.

With the crushing defeat at Salamis, Xerxes had little choice but to consider withdrawal. The Greeks might sail northward and destroy the bridges across the Hellespont, severing communication and supply lines. The weather might also worsen and take an even greater toll of what was left of his once-proud navy. Above all, the king of Persia belonged in his capital of Susa, where he could continue to rule.

The Greeks did not realize the full extent of their victory immediately, and they did have one more battle to fight. When Xerxes returned to Susa he left a hand-picked force of 300,000 soldiers in Thassaly under the command of Mardonius, the highest-ranking Persian general. The following spring, Mardonius led his army south and captured Athens once more. In the summer of 479 BC the combined armies of Athens and Sparta forced him northward toward Thebes and decisively defeated the Persian army at Plataea in September. In that same month, the Greek fleet, led by Xanthippus, scored one more victory over the Persian navy at Mycale, off the coast of Asia Minor.

Greece was at last free from the threat of eastern domination. Over the next half-century Athens remained the strongest naval power in the world, while Sparta maintained the finest army. The differences between them, however, increased the rivalry and distrust that for a time had simmered just below the surface. The next great threat to the future of Greece was to come from within.

For further reading, Michael E. Haskew recommends The Greek Way, by Edith Hamilton; The Histories, by Herodotus; Marathon: The Story of Civilization on a Collision Course, by Alan Lloyd; and The Battle for the West: Thermopylae, by Ernie Bradford.


This article was originally published in Great Battles, May 1994. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!