War and Social Upheaval: The Persian Wars (500-449 BC)

Figure 1.--This modern movie poster provides a fairly accurate depiction of the Spartan phalanx at Thermopylae. This was a major step in the history of freedom, ironcically fought by an early totalitarian power. We generally do not use movie images in our historical section, but this is a powerful and fairly accurate depiction. We think, however, that the spears shpoild be longer. Perhaps readers more expert on ancient warfare will be able to provide a more expert assessment. Source; '300'.

The Persian Wars were the 5th century BC struggle between the Persian Empire and the Greek city states. It can be said that the success of the small Greek city states' success in maintaining their independence was the birth of Western civilization. The Greek victories made possible by the defeat of a large Persian army at Matathon (590 BC)--essentially the birth of freedom. Antherstirrung actio occuured 10 yeas later at Thermapole. These victories made possible one of the most important cultral floweing in history. It was also the begning of the rise of naval combat on a large scale. The Greeks saw their victories due to Greek democracy and Persian oriantal absolutism and hybris. Greek discussions of the Persian Wars primarily focused on why they prevailed. What they did not discuss and what is vry important for our modern assessment is the impact of the Persiam Wars on the Geek--espeilly the Athnians. And here it is essenially that the Persian Wars created the idea of freedom. Ther my have been other fctors as well, but the Persian threatseems to have acted to coaless ideas that were still in a rudimentary form/ Political feedom developed into individual librty.

Persian Empire

Persia is not one of the early cradles of civilization and Persian civilization did not develop in river valley. Persian civilization developed east of the Fertile Crescent on the Iranian plateau of central Asia. The Iranian plateau was not settled until about 1500 BC by Aryan tribes, especially the Medes. The name Persian comes from the Parsua, another Aryan tribe. The first great war chief was Hakhamanish or Achaemenes who founded the Achaemenid dynasty about 700 BC. The Achaemenids built a great capital city at Persepolis. They conquered a vast empire from Egypt to India. Conquered were allowed to keep their own religion, customs, and laws and were governed by natove princes. The Persians encouraged cultural diversity. They saw the world as a cosmic struggle between good and evil, concepts that profoundly influenced Jewish and Christian theology. Darius the Great after crushing a Ionian Greek revolt in Anatolia was defeated by the Greeks in the epic battle of Marathon in 490 BC, one of the decisive battles of history. Alexander defeated Darius III in battles 334-331 BC, destroying the Persian Empire. Alexander hoped to unite the Greeks and Persians into one great empire. His early death undid these ambitious plans. Following a civil war among his generals, Seleucus, gained control over the Persian part of his empire. At the same time Potolomy gained control of Egypt. Unlike Alexander's plans, Seleucus ruled Persia as a conquered land through Greek troops and satraps. The Parthians overthrew the Greeks, who were unable to generate Persian support, about 250 B.C. The Parthians came from the deserts of central Asia. Unlike the Greeks, they were impressed with Persian civilization and ruled Persian through native kings. The Parthian empire lasted more than four centuries and during that period there was no important Persian revolt. The Parthians were one of the few people who successfully resisted the Roman Empire, desimating a Roman army led by Anthony. This played a major role in the defeat of Anthony and Cldeopatra by Octavian. Gradually Christianity spread to Persia and the power of the Parthians wained. Artaxerxes, a descendant of Sassan, in 226 A.D., declared Persia independent of Parthia and began a military campaign aginst neignoring countries and the Parthians. The revived Persian Empire like the Parthians were able to challenge Rome at the height of its power.

Greek City States

The Greek city state was the central political institution of classical Greece. The Greek speaking world was divided into a number of different independent city states. A Greek city state was known as the "polis". These ciy states were an important political innovation with began to appear about 800 BC. These city states appeared on the Greek peninsula, the mainland, and the coast of Asia Minor or modern Turkey. Each important Greek city was an independent state. They controlled varrying territories around their city. There were alliances and associations between these cities. Many founded colonies. The dominate city state for much of Greek history was Athens. Although Athens was of enormous impact to western civilization, it and the other city states were not large. Athens was the largest and at the height of its power had a population of only 0.2 million. Thebes and Sparta were also important and there were several other smaller city states. Many modern concepts of ancient Greece are based on available information about Athens. There were many similarities between the different cities of the Greek world. There were, however, important differences. Sparta contrasted sharply with Athens and the rest of the Greek city states. Sparta was the largest of the city states in area, but not in population. It was militarily important because of its social structure. While a few city states were well known. There were as many as 1,500 such entities, many extremely small and would hardly be seen as cities or even towns in modern terms.

Athenian Democracy (510 BC)

Athens had overthrown their brutal tyrant Hippias whose family had attempted to return a monarchy to Athens (510 BC). It is at this point that Athenian democracy began to develop kits classicl form. Hippias fled to Persia appeling for assistance. There he was sheltered and became an adviser to the Persian court which already had desigbs on Greece. Athens gradually developed a democratic system of government. The Persian Wars which followed shortly appear to have been a pivotal forrce in forging Athenian democracy and the very idea of freedom. The Greeks were the first people in history to conceive of the idea of freedom. The importance of the Persian War in forging Greek democracy can be debated, but there is no doubt that the Greeks believed that freedom, democracy, and citzenship was central in their seemingly miraculous defeat of the mighty Persian Empire.

Ionian Revolt (499-494 BC)

Cyrus II known to history as Cyrus the Great and to his people as King of Kings rose to the throne of Persia (559 BC). He founded the Achaemenid Empire. Under his military leadership, the Persia expanded to include most of the civilized states of the ancient Near East. This huge empire extended from the Hellespot to Central Asia and the Caucasus. While know as a conqueror, it was Cyrus who freed the Jews from their Babyloian captivity. Among his conquests was Lydia in western Anatolia. The Lydians had conquered many of the Greek city states alon the coast of western Anatolia--people known as the Ionians. After conquering the Lydians, the Persins began imposing their imperial syste. They increased the tribute that the Greeks had to pay as well as appoinbting tyrants loyal to the Persians to rule the Ionians. Tyrabt did not hve its modern meaning, but was simply a govemorr appointed by the Persian emperor. Th term bgan to take its modern meaning because the Ioanians resented the authority of the tyrants. Cyrus' son Cambyses conquered Egypt and some of the Greek islands along Anatolia and Greece. Cambyses conquered the important Greek island of Samos (522 BC). Shortly after, Cambyses was killed. Darius after a power struggle became emperor and wanted to continue the military expanion of the Empire. Darius decided to attack the Scythians, a nomadic people on the Steppe north of the Black Sea (514 BC). The highly mobile Scythians waged a scorched earth strategy. Darius' army with supplies running low had to withdraw. The Greeks fearing they were next tried to make peace with Darious. Macedonia and mny Greek city sttes did so. Athens prepared to so, but then decided against it. Instead, Athens and Ereteria incouraged the Ionian Greek city states in Anatolia to revolt from the Persian overlords. Darius suppressed the revolt (494 BC). He pledged to reek his revenge on the Greeks and in the process expand his emire westward.

First Persian Expedition (492 BC)

Darius' first effort to puish and conquer the Greeks for their role in the Ioanian Revolt was a massive invasion forced placed under the command of his son-in-law, Mardonius (492 BC). Th army marched west, conquering Thrace. It then compeled King Alexander I of Macedon to accept Persian control. The Persian invsion was foiled, however, when the Persian navy was destroyed in a storm. The Persians were relying on their navy to move supplies and equipment. The massive Persian army could mot live off the land and required huge quantities of food and supplies. Mardonius denied resupply because of the destruction of the Persian navy had to withdraw back to Persia.

Second Persian Expedition: Marathon (490 BC)

After eons of pre-history and some ten millenia of civilization, we know the precise day in our history that freedom was actually born. It was an abrupt and bloody birth. The Persian Emperor Darius was intent on adding more Greek city states to his vast empire. This was the beginning of the Persian Wars. And he was determined to punish Athens for aiding Greek city states in western Anatolia (498 BC). The resources of the Empire was so vast that many Greek city states did not dare join Athens and Sparta to confront a large, well equipped Persian Army. Suddenly in the morning dawm, a small force of Greek citizen-soldirs formed on the plains of Marathon in Greece, bracing for battle with the much larger Persian Army (September 21, 490). The Spartans had not yet arrived, but a small fore from Plataea joined the Athenia hoplites. The ensuing battle was fiercly fought, but a resounding victory for the Greeks--seen at the time a miraculous deliverance. It was, however, not just one more ancient battle, it was nothing short but the bloody birth of human freedom and Western Civilization. For the first time a small force of free men defeated the mighty hordes of oriental despotism. And it meant that the Greeks were left free to develop a cultural flowering without prcededence in history and nothig short of the birth of Western civilkization, incluing all the : accoutrements of freedom--political liberty and fredom of thought, speech, and action. [Fears] The important Scottish historian, economist, political theorist, James Mill, isisted that the Battle of Marathon was more importnt to English democracy than the Battle of Hastings. Marathon was not the end of the Persian Wars, Darius' son Xerxes would not just send a large army, but a massive army and fleet (480 BC) This time even with Spartan aid, there seemed no way that the Persians could be defeted.

Third Persian Expedition (480 BC)

Darius vowed revenge for his defeat at Marathon. This was the third campaign of the Persian Wars. Darius planned a massive campaign, but died before the invasion could be launched. It was his son Xerxes who deployed a huge army and naval force to conquer all of Greece and extinguish freedom shortly after its appearance. It would be one more territory added to his vast empire. And he planned to teach the Greeks a paibful lesson for daring to challenge his father and the Empire. Darius has sent mighty armies in Greece twice. This time Xerees would send such a might force tht the Greeks could not possibly resist. Athens was the principal target, but this time the Spartans were involved. The Spartans were stung by the embarassment of not participating in the Battle of Mrathon. This time thy were not about to miss out on the fight. A small Spartan force under Leonidas delayed a massive Persian Army at Thermopylae. The Athenian commander Themistocles abandoned the city. The Persian fleet was destroyed at the decisive battle of Salmis (480 BC). The naval victory was especially important. Greece was exceedingly mountaneous. War with the Greeks was only practical for the Persians by transporting and supplying its large army by sea. Without the fleet, the Persian Army was cut off from supplies. Xerxes returned to Persia. The Persian Army was left under the command of Mardonius. The next year the Greeks comanded by the Spartan general Pausanias and the Athenian general Aristides destroyed that army at Plataea (479 BC). The Athenian fleet also defeated another Persian naval force at Mycale. Conflict between the Persians and Greeks continued for years, but never on the same scale. The Greeks had maintained their freedom and with followed one of the greatest cultural floweing in history.




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Created: 4:03 AM 8/7/2004
Last updated: 8:41 AM 5/28/2015