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Introduction to the Persian Wars (The Greco-Persian Wars)

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Introduction to the Persian Wars (The Greco-Persian Wars)

Detail from the archer's frieze at the palace of Darius in Susa from 510 B.C.

Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia. Frieze is in the Louvre.

Ancient Greece > Persian Wars

Summary

Locations: Various. Especially Greece, Thrace, Macedonia, Asia Minor
Dates: c. 492-449/8 B.C.
Winner: Greece
Loser: Persia (under kings Darius and Xerxes)

The term Greco-Persian Wars is thought to be less biased against the Persians than the more common name "Persian Wars," but most of our information about the wars comes from the winners, the Greek side. Greek historian Peter Green characterizes it as a David and Goliath struggle with David holding out for political and intellectual liberty against the monolithic theocratic Persian war machine. It wasn't just Greeks against Persians, nor were all the Greeks on the Greek side. Conflict began before the usual start date of the Persian Wars; however, for practical purposes, the term Greco-Persian Wars covers the invasions of Greece by two Achaemenid Persian kings from about 492 B.C. to 449/448 B.C.

Earlier than the (mostly failed) attempts by the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes to control Greece, Persian King Cambyses had extended the Persian Empire around the Mediterranean coast by absorbing Greek colonies.

Some Greek poleis (Thessaly, Boeotia, Thebes, and Macedonia) joined Persia, as did other non-Greeks, including Phoenicia and Egypt, but many Greek poleis, under the leadership of Sparta, especially on land, and under the dominance of Athens, at sea, opposed the Persian forces. Before their invasion of Greece, Persians had been facing revolts within their own territory.

During the Persian Wars, revolts within Persian territories continued. When Egypt revolted, the Greeks helped them.

When Were the Greco-Persian Wars?:

The Persian Wars are usually dated 492-449/448 B.C. However, conflict started between the Greek poleis in Ionia and the Persian Empire before 499 B.C. There were two mainland invasions of Greece, in 490 (under King Darius) and 480-479 B.C. (under King Xerxes). The Persian Wars ended with the Peace of Callias of 449, but by this time, and as a result of actions taken in Persian War battles, Athens had developed her own empire. Conflict mounted between the Athenians and the allies of Sparta. This conflict would lead to the Peloponnesian War during which the Persians opened their deep pockets to the Spartans.

Medize:

Thucydides (3.61-67) says the Plataeans were the only Boeotians [For Boeotia and Plataea, see map] who did not Medize. To Medize was to submit to the Persian king as overlord. The Greeks referred to the Persian forces collectively as Medes, not distinguishing Medes from Persians. Likewise, we today don't distinguish among the Greeks (Hellenes), but the Hellenes were not a united force before the Persian invasions. Individual poleis could make their own political decisions. Panhellenism (united Greeks) became important during the Persian Wars.

"Next, when the barbarian invaded Hellas, they say that they were the only Boeotians who did not Medize; and this is where they most glorify themselves and abuse us. We say that if they did not Medize, it was because the Athenians did not do so either; just as afterwards when the Athenians attacked the Hellenes they, the Plataeans, were again the only Boeotians who Atticized." ~Thucydides

Individual Battles During the Persian Wars:

  • 1st Naxos
  • Sardis
  • Ephesus
  • Lade
  • 2nd Naxos
  • Eretria
  • Marathon
  • Thermopylae
  • Artemisium
  • Salamis
  • Potidea
  • Olynthus
  • Plataea
  • Mycale
  • Sestus
  • Byzantium
  • Eion
  • Doriskos
  • Eurymedon
  • Prosopitis
  • Salamis and Cyprus
Persian Wars Timeline
Information on many of the individual battles.

End of the War:

The final battle of the war had led to the death of the Athenian leader Cimon and the defeat of the Persian forces in the area, but it didn't give decisive power in the Aegean to one side or the other. The Persians and Athenians were both tired and after Persian overtures, Pericles sent Callias to the Persian capital of Susa for negotiations. According to Diodorus, the terms gave the Greek poleis in Ionia their autonomy and the Athenians agreed not to campaign against the Persian king. The treaty is known as the Peace of Callias.

Historical Sources:

  • Herodotus is the principal source on the Persian Wars, from Croesus of Lydia's conquest of the Ionian poleis to the fall off Sestus (479 B.C.).
  • Thucydides provides some of the later material.
There are also later historical writers, including
  • Ephorus in the 4th century B.C., whose work is lost except for fragments, but was used by
  • Diodorus Siculus, in the 1st century A.D.
Supplementing these are
  • Justin (under Augustus) in his Epitome of Pompeius Trogus,
  • Plutarch (2nd century A.D.) Biographies and
  • Pausanias (2nd century A.D.) Geography.
In addition to historical sources, there is Aeschylus' play The Persians.
Historians of the Battle of Thermopylae

Key Figures:

Greek

Persian

There were later battles between Romans and Persians, and even another war that might be thought of as Greco-Persian, the Byzantine-Sassanid War, in the 6th and early 7th century A.D.

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