Classics Essays - Persian King


It was the Athenians who - after the gods - drove back the Persian King. Discuss the truth of this statement.

This question is potentially very broad indeed as it does not specify which of the two Persian invasions of Greece it refers to; with this in mind and for the sake of completeness I will attempt to discuss its legitimacy with reference to both Persian Wars.

Marathon - 490.

Darius, the Persian king, had very probably made an attempt to invade Greece in 492, two years before Marathon, by sending Mardonius on the land route through Thrace towards central Greece. This expedition had ultimately failed because of the destruction of its supporting fleet in a storm resulting in what seems to have been a rather hastily prepared naval expedition in 490. Persian numbers are, of course, much debated and often exaggerated, Herodotus tells us of 600 Persian ships, Hammond speculated 25,000 men at most. The campaign began with the Persians capturing Eretria, placing Athens in extreme peril. The Athenians, fearing the strength of the Persian forces sent a runner to Sparta, and a number of other allies, asking for military aid. The Lacedeminians, who seem to have been a genuinely religions people, replied that they would come to Athens aid but that various portends forbade them from marching that month, having to wait until the next full moon had passed.

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Once the Persian fleet had landed at Marathon, the Athenians were presented with a problem, march out and confront the enemy and risk loosing the then undefended city to a naval assault or wait to be besieged on two fronts. Given that Athens defences were weak at this time, the choice was to march to Marathon. The Athenian full muster was around 9000, although this included an unknown number of Plataean allies who had honoured their recent alliance with Athens and answered the Athenian call for help. The Athenain commander was Callimachus, although he was intelligent and honest enough to recognise that Miltiades was the greater strategist and thus essentially ceded control of the expedition to him.

Once both sides arrived at Marathon there was something of a standoff lasting several days, neither side wanting to engage the enemy. The Persians were giving themselves, and the last remaining Pisistratid, as much time as possible to win allies in Athens and Attica, whilst the Athenians were waiting for the Spartans. The Persians were the first to act, forcing a battle. This was no doubt because they feared that the Spartans’ arrival was imminent and they had much greater chance of success against only the Athenians and Plataeans.

Thermopylae and Artemisium - 480.

After a ten year interlude following the Persian defeat at Marathon, Xerxes invaded Greece once again, this time with vastly greater forces than those of Darius. The Greeks initially decided upon a northern strategy, choosing to defend the critical pass of Thermopylae after initially considering and rejecting the Vale of Tempe further to the north. The eventually unsuccessful defence of Thermopylae was conducted by a small number of Spartans supported by greater numbers of Thespians, Phocians and contingents from smaller states. It is important to note that the Athenians were not involved. Although the Greeks were defeated at Thermopylae, their delaying action gave the Greeks precious time to prepare and, more importantly, it made the naval battle of Artemisium possible.

At Artemisium the Persian navy numbered, according to Herodotus, around 1200 ships, considerably more than the Athenian fleet that opposed them. The Persian ships were larger and probably faster but the greater agility of the Athenian ships was critical in the narrow waters off Artemisium. There was also another critical advantage for the Athenians, their ships was of a rather more stout design, built for ramming, whereas the Persian ships were essentially used for boarding opponents. The considerable loss of Persian hips at Artemisium played a decisive role in the outcome of the war; reducing the Persian fleet ensured that Xerxes would not be able to divide his fleet and raid the Peloponnesian coast or to divert the attention of the Greeks away from their actual targets.

Salamis - 480.

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Before the battle their seems to have been considerable debate as to what to do with the fleet, the Athenians favoured keeping it at Salamis, whereas the Peloponnesians wanted it moved closer to the land forces defending the Isthmus of Corinth. The Athenians won the debate however, that the battle of Salamis ensued. The Greek fleet at this time numbered around 380 triremes, most of which were Athenian but not all, a significant Corinthian contingent was also present. The Persian navy was around three times as strong, but was again fighting in narrows rather than the open sea where their greater numbers and speed would probably have proved decisive. Superior Greek tactics again won a great victory and the Persian fleet was defeated, but the land army was not.

Plataea. – 479.

This battle is one that is often overlooked by scholars but we should remember that the battles of 480 had been, generally speaking, positive for the Greeks, but far from decisive; Xerxes was in control of all of Greece up to the Isthmus of Corinth. Xerxes had returned to Persia after the defeat at Salamis, but Mardonius was left n command of a strong Persian force. The Greek force that was victorious at Plataea contained contingents from all over the Greek world, certainly more than from Athens alone, in fact it was not even commanded by an Athenian specifically but the command was nominally with the Spartans, usually recognised as the dominant land power.

The Persian defeat at Plataea, again a defeat of superior numbers to superior tactics, saw the end of the Persian attempts to directly conquer Greece. This would not have been evident at the time though and we see the Greeks pursuing the Persians back towards the Ionian coast and the battle of Mycale.


The final element of the question that has not been touched upon it the theological element. The statement in the question does show that the Greeks were a very religious peoples, victory was achieved because the gods were on the side of the victor, gods themselves were often seen as actual participants upon the battlefield. The religious nature of the Greeks can also be seen in the Spartan reluctance to march to Marathon until after the full moon as this would be inauspicious, their failure to send more troops to Thermopylae or to send reinforcements can bee seen in the same light, although their lack of belief in the northern strategy also played a significant part here.

The required brevity of this essay precludes the possibility of examining even one of the encounters in any depth, let along analysing the whole of the two separate Persian Wars. Even from the brief analysis above, however, we can see that the statement in the question is far from true. The Athenians were largely responsible for the victory at Marathon, but they were not alone, and the very threat of the Spartans arrival forced an encounter on Athenian terms. Thermopylae saw no Athenians involvement at all whilst Artemisium and Salamis, like Marathon, was largely but not entirely Athenian victories. The final battle on Greek soil, Plataea, again saw Athenian involvement, but also saw the involvement of contingents from many other Greek states and was not even commanded by an Athenian. The statement is, therefore, not true although Athenian propaganda would have seen Marathon and Salamis as the key battles, and these were largely Athenian victories.

To most of the Greek world, then, this statement would be entirely false. The Persian defeat was an allied victory, not an exclusively Athenian one. The Spartans, for instance, would point to Thermopylae and Plataea as the decisive battles, partly because of their involvement, but partly also because they were a land power and these was land battles. The Athenians on the other hand, did see the Persian defeat as largely their doing, focussing upon Artemisium and Salamis and the key encounters, Xerxes did leave Greece after Salamis after all. 


P. Bradley, Ancient Greece: Using Evidence (Rydalemere, 1988)
A. R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks (London 1984)
J. B. Bury & R. Meiggs, A History of Greece (London 1994)
J. Hackett (ed.), Warfare in the Ancient World (London 1989)
N. G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece to 322 B.C. (Oxford, 1959)
A. B. Lloyd (ed.), Battle in Antiquity (London 1996)

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