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The Persian Wars

Cleisthenes’ new administrative reforms had a strong influence on the composition of the army which was soon to be put to the test.

The Persian Wars, 490–479 BC, were a series of conflicts fought between Greek states and the Persian Empire. The writings of Herodotus, who was born about.484 BC, are a great source of knowledge of the history of the wars. At their beginning, the Persian Empire of Darius I included all of West Asia as well as Egypt. On the coast of Asia Minor there were a few Greek city-states that revolted against Darius' despotic rule. Athens and Eretria in Euboea (now Evvoia) gave the Ionian cities some help but not enough and they were subdued by the Persians. Darius decided to punish Athens and Eretria by adding Greece to his vast empire. In 492 BC a Persian expedition commanded by Mardonius conquered Thrace and Macedon but its fleet was crippled by a storm.

A second expedition, commanded by Artaphernes and Datis, destroyed Eretria and then proceeded against Athens. The Persians encamped 32 km (20 miles) from the city on the coast plain of Marathon. Here they were attacked and decisively defeated by the Athenian army of 10.000 men aided by 1.000 men from Plataea. The Athenians were heavily outnumbered but fought under Miltiades whose strategy won the battle. They had sought the help of Sparta by way of the Athenian courier Pheidippides, who covered the distance (241 km – 250 miles) from Athens to Sparta within two days. The Spartan forces however, failed to reach Marathon until the day after the battle. Top

Pheidippides and the Marathon run

The traditional story tells that Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger, ran the 42 km (26 miles) from the battlefield by the town of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) with the word "Nenikékamen" (We were victorious!) and died on the spot. Most accounts incorrectly attribute this story to the historian Herodotus who wrote the history of the Persian Wars in his Histories (written ca.440 BC).

Sadly for historical romance, the story is probably a myth. If the Athenians wanted to send an urgent message to Athens there was no reason why they could not have sent a messenger on horseback. In any case, no such story appears in Herodotus. The relevant passage of Herodotus is:Statue of Pheidippides on the marathon route in Rafina

"Before they left the city, the Athenian generals sent off a message to Sparta. The messenger was an Athenian named Pheidippides, a professional long-distance runner. According to the account he gave the Athenians on his return, Pheidippides met the god Pan on Mount Parthenium, above Tegea. Pan, he said, called him by name and told him to ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, in spite of his friendliness towards them and the fact that he had often been useful to them in the past and would be so again in the future.

The Athenians believed Pheidippides's story and when their affairs were once more in a prosperous state, they built a shrine to Pan under the Acropolis and from the time his message was received they held an annual ceremony with a torch-race and sacrifices to court his protection.

On the occasion of which I speak - when Pheidippides, that is, was sent on his mission by the Athenian commanders and said that he saw Pan - he reached Sparta the day after he left Athens and delivered his message to the Spartan government. "Men of Sparta", the message ran, "the Athenians ask you to help them, and not to stand by while the most ancient city of Greece is crushed and subdued by a foreign invader; for even now Eretria has been enslaved and Greece is the weaker by the loss of one fine city.".

The Spartans, though moved by the appeal and willing to send help to Athens, were unable to send it promptly because they did not wish to break their law. It was the ninth day of the month and they said they could not take the field until the moon was full. So they waited for the full moon and meanwhile Hippias, the son of Pisistratus, guided the Persians to Marathon."

The Battle of MarathonThe significance of this story is only understood in the light of the legend that the god Pan returned the favor by fighting with the Athenian troops against the Persians at Marathon. This was important because Pan, in addition to his other powers, had the capacity to instil a blind fear that paralyzed the mind and suspended all sense of judgment, pure panic.

Herodotus was writing about 50 years after the events he describes happened so it is reasonably likely that Pheidippides is a historical figure. If he ran the 246 km over rough roads from Athens to Sparta within two days, it would be an achievement worthy of remembrance. Whether the story is true or not, it has no connection with the Battle of Marathon itself and Herodotus's silence on the subject of a messenger running from Marathon to Athens suggests strongly that no such event occurred.

The first known written account of a run from Marathon to Athens occurs in the works of the Greek writer Plutarch (46-120). In his essay “On the Glory of Athens”, Plutarch attributes the run to a messenger called either Thersippus or Eukles. Lucian, a century later, credits one "Philippides." It seems likely that in the 500 years between Herodotus's time and Plutarch's, the story of Pheidippides had become muddled with that of the Battle of Marathon and some fanciful writer had invented the story of the run from Marathon to Athens.

While the marathon celebrates the mythical run from Marathon to Athens, since 1982 an annual footrace from Athens to Sparta, known as the Spartathlon, celebrates Pheidippides's at least semi-historical run across 241 km of Greek countryside. Top

The Persians did not continue the war but Darius at once began preparations for a third expedition so powerful that the overwhelming of Greece would be certain. He died in 486 BC before his preparations were completed but they were continued by Xerxes I, his son and successor. The Athenians were persuaded by their leader Themistocles to strengthen their navy and to wall the city. So Athens was fortified with the Themistoclean Wall..

The Persian danger led to the creation of the First Athenian League in 478 BC. Originally, its members included the majority of the cities of the Aegean islands and of the coasts of Asia Minor. At the same time, the reinforcements of the fleet resulted in the increase of landless free Athenians, given the fact that only free citizens worked in the ships. This, combined with the political changes brought about by Themistocles and Ephialtes (462 BC), spread and consolidated the institution of democracy.

In 480, Xerxes reached Greece with a tremendous army and navy and considerable support among the Greeks. The route of the Persian land forces lay through the narrow pass of Thermopylae. The pass was defended by the Spartan Leonidas; his small army held the Persians back but was eventually trapped by a Persian detachment; the Spartan contingent chose to die fighting in the pass rather than flee. The Athenians put their trust in their navy and made little effort to defend their city, which was taken by the Persians (480 BC)

ThemistoclesShortly afterwards, the Persian fleet was crushed in the straits off the island of Salamis by a Greek force. The Greek victory was aided by the strategy of Themistocles. Xerxes returned to Persia but left a military force in Greece under his general, Mardonius. The defeat of this army in 479 at Plataea near Thebes (now Thívai) by a Greek army under the Spartan Pausanias with Aristides commanding the Athenians and a Greek naval victory at Mycale on the coast of Asia Minor, ended all danger from Persian invasions of Europe. During the remaining period of the Persian Wars the Greeks in the Aegean islands and Asia Minor, under Athenian leadership, strengthened their position without seeking conquest.

The Persian Wars made Athens the strongest Greek city-state. Much smaller and less powerful than Sparta at the start of the wars, Athens was more active and more effective in the fighting against Persia. The Athenian heroes Miltiades, Themistocles and Cimon were largely responsible for building the city's strength. In 490 BC the Greek army defeated Persia at Marathon. A great Athenian fleet won a major victory over the Persians off the island of Salamis ten years later.

The powerful fleet also enabled Athens to gain hegemony in the Delian League, which was created in 478–477 BC through the confederation of many city-states. In succeeding years the league was transformed into an empire headed by Athens. The city arranged peace with Persia in 449 BC and with its chief rival, Sparta in 445 BC but warfare with smaller Greek cities continued.

For typical words, please consult our Greek Glossary Top



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