History of the Greco-Persian Conflicts – Part 2


With the failure of his planned invasion in 490 BC, Darius set about planning a new campaign into Greece as his desire to punish the Athenians and all who stood in the way, still burned within him. His plans however never materialised as several uprisings within the empire and a large revolt in Egypt prevented him from any more invasions.

Meanwhile the Greek city states used this time in the 480’s BC well, forming larger alliances with one another, having Sparta and Athens in leading roles.

Darius the great of the Achaemenid Empire died in October of the year 486 BC having never been able to have his vengeance upon the Greeks. Darius was succeeded by his son Xerxes after the throne was contested by another of Darius’ sons named Artobarzanes. The new Emperor Xerxes quickly went about putting an end to the instability within his empire. He rapidly put down any and all revolts, swiftly moving against any who posed a threat to him. After this was done, Xerxes was free to move in motion his fathers plans of finally invading Greece and taking revenge on the city of Athens. 10 long years had passed since the failure at Marathon but now the instability had subsided and the Persians had constructed an absolute mammoth army, the largest the world had ever seen at this point, with Greece in it’s sights.

During the years 481–480 BC, the Conference at the Isthmus of Corinth established the Hellenic League, which allied under the Spartans to fight the war against Persia. Originally representatives from 70 different Greek city states gathered here to discuss the common threat of a Persian invasion however the city states in question were typically distrustful of each-other with some even being at war with one another. Due to this, by the time this new Hellenic alliance had come together in agreement, only 30 states remained. 14 of these states joined as they were already part of the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. Of the 700 city states of ancient Greece, most had decided to either remain neutral or to simply surrender to Persian rule. The leaders of the 2 main states came to a decision as to where they would make their stand. Themistocles of Athens proposed a 2 front defence with the Athenian navy stopping the Persian fleet at Artemisium, preventing them from landing troops behind the Greek army and Leonidas with his Spartans holding the Persian army on land at the narrow pass known as Thermopylea (The Hot Gates). Leonidas agreed and began making preparations. 

Xerxes marched his army of over 300,000. He ordered the construction of a giant pontoon bridge stretching all the way from one side of the Hellespont, now known as Dardanelles, to the other. This is the waterway strait in north-western Turkey that forms part of the continental boundary between Europe and Asia, and separates Asian Turkey from European Turkey. On their way through Greece, the Persians sent emissaries to all city states demanding they surrender to Emperor Xerxes and hand over an offering of land and water. However when these emissaries reached Sparta and Leonidas had heard what they had to say….. He supposedly responded to them by throwing them down a pit used for captured enemies and convicts, telling them that they would ‘find plenty of water down there’.

As it was Carnea and no fighting was to be done at this time, Leonidas consulted the Oracle. During his visit to the Delphic oracle, it was said that only the sacrifice of an heir to the throne of Hercules could detain the fury of the son of Perseus. According to Greek mythology the Persians were descendants of Perseus. Faced with the choice between his own death and the destruction of Sparta, Leonidas realized that it was his fate to march against Xerxes. Unable to take his whole army as the festival of Carnea was still ongoing, he hand picked 300 elite soldiers to accompany him. Though on his march, Leonidas was joined by soldiers from numerous other city states including, Thebes and Thespia. All together these Hellenic allies numbered 7000.   

Leonidas positioned his army at the Gates of Fire, a strip of a cliff that was so narrow that the numerical superiority of the Persian army would be curved. This was the perfect place for the formation of the Greek phalanx.

Before the actual battle took place, Xerxes proposed a unification between Sparta and Persia so that they could rule the whole of Greece under the flag of the Achaemenid Empire. Leonidas was quick to reject this offer.

The battle began in August of the year 480 BC with a mixture of archer and cavalry attacks from the Persians. These attacks proved near useless with the arrows bouncing off of hard metal helmets and shields whilst the cavalry struggled to manoeuvrer in the narrow space and to inflict any damage because of the wall of shields and spears of the hoplites.

Xerxes realised there was no alternative to sending in the infantry for one on one combat and so he ordered the Medes in his army forward, they were veteran light spear-men. The 2 sides met in a moment of bloodshedding fury! The phalanxes spearheads’ mauling the Persians continuously! These engagements did not last long due to the searing heat, so clashes came and went quickly, minuets at a time. The Medes sustained heavy losses, their wickerwork shields not being enough to compete with the gear of their Greek counterparts. The Persians were used to wide open terrains and warfare based on manoeuvrability and thus were not used to fighting a tightly packed heavy armoured phalanx enemy. Their bodies piled against the wall.

However the battle seemed to take a turn when the Greeks began to pull back. Overcome with the desire to win a quick victory, the Medes charged! Breaking formation whilst pushing forward. But then a sudden realisation. It was a trap! The Greek formation wheeled around in a well disciplined manner. The scattered and lightly armoured Medes now faced a rock solid enemy. The wall of Greek shields hit the Persians’ ragged formation and tore into them. After a few hours of this Xerxes, frustrated and appalled at their display, ordered the withdrawal of his Medes.

Xerxes would not allow a small band of Greeks to humiliated him so he sent in his elite guard known as the immortals. To further his frustration, though these troops were able to push much harder, the end result was more or less the same and the Persian body count was rising.

Needless to say the Greek strategy was working amazingly. But unfortunately for them the Spartans were betrayed by a Greek named Ephialtes, whom of which informed the Persians of a route used by Shepherds that would go around the pass thereby flanking the Greeks. In order to take this route the Persians had to climb a thousand meters and walk in single-file but it was possible. By the second day of the battle the best of the Persian army had been slain, however they now had a way to end this.

During the night the troops that Leonidas had sent to patrol the pass had been caught completely off guard. The immortals, after silently scaling the mountains, were upon them. By the morning the Greeks were almost completely surrounded.

Leonidas knew this would be a last stand and came to the decision that while he, his Spartans and their helots would remain behind, the rest of the army would retreat and regroup to fight another day. However, overcome with emotion and in an act of incredible bravery, over 1000 of the soldiers refused to leave and opted to remain with the Spartan king to aid in slowing down the Persian advance. These men, unlike Spartans who were trained from the day they were born to expect death in battle, were civilians who gave up lives and families to die with their Spartan allies.

Those who remained readied themselves. Knowing death was inevitable these men lost all fear. They stabbed until their spears broke! Leonidas was killed quite early in this engagement, after seeing this, the Greeks charged forward and fought none stop, until their swords and shields were shattered to a point where they started fighting with their hands and teeth! In the end Xerxes decided to just rain arrows none stop until these men were finally dead and after things at long last went silent, he walked down to the battlefield and shoved the Spartan king Leonidas’ head on a stake. He then began his victorious march towards Athens. Xerxes had won, but at the cost of thousands of soldiers, entirely too many elite forces and even 2 of his brothers.

Having won the battle, Xerxes made his way to the City that had caused him, his dead father and his empire so much trouble. Athens would soon be in his sight….


During the battle of Thermopylae where the Spartans led the Greek army in an attempt at blockading the Persian advance, Themistocles had been holding the Persian navy at the straits of Artemisium. Themistocles had around 300 triremes at his command, these were a type of ship that had 3 lines of rowers and were the very best in terms of war vessels being both robust and fast. Initially Xerxes had over 1000 ships at his disposal, however a thunderous storm fell upon many of these ships destroying about a quarter of the fleet. Another fraction of these ships was destroyed by yet another storm as they attempted to land forces on the Greek mainland. Still Themistocles was badly outnumbered, despite this the Greeks managed to hold the Persian navy from landing.

The battle of Artemisium lasted for the same 3 days as Leonidas’ blockade and ended inconclusively. After the fall of king Leonidas and the Persian victory at Thermopylae however, these Greek ships broke away from the blockade and returned to Athens.

Xerxes continued his campaign and the Achaemenid forces marched across ancient Greece. City after city fell to the Persians until finally Xerxes’ army had Athens in their sight.

Finally after years of waiting, thousands of men dead and 2 generations of trying, the Persians reached the city of Athens. Xerxes having waited to fulfil his fathers desire of vengeance for the Ionian revolt, Marathon and for defying his great Achaemenid Empire, could at long last take his revenge.

But to his surprise, apon invading the great city, Xerxes found Athens to be almost entirely empty. This was because during what had become a stalemate at the battle of Artemisium, Themistocles hadn’t just fallen back to Athens but had in fact used his ships to evacuate the whole city before the Persians could get to it’s citizens. Even so, Xerxes was merciless to anyone and anything that was left. He ordered the entire Acropolis pillaged and anything left behind to be burned to the ground. His fathers wish to burn Athens to ashes had been fulfilled.

Themistocles retreated, taking the Athenians to the near by island of Salamis where he received some reinforcements bringing his trireme fleet up to 370 ships, while Xerxes was busy torching Athens to the ground. There he planned his next move. Knowing he was outnumbered and the odds were against him Themistocles thought on how he could hope to stand any chance of victory. In a moment of brilliance he realized a certain pattern in the reasons for Persian victory in the past. They tended to avoid blundering into direct and difficult clashes and preferred to rely on betrayals. They had won at Lade due to the desertion of the ships from Samos, they attempted to divide unity of the Greek army at Marathon by the use of Hippias and had victory at Thermopylae as a result of Ephialtes revealing the passage around the Hot Gates. With this, Themistocles thought up a plan to deceive the Persians. Using a ‘betrayal’ to his advantage, he sent a reliable servant to Xerxes. This servant pretended to be a traitor and claimed he had valuable information that he would tell the Persians in exchange for a reward. Eager to have a full victory Xerxes agreed to hear him out. The servant told Xerxes where the Greek fleet was hiding and claimed that the troops were disorganised and on the brink of defection. With this information Xerxes decided to send his fleet in to finally put an end to the Athenian resistance and complete his victory.

In September of the year 480 BC Xerxes sent his fleet to the strait of Salamis for what he had hoped to be the final battle with Athens and a final blow to Greek resistance. Xerxes placed himself on a throne on top of a near by hill so he could watch his final great victory play out.

Persian ships were sent to all possible escape routes in order to surround and trap the Greeks. The near by island of psyttalia was occupied and the Persian ships started to enter the strait itself to finally crush what they believed to be a small band of disorganised Greeks.

To the Persians surprise however, upon reaching the Greek ships they found a well disciplined force of determined soldiers ready to fight for their lands. Seeing the well executed formation of the enemy ships, the Persians found themselves astounded. Even so they began to close in on the triremes knowing they outnumbered them 2-1. The battle started with the first line of Greek triremes smashing into the Persian vessels using the rams of bronze, many Persian vessels sunk right away.

Earlier in the morning a group of triremes moved back, going behind the rest of the Greek ships and sailing away from the battlefield. This made sense to the Persians, still believing that there was disunity amongst the Greeks. This however was not the case. The Persians moved their ships forwards, seemingly pushing the Greeks back. This was a trap set up by Themistocles. He was well aware of the weather conditions and ordered a counter attack just as the winds changed direction. With the wind blowing from the east, the Greek ships sped up while the Persians slowed down. The triremes tore through the entirety of the first line, resulting in the deaths of a great number of Persian commanders. A few moments later the ships that had been thought to have retreated earlier came storming back, hitting the right flank of the Persian lines. The Greeks massively dominated in the boarding actions too as their heavy hoplites were deployed on enemy ships and caused much devastation on the lightly armoured Persians. While all this was happening, due to the narrowness of the strait and the swelling of Persian ships, the vast numbers began to turn against the Persians favour. Many vessels were beginning to crash into each-other and these damaged ships would become easy prey for the Greeks.

Xerxes was in complete disbelief at what he was seeing, powerless to do anything from his throne he watched as his ships were torn apart one by one while his soldiers were cut down or drowned by the thousands. Many soldiers banded together after abandoning ship or having their vessels sunk and headed for the beech. These men were however met with the Greek hoplites, ready to kill any who made it to them. The Persian admiral ordered a retreat after losing a third of the fleet. The Persians lost around 300 ships and the invasion was in complete disarray.

After the battle of Salamis it was clear that the Athenian navy could very easily pose a threat to the bridge connecting the Hellespont. Realizing this Xerxes decided to make his way back to Persia, not wanting to become trapped in Europe. Winter would be approaching soon and there was nothing more he could do.

However the fight was far from over. Xerxes ordered his cousin and trusted general Mardonius to continue the war in Greece and dominate the remaining city states. With a large army under his command and a great responsibility on his shoulders, Mardonius prepared to continue the campaign and bring the rest of Greece to submission.

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