One of the most iconic sentences from the movie 300: Rise of an Empire* is when the Persian king of kings is told „All of Greece has united against you“. But was that really the case? Was it really all of Greece that united to fight the Persian invasion of 480 BC?
Only 31 out of more than 1,000 Greek city-states joined the Hellenic League, the defense alliance (Symmachie) against the Persian Empire. The other Greek city-states stayed either neutral or fought aside the Persians (Many ships and their crews in the Persian fleet were contributed by Greek city-states). So it`s a myth that all of Greece united to fight the Persians.
Do you want to find out more about the Persian fleet during the time of the Persian Wars and why it was so important to the Persian war machine? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
But let`s now take a closer look at why the idea of all of Greece uniting against the Persian invasion is wrong.
The Hellenic League – only 31 out of 1,000 Greek city-states join forces against the Persians
When it comes to the Greek resistance against the Persian invasion of 480 BC, then we have to take a close look at the Hellenic League.
The Hellenic League was a defense alliance of 31 city-states from Central- and Southern Greece against the Persian Empire, that was founded in 481 BC at the city of Corinth. The most prominent members were Athens, Corinth, and Sparta.
The fact that only Greek city-states of Central- and Southern Greece joined the Hellenic League would eventually become important when the League had to decide on where they would face the Persian army. The fact that the Passage of Thermopylae was chosen was a direct result of the fact that the member states from Central Greece didn`t want to surrender their hometowns without a fight.
By the way.
The fact that only 31 out of more than 1,000 Greek city-states joined the Hellenic League also explains the first decision that the council of the Hellenic League made. The first decision of the Hellenic League was to threaten the other Greek city-states that hadn`t joined the alliance. The Hellenic League decided that every Greek city-state that surrendered to the Persians without a fight would have to pay 1/10 of its wealth or face total obliteration by the forces of the Hellenic League.
Speaking of punishment for surrender. Have you ever heard the claim that Spartans were prohibited from surrendering and retreating? Here you can find out whether or not that claim is actually true & what really happened to Spartans who surrendered or retreated.
Additionally, the Hellenic League also decided that all wars between its members had to be paused for the time of the Persian threat so that all forces could be focused on fighting the Persians.
Now that might sound odd to us, but war was pretty common in ancient Greek. On average a normal Greek city-state would at least fight one war every 2-3 years. The causes for these wars could be small, for example, the ownership of a herd of sheep, or big. And the alliances in these wars usually changed pretty quickly although there were almost eternal enmities like for example the enmity between the city-state of Sparta and its` neighbor Argos.
Speaking of rivalries within Greece. These rivalries were used by the Persians quite cleverly.
Argos, the old rival and neighbor of Sparta, didn`t join the Hellenic League, but instead allied with the Persians. That alliance gave Argos pro-persian neutrality, which meant that it did not have to risk its own troops but also didn`t have any threat of being attacked by the Persians. Plus there was also the chance that the old rival Sparta would be crushed by the Persians.
By the way.
Alliances (or at least negotiations) with the Persian Empire were nothing unusual for many Greek city-states. Even Sparta had negotiated over an alliance with the Persians in 490 BC when the Persians first entered Greece to punish the city-states of Athens and Eretria. These negotiations between Sparta and the Persian messengers were also the reason why the Spartans didn`t throw any Persian messengers down a well.
And towards the end of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta would once again ally with the Persians to be able to increase the size of its fleet.
Speaking of the Spartan Navy.
Even though the Spartan navy was much smaller than the Athenian navy, the supreme command on both land and water over the forces of the Hellenic League was still given to Sparta!
However, it was still the Athenian fleet that contributed most ships to the fleet of the Hellenistic League. As such, Athens claimed that it was mostly responsible for the victory in the Persian Wars. Sparta on the other hand also claimed that it had been mostly responsible for winning the Persian Wars since its armies had fought at the Battle of Thermopylae and then won a decisive victory over the Persians in the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC.
That disagreement caused the rivalry between Athens and Sparta that would eventually result in the Peloponnesian War. But that is a story for another time.
For now, I would like to briefly talk about why only so few Greek city-states joined the Hellenic League in 481 BC.
Why did only so few Greek city-states join the fight against the Persians?
As mentioned, there were more than 1,000 Greek city-states in the Mediterranean. And while some were situated in Southern Italy, Southern France, Spain, or Northern Africa, most were situated in modern-day Greece, Asia Minor, and around the Black Sea. The reason why Greek city-states existed all over the Mediterranean can be found in the Greek colonization between the 8th and 6th century BC.
But that is a story for another time, more on that here.
The Greek city-states in Asia Minor had been under Persian dominance ever since 546 BC. And since they had just unsuccessfully rebelled against Persian dominion in the Ionian revolt, they had no other choice than to once again fight on the Persian side. The Greek city-states of Northern Greece also chose to stay either neutral or side with the Persians since they were much more exposed to the Persian troops than the city-states in the South of Greece. Additionally, the chances of success of the Hellenic League (a small league that was centered in Central- and Southern Greece) were seen as limited.
And most Greek city-states in the Western Mediterranean didn`t enter the fight against Persia since they were simply not affected by the Persian invasion of Greece. Only few of the Greek city-states in Italy (for example the city of Tarent) send a couple of Hoplites.
By the way. The Greek city-states in Asia Minor also had to contribute crews and ships to the Persian navy. In fact, the Persian fleet was not so much an exclusively Persian fleet as much more a fleet that was raised from the ships and crews of the Persian subject people.
However, Greek troops also fought in the Persian army as even the Historian Herodotus acknowledges. But that is a story for another time.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Karl-Wilhelm Welweit: Sparta. Aufstieg und Niedergang einer antiken Großmacht (Stuttgart 2004).*
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