The Greco Persian wars had some of the most famous battles in all of history. And even 2.500 years after their deaths names like Leonidas or Themistocles are still widely known.
But which battles made these men immortal?
The 4 major battles of the Greco-Persian war were the battle of Marathon (August of 490 BC); the two contemporaneous battles of Thermopylae and at Artemisium (ended at August 19th 480 BC); the battle of Salamis (late September 480 BC) and the battle of Plataea (479 BC).
Why did the Persians attack Greece?
In order to understand why these major battles happened, it is important to understand the historic relationship between Greeks and Persians. The Greco-Persian wars did not start by coincidence. There was a string of events that led to the Persian attack into the greek territory.
But these events are the topic of another article. Click here to find out what triggered the Persian attack on Greece.
This article revolves around the 4 most important battles of the Greco-Persian wars.
The Persian King Dareios had cherished the idea of taking revenge on Athens and Eretria since about 498 BC. Learn more about the reasons for his lust for revenge in my article here.
The first Persian invasion into the area that we know as Greece started in 490 BC. Although movies love to portray that invasion as a Persian attempt to conquer Greece, historians are leaning towards interpreting the invasion as an attempt to take revenge for the destruction of Sardes.
Here you can find my article with more information on the Ionian revolt and the destruction of the Persian provincial capital of Sardes!
There is one main argument that supports the theory that the Persian attack on Greece was retaliation and not an invasion! During the campaign into Greece, the Persian army only destroyed Eretria. That was the one polis that together with Athens had backed the Ionian Revolt.
The Persians ignored all the other basically unprotected (and partially rich) poleis (=greek city-states) that they came across as they made their way to Eretria.
After Eretria was destroyed and the population enslaved the Persian forces turned their attention to Athens which led to the battle of Marathon in August of 490 BC. By the way, most of the enslaved Eretrians were brought to the Persian residence of Susa. There they were settled as royal farmers. When Alexander the Great conquered that area in 331 BC he must have been quite surprised to find the descendants of coastal Greeks in the middle of modern-day Iran.
Do you want to learn more about how a small army of Macedonians was able to conquer an Empire? You can find the answer here in my article.
But Alexander the Great is a topic for other articles. Let`s return to the Greco-Persian Wars!
Battle of Marathon (August 490 BC)
The battle of Marathon was named after the bay of Marathon that is located about 17 miles northwest of the city of Athens.
The Persian fleet was sailing in the southern direction and stopped here. Now you might wonder why the Persian fleet stopped at the Bay of Marathon.
The bay of Marathon is a flat area that in contrary to the rolling landscapes of central Greece is perfectly suited for the use of cavalry. And cavalry was the strongest weapon of the Achaemenid empire! It seems like the Persians were keen on fighting on a battlefield that they had chosen and that favored their troops. Here you can find out more about the size and composition of the Persian army.
The Athenian general Miltiades the Younger was able to convince the Athenians to send the army to Marathon. Additionally, a runner was sent to Sparta, more on Sparta here, to ask for reinforcements. Unfortunately, he arrived during the festival of Carneia, which was a sacred period of peace. That meant that the spartan Holites` advance on Marathon got delayed.
Here you can find my article with more information about the Hoplites and why they were such feared warriors.
How many men fought at the battle of Marathon?
The actual number of combatants at the battle of Marathon is unclear. The historian Herodotus, one of the few sources for the greco-persian war, is not really reliable when it comes to numbers or tactics. Herodotus does not give a concrete number of Persian soldiers, other ancient authors (for example the Roman writer Nepos) estimate the number of Persian combatants at the battle of Marathon to be about 100.000 men.
Obviously, that number seems completely exaggerated.
The German military historian Hans Delbrück estimated the number of combatants at the battle of Marathon to be somewhere around 5000 Athenian hoplites and about 6000 Persians.
That would mean that the forces had pretty similar strength which would also explain the outcome of the battle.
How was the battle of Marathon won?
Since Herodotus doesn’t give a plausible report on the events during the battle we don`t know how the Athenians won.
That might be a good place for some general information on the trustworthiness of Herodotus when it comes to battles. Both the number of combatants and the procedure of the battle are highly modified by Herodotus! Let me explain:
Herodotus did not write with the goal of unbiased, neutral reporting. He wanted to outdo the mythical greek writer Homer (who wrote the Trojan war and the Ilias). And since Homer was writing about impossibly huge armies Herodotus also had to write about impossibly huge armies to make sure that he, Herodotus, was writing about the biggest and most important war.
That shows not only in the number of combatants that Herodotus presents (as mentioned) but also in the way he writes about the procedure of the battle.
Herodotus claims that the Athenian Hoplites sprinted the distance of more than 0.6 miles in full armor and perfect formation. That is totally impossible! You can find out more about the fighting style of the Greek hoplites in my article here.
Sprinting that kind of distance under the given circumstances AND fighting an entire battle afterward is completely unrealistic and totally unnecessary!
Why unnecessary? Because the killing zone of the Persian bows was only around 490 ft. Sprinting the entire distance of 0,6 miles when the danger zone is just the last 490 ft doesn`t seem like a smart thing to do if you have to fight a battle afterward!
It is much more likely that the phalanx slowly advanced until they almost got in reach of the Persian bows and then sprinted the last distance. That would also fit the general tactics of the Greek phalanx. More on the tactics that the greek phalanx used in my article here.
By the way, if you watched the movie 300 you might wonder why the movie shows an Athenian surprise attack on the Persian camp. In short: because they weren`t really interested in showing what really happened.
Since the Persians had picked the battlefield the Persian army was well aware that the Athenians were there. The battle of Marathon was not an Athenian surprise attack against unprepared Persians!
So one could say that we don`t really have any idea how the Athenians actually won. But we do know that the Athenians won.
Although the Athenian victory at Marathon was not as decisive as ancient greek sources claimed. The Persians were able to retreat most of their ships and troops and were even able to set sails for Athens.
The Persian hope was that the pro-Persian fraction in Athens would open the city gates and the Persians would be able to master the city before the Hoplites could return from the battle at Marathon.
That hope was nourished by Hippias (the last, exiled tyrant of Athens) who hoped that the Persians would put him back into his original office as a tyrant. More on that here.
It seems that the Persian generals Datis and Artaphernes had planed the battle of Marathon as a distraction to lure the bulk of the Athenian army away from the city. The fact that the ships that transported the elite Persian cavalry had already set sails for Athens before the battle of Marathon happened corroborates the theory.
It also seems that the Athenian generals were aware of the danger. The Hoplite army marched back to the city as fast as possible and managed to arrive there before the Persian fleet.
When the Persians noticed the return of the Hoplites they aborted their advance and retreated. The Persian campaign of 490 BC had been a partial success since they had been able to take revenge on Eretria.
The consequences of the Athenian victory at Marathon
The Athenian victory at Marathon was highly important for the future of Athens.
The hero of Marathon was Miltiades the younger and his son Kimon immediately began to use the victory and Miltiades reputation for their goal to position Athens as the greatest polis in Greece.
The fact that Athens was able to archive a victory over the Persians without the aid of Sparta was the foundation for the political importance in the greek world that Athens would soon gain!
The battle of Thermopylae and at Artemisium (August 480 BC)
The battles of Thermopylae and at Artemisium were fought at the same time in August of 480 BC. They were part of the greek defense against the second Persian invasion.
The second invasion was on a much bigger scale than the first one. The new Persian king Xerxes (who ruled from 486 to 465 BC) had carefully prepared the operation by establishing supply depots in Thrace and Macedonia and gathering massive amounts of troops from all over his empire.
Meanwhile, the Greeks were also preparing for the Persian invasion. They had already received a message about the pending invasion in 484 BC. The Athenians under the guidance of Themistocles started arming up their navy and in 481 BC the Hellenic League was established.
It is important to realize that the Hellenic League did not include all the greek poleis. Only 31 of a total of 700-800 greek Poleis (= city-states) decided to join the Hellenic League. So not all of Greece united to fight the Persians, there was actually a substential number of Greek states that fought aside the Persians (especially in the Persian navy).
The 3 Greek lines of defense
At a meeting at Corinth in the spring of 480 BC, the Hellenic League agreed on a 3-layered defense.
The first line of defense would be formed by 10.000 Hoplites who would defend the narrow vale of Tempe in northern Thessaly.
Unfortunately, the Persian army was able to bypass the greek defenders who had to be evacuated by ship. They were brought to the last line of defense, the Isthmus of Corinth. The Isthmus of Corinth is a narrow spit of land that connects mainland Greece with the Peloponnese Peninsula (Sparta’s sphere of influence). Here you can find my article with more information on Sparta, its social structure and its origins.
The defense between the Tempe vale (northern Greece) and the Isthmus of Corinth was the narrow (65 to 98 feet wide) pass of Thermopylae that connects Thessaly to the middle of Greece.
The strategy of Themistocles was that the Greek hoplites would be able to hold the Persian advance at least long enough for the combined fleets of the Hellenic League to destroy the Persian fleet. Here you can find more information on the plan of the Hellenic League.
The idea was that the Persian army would not be able to be supplied without the Persian navy and that Greek dominance by sea would open up possibilities to land an army in the back of the Persian forces where they might be able to also cut off the Persian land-based supply-lines.
Since Sparta was the superior greek land-based force they were tasked with defending the Thermopylae.
How many Greeks fought at the Thermopylae?
Sparta took that duty very seriously and sent Leonidas I with his 300 Hippeis. This 300 men strong bodyguard usually consisted of young warriors but due to the importance of their mission they were replaced by veterans who already had fathered children.
In addition to the 300 Spartans, Leonidas was also accompanied by contingents of the other allied Peloponnesian poleis. Overall Leonidas probably had 7000 Warriors with him.
The number of Persian forces on the other hand is difficult to tell. Herodotus claimed that the Persian army consisted of a total of around 2.7 million men. That number is obviously massively exaggerated, even 100.000 men would have posed a massive threat. Just for comparison, when Alexander the Great started his campaign against the Persian empire in 334 BC he had somewhere around 35.000 men!
Do you want to learn more about the units that made up the army of Alexander the Great? Please check out my article here.
Having said that, the Greeks were still heavily outnumbered.
Due to their good position at the narrow pass of Thermopylae they were still able to defend themself for quite some while. Especially since the Persians didn`t start their frontal attack until the fifth day after their arrival.
It wasn`t until the third day of the battle that Persian troops were able to bypass the Greek defense. Herodotus claims that the bypass was the result of treason. But since Herodotus liked to tell history for entertainment it is unclear if this treason ever happened.
Leonidas, who knew that he was in danger of being outflanked decided to sent the bulk of the surviving troops home and to secure the retreat with his remaining Spartans, 700 Tespiens, and 400 Thebans.
Why didn`t Leonidas retreat?
Up to this day, it is heavily debated why Leonidas decided not to retreat. If we believe Herodotus then Leonidas had two motives.
- Leonidas wanted to cover the retreat of the surviving 3.000 Greeks (about 4.000 were already dead) so that they could reinforce the defenses at the Isthmus of Corinth.
- Herodotus claimes that Spartiates would never retreat. This claim that Spartiates would choose death over retreat sticks to this day although there is no proof that it was the case. And there are quite a lot of battles where Spartans preferred to retreat or get captured over fighting to the death. But that is an article for another time!
The most likely explanation is that Leonidas wanted to ensure the retreat of the Greek fleet that was still fighting at Artemisium. If the fleet had to retreat they would have had to use a narrow (at parts only 50 feet wide) canal.
If the Persians would have passed the Thermopylae and reached the canal before the greek fleet had passed it the results would have been devastating.
The course of the contemporaneous naval battle at Artemisium made it absolutely necessary to defend the canal!
The naval battle at Artemisium
Suffering horrific losses the greek fleet consisting of 270 ships was able to withstand the Persian fleet until the news about the defeat at the Thermopylae reached them.
Then the greek fleet was able to retreat on the fourth day of the battle.
Although the Persians had suffered significant losses they still won both battles and achieved their goals. The Persian access to central Greece was secured.
The Hellenic League on the other hand was in a bad spot.
The consequences of the defeats at the Thermopylae and Artemisium
After the lost battles of the Thermopylae and Artemisium in 480 BC Athens had to be abandoned and was destroyed by the Persians. The alliance had been pushed back to their last line of defense (the Isthmus of Corinth) but they still had their fleet.
The fleet of the Hellenic League, officially under spartan command but in practice commanded by the Athenian Themistocles, gathered off the shore of Salamis where they tried to lure the Persian fleet into a battle.
Xerxes needed a victory over the greek fleet. It was already September and the season for naval activities reached its end. He hoped that a decisive victory over the greek fleet would end in the surrender of the Hellenic League.
So Themistocles tricked the Persian fleet into attacking by convincing Xerxes that he wanted to join the Persians and that the Greek fleet was too weak to withstand a Persian attack.
Battle of Salamis (late September 480 BC)
Everything went exactly as Themistocles had planned. The numerically superior Persians attacked the Greek fleet in the cramped straits of Salamis.
Because of the cramped space, the Persians were not able to take advantage of their numeric superiority and suffers heavy losses.
The exact details of the battle are not known but after 12 hours of fighting the 380 greek ships were able to win over the 1200 ships’ strong Persian fleet.
The victory of Salamis was the turning point of the war. The Persian fleet was defeated. Xerxes feared that the Greek fleet would be able to cut him and his army off his supply line. So he retreated the bulk of his army.
Only a small contingent under the command of the Persian general Mardonius remained in Greece.
And although the victory at Salamis did not decide the war it significantly improved the greek position and solidified Athens’s spot as a naval power. The victory also gave the legitimation to use the Athenian fleet offensively. It is fair to say that the Persian war allowed Athens to transform from a quite unimportant city into a global superpower within 5 years!
But the war wasn`t over yet and there was a momentous political overturn in Athens during the winter of 480/79 BC. Xanthippos and Arristeides were voted to be new generals instead of Themistocles.
And in the summer of 479 BC, the Persian general Mardonius destroyed Athens for one last time after he realized that Athens would not ally with Xerxes.
But as soon as he heard about the approaching spartan army Mardonius retreated back north to the city of Plataea.
Mardonios hoped to lure the Greek forces into the open territory where the outstanding Persian cavalry could be used to its full effect.
Battle of Plataea (479 BC)
While Mardonios and 70.000 – 80.000 Persian warriors waited at the city of Plataea the Greek force advanced.
The greek army under the command of the spartan King Pausanias consisted of approximately 38.000 Hoplites including 5.000 Spartiates.
Including the lightly armed forces, the Hellenic League was able to mobilize approximately 60.000 men for the battle of Plataea.
The following battle was one of the biggest hoplite battles in entire antiquity. The spartan phalanx and the spartan king Pausanias were fighting in the first line of battle and were a big part of the Greek victory.
The Persians fleed after the death of their general Mardonius.
According to Herodotus the greeks only lost 159 men while later ancient roman historians estimate around 10.000 fallen greeks. That shows once again that numbers given by Herodotus must always be interpreted with caution!
Nevertheless was the battle of Plataea was a big spartan victory. The impact of the battle was that the Hellenic League was able to leave the defense and go on the offense.
But it is also important to note that the battles of the Thermopylae and the battle of Plataea were used by Sparta to idolize them as the saviors of entire Greece. Just like Athens used the battles of Marathon and Salamis to pose as the savior of entire Greece.
The following rivalry between Sparta and Athens over who should be the leading power in Greece would later lead to the Peloponnesian War end the end of one of the two mighty city-states. But that is a story for another time.
I hope you enjoyed our trip to ancient Greece.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
C. Dionysopoulos: The Battle of Marathon: A Historical and Topographical Approach, 2015.
N. Sekunda: Marathon 490 BC: The first Persian Invasion of Greece (Campaign), 2002.
P. Cartledge: Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World, 2006.
O. Rees: The Great Naval Battles of the Ancient World, 2018.
G. Beardoe: The Topography of the Battles of Plataea: The City of Plataea. The Field of Leuctra, 2015.