Ancient History 101: Greece 03 - The Persian Invasions.

The Persian Invasions

Greece chapter 3 (490-479 BCE)

We’ll race through this quickly: The Persian Empire invaded by land and sea and there were a string of epic battles as the Greeks battled for their homeland: Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea.

Hold on, hold on. Let’s slow down. Did we just skip over Thermopylae? That must not be. There is no greater final stand in history than this. Here is the short version.

The Persians

It’s hard to know how far back to go with historical events, especially when it comes to domino-like situations where one thing leads to another. It’s also difficult to know who we should root for sometimes.. In general, we tend to identify with David vs. Goliath sort of narratives, in which there appears to be a clear-cut underdog (i.e. good guy) versus tyrant (i.e. bad guy). The tale of Persia versus the Greek city-states is wonderful on so many levels because it opens up discussion about many things, the first of them being:

Why do we inevitably see Persia as Being the big bad bully?

This is a great opportunity to talk about point-of-view (POV), also known as perspective. Especially for those of us who have grown up in the Western world, when we hear stories about the Persian invasions of Greece, they are generally colored with the idea that Greeks represent art, culture, democracy, and values that are foundational to Western thought, and that the Persians represented...the opposite.

But the reality is that the Persians were saviors to the Jewish people. Several decades before Persia invaded the Greek city-states, Persia invaded Babylon in 539 BC and took it over with some ingenious engineering moves and killer infantry tactics and bow-and-arrow moves from his soldiers.

Under the rule of Cyrus the Great, Persia commandeered the Babylonian empire, and therefore the Jewish people under the dominion of the Babylonians.. Cyrus treated them fairly, supported their religion and culture, and allowed them to rebuild their temple. He is the only non-Jew in the Bible to be referred to as “messiah.” It was sad that Babylon, the oldest and last of the three significant ancient Mediterranean cultures, finally bowed before the Persian juggernaut, but in a sense, they couldn’t have gotten conquered by a better enemy:

Herodotus, the Greek historian, said of them that they were “...the readiest to adopt foreign customs, good or bad.” In other words, they had an appreciation and respect for other cultures and beliefs and treated those they vanquished relatively well. They fought in humane - for the times - ways - and did not crush them under the boots of tyrants, as the Babylonian, Hittite, and Egyptian empires had done for centuries in pursuit of plunder.

They built an empire because they sought to unify the world, under their rule of course, but to unify it and treat it well. In return, the peoples they conquered learned a great deal about other customs and ways of living. The Persians’ humane and respectful treatment of conquered nations led to a cross-pollination of culture that introduced people to other ways of living and thinking, while still allowing them to keep their own traditions and values.

So to the Jewish people in this time period, Persia was the good guy.

What happened?

Cyrus died in battle at the youthful age of 70. His son, Cambyses II, ruled for a short time, then was followed by a half-brother Bardiya, who may have actually been an imposter. Seriously, the stories about the intrigues, betrayals, and events leading up to power are delicious. But this is about Greece, not Persia.

So we get from Cyrus to Cambyses to Bardiya the Imposter, and finally to Darius, who had been a lance-bearer to Cambyses and knew how to grab an opportunity when he saw one. So now Darius sits on the throne. In 490 B.C., he attacks Greece to punish Athens and to subjugate the lands for the Persian Empire. Persia is surprisingly defeated decisively at the Battle of Marathon. This is known as the first Persian invasion.

Before Darius can take another crack at it, he dies, thus altering his plans slightly.. But fortunately for him, his son, Xerxes I, wants to make dad proud and spends the next decade preparing one of the most massive assemblages of soldiers the world has known. They prepare for a full on second Persian invasion of Greece.

Is History reliable?

Uh, again, we’ll keep the focus on Greece. Let’s just say that our knowledge of what happened largely comes from Herodotus, considered the father of modern history. He wrote colourful and glowing depictions of the Persian invasions, in which Greece is the heroic underdog and Persia is...not.

Oh, Herodotus was Greek, which certainly influenced his writings and adds a certain layer of bias as he writes about his glorious underdog country defeating the mighty Persians. However, his writing was unique in a couple ways:

Herodotus attempted to show different perspectives and a ‘bird’s eye view’ of historical happenings.
He wrote in colorful and vivid language, rather than simply reciting a list of dates and events.

Did the Persians have any historians?

Who knows? The history we have that everyone remembers comes from Herodotus, not exactly an objective source. But considered a fairly reliable one, despite his non-objective historian status.

So back to Thermopylae…

Xerxes I has spent years putting together his million-man army. Around 480 B.C., ten year’s after Daddy Darius’s failed invasion, Persia makes its way to Greece for a second crack at conquering the entire country - or rather, the land represented by many city-states.

Xerxes sends a messenger to negotiate with King Leonidas of Sparta, who is leading a 7,000-strong contingent of Greeks. He offers the Spartans their freedom, more land, and leadership roles if they simply join his army, surrender Thermopylae Pass, and hand over their arms. Leonidas being a Spartan, kindly declines with the immortal words:

"Molṑn labé"

For those who don’t speak Greek, it loosely translates as:

“Come and take them.”

Wow. He knows they’re going to die. His force is simply not large enough to prevail. But they will fight. They will hold the pass for as long as they can until the last Spartan is lying dead.

To make clear, this battle is a logistical issue, not one simply of martyr’s pride.. The Pass of Thermopylae, also known as the Hot Gates, was the best possible place to head off the Persians. They had to get by. And the pass, although 100 meters wide, was mostly filled with marsh and mud, with only a narrow path for chariots. On one side was the sea, on the other steep hills.

For two days, the Spartans and their fellow Greeks battled the Persians and held them off, suffering few casualties against a frontal assault.

But on the third day, Greek’s version of Judas or Benedict Arnold, a fellow named Ephialtes, betrayed his countrymen and told Xerxes of a mountain path they could use to circle around the Greeks. He offered to guide them; an offer Xerxes gleefully accepted.

Remember, this is the short version, which means much of the delicious background details are missing. So we’re on Day 3. Leonidas finds his forces are surrounded. He calls a council and informs his fellow Spartans this:

We’re staying.

He sends the other Greek forces on their way and keeps 1,500 or so with him. Instead of waiting for the Persians to attack, they march into the open plain to kill as many Persians as possible before they fall. In doing so, they will also prevent the Persian cavalry from pursuing the rest of their army who left, and those Greeks will live to fight on.

So, surrounded, they battle. They fight with their spears, until their spears are gone or destroyed. Then they fight with their swords. With their hands, their feet, they fight, until every last one, including Leonidas, has fallen. 2,000 Greeks died over the three days.

And 20,000 Persians.

Leonidas and his men’s sacrifice allowed the bulk of the Greek army to escape and to regroup, strategize, and hold out long enough to prepare for the Persians. The Persians went on to conquer a large part of Greece over the next year, but eventually Greece was able to win decisive victories in the battles of Salamis, Mycale, and finally Plataea and send Xerxes scurrying home.

It’s difficult to know how important Leonidas and his rearguard were, logistically, to Greece’s freedom. They delayed the Persian advance, but only negligibly so. They saved many of the Greek army, but it was still a small number in comparison to the vast number of Persian soldiers. And in the end, Xerxes was able to breach the almost-impregnable pass. So what was its value?

More than anything, it is considered one of history’s great examples of heroes fighting for freedom and country, knowing they would die. It was an inspirational and courageous story that put a global conflict into terms of ‘a small Western band fighting for freedom’ versus ‘a large Eastern force of totalitarianism.’

Additional notes

The three great ancient Mediterranean cultures are considered the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and the Hittites.

The Persian army was estimated to be in the range of 120,000-300,000 (via Wikipedia). Less than Herodotus’s estimate of a million, but still significantly larger than Sparta/the united Greek force of 7,000.

"Molṑn labé" is pronounced “mow loan lah vay.” You know you wanna start using it in everyday conversation.

The non-Spartan Greeks at Thermopylae included Thespians, Thebans, Phocians, and helots


Introduction to Ancient History, from the Paleolithic Era to the fall of Rome, and how the lives, cultures, decisions, and actions of these periods affects our modern lives.

Education for most ages and for all curious people.
Written by Joseph Ivan Long with curiosity, humbleness, and a big grin.