Greek Wars with Persia

In 500 B.C., Greek world was small. It included hundreds of rival city-states in a small area at the tip of the Balkan peninsula and a growing number of Greek colonies scattered around the Mediterranean. The Greeks, as you have read, were often bitterly divided. Athens, the wealthiest Greek city-state, had rivals that bitterly resented their rich neighbor. But far more powerful than any Greek city-state was the huge Persian empire, that lay to the east, just across the Aegean Sea. When the Persians threatened them, the Greeks briefly put aside their differences to defend their freedom.

The Persians had conquered a huge empire stretching from Asia Minor to the border of India. Their subjects included the Greek city-states of Ionia in Asia Minor. Though under Persian rule, these Ionian city-states were largely self-governing. Still, they resented their situation.

Relief carving of a bearded man seated at a throne holding a flower and staff, being approached by a man in lesser clothing.

The Persian king Darius I is portrayed receiving tribute on this wall relief at the great palace in Persepolis, in present-day Iran.

In 499 B.C., Ionian Greeks rebelled against Persian rule. Athens sent ships to help them. As the historian Herodotus wrote some years later, “These ships were the beginning of mischief both to the Greeks and to the barbarians.” They triggered the Persian Wars, a series of wars that lasted on and off for half a century.

Athens Wins at Marathon

The Persians soon crushed the rebel cities in Ionia, but Persian emperor Darius I was furious at the role Athens had played in the uprising. In time, Darius sent a huge force across the Aegean to punish Athens for its interference. The mighty Persian army landed near Marathon, a plain north of Athens, in 490 B.C.

The Persians greatly outnumbered Athenian forces. Yet the invaders were amazed to see “a mere handful of men coming on at a run without either horsemen or archers.” The Persians responded with a rain of arrows, but the Greeks rushed onward. They broke through the Persian line and engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Overwhelmed by the fury of the Athenian assault, the Persians hastily retreated to their ships.

The Athenians celebrated their triumph. Still, the Athenian leader, Themistocles (thuh MIS tuh kleez), knew the victory at Marathon had bought only a temporary lull in the fighting. He urged Athenians to build a fleet of warships and prepare other defenses.

Greek City-States Join Together

In 480 B.C. Darius's son Xerxes (ZURK seez) sent a much larger force to conquer Greece. By this time, Athens had persuaded Sparta and other city-states to join in the fight against Persia.

Once again, the Persians landed in northern Greece. A small Spartan force guarded the narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae (thur MAHP uh lee). Led by their great warrior-king Leonidas (lee AHN ih dus), the Spartans held out heroically against the enormous Persian force but were defeated in the end. The Persians marched south and burned Athens. The city was empty, however. The Athenians had already withdrawn to safety, putting their faith in the fleet of ships that Themistocles had urged them to build.

The Athenians lured the Persian fleet into the narrow strait of Salamis (SAHL uh mis), near Athens. There, Athenian warships rammed, burned, and sank the Persian fleet. From the shore, Xerxes watched helplessly.

The next year, the Greeks defeated the Persians on land in Asia Minor. This victory marked the end of the Persian invasions. In a brief moment of unity, the Greek city-states had saved themselves from the Persian threat.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments