The Graeco-Persian wars in context

A Greek hoplite and a Persian warrior fighting each other.Who hasn’t heard of the Graeco-Persian wars? The wars in which the freedom-loving Greek city states, home to a highly sophisticated culture, bravely resisted the expansionist policy of the despotic Persian kings. That clash of civilizations. That collision between east and west, between tyranny and freedom. Had the Persians won, western culture as we know it would not have been able to develop. At least, that is what some scholars believe and is still taught at many high schools today. The reality is more complex.

The origin of the Clash of Civilizations perspective
The idea of the Graeco-Persian wars as a clash of civilizations is a fairly modern one. It developed in the nineteenth century when many European nations, especially the Germans and the British, came to view Greece as the cradle of western civilization. Everyone, from liberal democrats to romantic nationalists, identified with this early European culture and saw his own ideals reflected in the ideals of the ancient Greeks. At the same time, they came to see the Persian Empire as a despotic regime, driven by absolute monarchy and religious thought. These aspects, that had dominated Europe for over a thousand years, were now projected on eastern societies like the declining Ottoman Empire. This phenomenon was dubbed ‘Orientalism’ by Edward Said. The West was enlightened and had always been, the East was backward.

What’s wrong with the Clash of Civilizations perspective
It is true that Greek culture influenced Roman culture and that the Roman Empire in turn influenced all of Europe. However, a lot of water passes under a lot of bridges over the course of 2500 years. To say that modern European values are directly derived from ancient Greek values is somewhat of a stretch, especially when one takes into account the so-called Middle Ages, when monarchs and clergymen were the main authorities. Most of the similarities between Greek and modern European culture are only typological and even in these cases it seems that modern Europeans only see the similarities they want to see. The same goes for the ancient Persian Empire and the modern Middle East. Any serious scholar should therefore be very careful when trying to draw parallels between Antiquity and modern times and be mindful of his or her own projections.

Towards a new perspective
In order to understand the Graeco-Persian wars in their own right, we should let go of our preconcieved notions of the significance of these wars. In order to let go of our preconcieved notions, we should put these wars into their historical context. This means, among others, that we have to give the Persians at least as much attention as the Greeks when discussing the Graeco-Persian wars and that we have to understand the greater geopolitical developments that led to these wars, tracing them back for at least a few centuries. (Herodotus actually does a better job at this than many high school history textbooks). One of the reasons that I specialized in ancient Persia was because I wanted to get to know this civilization from the inside out. This has also led me to view the ancient Greeks from an eastern perspective, which is very interesting. To demonstrate this, let me put the Graeco-Persian wars in a more oriental perspective.

The Chigi Vase. This vase, made in Corith around 640 BC, depicts two hoplite armies fighting each other. Source:
The Chigi Vase. This vase, made in Corith around 640 BC, depicts two hoplite armies fighting each other. Source:

The Greeks from an oriental perspective
When one studies civilizations that date back to 4000 BC, one can only see the ancient Greeks as newcomers. Speakers of Greek dialects make their first appearance in the cuneiform tablets of the Hittite Empire (roughly 1600-1200 BC) as the Ahhiyawa, who were probably identical with the Mycenaeans. The Mycenaeans were a collection of small warlike states centered around hill forts. They resided at the edges of the known world, but were nevertheless well connected to other centers of civilization. After the Dark Age of 1200-800 BC they reappear during the eighth century in Assyrian annals and letters, as the Yauna (Ionians). The rapid development of these Greeks between 800 and 500 BC is indeed remarkable, but by no means unique. Throughout these centuries the Greeks are mainly known as pirates, traders and mercenaries living on distant islands ‘in the midst of the sea’ who occasionally interacted with Phoenician traders and served in the armies of the Egyptians and the Babylonians. A strong growth of population in their homeland caused the urban centers to expand, which led some Greeks to found colonies all across the Mediterranean and to look for new trading and raiding opportunities. This brought the Greeks into contact with other, older civilizations, like Egypt, Assyria and Phoenicia. The Greeks were inspired by the ideas and art styles that they encountered and before long the arts and sciences started to flourish in the Greek homeland.

The Persians from an oriental perspective
The Persians were also relative newcomers. They are first mentioned in the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III in 835 BC. They are believed to have migrated to the Zagros Mountains along with the Medes between 1200 and 1000 BC. For most of their pre-imperial history, the Medes and the Persians were nomadic herdsmen who were organized along tribal lines. The Assyrians tried to control them by making their chiefs pay tribute, but they weren’t succesful for long. The Assyrian occupation lasted from 744 to 670 BC. After 670 BC chaos broke out on the Iranian Plateau due to Scythian and Cimmerian raids, but in 615 BC the Medes had united into one powerful tribal federation that contributed to the destruction of the Assyrian Empire. In 550 BC Cyrus the Great, a Persian, deposed the last leader of the Median tribal federation and went on to conquer Lydia, Bactria and Babylonia. After the death of Cyrus’s sons in 522 BC the tribal federation was on the verge of collapse. However, a Persian general named Darius restored order and reorganized the tribal federation into a true empire. It was this Darius that would later attack the Greek city states.

The Ionian Revolt
Because the Persians originally formed a tribal federation, their grip on the territories they had conquered wasn’t very strong. They didn’t yet have a functioning state apparatus with which to impose laws on their subjects. These things were first developed under Darius. Before Darius the Persian kings, especially Cyrus, followed a policy of tolerance. They left the state apparatus of the kingdoms they had conquered intact and tried to win over the population by adjusting to their culture. When Cyrus conquered Lydia in the 540s BC, he also subdued the Ionian city states on the west coast of Anatolia. This did not mean very much to the average Ionian citizen, however, as they could still trade with whomever they wanted and the local tyrants stayed in power. When the Ionians revolted against the Persians between 499 and 493 BC, it wasn’t because they were tired of the ‘oriental tyranny’ of Darius. A more likely reason is that the Persian conquest of much of the Eastern Mediterranean coasts naturally interfered with the trade and colonization interests of the Greeks. The Ionian Revolt was initiated by Aristagoras, the tyrant of Miletus who, according the Herodotus, only served his own interests and didn’t have any ideological motives. The revolt was supported by Athens, one of the most powerful city states of the time with a huge share in Greek trade and colonization enterprises. Sparta declined, most likely because the city state was land based and less trade and colonization oriented.

Source: The Department of History, United States Military Academy.
Source: The Department of History, United States Military Academy.

The First Graeco-Persian war
The Ionian Revolt raged on for a while because the Persian Empire was huge and Darius could not be everywhere at the same time. He may well have been dealing with similar revolts throughout his kingdom, which went unreported. This certainly was the case with the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires that preceded it. Subordinate rulers revolted from time to time and sometimes they were succesful for a few years, but the king would take out these revolts one campaign at a time with his superior army. When Darius finally did march on Ionia, he easily defeated the rebels. Darius seems to have recognized the importance of Athens as a dangerous independent state with interests that ran against the interests of Persia. Besides, he wanted to show the world that no one could get away with supporting revolts against Persia. In 490 Darius sent a fleet carrying a huge army to Attica, probably in an attempt to destroy Athens. This was the regular procedure for states that supported revolts against the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian Empires. Darius is known for his cruel treatment of pretender rebels during his rise to power, but he was by no means unique in this. The end of the story is known to most people: a much smaller Athenian army made its stance at Marathon and stopped the Persian army. When the Persian army decided to give up an retreat, a small Athenian force pursued the fleeing Persians. The Athenians were more familiar with the land and they did have powerful hoplite infantry, so they were able to kill many men. This defeat at Marathon was somewhat humiliating to Darius, but of no great consequence. Just like earlier Assyrian and Babylonian kings he probably presented his defeat as a minor victory.

The victory at Marathon gave the Athenians more confidence and status among the Greeks. For Darius it was business as usual. According to Herodotus Darius planned to attack Athens again and this may well be true, but that does not mean that the defeat at Athens was traumatic for Darius or that he was obsessed with destroying Athens. He had other things to worry about, like the Egyptian Revolt of 486 BC. Surely, subjugating the bread basket of the Eastern Mediterranean was more important than conquering a distant city state. Although it has been claimed that the Egyptian Revolt was inspired by the success of the Athenians at Marathon, this is unlikely. First of all, the defeat at Marathon probably wasn’t as impressive to the Persians and their subjects as it was to the Greeks. Second, as mentioned earlier, revolts against imperial rule were very common. Darius himself died before he could put down the Egyptian Revolt. He was succeeded by his son Xerxes, who finished the job. Xerxes also had to deal with two Babylonian revolts in 484 BC that were likely led by the priesthood. In 484 BC many important Babylonian temple archives stop abruptly, which implies that the priests were rounded up and probably deported or executed. This example clearly illustrates that the much praised tolerance of the Persians did have its limits. After suppressing the rebels and securing his throne, Xerxes decided to attack Athens one more time.

The Department of History, United States Military Academy.
The Department of History, United States Military Academy.

The Second Graeco-Persian war
In 480 BC Xerxes sent both an army and a fleet to the Greek mainland. He clearly had the numbers on his side. However, the massive size of his army may also have made it hard to control. Nevertheless, the logistics required to bring such a large army over to Greece, with the ‘bridge of boats’ across the Hellespont as its climax, were certainly impressive. Herodotus’s depiction of this campaign as a decadent display of power is probably not far from the truth. Xerxes’s campaign to Greece was largely successful. Most of the Greek city states sided with Xerxes immediately, as supporting the resistance seemed futile. Xerxes fulfilled his goal of destroying Athens and he also destroyed a band of Spartans on the way, who had probably joined the war in order to win back some of the prestige that they had lost by not fighting against Darius. Upon the destruction of Athens Xerxes had officially won. There is no concrete evidence that he intended to incorporate the Greek mainland into his empire at this point and the fact that he destroyed the most prosperous city in the region speaks against this assumption. Nevertheless, Xerxes went on to take out his remaining enemies one by one. His army was stopped at the Isthmus of Corinth and had to spend the winter there. At this point the Athenians, who had fled their city prior to its destruction, attacked and defeated the Persian fleet near Salamis, cutting off the supply lines of the land army. Xerxes then decided to withdraw with most of his army, since he had already accomplished his most important goal. The remaining Persian forces were defeated next year at Plataeae and Mycale.

The Second Graeco-Persian war probably did leave an impression on the Persians and it did strengthen the confidence and prestige of both Athens and Sparta. Athens formed an alliance with many island city states known as the Delian League, which was an informal maritime empire than managed to drive the Persians out of the Aegean and even take back some of the Ionian city states that had been under Persian control. In 449 BC the Persians were forced to recognize that the Greeks had successfully asserted their control of the Aegean. They recognized that the Greek city states were a force to be reckoned with. They avoided military confrontation, but sought to control the situation by supporting first Sparta and then Athens, when the other became too powerful. This situation lasted until the rise of Macedon.