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The persian wars

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PERSIANS- themselves “Irani” (Aryans)

  • their home Irania (Today-Iran)

  • Greek geographers called them Persians after the province “Parsa” or “Persis” in which the early Irani kings had their capital cities


-ascended to the throne in 559 BCE

- Imperialist/Empire builder

  • conquered the Mede, Elamite, Babylonian, and Lydian kingdoms, as well as the Ionian Greek city-states in Asia Minor,and even Egypt, Syria, & Phoenicia

  • admired even by the Greeks

  • Plato considered Cyrus a model leader

  • Once Lydia fell (Sardis its capital) the Greeks were face to face with the Persians:

  • Tried to get peaceful terms but couldn’t, tried to fight but were unable to unite against the Persians

  • Surrendered and accepted their fate…pay tribute & serve in the Persian Army “Medizing”

DARIUS I- ascended the throne in 521 BCE, son of Cyrus II

  • powerful, strong since unified empire under single leader i.e. himself !

  • gained control of the grain supply routes to Black Sea area

  • estab. Common coinage, & language

  • established a tax collection system/organized tribute collection

  • allowed/recognized local customs & religions

  • divided his Empire into districts called “satrapies”, administered by a “Satrap” or governor

  • built a system of roads (still in use today)

  • est. a complex postal system

  • est. a network of spies he called “Eyes & ears of the King”

  • annexed Macedonia & Thrace (gained their fleets)

  • controls 4,000 km of land, & 10 million ppl

- tiny compared to other areas Persia had conquered

-disunity, loyal only to their own city-state

- weakened by infighting, civil wars

- isolated due to their geography

-diversity hinged upon geography too:

- Athens: sea power, democracy

- Sparta: land power, monarchy

- Corinth: trade

- but… Greek soldiers were tough and had excellent weapons and tactics…and found strong leaders in Sparta & Athens

- but… the Persians were putting Greek freedom in peril

* immediate cause PW’s: ARISTAGORAS Greek governor of MILETUS incited a revolt in E. Gr. (Ionia) & asked for the help of the other Greeks but got it only from ATHENS & ERETRIA

  • Athens sent 20 war ships

  • Eretria sent 5 war ships

  • They attacked & burned Sardis (cap. Of Lydia) & retreated to defend their homeland

  • Persia: WHO are the Athenians?...hadn’t heard of them!

  • Naval battle off Miletus 494 BCE… Persians win, destroy/crush Miletus, kill all the men, exile the rest…look toward mainland Greece

  • Persian general: “Sire, remember the Athenians.”…(ie the ones who sent help to Aristagoras)

  • Persia wants to punish Athens


  • PUNITIVE MISSION, Eretrian force of 40,000 men destroyed/burned/plundered…now revenge upon Athens…move onto Marathon

  • DARIUS I and the deposed tyrant (Pro-Persian) HIPPIAS worked together to get what they want (H- reinstatement, D-revenge)

  • Ask for submission: “earth & water”…”MEDIZING

  • Darius launches his infantry & cavalry (25,000) by sea to Greece

  • Bay of Marathon: Persians disembark, backs to the sea

  • The Greeks are on the plain of Marathon, facing the Persians lead by MILTIADES

  • Greeks are outnumbered 2:1

  • Send a professional runner (PHIDEPPIDES) to Sparta to ask/plead for help (250 km), returned 4 days later answer NO…religious festival (ran M-S-A) 26 miles and dropped dead

  • Miltiades has: Athenian citizens army of 9,000 go to Marathon alone, 1,000 HOPLITES from Plataea

  • Generals vote…it’s close but Miltiades convinces them to attack (dangerous decision, since if lose it leaves Athens open)

  • Greeks attack at dawn, surprised the Persians, caught them without their cavalry

  • Miltiades created strong flanks and a weak center, charge the Persians, draw the Persians in, the Persians smash the center and the flanks crush the Persians (key-good infantry)

  • Persians who ran were cut down 6,400

  • 192 Athenians, 12 Plataeans

  • VICTORY! … proves Persia can be beaten…if city-states unite !!!

  • …Persians did not exact their revenge

  • … a 10 year reprieve from Persian attack


  • PERSIANS:NEW KING: XERXES (son of Darius, called a “warrior Prince”), wants REVENGE for Marathon

  • Sends 500 ships & 150,000 oarsmen

  • Liked the navy & army to move together: to carry supplies

  • Built a new bridge: a twin boat bridge lashed together with linen & papyrus cables- “Sea into Land”

  • Xerxes whips the sea into submission

  • Once in Europe his expedition numbers > 5 million ppl.

  • Built a new canal: Corinth Canal- “Land into Sea”

  • GREEKS: Athens on the advise of Themistokles used the money from the new silver mine at Laurion to build a fleet of 200 ships

  • Many other Greeks had symbolically surrendered “earth & water” to the Persians, accepting Persian domination without resistance

  • But Athens & Sparta (with its new League of Peloponnesian states) gathered for a conference @ Corinth to plan their defence… they decide to defend Thermopylae

  • Greeks (including Sparta) set a defensive line at the narrow pass, led by THEMISTOKLES

  • stand firm at the pass until traitor/shepherd/Ephialtes shows the Persians a secret goat path around the pass

  • Spartans led by King LEONIDAS (his body guard=300, as well as 700 Thespians)

  • 300 Spartans die, a moral victory…buy some time…for the other Greeks

  • Opens the route into Athens, the Athenians flee to the sea abandoning the city

  • A few hold out behind Athen’s “wooden walls” of the Acropolis, but Athen’s real defence was in the “wooden walls” of her triremes … recall ORACLE

  • Persians exact their revenge for Marathon on Athens, sacked & burned it

  • Xerxes triumphant…sailed to Salamis to finish off the Greek fleet



-Themistokles recalls the Oracle’s prophecy: “…put your faith in the wooden walls”…he takes to mean ships

Athens abandoned, Athenians on the Island of Salamis

  • in a narrow bay off Salamis

  • commander is Themistokles

  • he encourages the Greeks to stay & fight this battle (recall he ordered the 200 new triremes built)

  • he maneuvers the ships into the narrowest part of the bay, plans to face them head on in the narrows

  • sends a slave/messenger with a spy to leak a lie to the Persians that the Greeks are going to flee…so the Persians stay up at the helm all night blocking the mouth of the bay so the Greeks can’t escape

  • they are exhausted in morning, and have to fight the Greeks head on

  • so narrow, it’s a ramming fest! (can’t even tell who’s who)

  • Queen Artemnesia (Greek working with the Persians…warns the Persians not to fight in the bay…decides to change sides…)

  • 200 Persian ships sank

  • 40 Greek ships sank

  • Athen’s “secret weapon”= TRIREMES

  • The new fleet of triremes defeat the Persians in this decisive battle… Victory!

- Xerxes still wants revenge and hovers around the Aegean

- Persians remain… but navy withdraws, army winters in N. Greece

- …A waiting game…one year later…

- Sparta major reason for Greek success here

- last decisive battle vs. Persia, by 466 BCE Persians were driven out of Europe for good !

- Themistokles is ostracized as the ppl. fear he will want to be tyrant due to his pride… he is exiled and ends up in Persia in the court of Ataxerxes (son of Xerxes)

- Nationalism!... a group of tiny Greek city-states defeated the great Persian Empire!

- build the Parthenon to celebrate this victory!

- DELIAN LEAGUE forms with Athens as leader

- treasury on Island of Delos

- unity, pride, nationalism

- initially a voluntary alliance to protect from Persian threat, becomes a forced alliance (300 members) … moving toward empire (Athenian domination)

- exact tribute: men & money to navy

- forced allegiance to Athens

- in exchange for protection, safety, trade markets

- Athens benefits the most, i.e. strengthened, beautified, prosperity…greed?

- animosity between Athens & Sparta…conflict that resulted in a series of battles called the PELOPPONESIAN WARS

- now two competing leagues: Delian (Athens et al) vs. Peloponnesian (Sparta, Corinth & Thebes)

- with the Greeks disunified (as usual) the Delian League became useful in 465 BCE when Persia launched another attack…

- The Pelopponesian League however decided to join Persia against Athens, & the Athenian fleet was destroyed

- by the end of the year Greek leadership had changed to Spartan… this period in Greek history is called the YEAR OF THIRTY TYRANTS

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