Persian Wars:

In Depth

Greek Phalanx

Greek phalanx in battle formation.




Greek city-states led by Athens and Sparta

Persian Empire and its allies

  • 100,000 estimate
  • 300,000-500,000 estimate



One of the earliest documented instances of warfare, what we know about the Persian Wars comes largely from Greek sources, mostly from the writings of Herodotus, “the father of history.” By the year 500 BC, the vast Persian Empire had conquered much of the ancient world, stretching from the borders of India to the Mediterranean Sea. Among their conquests was a region along the western coast of Asia Minor known as Ionia. The population of Ionia was made up of numerous Greeks, who rebelled in 499 against the Persian Empire. During this rebellion, aid and materials were sent in support of the rebels from the city-states of the Greek peninsula, most notably from Athens. This aid did not assist the Ionians in their revolt, which was soon crushed. However, it did enrage the Persian king, Darius I, who vowed to destroy Athens in revenge.

Darius’ first attempt at subduing the Athenians came in 490, when he landed between 20,000 and 60,000 Persians on the Plains of Marathon, roughly 25 miles from the city of Athens. There, his force was confronted by a smaller band of 10,000 Athenians, arranged in tightly-packed phalanxes; massive squares displaying an almost impenetrable forest of spear points. Outnumbered, the Athenians charged the Persian forces, who were lightly armed and unused to this style of warfare. After engaging in hand-to-hand fighting, the Persians retreated to their ships. Herodotus writes that 6,400 Persian bodies were counted on the battlefield, to a loss of roughly 200 Greeks. According to Herodotus, shortly before the battle a runner named Pheidippides ran the 150 miles to Sparta in two days in order to beseech the Spartans for help. A later historian, Plutarch, wrote that after the battle a runner was sent to go to Athens to inform them of the victory, who then died from exhaustion after delivering his message. Over the years, these two stories have combined into one, inspiring the modern-day marathon race.

Ten years after the Battle of Marathon, after massive preparation, Darius’ son Xerxes I led a huge force (most estimates between 200,000 and 500,000) in order to subjugate the Greek peninsula. This time the Persians bridged and crossed the Hellespont, or the modern-day Dardanelles, and quickly conquered Thessaly. Moving down the east coast of Greece, Xerxes was met by a force of roughly 7, 000 Greeks, including a detachment of 300 Spartans. The Greek force was under the command of Leonidas I, king of Sparta. At Thermopylae, the Greek forces had set up a defensive position within a narrow mountain pass, so narrow it was said that only one chariot could drive through it. For three days, the vastly outnumbered Greeks held back the Persians, until a traitor informed Xerxes of a secret path around the pass. When Leonidas learned of this betrayal and that the Greek defensive position had been compromised, he dismissed most of the Greek coalition in order for them to fall back and defend their own city-states. Leonidas himself chose to stay with his 300 Spartans who would defend the pass and hold back the Persians in order to allow the rest of the Greeks to escape. He was joined by about 700 Thespians, who refused to leave and instead decided to cast their lot with the Spartans. In the ensuing last stand, this entire force sacrificed themselves in order to allow the other Greeks a chance to escape.

After Thermopylae, the Persians sacked and razed the city of Athens, but were defeated in the naval battle of Salamis, and destroying the entire Persian fleet at Cape Mycale a year later. Shortly thereafter the Delian League was formed as an alliance of the Greek city-states in order to resist the Persians. Over the next thirty years, much of the Greek peninsula would be re-conquered by the Greeks, regaining the city-state of Thrace and much of the Aegean basin. In addition, Greek armies eventually went on the offensive and made moves against other parts of the Persian Empire, including Asia Minor, Egypt, and Cyprus. In 449, the Peace of Callias brought the hostilities to a close, with Persia agreeing to stay out of the Aegean.

The Persian Wars are significant in history as the fate of Western civilization hung in the balance during this contest. The Greek philosopher Georg Hegel once wrote of the Persian Wars:
"The interest of the world’s history hung trembling in the balance. Oriental despotism, a world united under one lord and sovereign, on the one side, and separate states, insignificant in extent and resources, but animated by free individuality, on the other side, stood front to front in array of battle. Never in history has the superiority of spiritual power over material bulk, and that of no compatible amount, been made so gloriously manifest." If the Greeks had fallen to the Persians, it is certain that Western civilization would have ended right then and there. In 480, at the time of the battle of Thermopylae and Salamis, democracy had only been in practice for 27 years, and the very idea of freedom was merely 200 years old. If the Greeks had fallen, the Athenian experiment in democracy and freedom would have been stillborn in its Hellenic womb. With the death of Greek republicanism, there could have been no Roman Republic. Greece, the Italian peninsula, and most of the rest of the European continent would have just become provinces of a vast despotic Persian Empire, stifling any form of individuality, creativity, or freedom. The world would resemble nothing that is recognizable today if it weren’t for the Greek victory in the Persian Wars.

Beck, Roger B. et al. “Warring City-States.” Ancient World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2007. 131-133.
Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.
Hanson, Victor Davis. “No Glory That was Greece.” What If? Ed. Robert Cowley. New York: Berkley Books, 1999. 15-35.
Kohn, George Childs. “Greco-Persian Wars.” Dictionary of Wars: Revised Edition. New York: Facts on File, Inc, 1997. 196.


Timeline Home