Big anniversaries of historical events are often the occasion for me to write something for this blog. 100 years ago, this happened. 500 years ago, that happened. Yet never have I gone as far back with that as I will today: 2500 years ago, in the summer of 480 BCE (keep in mind that there has been no “Year Zero”), a storm was brewing in the eastern Mediterranean. The most powerful man in the world, Persian great king Xerxes I, had set out to make Greece part of his domain. In this post, you’ll find out why he did that, and how his enterprise initially went. The next post (coming in September) will pick up the story from there and tell the rest of the tale of these Greco-Persian Wars and their repercussions until today. As always, there are plenty of board games on the way.
Origins: From the Ionian Revolt to Marathon
Around 500 BCE, the Persian Empire was only fifty years old, and yet it was the largest, most powerful empire the world had ever seen. The great king’s might stretched from Egypt to Afghanistan and from India to the edges of Europe. Darius I, the third of the Persian great kings, had inherited an empire which had never known defeat. While the provincial governors (satraps) enjoyed large autonomy (after all, the vast extent of the empire made a fully centralized rule impractical), in the end, they – and all their subjects – answered to the great king.
On the other side of the brewing conflict were the Greek city-states, chief of them the cautious, conservative Sparta, ruled by a landed gentry specializing in warfare, and Athens, a budding democracy based on artisanry and trade. The Greek cities were as politically disunited as they were numerous, dotting the coasts not only of modern-day Greece, but also of other places of the Mediterranean like Sicily and Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). These latter had only recently become a part of the Persian Empire and were still full of independent spirit. Thus, when one of the local rulers, Aristagoras of Miletus, failed to carry out his promised conquest of Naxos for Persia, instead of facing punishment from his Persian overlord, he chose to rally the Greek cities under Persian rule to rebellion.
These cities, called Ionian after their Greek sub-ethnicity, applied for help from their brethren across the Aegean Sea. Sparta denied them – the Spartans were notoriously unwilling to commit forces afar from their Peloponnesian homeland – but Athens and some other European Greek cities supported the Ionian Revolt with a few ships and soldiers. Their contribution was rather minute, but after the Persians had easily suppressed the Ionian Revolt, it made them turn their eyes to European Greece
In 492, a first Persian invasion force was sent over the Hellespont. Thrace was subdued and turned into a Persian satrapy, Macedon into a client kingdom. Persia now controlled both Egypt and the waterways to the Black Sea – the two regions from which Athens traditionally imported its grain.
The Persians demanded from the Greek cities in central and southern Greece to accept the great king’s suzerainty – or, in their terms, to offer earth and water to him as a symbol of their submission. Almost all Greek cities complied, yet Athens and Sparta refused. (On an earlier occasion in 507, the Athenians had complied with such a request – be that because they did not fully understand the significance of the act or because they thought it would be the easiest way to mollify the power of Persia without incurring any practical obligations. Thus, it is possible that Darius saw them as his subjects who had now broken their oath.) That refusal was sure to draw a Persian punitive expedition – yet as the Persian fleet sunk in a storm near Mount Athos and thus the army could not be supplied on an offensive, it was not to be in 492.
Earth and water are not only the name of a game about the Greco-Persian Wars (300: Earth and Water, Yasushi Nakaguro, Bonsai Games), but also a main mechanic of it. The Persians can demand submission and thus enlarge their empire without having to resort to war. In the game (as in history), it is the easiest way for them to subsume the north and center of Greece into their empire.
Two years after this first Persian advance, they tried again. This time, they chose a direct sea route for their advance. The Persian army landed on the island of Euboea where they subdued the city of Eretria, one of the European Greek cities which had supported the Ionian Revolt. They then crossed over to Attica to threaten Athens. While the Athenians marched their army to meet them at the plains of Marathon, they dispatched Pheidippides, a fast runner, to Sparta. He ran the 245 kilometers in less than two days, exhaustedly beseeching the Spartans for help. The Spartans, however, refused on the grounds that they were celebrating a religious festival (the Carneia) and thus marching for war would be sacrilegious for them until the festival ended in another ten days. Athens stood alone.
The accounts of the following battle at Marathon are not entirely clear. The (to me) most plausible version of the events is that the Athenian phalanx of heavily armed hoplites blocked the exit of the plains, and, as the terrain was rough, the Persians could not bring their advantage in cavalry to bear. They thus re-embarked the cavalry to sail around Attica and take Athens while the Athenian army was in the field. There, they would have reinstalled tyrants which had ruled in Athens before the city had turned democratic as their local puppets. The Athenians thus had to act: By giving up their advantageous position they lured the remaining Persian forces at Marathon into giving battle.
Here the different fighting styles of the two armies came to bear: The Persian infantry was predominantly lightly armed and armored, preferring the bow, whereas the Athenian hoplites had spears, large shields, and armor at their torso and legs, fighting in a dense formation called a phalanx. The phalanx seemed unstoppable – thousands of armored men pressing forward, each shielding the one next to him. Yet when a phalanx broke, its individual members – citizen soldiers, after all – were easy prey for the pursuers.
Phalanx cohesion is a dominant theme in With It or on It (Amabel Holland, Hollandspiele). The attacking phalanx is as good as its strongest member, and when the phalanx takes hits, they can be distributed over the entire front until there is no fresh unit to take an exhaustion marker anymore. After that, things get dicey: If a weak, vulnerable unit takes the next beating, it might break – and with it the entire line.
The phalanx was thus bound to have an advantage in melee over the mostly bow-armed and lightly-armored Persians. These had to avoid melee and shower the advancing hoplites with arrows to play to their strengths. According to Herodotus, the Greeks overcame these initial volleys by going at the Persians at a full run over eight stadia (about a mile). That is patently impossible in hoplite armor if the runner is supposed to have any breath left for fighting when he arrives at the enemy line (and the range of bowmen was much less than a mile anyway, so no point in starting the run way in advance). A likelier explanation of the “eight stadia” is that they included the initial charge as well as the following pursuit once the Persians gave way. Nonetheless, Hoplite (Richard H. Berg/Mark Herman, GMT Games) features the eight stadia as a special rule in its Marathon scenario – the Greeks can use this special charge to get close and personal with the Persians. (The charge, however, runs the risk of destroying the cohesion of your hoplite phalanx and must thus be used with great discretion.)
The exact length of this charge notwithstanding, the Greeks used it to great effect. It surprised the Persians and rendered their strengths useless. Before the battle, the Greeks had strengthened their left and right wing at the expense of the center, and these wings now smashed through the Persians. The Greek center gave way, but the wings turned inwards and routed the remaining Persians who dashed back to their landing site and fled on their ships. Now the Greeks swiftly marched their army back to Athens and reached it before the Persian cavalry which was dispatched around Attica could arrive there. Having been bested, the Persians re-embarked and sailed for home. However, they did not forget about Greece.
Invasion: From the Hellespont to Thermopylae
The Persians wanted to start a new attempt at conquering Greece, yet two misfortunes delayed it: Great king Darius died in 486, and his son and heir Xerxes was initially busy with suppressing a revolt in the rich satrapy of Egypt. With the Egyptians suppressed, Xerxes amassed an army in Asia Minor and once more demanded earth and water from the Greeks.
They had not been idle either. In Athens, the rising star of the popular assembly, Themistocles, had convinced his countrymen to spend their new-found riches from the recently discovered silver mines at Laurium on building a fleet. When the call for earth and water came, the anti-Persian Greek cities sent delegates to Corinth where they founded a defensive confederation, the Hellenic Alliance.
The Hellenic Alliance did not encompass all of Greece – far from it. The cities in the north and the center of the mainland who would be the first to meet an invading Persian army decided that discretion was the better part of valor and once more offered earth and water. Cities on the smaller islands (like Corcyra) and away in Sicily (like Syracuse) took pains not to appear like they were taking sides. Herodotus, our main source, spends long chapters on the unsuccessful search for allies (and they are among the most touching in his entire account of the Greco-Persian Wars). In the end, only Athens, Sparta, Sparta’s allies on the Peloponnesus and a few smaller cities like Plataeae and Aegina joined the league. Sparta was nominally its leader, and thus Spartans were to have the command on land and sea (notwithstanding the fact that Sparta was a pure land-based power).
All the while, the Persian army advanced. Xerxes had a pontoon bridge built over the Hellespont and thus crossed the straits. A colorful episode recounts how a first attempt at bridging the Hellespont failed and the great king thus had the water punished with 300 lashes for its disobedience (clearly Herodotus’s way of charging Xerxes with despotism). Then the Persians marched through Thrace, Macedon, and into northern Greece. The Greeks, who had initially advanced as far north as the Tempe valley to block a Persian incursion into central Greece, feared being bypassed and fell back to Thermopylae. 300: Earth and Water features interesting considerations for the Greek player: Stationing forces in central and northern Greece might prevent easy Persian success by demanding earth and water from the Greeks there, but it might also stretch Greek forces thin.
At Thermopylae, the Greeks took a strong defensive position on the narrow pass close to the sea, mutually reinforcing with the base of the Greek fleet (nominally under command of the Spartan Eurybiades, but really headed by the Athenian Themistocles) at Cape Artemisium on the northern edge of Euboea. If one of the two positions was lost, so would be the other – the army at Thermopylae might be outflanked if the Persians controlled the waters around it, the fleet at Artemisium could be attacked from the land side if the Persians marched through Thermopylae. Unfortunately for the Greeks, the land force at Thermopylae was rather weak. The Athenians had spent all their manpower for crewing the ships at Artemisium (with about 30,000 sailors and marines) and thus could not field any land forces. The Spartans, once more, had been celebrating Carneia and had only sent one of their two kings, Leonidas I, and his bodyguard of 300 men. This core of the Greek army at Thermopylae was bolstered by the Spartans’ helot attendants, some of their Peloponnesian allies as well as some contingents from central Greece (Phocians and Thespians among them as well as some Theban volunteers), all in all about 7,000 men facing a numerically much superior enemy. Once Carneia was over, the position at Thermopylae could be reinforced. The Persians, however, did not do the Greeks the favor of waiting.
Lacking alternatives, Xerxes ordered a frontal attack on Thermopylae. The narrow pass rendered Persian numerical superiority moot, and the heavier Greek weaponry as well as the skill of the Spartans caused them heavy losses. At the same time, part of the Persian fleet was sent around Euboea to trap the Greek fleet. The Greeks took the opportunity to engage the remaining fleet of the great king while their numerical inferiority was not as pronounced, and even though Persian subjects like the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, and the Ionian Greeks were famous for their seamanship, the European Greeks had the better of them.
The interplay between army and navy is a major part of Plutôt Mort Que Perse ![Rather Dead Than Persian!] (Frédéric Bey/Nicolas Stratigos, Vae Victis). Thermopylae forms a strong defensive position by merit of its terrain, yet if the Persians have naval superiority, they might outflank it – and then have an easy way into southern Greece.
The battles on land and at sea raged on over the next two days. On the land side, the Persians suffered tremendous casualties, but a local guide offered to show them a goat path which would bypass the Greeks position. Leonidas had relied on the impassability of the mountains and had only stationed a small contingent of his Phocian allies there. The Phocians missed their opportunity to attack the Persian advance force when they saw then, and so on the morning of the third day of battle, there were Persians in the back of the Greek army. The position at Thermopylae was doomed. Leonidas sent most of the allied contingents away and went down fighting with his Spartans, the Thespians, and the Thebans, buying his allies as much time as he could for their retreat. The Greek fleet continued to cause heavy losses to the Persians, but their own losses were mounting as well (which they could much less afford than the Persians), and as the land position at Thermopylae was lost, they retreated as well before they could be attacked from the land side. Unbeknownst to them, the flanking part of the Persian fleet which had been sent around Euboea was lost in a storm (or so Herodotus tells us – it is possible that this force never existed and the storm only serves to reconcile the high initial number of Persian ships reported with the much lower one participating in the naval battles).
Southern Greece now lay open to the Persians. How the fateful struggle between them and the Greeks played out and how the ancients and we see its significance is the matter of the second post on the Greco-Persian Wars – to come in September. Watch this space.
Our main source for the Greco-Persian Wars is the – not always precise or reliable – Herodotus. His Histories (in the classic translation by A.D. Godley) can be downloaded in full here.
A comprehensive account of the Greco-Persian Wars is Green, Peter: The Greco-Persian Wars, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA 1996.
The necessary interpretation of our written sources is complemented with an assessment of the factual correctness of their claims, particularly in regard to army strengths (massively inflated by ancient authors), by Delbrück, Hans: Geschichte der Kriegskunst im Rahmen der politischen Geschichte. Band 1. Das Altertum, 3rd edition, Stilke, Berlin 1920, pp. 5-106, online in German here, translated as History of the Art of War. Vol. 1. Antiquity, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE 1920.