Greek Freedom? (The Greco-Persian Wars, #2)

2500 years ago, the most powerful man in the world, Persian great king Xerxes I, had set out to add another country to his vast domains – small, mountainous Greece. In the previous post we’ve seen what prompted this invasion and how initially things were going well for the Persian invasion force – they broke through the Greek defenses at Thermopylae and thus central and southern Greece lay open to them. This time, we’ll finish the account of the Persian invasion of 480/479 BCE, look at Greco-Persian relations in the following one and a half centuries, and look at how the Greco-Persian Wars were remembered among the ancient Greeks and until today – of course, with board games!

Resistance: From Athens to Mycale

The Athenians and Spartans faced rather different situations after the battles. Sparta, always conservative, had lost 300 men of the small warrior elite which ruled the country, and thus wanted to save what there was to save. For Sparta, an easy solution presented itself: Man the next natural defensive barrier, the isthmus which connects the Peloponnesian peninsula with central Greece. Thus Sparta (and the rest of the Peloponnesus) would be protected. The Athenians had no such safeguards: With the position of Thermopylae and Artemisium fallen, Athens could not be defended (although there were some, particularly among the land-owners of Athens, still fooled by the myth of Marathon, who argued that it could). On the other hand, unlike the Spartans at Thermopylae, the Athenians at Artemisium had not lost their battle, and had given as good as they got and more. With this newly gained confidence in their naval abilities, they staked the defense of Greece on a battle at sea – and, finally, could convince the Spartans and the other Peloponnesians to go along with it and stay with their ships in the combined Greek fleet.

While Athens put its prepared contingency plan of evacuation into action, the allied fleet – still nominally commanded by a Spartan, but in practice by Themistocles of Athens – positioned themselves on the island Salamis (which, together with the Greek mainland, formed narrow straits). The Persians, who needed an open supply line by sea, could not ignore them there if they wanted to advance into the Peloponnesus. Thus, once they had taken (and plundered) the abandoned Athens, their fleet closed in on the Greek naval position.

The Persians had a number of strategic options now:

  • They could have split their naval forces, blockading the Greeks in the straits with one half of the fleet while supplying their advancing land forces with the other. After the strong Greek showing at Artemisia (and the loss of the ships sent to cut off the Greeks from the position there), Xerxes did not want to take the risk of defeat in detail.
  • They could have just kept the Greeks bottled up, waiting for their surrender due to supply issues – after all, tens of thousands of sailors plus a number of the Athenian civilians sat on the small island of Salamis with limited provisions. As the campaigning season neared its end (and the autumn gales of the eastern Mediterranean endangered any naval supply in that time), Xerxes’s window of opportunity for a decisive blow against the Greeks was closing, and he did not want to lose it by waiting.
  • Finally, the Persians could have attacked the Greek fleet at Salamis. The narrow straits negated the Persian numerical advantage, though. For that reason, Themistocles wanted to bring about such a battle. He fed rumors to Xerxes that the Greeks considered a retreat and sent the Corinthian naval contingent to the other side of the straits to pretend that a partial or general Greek retreat was imminent.
Setup of the Salamis scenario in War Galley: The larger Persian fleet (blue, to the right) has to pass the bottleneck between the peninsula of Cynosura on Salamis and the Greek mainland and loses order. The allied fleet (red, to the left) awaits them abreast. Image from the Vassal module of War Galley, ©GMT Games.

Xerxes, eager for a decisive blow, swallowed the bait hook, line, and sinker, and ordered a general attack. Thus, the large fleet was funneled into the narrow straits while the great king was watching from an elevated seat on the shore. He would not like what he saw: While the Greek ships first withdrew deeper into the straits, the pursuing Persian fleet became cramped (see the above image from Great Battles of History VII: War Galley (Richard H. Berg/Mark Herman, GMT Games)) and lost order. Then the Greeks turned around and decisively struck at the Persians, early on killing Ariabignes, the Persian admiral (and brother of Xerxes). Then they defeated the leaderless Persians in the general melee. About half the Persian ships were lost.

There was no way for Xerxes anymore to turn his invasion into a resounding success within the campaigning season of 480. As the Greeks now had naval superiority, he became concerned about the security of his land-based supply lines (over the pontoon bridge which he’d built at the Hellespont) and pulled back with his navy and much of his army. The conquest of Greece was left to his lieutenant Mardonius who would take winter quarters in central Greece.

While the Athenians could return to their city for the winter, discontent spread among the Greek allies: The much-suffering Athenians demanded that next spring, an allied army march north of the isthmus and defeat the Persians, whereas the Spartans preferred to wait at that strong defensive position which protected their homeland. In the end, the Athenian threat of pulling their ships from the combined fleet convinced the Spartans to take the offensive come spring. Before that happened, the Persians marched on Athens again, and once more, the city was evacuated and then sacked by the Persians. As the Greek army counter-marched, Mardonius drew his troops back to Plataeae in central Greece, where the plains would offer more suitable terrain for his cavalry in a battle.

The opposing forces at Plataeae: The Greeks are encamped in hillier terrain south of the river Asopus, the Persians in the plains to the north. Setup for the first Plataeae scenario of Hoplite, image from the Vassal module, ©GMT Games.

The allied Greek army, led by the Spartans under Pausanias, followed. Both armies camped in terrain suitable for them – the Persians in the plains, the Greeks in the hills, between them a river. Neither wanted to attack the other under unfavorable circumstances. Mardonius might also have hoped for the Greek alliance to fall apart – after all, the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies already had what they wanted. Additionally, Mardonius kept the Greeks busy – cavalry raids were designed to draw the Greeks out into the open and to endanger their supply. The former failed, but in the latter, Mardonius’s forces were successful: They cut the Greeks’ connection to the Gargaphian Spring, their only source of water. The Greek position at Plataea was now untenable. Mardonius watched as the Greeks began to retreat – first orderly, then chaotic. He sensed his chance at a decisive blow and ordered an attack by his elite infantry. Unbidden, the rest of the Persian army followed, crossed the river and advanced into the hilly territory. The Greek forces came under heavy pressure before Pausanias – who’d waited his time, claiming that the omens were not auspicious yet – ordered a counter-attack. Now the Greeks used the favorable terrain to smash the lighter Persian forces in a melee. Mardonius was killed in a battle he did not have to fight. It is unclear how much of the apparent chaos in the Greek retreat was a deliberate ploy by Pausanias to lure the Persians into a battle at Greek terms – just like Salamis had been.

The Greeks in retreat: Only the Athenians (on the left flank) and the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies (on the right flank) still held forward positions. Mardonius’s advance, however, was checked and defeated. Setup for the second Plataeae scenario of Hoplite, image from the Vassal module, ©GMT Games.

The battle of Plataeae ended the Persian invasion of mainland Greece. Yet the Greeks had aimed for more than just that: While the allied army followed Mardonius, the now superior Greek navy transported another force to Mycale in Asia Minor. They defeated a Persian force in a land battle and destroyed a large number of Persian ships which were beached there. Then they sailed on to destroy the pontoon bridge over the Hellespont (but found out that a storm had taken care of that already). The Greek intervention in Asia Minor brought the Greek cities over to their cause. They allied with Athens (the Spartans had argued for their re-settlement on the Greek mainland) and became independent from the Persian Empire again.

Consequences: From the Delian League to Alexander

The most direct consequence of the Persian failure was that Greece did not become a Persian satrapy. Later, it has been announced with much fanfare, that this was the birth of the western world (implying that a Persian-ruled Greece would have become a part of a vaguely defined east). That position is untenable – the Persian Empire was no monolithic bloc and ethnic Greeks living under Persian rule made major contributions to Greek culture as we know it.

Athens and Sparta were now the co-leaders of the Greek world. Athens had thus achieved parity with the former chief city of Sparta – and Athens was much more dynamic culturally and economically. The Athenians and their allies formed the Delian League, an alliance whose members (chief among them the maritime cities on the Greek mainland, the coast of Asia Minor, and the islands) contributed either ships and soldiers or money to their common defence. The Athenians and their allies made war against the Persians for the next 30 years: They were usually on the offensive, but their bold schemes (including an invasion of Persian-ruled Egypt) often failed. Finally, Athens and Persia made peace in 449. The League remained – but its headquarters were moved from the island of Delos to Athens, and, as most member cities preferred to contribute money while Athens provided ships and soldiers, the Athenians gained an imperial dominance over their allies.

The two great Greek cities who’d jointly defeated the Persians did not stay allied forever. From 431 on, the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies devastated the entire Greek world for almost 30 years. The land behemoth Sparta ravaged Athens’s possessions on the Greek mainland, the maritime leviathan Athens struck at Sparta’s lands and allies in amphibious raids. In the end, the Spartans were only able to defeat Athens when they accepted a large sum of money from the Persians to build a Spartan navy which could match the Athenian. Sparta’s hegemony over Greece was soon after challenged by an Athenian-led coalition – supported by Persia! Sparta remained supreme in mainland Greece, but the Greek cities of Asia Minor came under Persian suzerainty again.

The Greco-Persian Wars remained an important part of Greek public memory throughout the entire classical period of the fifth and fourth century BCE. The earliest extant of historical writing – Herodotus’s Histories – focus on these wars. The poet Aeschylus wrote a much-celebrated tragedy about the Greco-Persian Wars – and when he died as an Athenian celebrity, the greatest playwright of his age, his gravestone made no mention of his creative work, only proudly proclaimed that he had fought the Persians at Marathon. And, of course, Greek orators – particularly in Athens, that most politically energetic of all Greek cities – referenced the Greco-Persian Wars over and over again, as an example of anti-imperialism, a cry for Greek unity, or simply to extol the virtues of the good old times. Almost 150 years after Salamis and Plataeae, the young Macedonian king Alexander III used the destruction of the temples on the Athenian Acropolis as his argument for why he (and his Greek allies) were going to war with the Persians. Alexander’s campaign, begun in 334 BCE, destroyed the entirety of the Persian Empire of the Achaemenid dynasty, and made him known as Alexander the Great.

Legacy: Greek Freedom?

What were the Greco-Persian Wars even fought for? Herodotus, our main source, has a clear opinion: Greek freedom was at stake. It was the Greeks who had discovered how to live as free men in free cities. Their opponent was an empire much larger than all the Greek cities combined, and yet ruled by one man to whose will all his subjects had to bow. That was the way in which the Greeks thought about themselves and their former enemies, and having “medized”, that is, allied with the Persians (as many Greek cities, especially in northern and central Greece, had done) became a distinct stain on the honor of a city.

Herodotus’s views were only possible because the Greek allies had defeated the Persian invasions: He hailed from Halicarnassus, a Greek city in Asia Minor, which, at the time of his birth in 484, had been under Persian suzerainty. If Xerxes’s invasion had succeeded and Greece become a Persian satrapy (as many other ethnicities with a proud history of their own were Persian subjects, for example, the Egyptians or the Phoenicians), Herodotus might as well have written Histories of the Persian Empire. This thought can be acted out in Antike Duellum (Mac Gerdts, PD-Verlag) which features a Greco-Persian Wars scenario. The winning condition is to attract a certain number of great personalities for either side – and thus the game frames the struggle as a cultural as well as a military-political competition.

Herodotus’s birthplace Halicarnassus is located on the south-western coast of Asia Minor (bottom right in this image). Mapboard of the Greco-Persian Wars scenario of Antike Duellum, ©PD-Verlag.

The “Greek freedom” defended at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataeae was also invoked by European writers many centuries later. They used it to construct a dichotomy between a free, liberal, rational West relying on a few self-reliant, motivated heroes and an unfree, authoritarian, mystical East based on faceless mass armies pushed forward only by the whips of their masters.

This dichotomy has been thoroughly debunked by academic historians:

  • While the Greek cities were subject to no other entity (unlike the cities and satrapies of the Persian Empire, which accepted the great king as their sovereign), that does not mean that the Persian Empire was a fully centralized state. As the empire was vast and the great king could only be in one place at a time, he ceded a large degree of political decision-making to the local authorities.
  • Similarly, the degree of individual freedom in the Greek cities and the Persian Empire is not a story of black-and-white. Persian subjects enjoyed personal liberties comparable to the citizens of the Greek cities – just not in the realm of self-governing politics. Yet the Greek record here is also spotty: Even the champion city of democracy, Athens, had deposed its tyrants just a few years before Marathon. In many other cities, tyrannies (like the one of Syracuse, the largest and most prosperous of the Greek cities at the time) or various forms of oligarchies (like Sparta’s small warrior class ruling over the unfree helot masses) were far from being models of political freedom.
  • Not even the myth of Persian mass armies vs. the Greek few holds true: Herodotus reports immense numbers of Persian soldiers (2.5 million combatants for Xerxes’s invasion), yet these do not hold up to logical inquiry: How would they have been coordinated on a march – and how would they even march on the few and narrow roads of the time? How would they be supplied? How would the great king with his comparably shallow government penetration into local affairs raise the money to pay for their food and wages? If the Persians were so numerically superior, why did they not use more flanking marches and envelopments? Just looking at the sheer size and population of Greece and the Persian Empire obscures their differences in how they organized for war: The Greek cities armed their citizens, the Persian Empire had a professionally trained soldiery. Thus, while the numbers of soldiers they could put in the field were rather similar (with one or the other side having a small edge in a given battle), the Persian soldiers overall had an edge in training. The Greeks, on the other hand, relied on their heavier weaponry and armor.

While academically disproven, the myth of western freedom vs. eastern tyranny endures as a popular narrative – particularly among the (alt-)right. One piece of popular media was crucial for this: 300, the movie adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic book on the battle of Thermopylae, featured manly, white Spartans under their warrior-king Leonidas (played by 37-year-old Gerard Butler instead of an actor a little bit closer to Leonidas’s age of 60 at the time of the battle). They fight Persian hordes ranging from brown-skinned to outright monstrous commanded by an effeminate despot. In the end, they die heroically after having betrayed – not by a mere local goatherd (as Herodotus relays), but rather by a vengeful disabled Spartan. Racism, anxiety about non-traditional gender roles, ableism – the movie had ample overlap with any kind of right-wing thought. Fortunately, there are (to my knowledge) no board games have which subscribe to this chauvinist interpretation of the Greco-Persian Wars, even if their name alludes to the 300 movie as the most recognizable pop-cultural rendering of the wars (300: Earth and Water (Yasushi Nakaguro, Bonsai Games)).

As the extreme right has never been particularly into historical scholarship, this overblown “defense of the West” narrative of the Greco-Persian Wars has been generously invoked by them – but narrowed down particularly to the Spartans whose authoritarian warrior oligarchy is apparently more appealing to them than the egalitarian, democratic Athens. That sometimes borders on the absurd: Leonidas’s famous “Come and take them” (Molon Labe) reply to Xerxes’s demand that the Spartans give up their weapons is now a rallying cry of the more extreme Second Amendment enthusiasts in the United States, notwithstanding that that’s exactly what happened – the Persians came and took (killing the Spartans in between).

Often, the tropes of Spartan awesomeness and the defense of a nebulously defined West in the Greco-Persian Wars are also mixed and matched with other right-wing tropes: In my native Germany, a speaker at a right-wing rally encouraged her audience to start the “Ahu!” chant from the 300 movie to take up the tradition of defending Europe from Islam in the reconquista as the Spartans had allegedly done at Thermopylae – a mere 1100 years before Islam even came into existence (and even longer before the reconquista, which refers to Spain anyway).

So, the traditional narrative of the defense of heroic Greek freedom against the eastern masses under authoritarianism has not only been disproven, but also hijacked by extremists most other people do not want to be associated with. That should not bring us to disdain ancient Greek culture though, nor the fruits gained from the victory:

  • The young Athenian democracy was stabilized. Instead of being replaced with former Athenian tyrant Hippias or another pro-Persian local ruler, the Athenians could further pursue the first experiment in participatory government which is the root of all modern forms of it.
  • As the Greek cities remained independent (and thus free of taxation from Persia), their wealth grew. Particularly Athens turned into a commercial powerhouse of the eastern Mediterranean. Some of this wealth fuelled the artistic golden age of the classical era – from statues, vases, and temples to drama, and, with Herodotus and Thucydides after him, the first works of history as we know it.

And, even though Herodotus is an unreliable historian (and sometimes a straight-up propagandist), reading his works still has value today. Here are some takeaways of mine:

  • Building and maintaining an alliance among independent states (like the Greek cities or our modern nation-states) is hard. Everybody has their own interests and opinions (say, defending Attica or falling back to the Isthmus), there are certain niceties to observe (for example, appointing a Spartan as admiral even though the Spartans have no experience whatsoever in naval warfare) while still having to produce results (and, de facto, putting an Athenian in charge). Many of the potential alliance partners will join the other side (like most of the cities in the north and center of Greece did) – or just carefully make sure not to commit: Some of the most heart-wrenching passages of Herodotus (at least to me) are the accounts of the various failed Allied missions to cities like Syracuse or Argos which remained neutral lest they infuriate whichever side was winning in the end. Still, the alliance is the only option small actors on the international stage have when contending with great ones.
  • Religion plays an important role in conflicts. Herodotus’s account is full of small stories of temples or shrines taken by the advancing Persians (and treated with more or less respect), and every one of them strengthens Greek resolve – most importantly, the epitome of (civic) religion, the temple area on the Athenian Acropolis whose sacking Alexander could still invoke 150 years later to get the Greeks (particularly the Athenians, of course) on board with his Persian campaign. A subtler use of religion is Pausanias’s refusal to order a counter-attack at Plataeae on grounds that the omens were inauspicious – until, of course, the Persians had advanced enough to be fully into the hilly ground where their cavalry was useless.
  • Finally, democracy is work. A majority of the citizens needs to convinced of a proposal, and even if they are, there are still those who will speak against it. Opinions change, and consequently, so do policies. Still, that fickleness of democracy (pointed out by Herodotus as much as by most of the other ancient historians and philosophers) also offers the potential for sudden, decisive change when necessary: Decisions which are jointly discussed and taken have a legitimacy of their own. Thus, Athens could change its entire defense strategy between Marathon and the second invasion of Greece by turning itself into a sea power at Themistocles’s suggestion, and when Athens was under threat, having decided on evacuations before (and by popular majority) allowed the Athenians to go through with this potentially very unpopular proposal.

What are your insights from the Greco-Persian Wars – be they from the original sources, scholarly work, or your playing of board games? Let me know in the comments!

Games Referenced

Great Battles of History VII: War Galley (Richard H. Berg/Mark Herman, GMT Games)

Great Battles of History XV: Hoplite (Richard H. Berg/Mark Herman, GMT Games)

Antike Duellum (Mac Gerdts, PD-Verlag)

300: Earth and Water (Yasushi Nakaguro, Bonsai Games)

Further Reading

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, 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.


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