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The Persian Wars

Around 1200 B.C. Greek speaking invaders flooded southern Greece and overcame Mycenae. Many of the inhabitants fled to the west coast of Asia Minor (Ionia). The invasions halted c. 1000 B.C. and over the centuries powerful city-states, such as Athens and Sparta, arose on the Greek mainland. The Greeks who fled to Ionia settled and founded cities of their own. They retained the Greek way of life.

The Ionian Greeks were in turn subjugated by Lydia under Croesus. The Ionians did not seem to resent their Lydian rulers as Croesus was quick to adopt many aspects of the Greek culture to the point that some Greeks revered Croesus.

In 546 B.C. Lydia was conquered by the growing might of the infant Persian empire. Cyrus the Great of Persia marched his army into Lydia and defeated Croesus. Cyrus recognized the value of Croesus and appointed him to be his personal advisor. The Persian conquest of Greek Ionia was completed by 510 B.C. under Darius I. All of the islands off the coast of Asia Minor were under his control. He then marched his army into Europe and reached Macedonia.

In 500 B.C. Ionian Greece revolted against their Persian overlords. A recent near defeat of the Persian army led them to believe that revolt was possible. Aid was solicited from mainland Greece and was received by Athens and Eretria. Athens sent 20 ships to aid in the revolt and Eretria sent five ships. The revolt experienced rapid initial success as the Greeks captured and burned Sardis, the capital of the Persian satrapy. However, by 494 B.C. the revolt was smashed following the defeat of the Greek fleet at Lade. Miletus was razed its inhabitants sold into slavery.

Following the revolt Darius prepared to punish those who aided the Ionians. The Persians sent emissaries to the Greek mainland demanding submission, a proposition the Greeks refused. A mighty Persian fleet set sail for Greece, but met disaster in ferocious storms off the cape of Mount Athos in 492 B.C. Darius sent another force in 490 B.C. Accompanying Darius was Hippias, a former despot of Athens who was exiled in 510 B.C. Hippias maintained some support in Athens and hoped to once again rule the city, despite his age of 80. On this occasion the Persians sacked Eretria and moved into the bay of Marathon to strike Athens.

Under the prospect of facing the Persians, the Athenians sent a runner to Sparta seeking aid. As it turned out, the Spartans were observing the Carneian Festival of Apollo, which prevented them from sending any help to Athens. The Spartans would not arrive until after the battle was over, about eleven days later.

At Marathon the Athenians faced the Persian army. The Athenians won the day under the heroic command of Miltiades. Following the victory the Athenian army rushed back to Athens to confront a Persian fleet that was approaching from the Sarconic Gulf. Darius was obliged to withdraw granting the Greeks victory.

Darius died in 486 B.C. while planning a second and more decisive invasion of Greece. His son, Xerxes, took up the reigns of his father and after settling matters at home began a second invasion of Greece. The Greeks, meanwhile, were aware that the Persians would eventually return. Under the leadership of Themistocles Athens began to build a fleet of 250 ships and would build up their fortifications.

In 480 B.C. the second Persian invasion of Greece began as Xerxes crossed the Hellespont by lashing together 300 boats to form a bridge. His army, numbering about 170,000 combatants, advanced through Thrace and down into Macedonia. The fleet sailed along the coast. Three years prior Persian engineers began the monumental task of cutting a canal through the Athos peninsula to avoid the hazards of the cape that claimed the fleet during Darius' first invasion attempt in 492 B.C. The canal gave the fleet safe passage.

Once again facing the looming Persian army the Greeks put aside their differences. Athens placed her military under the command of Sparta. It was decided that a defensive position would be set up at Tempe Gorge, but eventually this site was altered and the defenders began to move south to Thermopylae. At the same time a Greek fleet took up position at Artemisium to hold up the Persian fleet.

At Thermopylae a small force of Spartan defenders and allies under the command of Leonidas held out under the massive weight of the Persian army. Despite many of their allies fleeing, the Spartans refused to budge. They were eventually overcome by the Persians and killed to the man. With the news of the disaster at Thermopylae the Greek fleet at Artemisium withdrew to Athens.

The Persian army advanced south towards Attica. Towns were looted and forced into submission. With the Persians advancing the Athenians looked to the Oracle at Delphi for advice. The Oracle replied that they should take refuge behind wooden walls. Themistocles interpreted this to mean that they should take to the ships. The population of Athens was evacuated, mainly to the island of Salamis, except for some zealots who stayed behind. The Persian army entered Athens and burned it.

The Persian fleet moved into the strait off of Salamis where they faced the Greek fleet. Xerxes erected a throne on Mount Aegaleos overlooking the Bay of Salamis where he could view his fleet as they smashed the Greek defenders. However, the Greeks repulsed the Persian fleet.

Xerxes withdrew to Asia and left Mardonius, along with the bulk of his army, to complete the conquest. Xerxes sailed to Asia Minor in fear that the defeat at Salamis might encourage the Ionians to revolt. Cautiously, the Greeks followed. Mardonius withdrew to Thessaly for the winter. The following spring Mardonius adopted diplomatic means to separate Athens from her alliance with the Peloponnesians, but Athens refused.

With the arrival of summer in 479 B.C. Mardonius advanced south. Athens was once again evacuated and occupied by the Persian army. Sparta initially refused to assist Athens, but relented when Athens threatened to accept Mardonius' terms of surrender, which would have placed the Athenian navy under Persian control. The Spartans marched north causing Mardonius to evacuate Athens and move his army into Boeotia.

In Boeotia the decisive battle between Persia and the Greek city-states would be fought. The two armies first met at Erythrae. The Persians attacked, but were repulsed with the loss of their cavalry commander, Masistius. The Greeks took advantage of the Persian dismay to move their army west to Plataea. At Plataea the Persians were routed ending the Persian invasions of Greece.

Meanwhile the Greeks followed the Persian fleet as it sailed east to Asia Minor. The Persian fleet beached at Mycale on the coast of Asia Minor. The Greeks pounced and destroyed the Persian fleet.

It was not until 449 B.C. that Persia recognized the independence of the Greek Ionians.

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