Ancient Greece, the Persian Wars and Herodotus

Home | Category: Greek Classical Age (500 B.C. to 323 B.C.)


Between 499 to 479, Greece and Persia fought a series of wars that determined the balance of power in the Mediterranean. In 492 B.C., Persia was of one of the world's largest empires. It controlled a huge expanse of territory, including Greek cities in Asia Minor. Its expansion westward seemed inexorable. Greece, which consisted of bunch of disparate states that fought against one another more than they were united, seemed like an easy target.

The Persian Wars were triggered by a rebellion by Ionian Greeks in Asia Minor against their Persian lords and the Persian King Darius in 499 B.C.. Athens and Eretria supported the rebellions and Greeks sacked the important Persian city of Sardis. Darius was outraged. He asked “Who are these Athenians?” and then appointed a slave to remind him every day, “Master, remember the Athenians!” The Persians retaliated by destroying the Greek city of Miletos. Darius was further infuriated when he demanded symbolic tokens of “earth and water” from Athens and Sparta and the defiant Athenians threw the Persians envoy into a pit (“earth”) and the Spartans their envoy into a well (“water”).

Darius developed a plan to invade Greece and teach the Athenians a lesson they wouldn’t forget. The gods favored the Greeks during Darius’s first invasion. A fleet of 600 Persian ships crossed the Dardanelles and then was ravaged by storm off of Mount Anthos that destroyed half the fleet.

The military campaigns against the Greeks by Darius and, after his death, by his son Xerxes, constituted the largest military undertaking in history up to that time.

Aeschylus’ plays are the earliest accounts we have of the Persian Wars. The characters in his play “The Persians” are: 1) Atossa, widow of Darius and mother of Xerxes’ 2) a Messenger 3) Ghost of Darius; 4) Xerxes and 4) a Chorus of Persian Elders, who compose the Persian Council of State. The play begins at the Council-Hall of the Persian Kings at Susa. The tomb of Darius the Great is visible. The time is 480 B.C., shortly after the battle of Salamis. The play opens with the Chorus of Persian Elders singing its first choral lyric. [Source: University of Calgary]

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Book: “The Persian Wars” by Herodotus

Herodotus’s History and the Persian Wars

Herodotus wrote “Histories” , a nine-volume account of Persian wars between 490 to 479 B.C. Sometimes called “The Persian Wars” or “History”, the work contains frequent and lengthy digressions and seems to leave no detail unturned. Herodotus’s style was lucid but poetic. Some regard him as the first master of prose. Cicero asked “what was sweeter than Herodotus.” A 20th century translator said, “Herodotus’s prose has the flexibility, ease and grace of a man superbly talking.”

Herodotus called his book “Historie” . In his time the word meant “research” or “inquiry” and has come to mean “history” in our sense of the world because of him. The book was so full of details and curious facts it is sometimes considered the first tourist guides and in fact was still the standard travel guide in the 19th century.

Herodotus observed a variety of local customs and concluded that men were servants to customs to which they were born. He noted that when Darius offered to pay his Greek subjects to eat the bodies of their fathers instead of burning them as was their custom, they refused no matter how much was offered them. He then offered to give money to Indians, who customarily ate the bodies of their deceased fathers, if they would burn their bodies. They also refused no matter how much was offered them. On the Egyptians he reported "In any home where a cat dies" the residents "shave off their eyebrows" and “sons never take care of their parents if they don’t want to, but daughters must whether they like it or not." He also noted “Women urinate standing up, men sitting down.”

His accounts of the natural world are no less entertaining. In the case of vipers and snakes he said the male is killed by the female during copulation but the male is “avenged” by their young who kill the female. In Book 3 he describes how Indian gold is produced by a species of ants—“huge ants, smaller than dogs but larger than foxes.”

The Persian Wars take up about a third of “History” — from the middle of Book 5 to the end of Book 9. The first four and half books proceed at a leisurely pace, with a lot of digressions, explaining the rise of the Persian Empire and tells readers everything they would ever want to know about Persia. See Persians Wars, History

Herodotus begins “Histories” with his account if Croesus and calls him “the first barbarian known who subjugated and demanded tribute from Hellenes.” The tale offers an introduction to a theme that would pervade the nine volumes of “Histories” — don’t overstep your bounds. Blinded by his success Croesus arrogantly misinterpreted a pronouncement by the Oracle of Delphi: “If you attack Persia you will destroy a great empire.” Croesus thought the oracle was referring to the Persians but she was in fact referring to his own. Sardis was sacked by the Persians. According to Herodotus, Croesus asked Cyrus, “What is it that all these men of yours are so intent upon doing.” Cyrus replied: “They are plundering your city and carrying off your treasures.” Croesus then corrected him: “Not my city or my treasures. Nothing there any longer belongs to me. It is you they are robbing.”


Herodotus (484?-425? B.C.) has been called the Father of History, a compliment initially given to him Cicero. He is given credit for recording information from all over but criticized for using less than reliable sources and sometimes espousing what seems like propaganda. Most of Herodotus's histories were stories he picked up from travelers, merchants and priests. He seems to have known many were exaggerations or unproven claims and he made some effort to pick out what was plausible. Occasionally he ascribed events to myths. Aristotle called him a “legend monger.” [Source: Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, April 28, 2008]

20120209-80 Persian Empire 490 BC.png

Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker, “Herodotus may not always give us the facts, but he unfailingly supplies something that is just as important in the study if what he calls “ta genomena ex” anthrupon” or “things that result from human action”: he give us the truth about the way things tend to work as whole, in history, civics, personality, and, of course, psychology.”

Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus, a town in Asia Minor that was home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, which was finished decades after he left. Halicarnassus was also regarded as a major intellectual center for a time. Herodotus spent some time in Athens and was a friend of Sophocles. He traveled widely and wrote extensively about the places he visited and people and places he heard about. He visited Egypt, southern Italy, Mesopotamia, Persian, the Levent and the Black Sea area. He wrote about the Scythians based on things he heard and pieced together the Persian Wars from oral traditions and things he observed.∞

Book: “Herodotus” by James Romm is a “lively short study.” “The Way of Herodotus” by Justin Marozzi (De Capo 2009) is an excellent travelog and encounter with Herodotus. “The Landmark Herodotus “ edited by Robert B. Strassler (Pantheon, 2008) is richly illustrated and filled with accounts by experts on everything from designs of ships to ancient measurements but the translation leaves much to be desired. The 1858 translation of “Histories” by George Rawlinson (Everyman Library) captures the “rich Homeric flavor and dense syntax” according to The New Yorker. The 1998 translation of Robin Waterfield (Oxford World Classic) is not bad.

Trouble in the Persian Provinces

The Persians had to deal with periodic rebellions in various parts of the empire. Egypt won independence from Persia only to be conquered again 60 years later. The second occupation lasted a little more than a decade before Alexander the Great arrived on the scene. The fall of Croesus in 547 B.C. marked the beginning of the incorporation of the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor into the Persian Empire. Some of the Ionian states had appealed to Athens and Sparta for help. Athens later responded .

Croesus (561-547 B.C.) was the greatest and last the last king of Lydia. He captured the major Greek cities of western Asia Minor (Turkey) and then was defeated by Cyrus the Great of Persia. He is said to have produced a lavish palace in his capital of Sardis and was regarded by some as one of the richest men that ever lived. The Lydians became so wealthy under Croesus the expression “rich as Croesus” became popular in antiquity. He was the first ruler to produce gold coins (before that they were made from the silver-alloy electrum) and certify the weight of gold in coins.

Ionian Revolt Campaign Map

Herodotus begins “Histories” with his account if Croesus and calls him “the first barbarian known who subjugated and demanded tribute from Hellenes.” The tale offers an introduction to a theme that would pervade the nine volumes of “Histories” — don’t overstep your bounds. Blinded by his success Croesus arrogantly misinterpreted a pronouncement by the Oracle of Delphi: “If you attack Persia you will destroy a great empire.” Croesus thought the oracle was referring to the Persians but she was in fact referring to his own. Sardis was sacked by the Persians. According to Herodotus, Croesus asked Cyrus, “What is it that all these men of yours are so intent upon doing.” Cyrus replied: “They are plundering your city and carrying off your treasures.” Croesus then corrected him: “Not my city or my treasures. Nothing there any longer belongs to me. It is you they are robbing.”

Half a century later, starting in 499 B.C. Ionian Greek states began rebelling against their Persian overlords, leading to the Persian invasion of Greece. In 499 B.C., Ionian Greeks in Asia Minor rebelled against their Persian lords. Athens and Eretria supported the rebellions and Greeks sacked the important Persian city of Sardis. The Persians retaliated by destroying the Greek city of Miletos. This set the state stage for the Persian Wars.

Darius developed a plan to invade Greece and teach the Athenians a lesson they wouldn’t forget. The gods favored the Greeks during Darius’s first invasion. A fleet of 600 Persian ships crossed the Dardanelles and then was ravaged by storm off of Mount Anthos that destroyed half the fleet.

Herodotus on the Forming of the Greek Alliance Before the Battle of Marathon

On the Battle of Marathon during the first Persian invasion of Greece,Herodotus wrote in Book VI in “Histories” (430 B.C.): “The barbarians were conducted to Marathon by Hippias, the son of Pisistratus, who the night before had seen a strange vision in his sleep. He dreamt of lying in his mother's arms, and conjectured the dream to mean that he would be restored to Athens, recover the power which he had lost, and afterwards live to a good old age in his native country. Such was the sense in which he interpreted the vision. He now proceeded to act as guide to the Persians, and, in the first place, he landed the prisoners taken from Eretria upon the island that is called Aegileia, a tract belonging to the Styreans, after which he brought the fleet to anchor off Marathon and marshalled the bands of the barbarians as they disembarked. As he was thus employed, it chanced that he sneezed and at the same time coughed with more violence than was his wont. Now, as he was a man advanced in years, and the greater number of his teeth were loose, it so happened that one of them was driven out with the force of the cough, and fell down into the sand. Hippias took all the pains he could to find it, but the tooth was nowhere to be seen, whereupon he fetched a deep sigh, and said to the bystanders,1 "After all, the land is not ours, and we shall never be able to bring it under. All my share in it is the portion of which my tooth has possession...So Hippias believed that in this way his dream was fulfilled.[Source: Herodotus “The History of Herodotus” Book VI on the Persian War, 440 B.C. translated by George Rawlinson, MIT]

“The Athenians were drawn up in order of battle in a sacred close belonging to Hercules when they were joined by the Plataeans, who came in full force to their aid. Some time before, the Plataeans had put themselves under the rule of the Athenians, and these last had already undertaken many labours on their behalf. The occasion of the surrender was the following. The Plataeans suffered grievous things at the hands of the men of Thebes; so, as it chanced that Cleomenes, the son of Anaxandridas, and the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) were in their neighbourhood, they first of all offered to surrender themselves to them. But the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) refused to receive them, and said, "We dwell too far off from you, and ours would be but chill succour. Ye might oftentimes be carried into slavery before one of us heard of it. We counsel you rather to give yourselves up to the Athenians, who are your next neighbours, and well able to shelter you."

“This they said, not so much out of good will towards the Plataeans as because they wished to involve the Athenians in trouble by engaging them in wars with the Boeotians. The Plataeans, however, when the Lacedaemonians gave them this counsel, complied at once, and when the sacrifice to the Twelve Gods was being offered at Athens, they came and sat as suppliants about the altar and gave themselves up to the Athenians. The Thebans no sooner learnt what the Plataeans had done than instantly they marched out against them, while the Athenians sent troops to their aid. As the two armies were about to join battle, the Corinthians, who chanced to be at hand, would not allow them to engage; both sides consented to take them for arbitrators, whereupon they made up the quarrel, and fixed the boundary-line between the two states upon this condition: to wit, that if any of the Boeotians wished no longer to belong to Boeotia, the Thebans should allow them to follow their own inclinations. The Corinthians, when they had thus decreed, forthwith departed to their homes. The Athenians likewise set off on their return; but the Boeotians fell upon them during the march, and a battle was fought wherein they were worsted by the Athenians. Hereupon these last would not be bound by the line which the Corinthians had fixed, but advanced beyond those limits and made the Asopus the boundary-line between the country of the Thebans and that of the Plataeans and Hysians. Under such circumstances did the Plataeans give themselves up to Athens, and now they were come to Marathon to bear the Athenians aid.

“The Athenian generals were divided in their opinions, and some advised not to risk a battle, because they were too few to engage such a host as that of the Medes, while others were for fighting at once, and among these last was Miltiades. He therefore, seeing that opinions were thus divided, and that the less worthy counsel appeared likely to prevail, resolved to go to the Polemarch, and have a conference with him. For the man on whom the lot fell to be Polemarch at Athens was entitled to give his vote with the ten generals, since anciently the Athenians allowed him an equal right of voting with them. The Polemarch at this juncture was Callimachus of Aphidnae; to him therefore Miltiades went, and said:

“"With thee it rests Callimachus, either to bring Athens to slavery, or, by securing her freedom, to leave behind thee to all future generations a memory beyond even Harmodius and Aristogeiton. For never since the time that the Athenians became a people were they in so great a danger as now. If they bow their necks beneath the yoke of the Medes, the woes which they will have to suffer when given into the power of Hippias are already determined on. If, on the other hand, they fight and overcome, Athens may rise to be the very first city in Greece. How it comes to pass that these things are likely to happen, and how the determining of them in some sort rests with thee, I will now proceed to make clear. We generals are ten in number, and our votes are divided; half of us wish to engage, half to avoid a combat. Now, if we do not fight, I look to see a great disturbance at Athens which will shake men's resolutions, and then I fear they will submit themselves, but if we fight the battle before any unsoundness show itself among our citizens, let the gods but give us fair play, and we are well able to overcome the enemy. On thee therefore we depend in this matter, which lies wholly in thine own power. Thou hast only to add thy vote to my side and thy country will be free, and not free only, but the first state in Greece. Or, if thou preferrest to give thy vote to them who would decline the combat, then the reverse will follow."

“Miltiades by these words gained Callimachus; and the addition of the Polemarch's vote caused the decision to be in favor of fighting. Hereupon all those generals who had been desirous of hazarding a battle, when their turn came to command the army, gave up their right to Miltiades. He however, though he accepted their offers, nevertheless waited, and would not fight until his own day of command arrived in due course. Then at length, when his own turn was come, the Athenian battle was set in array, and this was the order of it. Callimachus the Polemarch led the right wing, for it was at that time a rule with the Athenians to give the right wing to the Polemarch. After this followed the tribes, according as they were numbered, in an unbroken line; while last of all came the Plataeans, forming the left wing. And ever since that day it has been a custom with the Athenians, in the sacrifices and assemblies held each fifth year at Athens, for the Athenian herald to implore the blessing of the gods on the Plataeans conjointly with the Athenians. Now, as they marshalled the host upon the field of Marathon, in order that the Athenian front might he of equal length with the Median, the ranks of the centre were diminished, and it became the weakest part of the line, while the wings were both made strong with a depth of many ranks.”

Darius Invades Marathon

In 490 B.C., Darius tried again. This time he sent a fleet of 600 ships across the Aegean Sea and landed with a force of 20,000 men on the Plains of Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens.

When the Athenians learned that the Persians had arrived, Pheidippides, an Athenian runner, ran 150 miles to Sparta to seek the help of Sparta in the battle against Persia. The Spartans didn't participate because they were holding a religious ceremony at the time. The Athenian army, which was camped out in the foothills on the edge of the Marathon plain, was forced to fight against the Persians without any help from the Spartans.

The legend of the Pheidippides provided the inspiration for French scholar Michael Breal to suggest adding a "marathon" race to the program of the 1896 Olympics to his friend Pierre de Coubertin. The marathon is an event run in the modern Olympics. It was not part of the ancient Olympics. It commemorates an event, though, that occurred in ancient Greece. The marathon story is based on an account of the “ Battle of Marathon in The Histories” by Heredotus. It was written about 50 years after the battle took place. See Marathon, Sports, Greeks

Battle of Marathon

The Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. is one the most famous battles in ancient Greek history. The Athenian army, under the command of general Miltaides, was outnumbered six to one. The Athenian army consisted of about 10,000 Athenians, aided by 1,000 Plataeans, and included many aristocrats. The strength of the Persian Army was its archers.

Miltaides organized his forces so that its strength was in the wings. He ordered a small central force to advance. As expected they were pushed back. When the Persians let down their guard momentarily to water their horses. Miltaides ordered the Athenian wings to attack on a full run. Before the Persian archers had time to string their bows the Athenians charged them like madmen and fought them at close range, where the Persian bows and arrows were ineffective and where the Athenians, with their protective armor and deadly spears were able to sow maximum terror among the Persians while sustaining only minor casualties themselves.

The panic-stricken Persians retreated to their boats. Aeschylus later wrote that his brother was killed when his arm was cut off as he tried to stop a Persian ship from retreating. After Athens’ victory Pheidippides reportedly ran 26.3 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory of the Greeks over the Persians and then fell dead after he gave the message: Rejoice! We conquer!" See Marathon, Sports, Greeks

But Darius had not given up yet and during the night he steered his boats to what he thought was an unguarded Athens. But Miltiades, who had marched his army 26 miles during the night to Athens, was waiting for the Persians on high ground and the Persians were routed again. According to Herodotus, 6,400 Persians were killed, while only 192 Athenians and 11 Plateans died. Breaking their tradition of carrying their dead back to their cities, the Greeks instead buried them in the battlefield and a erected grave mounds that are still visible today.

Darius return to Persia with a third of his army gone.. After the victory many Greek states united to defend against another Persian attack, with Sparta dominating the land and Athens controlling the seas.

Greeks Defeat the Persians at the Battle of Marathon

Shekel coin with Darius I
Herodotus wrote in Book VI of “Histories”: “So when the battle was set in array, and the victims showed themselves favourable, instantly the Athenians, so soon as they were let go, charged the barbarians at a run. Now the distance between the two armies was little short of eight furlongs. The Persians, therefore, when they saw the Greeks coming on at speed, made ready to receive them, although it seemed to them that the Athenians were bereft of their senses, and bent upon their own destruction; for they saw a mere handful of men coming on at a run without either horsemen or archers. Such was the opinion of the barbarians, but the Athenians in close array fell upon them, and fought in a manner worthy of being recorded. They were the first of the Greeks, so far as I know, who introduced the custom of charging the enemy at a run, and they were likewise the first who dared to look upon the Median garb and to face men clad in that fashion. Until this time the very name of the Medes had been a terror to the Greeks to hear. [Source: Herodotus “The History of Herodotus” Book VI on the Persian War, 440 B.C.E, translated by George Rawlinson, MIT]

“The two armies fought together on the plain of Marathon for a length of time, and in the mid battle, where the Persians themselves and the Sacae had their place, the barbarians were victorious and broke and pursued the Greeks into the inner country, but on the two wings the Athenians and the Plataeans defeated the enemy. Having so done, they suffered the routed barbarians to fly at their ease, and joining the two wings in one, fell upon those who had broken their own centre, and fought and conquered them. These likewise fled, and now the Athenians hung upon the runaways and cut them down, chasing them all the way to the shore, on reaching which they laid hold of the ships and called aloud for fire.

“It was in the struggle here that Callimachus the Polemarch, after greatly distinguishing himself, lost his life; Stesilaus too, the son of Thrasilaus, one of the generals, was slain; and Cynaegirus, the son of Euphorion, having seized on a vessel of the enemy's by the ornament at the stern, had his hand cut off by the blow of an axe, and so perished; as likewise did many other Athenians of note and name.

“Nevertheless, the Athenians secured in this way seven of the vessels; while with the remainder the barbarians pushed off, and taking aboard their Eretrian prisoners from the island where they had left them, doubled Cape Sunium, hoping to reach Athens before the return of the Athenians. The Alcmaeonidae were accused by their countrymen of suggesting this course to them; they had, it was said, an understanding with the Persians, and made a signal to them, by raising a shield, after they were embarked in their ships. The Persians accordingly sailed round Sunium. But the Athenians with all possible speed marched away to the defence of their city, and succeeded in reaching Athens before the appearance of the barbarians, and as their camp at Marathon had been pitched in a precinct of Hercules, so now they encamped in another precinct of the same god at Cynosarges. The barbarian fleet arrived, and lay to off Phalerum, which was at that time the haven of Athens; but after resting awhile upon their oars, they departed and sailed away to Asia.

“There fell in this battle of Marathon, on the side of the barbarians, about six thousand and four hundred men; on that of the Athenians, one hundred and ninety-two. Such was the number of the slain on the one side and the other. A strange prodigy likewise happened at this fight. Epizelus, the son of Cuphagoras, an Athenian, was in the thick of the fray, and behaving himself as a brave man should, when suddenly he was stricken with blindness, without blow of sword or dart; and this blindness continued thenceforth during the whole of his after life. The following is the account which he himself, as I have heard, gave of the matter: he said that a gigantic warrior, with a huge beard, which shaded all his shield, stood over against him, but the ghostly semblance passed him by, and slew the man at his side. Such, as I understand, was the tale which Epizelus told.”


Marathon, 650 Years After the Battle

The traveler Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “There is a parish called Marathon, equally distant from Athens and Carystus in Euboea. It was at this pointin Attica that the foreigners landed, were defeated in battle, and lost some of their vessels as they were putting off from the land. On the plain is the grave of the Athenians, and upon it are slabs giving the names of the killed according to their tribes; and there is another grave for the Boeotian Plataeans and for the slaves, for slaves fought then for the first time by the side of their masters. Here is also a separate monument to one man, Miltiades, the son of Cimon, although his end came later, after he had failed to take Paros and for this reason had been brought to trial by the Athenians. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

“At Marathon every night you can hear horses neighing and men fighting. No one who has expressly set himself to behold this vision has ever got any good from it, but the spirits are not wroth with such as in ignorance chance to be spectators. The Marathonians worship both those who died in the fighting, calling them heroes, and secondly Marathon, from whom the parish derives its name, and then Heracles, saying that they were the first among the Greeks to acknowledge him as a god. They say too that there chanced to be present in the battle a man of rustic appearance and dress. Having slaughtered many of the foreigners with a plough he was seen no more after the engagement. When the Athenians made enquiries at the oracle the god merely ordered them to honor Echetlaeus (He of the Plough-tail) as a hero. A trophy too of white marble has been erected. Although the Athenians assert that they buried the Persians, because in every case the divine law applies that a corpse should be laid under the earth, yet I could find no grave. There was neither mound nor other trace to be seen, as the dead were carried to a trench and thrown in anyhow.

“There is at Marathon a lake which for the most part is marshy. Into this ignorance of the roads made the foreigners fall in their flight, and it is said that this accident was the cause of their great losses. Above the lake are the stone stables of Artaphernes' horses, and marks of his tent on the rocks. Out of the lake flows a river, affording near the lake itself water suitable for cattle, but near its mouth it becomes salt and full of sea fish. A little beyond the plain is the Hill of Pan and a remarkable Cave of Pan. The entrance to it is narrow, but farther in are chambers and baths and the so-called "Pan's herd of goats," which are rocks shaped in most respects like to goats.”



Xerxes (ruled 486-465 B.C.) was the son of Darius. He was regarded as weak and tyrannical. He spent the early years of his reign putting down rebellions in Egypt and Babylon and preparing to launch another attack on Greece with a huge army that he assumed would easily overwhelm the Greeks.

Herodotus characterizes Xerxes as man a layers of complexity. Yes he could be cruel and arrogant. But he could also be childishly petulant and become tear-eyed with sentimentality. In one episode, recounted by Herodotus, Xerxes looked over the mighty force he created to attack Greece and then broke down, telling his uncle Artabanus, who warned him not to attack Greece, “by pity as I considered the brevity of human life.”

In October, a mummy was found with a golden crown and a cuneiform plaque identifying it as the daughter of King Xerxes was found in a house in the western Pakistani city of Quetta. The international press described it as a major archeological find. Later it was revealed the mummy was a fake. The woman inside was a middle-age woman who died of a broken neck in 1996.

Xerxes Advances on Greece

Ten years after the Battle of Marathon, in 480 B.C., the Greeks got their revenge in the Battle of Thermopylae. Darius's successor, King Xerxes, showed up on the shores of Greece, this time with a huge army and Carthage as an ally. According to tradition tat army numbered 1.7 million men. Herodotus put the figure at 2,317,610, which included infantry, marines and camel riders. Paul Cartledge, a professor at Cambridge University and author a book on the Spartans said the true figure is somewhere between 80,000 and 250,000.

The endeavor required digging channels across isthmuses and building bridges over large expanses of water. The huge army arrived on land this time, crossing the Dardanelles (in present-day Turkey) on a bridge of boats tied together with flax and papyrus. The first effort was swept away in a storm. Xerxes was reportedly so enraged that he ordered the engineers who built it beheaded. "I even heard," Herodotus wrote, "that Xerxes commanded his royal tattooers to tattoo the water!" He ordered the water to be given 300 lashes and threw in some shackles and denounced the waterway as “a turbid and briny river.” The bridge was rebuilt and the Persian army spent seven days crossing it.


Battle of Thermopylae

Most city states made peace with Xerxes but Athens and Sparta didn't. In 480 B.C. a force of only 7,000 Greeks met the huge Persian force at Thermopylae, a narrow mountain pass who name means “the hot gates,” which guarded the way to central Greece. Lead by a group of 300 Spartan warriors the Greeks held off the Persian for four days. The Persian threw their crack units at the Greeks but each time Greek "hoplite" tactics and Spartan spears inflicted a large number a casualties.

The 300 Spartan warriors were portrayed in the film “300" as a bunch of fearless, muscle-bound lunatics. When warned that so many arrows will be fired by Persian archer the arrows will “blot out the sun,” one Spartan soldier retorted. “Then we will fight in the shade.” (“In the shade” is the motto of the an armored division in the present-day Greek army).

The Persians eventually found a lightly guarded trail, with the help of a traitorous Greek. The Spartans fought the Persians again. Only two of the 300 Spartans survived. According to Cambridge University professor Paul Cartledge in his book “The Spartans” one was so humiliated he committed suicide out of shame on their return to Sparta. The other redeemed himself by getting killed in another battle.

By holding on for so long against such incredible odds the Spartans allowed the Greeks to regroup and make a stand in the south and inspired the rest of Greece to pull together and mount an effective defense against the Persians. The Persians then moved on to southern Greece. The Athenians left their city en masse and let the Persians burn it the ground with flaming arrows so they could return and fight another day. The Russians employed a similar strategy against Napoleon.

Battle of Salamis

While the Spartans were holding off the Persians, the citizens of Athens were transported by ship to a nearby island of Salamis, where Athens tricked Persia into fight a sea battle, the Battle of Salamis.

The idea of a sea battle was still a novel idea at that time. The Persian fleet outnumbered the Athenian fleet three to one. The Greeks, using light oared ships with battering rams on their bows, held the position and waited patiently as the heavy Persian ships approached one at a time and got trapped in constricted waters at a narrow passage, where the lighter Greek ships rowed out in circular formation and rammed their prows into Persian ships, which sunk. About a third of the 700 Persian ships were lost but only 40 of the 500 Athenian ships were lost.

"Ship dashed her brazen beak against ship...the sea was no longer to behold, filled as it was, with wrecks and the slaughter of men," the playwright Aeschylus wrote." Xerxes watched from a mountaintop and "shrieked aloud" as his soldiers were defeated in hand to hand combat at sea. In the Aeschylus play “The Persians”, written eight years after the Battle of Salamis, Xerxes becomes the quintessence of a despot in defeat, even evoking pity and sympathy, “Here am I, alas, O woe: / To may my native an ancestral and ./ Woe is the evil I’ve become.”

Herodotus on Artemisia and the Battle of Salamis

Artemisia I of Caria was a Greek queen of the ancient Greek city-state of Halicarnassus and of the nearby islands of Kos, Nisyros and Kalymnos, within the Persian satrapy of Caria. She fought as an ally of Xerxes against the Greek city states during the second Persian invasion of Greece, personally commanded her contribution of five ships at the naval battles of Artemisium and Salamis in 480 B.C.. She is mostly known through the writings of Herodotus, himself a native of Halicarnassus, who praises her courage and the respect in which Xerxes held her. [Source: Wikipedia]

Herodotus wrote in Book VII of “Histories”: “Of the other lower officers I shall make no mention, since no necessity is laid on me; but I must speak of a certain leader named Artemisia, whose participation in the attack upon Hellas, notwithstanding that she was a woman, moves my special wonder. She had obtained the sovereign power after the death of her husband; and, though she had now a son grown up, yet her brave spirit and manly daring sent her forth to the war, when no need required her to adventure. Her name, as I said, was Artemisia, and she was the daughter of Lygdamis; by race she was on his side a Halicarnassian, though by her mother a Cretan. She ruled over the Halicarnassians, the men of Cos, of Nisyrus, and of Calydna; and the five triremes which she furnished to the Persians were, next to the Sidonian, the most famous ships in the fleet. She likewise gave to Xerxes sounder counsel than any of his other allies. Now the cities over which I have mentioned that she bore sway were one and all Dorian; for the Halicarnassians were colonists from Troizen, while the remainder were from Epidauros. Thus much concerning the sea-force.” [Source: Herodotus “The History of Herodotus” Book VII and VIII on the Persian War, 440 B.C., translated by George Rawlinson, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

In Book VIII, he wrote: “Mardonius accordingly went round the entire assemblage, beginning with the Sidonian monarch, and asked this question; to which all gave the same answer, advising to engage the Hellenes, except only Artemisia, who spoke as follows: "Say to the king, Mardonius, that these are my words to him: I was not the least brave of those who fought at Euboia, nor were my achievements there among the meanest; it is my right, therefore, O my lord, to tell you plainly what I think to be most for your advantage now. This then is my advice:

“"Spare your ships, and do not risk a battle; for these people are as much superior to your people in seamanship, as men to women. What so great need is there for you to incur hazard at sea? Are you not master of Athens, for which you did undertake your expedition? Is not Hellas subject to you? Not a soul now resists your advance. They who once resisted, were handled even as they deserved. Now learn how I expect that affairs will go with your adversaries. If you are not over-hasty to engage with them by sea, but will keep your fleet near the land, then whether you stay as you are, or march forward towards the Peloponnesos, you will easily accomplish all for which you are come here.

Battle of Salamis

"The Hellenes cannot hold out against you very long; you will soon part them asunder, and scatter them to their several homes. In the island where they lie, I hear they have no food in store; nor is it likely, if your land force begins its march towards the Peloponnesos, that they will remain quietly where they are — at least such as come from that region. Of a surety they will not greatly trouble themselves to give battle on behalf of the Athenians. On the other hand, if you are hasty to fight, I tremble lest the defeat of your sea force bring harm likewise to your land army. This, too, you should remember, O king; good masters are apt to have bad servants, and bad masters good ones. Now, as you are the best of men, your servants must needs be a sorry set. These Egyptians, Cyprians, Cilicians, and Pamphylians, who are counted in the number of your subject-allies, of how little service are they to you!"

“VIII.69: As Artemisia spoke, they who wished her well were greatly troubled concerning her words, thinking that she would suffer some hurt at the king's hands, because she exhorted him not to risk a battle; they, on the other hand, who disliked and envied her, favored as she was by the king above all the rest of the allies, rejoiced at her declaration, expecting that her life would be the forfeit. But Xerxes, when the words of the several speakers were reported to him, was pleased beyond all others with the reply of Artemisia; and whereas, even before this, he had always esteemed her much, he now praised her more than ever. Nevertheless, he gave orders that the advice of the greater number should be followed; for he thought that at Euboia the fleet had not done its best, because he himself was not there to see — whereas this time he resolved that he would be an eye-witness of the combat.

“VIII.87: What part the several nations, whether Hellene or barbarian, took in the combat, I am not able to say for certain; Artemisia, however, I know, distinguished herself in such a way as raised her even higher than she stood before in the esteem of the king. For after confusion had spread throughout the whole of the king's fleet, and her ship was closely pursued by an Athenian trireme, she, having no way to fly, since in front of her were a number of friendly vessels, and she was nearest of all the Persians to the enemy, resolved on a measure which in fact proved her safety. Pressed by the Athenian pursuer, she bore straight against one of the ships of her own party, a Calyndian, which had Damasiyourmus, the Calyndian king, himself on board. I cannot say whether she had had any quarrel with the man while the fleet was at the Hellespont, or no — neither can I decide whether she of set purpose attacked his vessel, or whether it merely chanced that the Calyndian ship came in her way — but certain it is that she bore down upon his vessel and sank it, and that thereby she had the good fortune to procure herself a double advantage. For the commander of the Athenian trireme, when he saw her bear down on one of the enemy's fleet, thought immediately that her vessel was a Hellene, or else had deserted from the Persians, and was now fighting on the Hellene side; he therefore gave up the chase, and turned away to attack others.

“VIII.88: Thus in the first place she saved her life by the action, and was enabled to get clear off from the battle; while further, it fell out that in the very act of doing the king an injury she raised herself to a greater height than ever in his esteem. For as Xerxes beheld the fight, he remarked (it is said) the destruction of the vessel, whereupon the bystanders observed to him — "See, master, how well Artemisia fights, and how she has just sunk a ship of the enemy?" Then Xerxes asked if it were really Artemisia's doing; and they answered, "Certainly; for they knew her ensign" — while all made sure that the sunken vessel belonged to the opposite side. Everything, it is said, conspired to prosper the queen — it was especially fortunate for her that not one of those on board the Calyndian ship survived to become her accuser. Xerxes, they say, in reply to the remarks made to him, observed: "My men have behaved like women, my women like men!"


Battles of Himera

The Mediterranean was a turbulent place and Greeks were involved in conflicts s in other places. Himera in Sicily was the site of two important battles between Greeks and Carthaginians. In 480 B.C. Carthage, in present-day Tunisia, sent an army against the Greek colony of Himera on Sicily. Greeks and Carthaginians fought a bloody battle in the plain under the town walls, with the Greeks and people from Himera prevailing in the end. In 409 B.C., Carthage waged a new war against Himera, conquered, and razed the town. "All the people were slaughtered or deported and the colony never rose again," one archeologist said.

On the 480 B.C. battle, John W.I. Lee wrote in Archaeology magazine, “It was one of the ancient world’s greatest battles, pitting a Carthaginian army commanded by the general Hamilcar against a Greek alliance for control of the island of Sicily. After a fierce struggle in 480 B.C. on a coastal plain outside the Sicilian city of Himera, with heavy losses on both sides, the Greeks eventually won the day. As the years passed, the Battle of Himera assumed legendary proportions. Some Greeks would even claim it had occurred on the same day as one of the famous battles of Thermopylae and Salamis, crucial contests that led to the defeat of the Persian invasion of Greece, also in 480 B.C., and two of the most celebrated events in Greek history. [Source: John W.I. Lee, Archaeology magazine, January/February 2011]

Nonetheless, for such a momentous battle, Himera has long been something of a mystery. The ancient accounts of the battle, by the fifth-century B.C. historian Herodotus and the first-century B.C. historian Diodorus Siculus (“the Sicilian”), are biased, confusing, and incomplete. Archaeological work led by Sefano Vassallo of the Archaeological Superintendency of Palermo has helped pinpoint the battle’s precise location, clarified the ancient historians’ accounts, and unearth new evidence of how classical Greek soldiers fought and died.

The Greeks were led by Gelon; the Carthaginians by Hamiclar. In some accounts of the battle Gelon ordered some of his own cavalry to impersonate Hamiclar’s arriving forces and bluff their way into Hamiclar’s seaside camp. The ruse worked. At sunrise the disguised Greek cavalry rode up to the Carthaginian camp, where unsuspecting sentries le them in . Gelon’s horsemen killed Hamilcar (Heredotus said Hamilcar killed himself) and set fire to ships drawn up on the beach. At that signal Gelon advanced on Himera and fought a pitched battle against the Carthaginians. At first the Carthaginians fought hair but when they learned f Hamilcar’s death, many lost their will to fight. Many Carthaginians were cut down as they fled. Others sought refuge in a nearby stronghold but were forced to surrender due to lack of water. After the defeat the Carthaginians gave up their claim on Himera and paid 2,000 talents, enough to support an army of 10,000 men for three years. They also built two temples still visible in Himera today.


Herodotus on the Carthaginian Attack at Himera

On the Carthaginian attack at Himera, Herodotus wrote in Book VII of “Histories”: “They, however, who dwell in Sicily, say that Gelo, though he knew that he must serve under the Lacedaemonians, would nevertheless have come to the aid of the Hellenes, had not it been for Terillos, the son of Crinippos, king of Himera; who, driven from his city by Thero, the son of Ainesidemos, king of Agrigentum, brought into Sicily at this very time an army of three hundred thousand men — Phoenicians, Libyans, Iberians, Ligurians, Helisykians, Sardinians, and Corsicans, under the command of Hamilcar the son of Hanno, king of the Carthaginians. Terillos prevailed upon Hamilcar, partly as his sworn friend, but more through the zealous aid of Anaxilaos the son of Cretines, king of Rhegium; who, by giving his own sons to Hamilcar as hostages, induced him to make the expedition. Anaxilaos herein served his own father-in-law; for he was married to a daughter of Terillos, by name Kydippe. So, as Gelo could not give the Hellenes any aid, he sent (they say) the sum of money to Delphi. [Source: Herodotus “The History of Herodotus” Book VII on the Persian War, 440 B.C., translated by George Rawlinson, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“They say too, that the victory of Gelo and Thero in Sicily over Hamilcar the Carthaginian fell out upon the very day that the Hellenes defeated the Persians at Salamis. Hamilcar, who was a Carthaginian on his father's side only, but on his mother's a Syracusan, and who had been raised by his merit to the throne of Carthage, after the battle and the defeat, as I am informed, disappeared from sight: Gelo made the strictest search for him, but he could not be found anywhere, either dead or alive.

“The Carthaginians, who take probability for their guide, give the following account of this matter: Hamilcar, they say, during all the time that the battle raged between the Hellenes and the barbarians, which was from early dawn till evening, remained in the camp, sacrificing and seeking favorable omens, while he burned on a huge pyre the entire bodies of the victims which he offered.

“Here, as he poured libations upon the sacrifices, he saw the rout of his army; whereupon he cast himself headlong into the flames, and so was consumed and disappeared. But whether Hamilcar's disappearance happened, as the Phoenicians tell us, in this way, or, as the Syracusans maintain, in some other, certain it is that the Carthaginians offer him sacrifice, and in all their colonies have monuments erected to his honor, as well as one, which is the grandest of all, at Carthage. Thus much concerning the affairs of Sicily.”

Mass Graves of Soldiers and Babies in Himera

More than 10,000 graves containing ancient amphorae, "baby bottles," and the bodies of soldiers who fought the Carthaginians were found near Himera archaeologists announced in 2008. "It's probably the largest Greek necropolis in Sicily," Stefano Vassallo, the lead archaeologist of the team that made the discoveries, told National Geographic. [Source: Maria Cristina Valsecchi, National Geographic News, December 17, 2008]

The ancient burial ground was uncovered during the construction of a railway extension and appears to have been situated right under the Himera battlefield. "The remains of Himera's buildings had been known and studied for a long time, and we knew there should be some graves. We didn't expect so many graves", said Vassallo, who works for the Italian province of Palermo's government.

"Each [mass grave] contains from 15 to 25 skeletons. They were all young healthy men and they all died a violent death. Some of the skeletons have broken skulls and in some cases we found the tips of the arrows that killed them," Vassallo said. He thinks the human remains are from soldiers who died fighting the Carthaginians in a famous 480 B.C. battle described by Greek historian Herodotus. Evidence for mass burials of war dead is extremely rare in the ancient Greek world. Some archeologist have suggested that so many died there was the time or resoruces to give them proper burials.

Founded in 648 B.C. by Greek settlers, Himera was a rich seaport trading colony. The city was situated on the northern coast of Sicily, a few miles from the Phoenician outpost of Solunto. "Himera had a privileged role in commercial exchanges between Phoenicians, Greeks, and Etruscans," said Clemente Marconi, professor of Greek art and archaeology at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Based on the study of skeletons found in the graves, Vassallo said, "People from Himera were very tall, about 175 centimeters [69 inches], unusual for the times."

Archaeologists at Himera also unearthed the skeletons of many newborn babies in some of the mass graves. "Infant mortality was very high at the times," Vassallo said. "We found the tiny skeletons placed inside funerary amphorae, like in a womb, alongside small terracotta vases called guttus, with spouts like present-day feeding bottles."

Legacy of the Persian Wars

20120218-Marathon the mound of the Plataeans.jpg
Marathon, the mound of the Plataeans
After Salamis and Greek victories at Plataea (479 B.C.) and another sea battle at Mycale (479 B.C.), the Greeks were able to defy impossible odds and drive the Persians back into Asia. At the Battle of Cunaxa, in 401 B.C., the Greeks slaughtered the Persians without suffering a single fatality. The Greek victories was improbable, even miraculous. Persia was the greatest military power in the world. The Greeks were a bunch of upstarts. Carol Alexander wrote in National Geographic that it was like "if the United States had been routed by a Caribbean coalition."

These victories gave the Greeks a sense of invisibility and set up the Golden Age of Athens. Some historians view the Persian Wars as one the most important series of battles in the history of the world, because without them democracy would have never have been able to take root. If the outcome of these wars had been different and Persia had prevailed the world would be a very different place today.

The Persian Wars were the first time the Greek city states, which often fought among themselves, banded together to defeat a common enemy. A sense of common Greekhood developed. For a while a kind of United States of Greece was created with a capital on Olympia. where a board was set up to settle disputes. The board only lasted for about a decade before the city states were feuding among themselves once again.

Herodotus doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation for why it all happened in terms of politics — or which system was best: monarchy, oligarchy and democracy. He criticized them all and remained rather neutral and detached. In the end he chalks up Persia’s defeat to the corruption of power and overreaching oneself.

Decline of Persia After the Persian Wars and Darius III

Persian lion

The defeat of the Persians at Salamis highlighted the weaknesses of the Persians and is regarded as the beginning of the decline of the Persian Empire.

The last 125 years of Persian rule was marked by conspiracies, intrigues, assassinations and revolts by subjects straining under high taxes. The empire was briefly solidified under brutal Artaxerxes III (ruled 362-338) who killed all of his relatives and was himself poisoned by his physicians. His successor was poisoned two years after he took the throne. The mad Persian King Cambyses II saw his vast army was swallowed up by the Sea of Sand.

Darius III was leader of Persia at the time of Alexander the Great. He was regarded as weak and cowardly and he demonstrated these shortcomings in his confrontation with Alexander. His death and defeat marks the fall of the Persian Empire and the end of the Achaemenid dynasty.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.