The death of Darius and the accession of Xerxes caused considerable disruption in the Persian Empire; the new ruler does not seem to have been minded to pursue further hostilities with the Greeks. After all, despite revolts in Babylonia and Egypt at the start of his reign, the western frontier had held. But most empires have a forward party seeking ever more territory and jobs for the boys – and Mardonios, as the king’s nephew, seems to have been one of them. Prestige was important; both the burning of Sardis by the Ionian rebels of 494 and the defeat at Marathon demanded revenge. The Phoenician cities of what is now Lebanon were under Persian suzerainty and had expanded their trade enormously, establishing Carthage (in what is now Tunisia) as an important centre, virtually a sub-empire, in the western basin of the Mediterranean. This brought conflict with the cities of Magna Graecia (southern Italy and Sicily), and, indeed, they attacked the greatest of these Greek cities, Syracuse in Sicily, at the same time as Xerxes invaded Greece. The Phoenician expansion held out the prospect of a Mediterranean-wide Persian empire. And conditions in Greece continued to favour a Persian attack. Thessaly, Macedonia and other powers in northern Greece were friendly, while there were parties in both Sparta and Athens who favoured collaboration – indeed there were exiles from both at the Persian court. Preparations for an invasion of Greece began in 484/3 with the cutting of a canal through the Athos Peninsula, and a diplomatic offensive which persuaded many of the Greek cities either to throw in their lot with Persia or to adopt a policy of neutrality. It also increased political tensions within and between its intended targets, Sparta and Athens, who collaborated only fitfully in their Hellenic League.
But at about the same time an enormously rich lode of silver was discovered in the Athenian silver mines at Laurium. The war party in the city, led by Themistocles, successfully urged that this windfall be spent on building a war fleet, with an eye to the developing threat from Persia. A fleet was essential for the Persian thrust into Greece, because an army without sea power could be cut off from its base in Anatolia or by landings in its rear. Ultimately the Persians mustered something like 1,300 vessels, amongst them the very latest thing in sea-power, the trireme. This was 35 metres long and less than 6 metres wide, but its 170 rowers were packed into three tiers with a freeboard of 3 metres. Its light construction and large crew made it fast and highly manoeuvrable, and the bronze-covered ram on the prow was much feared. About thirty sailors and marines made up the crew, but rowers would have been expected to fight as needed. This vessel seems to have originated in the late sixth century BC in the Phoenician cities of the Persian Empire. It was a weapons system which, once introduced, made all existing fighting ships outmoded. Its adoption by city-states like Athens had far-reaching consequences. To build substantial numbers
would require huge shipyards and the fortification of Piraeus, the port of Athens. This was hideously expensive. But even more seriously, a fleet of 100 triremes needed over 20,000 men. Ultimately Athens would build 200, manning them with the poor of the city and numerous foreigners. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there was opposition, but in the end Themistocles and the war party triumphed and a formidable war fleet was created. In agreeing to this the Athenians were recognising that the coming war with Persia would be a fight for the very existence of Athens. This would be a quite different scale of warfare from the inter-city squabbling in which they and all the Greek city-states had indulged for so long.
In May 480, Xerxes and his army constructed two bridges of boats across the Dardanelles and crossed from Anatolia into friendly northern Greece. He set off down the coast towards Athens accompanied by a powerful fleet. This strategy immediately divided the cities allied against him. The Athenians wanted to defeat his army as far north as possible: the Spartans, who had the more formidable army, feared that any expedition would be outflanked and destroyed. They wanted to withdraw into the Peloponnese, and to fortify the narrow isthmus of Corinth, abandoning Athens. But this strategy needed Athenian naval aid, for otherwise the Persian fleet would be able to make landings beyond the Corinthian line. The outcome was a poor compromise: a small allied force was sent to block the road at Thermopylae while the Athenians struck at the enemy fleet in the narrow passages of the sea at Artemisium.
At Thermopylae the mountain was only about 100 metres from the sea so that a small force, some 7,000 in all, under the command of King Leonidas of Sparta, could take up position behind an existing defensive wall to block the advance of the enormous Persian army. In August/September the Persian army arrived and began a frontal assault, which was thrown back with heavy losses. The Greek front was so short that it could be tightly packed, and Leonidas could rotate his units so that each enemy attack always faced fresh men. On the second day of fighting the Persians were again thrown back, but then a traitor revealed to Xerxes that there was a path around the Greek position. Leonidas knew this and had placed a force of 1,000 allies across the narrow path, but they were brushed aside by a strong Persian force; they did, however, warn Leonidas that he was about to be encircled. According to legend he sent all the other forces home and stood with his 300 Spartans to permit their escape. In fact about 1,500 Greeks including the Spartans failed to flee, preventing the Persian cavalry from pursuing and destroying the whole army. Leonidas and his entire force were wiped out. How this came about is uncertain and it is possible that they were simply trapped by the Persians. However this may be, the effect was that many experienced troops got away. A monument to the Spartans, rebuilt in 1955, was erected where they died, inscribed:
Stranger, tell the people of Lacedaemon [Sparta]
That we who lie here obeyed their laws.
A poor memorial, one would think, for the much greater numbers of non-Spartans who died there. But Thermopylae delayed the great army which was already operating late in the season, while bad weather and effective Athenian naval action severely reduced the Persian fleet in the narrows of Artemisium. The people of Athens fled to the island of Salamis, abandoning the city to the Persians, who burned it.
By this time it was early October; the campaigning season was coming to a close which increased the pressure upon the Persians. The main Greek army was dug in behind defences across the very narrow isthmus of Corinth, while the allied fleet stood off in the straits of Salamis. Some in the Persian army urged Xerxes to leave a sufficient force to bottle up the Greek ships by Salamis, while the rest sailed on to outflank the Corinth line, and he actually sent some of his army towards Corinth. This alarmed many in the allied navy who favoured pulling back to prevent it. But Themistocles suggested drawing the enemy into the straits where their superior numbers would count for little. Apparently the Greek ships were heavier and less manoeuvrable than those of the Persians, but experience in the confined waters at Artemisium had shown that if the Persian ships could not manoeuvre they could be defeated. Why the Greek ships were so clumsy is unclear; perhaps it was because each had more fighting men on board or because they had been at sea so long that their sailing qualities were degrading – or both.
To lure the Persians into the straits Themistocles sent messages to Xerxes suggesting that the allied fleet was about to leave the Athenians in the lurch, and urging him to come on to destroy them and receive the submission of the Athenian people. Xerxes probably knew of the tensions in the allied army and was in any case anxious to gain a decisive success before winter, so he sent his navy into the trap. In the narrows between Salamis the superior sailing qualities of the Persian ships counted for little, because they could not manoeuvre to ram their enemies, which was their preferred tactic. Nor, in these confined waters, could they bring their superior numbers to bear. In fact once battle was joined the three lines of the Persian fleet became entangled and the battle resolved itself into hand-to-hand fighting between the crews of individual ships, and in these circumstances the bigger Greek crews probably counted for a great deal. In the words of Herodotus:
There fell in this combat Ariabignes, one of the chief commanders of the fleet, who was son of Darius and brother of Xerxes; and with him perished a vast number of men of high repute, Persians, Medes, and allies. Of the Greeks there died only a few; for, as they were able to swim, all those that were not slain outright by the enemy escaped from the sinking vessels and swam across to Salamis. But on the side of the barbarians more perished by drowning than in any other way, since they did not know how to swim. The great destruction took place when the ships which had been first engaged began to fly; for they who were stationed in the rear, anxious to display their valour before the eyes of the king, made every effort to force their way to the front, and thus became entangled with such of their own vessels as were retreating.
Salamis was a major victory for the Greeks. Xerxes at this point withdrew with his fleet because a major revolt had broken out in Babylonia, but he left a very large army in Greece under Mardonios.
Mardonios then completed the destruction of the city of Athens. He knew, however, that he could not march south against Corinth leaving the Athenian fleet in his rear, so he tried to exploit splits amongst the allies. Athenians, whose fleet was the driving force at Salamis, were scandalised by the proposal, supported by the Spartans, to pull back their fleet in defence of the Corinth line. They negotiated with Mardonios and it was only their threat to make peace with Persia that persuaded the allies to move north in the summer of 479. They formed the greatest Greek army ever to assemble: 38,700 hoplites and 70,000 light troops for a total of about 110,000 under the command of the Spartan Pausanias. Mardonios withdrew north-westwards from Athens with his army which had probably been reduced by now to about the same size, even allowing for the inclusion of 20,000 Greek allies. He took up position near Plataea where Thebes, which had submitted to the Persians, could serve as a base.
Mardonios had taken up an east–west position to the north of the river Asopus in a broad plain where his cavalry could be used to best effect. The Greeks approached through the passes of the Cithaeron-Pastra massif, and deployed their forces in line in the northern foothills of this range, some way back from the Asopus and opposite those of the Persians. The Greeks did not dare to cross the river onto the open plain for fear of the Persian cavalry, while the Persians could not easily use their horsemen in the broken country across the river occupied by the Greeks. For much of July there was a stand-off between the two armies.
But Mardonios needed a victory because, although his Greek allies were holding firm for the moment, the Athenian fleet was loose in the Aegean, and might stir up revolt in Anatolia at any time. In August some of his cavalry crossed the river to threaten the supply lines and even the water sources on which the Greeks depended. This forced the Greeks to move towards Plataea on their left. Mardonios then launched his main cavalry force, whose missile tactics caused heavy losses amongst the hoplites: ‘Mardonios, delighted by his illusory victory, ordered a cavalry attack. When the cavalry attacked they began to cause casualties amongst the Greeks by their archery and use of javelins since they were horse archers and were difficult to engage.’ There followed a series of confused struggles which merged into a single great battle. In one engagement it was the large body of the archers with the Athenians which held the Persians at bay. But the climax of the battle came when the Spartan hoplites held together against the Persian cavalry whose supporting infantry were unable to follow up:
The Persians planted their shields in a defensive wall and continually discharged their arrows … the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) also advanced against the Persians who put aside their bows and were ready to meet them. The combat began around the shield wall. When it had been breached a sharp engagement took place around the shrine of Demeter and lasted for some time at close quarters. The enemy would grab hold of the Greek spears and break them. The Persians were not inferior in courage and strength, but they lacked armour, were poorly trained and greatly inferior in skill to their opponents. They broke ranks, and, darting forward in groups of ten, sometimes more, sometimes fewer, they fell upon the Spartan line and were killed … The crucial factor in their defeat was that they were unprotected, unarmed men fighting against heavily armoured infantry.
In the confusion Mardonios was killed, and this proved to be the decisive event in the battle. But the Spartans were the most professional army in Greece, and their phalanxes played the major role in holding off the enemy cavalry. Once these were beaten off, the Spartans charged into the Persian infantry. Their bows were short-range weapons and, as at Marathon, this limited the number of arrows that could be fired at an enemy advancing at a run. Once at close quarters the armoured men of the phalanx were at an enormous advantage, and slaughtered their enemies.
It is important to note that it was the Spartans who launched the decisive attacks. Young male Spartans were separated from their families and trained rigorously in athletics, hunting and the use of weapons. They lived in a militarised society which worshipped the cult of collective sacrifice:
When someone asked Demaratus why the Spartans disgrace those who throw away their shields but not those who abandon their breastplates or helmets, he said they put the latter on for their own sakes, but the shield for the sake of the whole line.
They were heavily equipped with bronze armour, and while this limited their mobility it made them very formidable at close quarters. Above all, they were the best organised troops in Greece with a proper chain of command. Xenophon tells us that the Spartans
divided the troops into six regiments of cavalry and hoplites. Each of the citizen regiments had a polemarch, four company commanders, eight platoon leaders and sixteen squad leaders … Most think the hoplite formation of the Spartans is overly complicated but this is the very opposite of the truth. For in the Spartan arrangements the men in the front rank are all officers and each file has all that is needed to make it efficient.
Because of their discipline they did not run into battle but advanced steadily to the sound of flutes in order to keep in close order.
The militaristic regime of Sparta was both admired and feared by the other Greek cities, and in the wake of the victory at Plataea it is hardly surprising that the alliance broke up. Some of the Ionian cities rebelled, weakening the Persian position in western Anatolia; Athens created a Delian League to exploit such weakness. Sparta, unwilling to concede the leadership of Athens, pulled out of the war. Athens dominated the whole organisation, collected tributes from the cities of the League, created a great fleet and raised armies which drove the Persians back from the Anatolian coast by 466 BC. They mounted a major expedition to support an Egyptian rebellion, tried to seize Cyprus and organised raids on the Palestinian coast, but none of these expeditions was strong enough to achieve success, and about 449 BC peace was established between Athens and the Persian Empire on the basis of the status quo. By this time there was bitter conflict between Athens and a number of other cities which feared her imperialism. And this is an appropriate word. For the Delian League became an Athenian empire. Athens meddled in the politics of the Delian cities to favour democratic regimes, and planted colonies of Athenians in their lands where they formed military bases. The tributes from the League and the taxes upon foreigners trading with Athens created enormous incomes which could be used to pay rowers for the fleet and to support strong armies. Here was the Athenian culture of leisure and greed at work.
But the Athenian Empire was short-lived, because Sparta helped any city which resisted its dominion. In 431 BC the Great Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens broke out. For a long time neither side prevailed, because this was a conflict between a tiger and a shark. The Spartans had the better army, but the Athenians the better fleet and they enjoyed the protection of the famous ‘Long Walls’ connecting the city and its port of Piraeus, which annulled Spartan military supremacy. The balance was tipped in favour of Sparta by Persian subsidies which enabled it to expand its navy. The war ended in 404 as a defeat for Athens, and Sparta seemed destined to lead the empire of Greece. But Athens soon rallied and offered its support to cities which objected to Spartan domination. In the Corinthian War (395–386) the Persians supported Athens and her allies against the Spartans who had taken over much of western Anatolia. After 371 Thebes, under a great general, Epaminondas, created a mighty army and in a series of campaigns destroyed Spartan supremacy without, however, being able to dominate the rest of Greece. As a result, there was no Greek empire, and by adroitly playing off the city-states against one another the Persians recovered their dominion in western Anatolia.