The catalyst for the first Persian war stemmed from a revolt by Greek Ionians. It was instigated by Aristagoras, economic burdens, and a feeling of being treated unfairly by the Empire. Athens came to the Ionians aid. During the rebellion, one of the Persian capital cities, Sardis, was burned which only made Persia more hostile toward Greece. In 492 B.C., the Persian army invaded Greece. Years after this defeat, the second invasion was under Darius’ son, Xerxes, who was determined to carry out his father's agenda of keeping the empire intact and expanding it through Greece.
When Persia first invaded Greece under Darius, they created destruction through many towns, including Naxos and Eretria. The first battle in which the Greeks encountered the Persians was at Marathon. The Greeks were outnumbered and faced the Persians who had a variety of trained warriors, though less armed than the Greeks. The Athenians used the passion of defending their country and the geographic advantages of Greece’s hilly terrain. The determination of the Greek forces was too much for the Persian military, and they were driven away. They fell victim more to the Greek geographic features, such as the marshes, which helped deplete the numbers of the Persian army. The fact that the Persians were defeated at Marathon made them realize the danger of underestimating their enemies. It also gave the Athenians more courage to fight the Persians in upcoming battles. If the tide had been turned and Athens had lost at Marathon, there may never have been other battles and all of ancient history could have changed on that one battle.
The battle of Thermopylae was the next time the two cultures clashed, with Xerxes leading the Persian force. At the battle of Thermopylae there were only three hundred Spartans to defend the pass. Though all of them died, it was the heroism that inspired many Greeks, also allowing more time to set up the defenses that made history. Though the Persians won the battle of Thermopylae, victory came to the Greeks in the strategy, giving them extra time and boosting the morale of the soldiers.
The naval ships clashed at Artemisium the same day as the battle of Thermopylae. Persians lost many ships but in the end neither side won this encounter. The fact that the Persians did win at Thermopylae did not sit well with the Greeks.
The battle of Salamis resulted from the Persians winning at Thermopylae. This became a large naval battle in which Themistocles drew the Persians into a narrow body of water to fight, giving the Greeks the advantage. It also helped that the Greeks had the ability to swim. Defeat at the hands of the Greeks led Xerxes to execute the captains for the defeat, and retreat to Hellespont. In the town of Plataea, where the Greeks won, a military leader of Persia, Mardonius, died. The effect of losing the battle and a great leader, who had been through so many of the invasions of Greece, at the same time, came as a devastating blow to Persia.
The same day as the Battle of Salamis, tradition holds that the battle of Himera was fought. This was not a battle with the Persians but with the Carthaginians. In 480 B.C., the Carthaginians invaded Sicily, where Greeks were living at the time, but were massively defeated. Though this was not a conflict involving the Persians, it did help the morale of the Greeks to know that they could fight off two enemies at one time, which gave them the determination to see it through.
Small skirmishes occurred at Boiotia, in which the Persians were also defeated, and kept the Greeks going forward to Mycale, where the Greeks were able to burn the Persian ships. This led to the end of the Persians invasions of Greece.
Each defeat of the Persians fueled the fire of the Greeks, defending their home from a growing and dangerous empire. This passion, along with the advantages nature gave them, defeated the powerful Persians and preserved Greece.
- Sarah B. Pomeroy et al., Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
- Robert Morkot, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Greece (New York: Penguin Group, 1996).