Greco-Persian Wars, 499-448 BC

Ionian Revolt
Darius's Invasion of Greece
Taking the War to the Persians


The Greco-Persian Wars of c.500-448 BC involved a series of clashes between the Persian Empire and the Greeks of Asia Minor and mainland Greece, and ended as something of a draw, with the Persians unable to conquer mainland Greece and the Greeks unable to maintain the independence of the cities of Asia Minor. The Greco-Persian Wars are amongst the most famous in Western history, immortalised by Herodotus and still familiar in modern culture, especially for the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae. For many years they were seen as essential to the survival of Greek culture and thus western culture as a whole, allowing the development of philosophy and drama to continue in the Greek city states.

Greece at the start of the wars was a land dominated by independent city states, most famously Athens and Sparta. The Greeks had also founded colonies around the Aegean, most significantly on the western coast of Asia Minor (the area known as Ionian), as well as further afield in Italy, Sicily and around the Black Sea. At this stage the Greeks sat somewhat on the edge of the civilised world. To their east and south the world was dominated by great empires - Egypt of the Pharaohs to the south, Lydia in Asia Minor (also ruling many of the Ionian cities), Babylonia in Mesopotamia and Syria and the Medes, whose empire stretched from eastern Asia Minor into Iran and on to the borders of India.

The balance of power between these four great powers was disrupted by the rise of Cyrus II the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire. He inherited Persis, part of the Median Empire, in around 559 BC. By 550 he had overthrown the Medes and taken control of their empire. Next came war with Lydia, which ended with the capture of Sardis in 546. This brought the new Persian Empire to the shores of the Aegean and gave them control of the Greek cities of Ionia, so direct contact between the Greek world and the new Persian Empire began within five years of its foundation. Cyrus then moved on to conquer Babylon (539-538), and his son Cambyses rounded off the Empire by conquering Egypt (525 BC). In only twenty five years the Persians had created a massive empire that included all of the great civilisations of the Near East

The war can be split into several quite separate phases. The first was the Ionian Revolt of 500-493 BC, which saw the Greek cities of Asia Minor rebel against Persian authority. The second phase was Darius I the Great's invasion of Greece, which ended in defeat at Marathon in 490. There was then a break before Darius's son Xerxes launched a much larger invasion of Greece. This too ended in defeat, first at sea at Salamis in 480 and then on land at Plataea in 479. This ended any serious Persian threat to mainland Greece, and the final stage of the war was largely fought in Asia Minor, although did also include a disastrous Greek expedition to Egypt. The war was finally ended by the Peace of Callias (or Kallias) of 459-8 BC in which the Athenians agreed to keep out of Asia Minor and the Persians to keep out of the Aegean and the Greek mainland.

The Persians first crossed over into Europe in c.515 when Darius I decided to attack the Scythian nomads west of the Black Sea. In 514/3 he led his army north across the Danube, but the expedition didn’t go as well as he had hoped, and he was forced to retreat back across the Danube. He did maintain a foothold in Thrace, and may well have been planning an invasion of mainland Greece at this date. His satraps consolidated the Persian position in Thrace, and also forced Macedonia to submit to Persian authority. They also occupied the islands of Lemnos and Imbros. By 500 the Persians controlled the key straits into the Black Sea, and with them the Greek grain supply.

Ionian Revolt

In 500/499 the Ionian cities of western Asia Minor rebelled against the Persians, led by Aristagoras of Miletus. Athens and Eretria offered support to the Ionians. Miletus also appealed to Sparta, but King Cleomenes I was unwilling to send his troops outside mainland Greece and refused to take part in the revolt.

In 498 the rebels sacked the local Persian capital of Sardis. This encouraged Cyprus, the Greek cities of the Bosporus and the Hellespont and the Carians to join the revolt, but at about the same time the Athenians withdrew their support. Cyprus fell to the Persians in 496. In 495 The Bosporus and Hellespont areas were retaken and the Ionian fleet was destroyed at the battle of Lade (494). In 493 Miletus fell, and the revolt was effectively over. Darius showed a great deal of political wisdom in the aftermath, giving the Greek cities democratic regimes and reducing the tribute they needed to pay. This policy was carried out by his son-in-law Mardonius, who was made satrap of Ionia with a special commission against Athens and Eretria in 492.

Darius's Invasion of Greece

Darius was now ready to turn his attention to mainland Greece. Mardonius was given command of an expedition that restored Persian control of Thrace and forced Macedonia to submit in 492. He did suffer a setback when his fleet was destroyed in a storm off Mt. Athos, preventing any immediate action against Athens and Eretria. Mardonius was removed from his command after this setback.

In 491 the Athenians and Spartans formed an anti-Persian alliance, ending a period of conflict between the two cities.

Although the Greeks were expecting an attack, the Persian invasion of 490 caught them somewhat by surprise. A Persian army, commanded by Datis the Mede and Artaphrenes son of Artaphernes, a nephew of Darius, mustered a new army in Cilicia. They were joined by a large fleet and by a force of horse-transports that Darius had ordered constructed in the previous year.

This time the Persians decided to sail across the Aegean. They set off from Samos, and made for Icaria. From there they sailed west to Naxos, where they met with little opposition. From Naxos they moved north to Delos, before landing at the eastern end of Euboea, the large island off the north coast of Attica and Boeotia. Carystus, at the eastern end of the island, refused to submit. The Persians besieged Carystus and soon forced its surrender.

Regions of Ancient Greece
Regions of
Ancient Greece

Their next target was Eretria, about half way along the south coast of the island. The Eretrians had asked for help from Athens, but then couldn't decide between retreating to the hills, defending the city or surrendering to the Persians. Faced with this indecision the Athenians withdrew back to the mainland. The Persians soon captured Eretria. They then crossed to the mainland, landing on the plains of Marathon. They were said to have been advised to land at Marathon by the Athenian tyrant Hippias, who died at Lemnos on the return trip into exile after the defeat.

The Athenians sent a message to Sparta asking for help, but the Spartan response was delayed by a religious festival. As a result the Athenians and Plataeans had to face the Persians alone. Despite being heavily outnumbered the Greeks won a decisive battle at Marathon (492). The surviving Persians retreated to their ships and attempted to reach Athens before the army could return, but were foiled by a rapid march. The Persians were then forced to retreat back home. Darius began preparations for a third attack on Greece, but he died before it could be launched.

Miltiades, one of the commanders at Marathon, soon became a victim of Athenian politics. He was accused of mishandling operations after Marathon and issued with a massive fine. He died in disgrace in 489. Athenian politics between the two Persian invasions was typically murky, but one sensible decision was made. When a silver mine was discovered in Laurium the original plan had been to split the money between the citizens, but Themistocles convinced the Athenians to spent it on a fleet of triremes instead. These ships would play a major role in the upcoming Greek victory.


Xerxes's first task after coming to the throne was to restore Persian control of Egypt. He achieved this in 484, but then had to put down a revolt in Babylon. According to our sources he would have preferred not to get involved in any more wars, but was convinced by members of his court (including his brother in law Mardonius) and a sizable group of Greek exiles that he needed to take revenge for his father's defeat at Marathon. Preparations for the upcoming campaign took three years (484-481 BC). According to Herodotus the Persian army contained five million men. Modern estimates have reduced it to at most a tenth of that size, but it was still a vast host compared to anything that the Greeks could raise.

The army was made up of contingents from across the vast Persian Empire and its vassal states. Xerxes was accompanied by Alexander I of Macedonia, whose kingdom was then a vassal state of the Persian Empire. During the upcoming campaign Alexander offered secret support to the Greeks.

Battles of the Persian Invasions of Greece
Battles of the
Persian Invasions
of Greece

This time the Greek response was better organised. Thirty Greek cities formed a league under the leadership of Sparta, but ruled by a congress in which state had one vote. Sparta provided the commanders for the army and for the fleet, although the Athenians held a great deal of influence at sea. The Greek congress met on a regular basis and became a very effective instrument for conducting the war.

In 481 Xerxes advanced to Sardis in Lydia, where he spent the winter. In 480 he advanced towards the Hellespont, where two bridges of boats were built across the strait at Abydos. After one of these bridges was destroyed by a storm Xerxes was said to have had the sea whipped. The bridges were then rebuilt and the Persians crossed into Europe.

Xerxes's advance was accompanied by impressive engineering achievements. As he advanced along this Macedonia coast he had a canal cut across the top of the Akti promontory, part of the Chalcidice Peninsula.

The Greek response was somewhat divided, with some cities supporting the Persians (or at least offering no resistance), but a powerful coalition did emerge, led by Athens and Sparta. The first attempt to stop the Persians, at Thermopylae (August 480 BC), failed when the Persian found a way past the Spartans and their allies. The battle is best known for its third day, when a small force of Spartans and Thespians commanded by Leonidas, king of Sparta, held off the entire Persian army before being wiped out. While the armies were fighting at Thermopylae, the Greek and Persian fleets were engaged in battle at Artemisium, a promontory on the north coast of Euboea. The Greeks held their own for three days, but decided to retreat after news reached them of the defeat at Thermopylae.

The Persian advance forced the Athenians to evacuate their city. The Persians captured and sacked the unoccupied city (21 September 480), but this was the high-point of their success. The Greeks decided to defend the Isthmus of Corinth, but to post the fleet forward at Salamis. On 29 September 480 the Persian fleet was defeated at the naval battle of Salamis. Xerxes was tricked into attacking by Themistocles, who leaked the news that many of the Greek ship commanders wanted to retreat further south. After the battle Xerxes decided to retreat from Greece. He was said to have been influenced by his ally Artemisia I, queen of Halicarnassus, who had commanded five ships during the battle. His decision was quite sensible - his massive army had relied on the fleet to bring it supplies so was now dangerously exposed in southern Greece. A powerful army, under the command of Mardonius, was left in Thessaly.

In 479 Mardonius returned to the attack. He took Athens for a second time, but the city was still empty, so this was a fairly hollow victory. The Spartans finally committed to fighting in central Greece, and Mardonius retreated into Boeotia. The Greek allies pursued him, and the two sides ended up facing each other in the area south of Thebes.

The crucial land battle of the war came at Plataea (27 August 479). At first the Persians performed quite well, but after Mardonius was killed the army collapsed and the Persians were forced to retreat from Thessaly, although they kept a foothold in Macedonia and Thrace. The Greek army was commanded by Pausanias, a Spartan leader who had a controversial end to his career. The same year saw the Persian fleet defeated at Mycale, on the coast of Asia Minor, after their sailors refused to fight and went ashore where they were defeated by a Spartan army commanded by King Leotychides.

One side-effect of Salamis was the rise to power of the Athenian commander Cimon, who served as one of Athens's ten elected generals from then until 461.

Taking the War to the Persians

In the immediate aftermath of Plataea the Spartans led the Greek counterattack against the Persians, although it was quickly clear that this would cause problems. The Spartans suggested evacuating the Greek cities of Ionian and moving their populations to areas in mainland Greece that had supported the Persians. The Ionians refused to accept this. The Athenians then insisted on besieging the Persian headquarters in the Chersonese at Sestos (479-478). This was eventually starved into surrender, giving Athens control of the entrance to the sea route to the Black Sea.

In 478 the Spartan Pausanias led a 100-strong fleet including thirty ships from Athens to free Cyprus and then Byzantium. Towards the end of the year the Greek maritime powers broke from the Spartans, who were becoming increasingly arrogant. Aristides and Cimon were able to win over their allegiance, forming the anti-Persian Delian League (later to turn into the Athenian Empire). Cimon became the main commander of the league, which was officially formed on the island of Delos in the summer of 477.

This didn't end the Spartan involvement in the war against Persia. They sent King Leotychides to try and overthrow the pro-Persian kings of Thessaly, but without success.

Cimon's first task was to expel Pausanias from Byzantium, where he had returned after briefly being recalled to Sparta, and was suspected of having been in communication with the Persians. Next he turned against the Persian strongholds on the coast of Thrace, capturing most of them. The best documented of these was the siege of Eion. Next came an attack on the island of Skyros.

The Delian League slowly turned into an Athenian Empire. The original league members had joined voluntarily, but in around 472 the city of Carystus on Euboea was forced to join. The next test came when Naxos wanted to leave the league. The island was besieged and forced to accept terms that reduced its independence. It is possible that the leaders of Naxos were moving towards Persia, so there was some justification for this attack, but it did see League forces being used against fellow Greeks, rather than Persians.

In 466 a Greek fleet of 200 ships, commanded by Cimon, defeated a larger Persian fleet (manned by the Phoenicians) at the River Eurymedon in Pamphylia. The Persians had taken shelter with their land forces, and Cimon defeated both forces, capturing the entire Persian fleet and the Persian camp. Next Cimon expelled the Persians from the Thracian Chersonese (now known as Gallipoli), at the mouth of the Hellespont.
In 465 Xerxes I was murdered by Artabanus, the commander of the guard. Artabanus held on to power for seven months, ruling as the power behind the throne of Artaxerxes I, but eventually he was betrayed by his allies and killed in single combat by the emperor.

In the same year Thasos revolted against the Delian League because Athens was threatening its economic interests. A two-year long siege followed, before the island surrendered. Athens took most of the spoils of this victory. Thasos had asked for help from Sparta, and been promised an invasion of Attica, but an open breach between Athens and Sparta was averted at this point by an earthquake and a serious Helot revolt.

The Helot revolt helped trigger open warfare between Athens and Sparta. The helots ended up defending Mt Ithome, and the Spartans struggled to expel them. They called for help from their allies. Cimon convinced Athens to send a force, which he led in person. The Spartans soon began to worry that the Athenians would end up supporting the helots, and in 462 sent them home. This embarrassment triggered the fall of Cimon, and the establishment of a more democratic regime in Athens. The new Athenian government formed an alliance with Argos, Megara, Corinth and Thessaly.

460 saw the start of the First Peloponnesian War (460-445 BC), in reality a series of shorter conflicts, but one that meant that Athens was fighting on two fronts. In 460 the Delian League sent a fleet of 200 ships to Cyprus, which had been partly re-conquered by the Persians. This fleet was then diverted to Egypt, to help support a revolt by the Libyan prince Inaros. The Greeks won a victory in the Nile Delta (battle of Pampremis), and then besieged the Persian garrison at Memphis. This expedition to Egypt ended in disaster. Megabyzus, satrap of Syria, an important supporter of Artaxerxes I, led the Persian fight back. The siege of Memphis ended in failure and the Greeks had to retreat to the island of Prosopitis in the Nile Delta. After a long siege the defenders were forced to seek terms, and the survivors were allowed to retreat west across the desert to Cyrene. A squadron of 50 Greek ships sent to help at Prosoptis was defeated at Mendesium in the Nile. The failure of the Egyptian expedition meant that the Athenians had to abandon their attempts to free Cyprus and withdraw from the eastern Mediterranean.

In 451 Cimon was recalled to Athens, and given the task of negotiating with Sparta. He was able to arrange a five year long truce, and was then sent back to Cyprus with a fleet of 200 ships. He detached 60 of them to support the Egyptian rebels, but then died during a siege of Citium on Cyprus. After his death the fleet was withdrawn back to Athens. On its way back it fought a naval and land battle at Salamis on Cyprus, represented by Thucydides as a great victory.

The campaign on Cyprus is recorded differently by Plutarch in his life of Cimon, and by Diodorus. Plutarch has the Greeks win a naval victory over the fleets of Phoenicia and Cilicia at the start of the campaign, then besiege Citium. Cimon died during the siege and the Athenians withdrew. This was the last great success against the Persians.

Diodorus departs even further from the accepted framework. Once again Cimon commanded the Greek fleet, while the Persians had a fleet off Cyprus and a land army in Cilicia. Cimon began by besieging Citium and Marium, capturing both. The Persian fleet then appeared but was defeated in a naval battle. Cimon chased the defeated Persians back to Phoenicia. He then turned back to win a massive land victory in Cilicia. In the following year he laid siege to Salamis on Cyprus, and it was this that convinced Artaxerxes to make peace. Cimon is still recorded as dying of illness on Cyprus.

Soon after this the two sides made peace. The Peace of Callais of 448 saw the Persians agree not to attack members of the Delian League, effectively acknowledging the independence of the Ionians, and to keep out of the Aegean. In return the League promised to leave the eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus was left in the Persian sphere of influence, suggesting that Diodorus's stories of great triumphs are unreliable at best.

Over the next few years the Delian League turned into the Athenian Empire. The truce with Sparta had to be renewed in the aftermath of a serious Athenian setback at Coronea, but a Thirty Year Peace was still agreed. This only lasted for fifteen years before the outbreak of the Great Peloponnesian War, but was the period in which Pericles held power, and saw the construction of the Parthenon.

The Peace of Callias didn't end the rivalry between the Greek and Persian worlds. As the Romans would later find the Greek city states seem to have been incapable of living at peace. In 439 the Athenians attacked Samos, a breach of the peace treaty. This helped convince the Persians to side with the Spartans during the Great Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), and Persian gold played a major part in the eventual Spartan victory. In the aftermath of their victory the Spartans soon became involved in a war with their former allies (400-387). After some early successes, the Spartans were soon forced onto the back foot, and the war was ended by the King's Peace of 387-6. Once again the Greeks agreed to acknowledge Persian control of Asia Minor, and also agreed to accept Persian arbitration within Greece.

By now the balance of power was beginning to shift. A series of weaker Persian emperors meant that the Empire wasn't quite the military power it had been in the past. In 401 BC a group of Greek mercenaries fought for the rebel prince Cyrus the Younger. Although he was killed at the battle of Cunaxa the surviving Greeks were able to fight their way north to the Black Sea coast, a journey recorded by Xenophon, one of the participants. His account of this expedition helped expose the potential weakness of the Persian Empire. At the same time the rising power of Macedonia, under Philip II, was unifying most of Greece. Philip prepared for an invasion of Persia, but died before he could carry it out. It would be left to his son, Alexander the Great, to invade Persia and overthrow Darius III, the last Achaemenid ruler.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (28 October 2015), Greco-Persian Wars, 499-448 BC ,

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