The Persian Wars: How the Greeks Won
The Persian Wars were a series of conflicts fought between the Greek states and the Persian Empire from 500-449 BC. It started in 500 BC, when a few Greek city-states on the coast of Asia Minor, who were under the control of the Persian Empire, revolted against the despotic rule of the Persian king Darius. Athens and Eretria in Euboea gave aid to these Greek cities but not enough, and they were subdued by the Persians. The Persians became determined to conquer Hellas and make Athens and Eretria pay for helping the Ionian cities. In 492 BC, the first Persian invasion had its fleet crippled by a storm before it could do any damage. King Darius sent another Persian expedition in 490 which destroyed Eretria and then faced the Athenians at the battle of Marathon. The Persian were defeated and forced to return home. Darius died before his preparations for a third invasion were completed, but they were continued by Xerxes I, his son and successor. In 480, Xerxes reached Greece with a tremendous army and navy. The Persian land forces had to pass through the narrow pass of Thermopylae, which was defended by the Spartan Leonidas. His small contingent held back the Persians but were eventually defeated. The Persians continued on to Athens, which had been abandoned, and burned it. The Athenians had fled with their fleet to the island of Salamis where they met up with other Greek forces. Shortly afterward, the Persians followed and were defeated in a sea battle off of Salamis. Xerxes returned to Persian but left a military force in Greece which was defeated in 479 BC at Plataea by a Greek army under the Spartan Pausanias, ending the threat of the Persians once and for all. (1)
These wars were a defining moment in Greek history. The Persian Empire was bigger, richer, and had more manpower, yet the Greeks were able to unite successfully to defeat them. The Greeks did, however, have several advantages which enabled them to be victorious. The Greeks defeated the Persians because of three benefits: the phalanx, the trireme, and their motivation.
The phalanx was the military system that the Greeks used to organize their troops which had been perfected through centuries of fighting one another. It consisted of a column of heavy infantry carrying long spears and swords. The spears, called pikes, were six to twelve feet long. They were not thrown but were used for thrusting. The soldiers in the phalanx were called hoplites, named after the hoplon which was the round shield they carried into battle. The hoplites wore metal armor on their chest, forearms, and shins, plus a metal helmet. These soldiers were extremely well trained. They made up for their lack of numbers with superior equipment and discipline. (2)
The Persians, on the otherhand, were able to raise an immense army due to the enormous size of their empire. However, these warriors were by far not as well trained or as well equipt as the Greek armies (2). The Persians did not fight as a unit like the Greeks did. They fought like Indians did in old western movies: they would weave and dart as individuals instead of slugging it out in infantry warfare like the Greeks (3). The Persians were courageous, but they were no match for a Greek hoplite on the battlefield. Their shield was obsolete and they wore practically no armor. One of their main weapons was the short bow, which was of little use against the heavily armored Greeks. The Persian army also consisted of cavalry which added a lot to their army mostly because of its speed, but still they were never able to defeat a well organized phalanx (2).
The superiority of the Greek phalanx can be seen by analyzing the battle which took place at Marathon in 490 BC. At this battle, the Athenian phalanx was able to defeat the entire invading Persian force without the help of the Spartans, who had promised to send their army towards Marathon but their religion forbid them to move before the moon was full (2). The Greek forces consisted of 10,000 hoplites while the Persians army was numbering in more than 120,00 men although some sources have the Persian forces at around 50,000 (4). The great Athenian general Miltiades came up with a shrewd battle plan. He decided to thin out the ranks in the center of the phalanx to strengthen the wings. During the battle, the Greek wings crushed the Persian wings and forced them to retreat. At the same time, the Persians in the middle managed to break through the weakened center of the phalanx. Instead of pursuing the retreating Persian wings, the Greek wings moved backward to attack the Persians that had broken through the Greek defenses. The Greek center then turned around so that they had the Persians surrounded. The Persians were slaughtered (5). According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Persians lost 6400 men while te Greeks lost only 192 (4).
While the phalanx ruled on the land, the trireme ruled on the sea. The trireme was a type of warship which could be seen for the first time in the Mediterranean during the sixth century BC. The trireme completely changed war at sea. In former days sea battles were mostly fought out by soldiers who jumped from one ship onto the other. But with the introduction of the trireme the emphasis came on the battle between the ships. The trireme had a battering-ram with which it would ram opposing ships and attempt to sink them. The keel was 40 meters long and stuck out 3 meters at the front, where it was armored with bronze plates. The length-width ratio was 10:1, and ensured a minimum of resistance in the water. To get as many oarsmen in the small ship as possible the designers placed three benches above each other in a sloping way. The copper battering-ram was often shaped as the nose of a boar, while at both sides of the front often huge eyes were painted and the top of the sides were often covered with pelts. The trireme must have been a fearful sight for the enemy. (2)
In 483 BC, seven years after the Persians were defeated at Marathon, the Athenians struck a rich vein of silver in one of the mines in Laurion. Some wanted the profits to be spread out among the population, which was common in those days, while a man named Themistocles argued for something different. The Athenians knew that after the Persians had been defeated that they would come back stronger. The oracle at Delphi had said earlier that Athens' only chance against the Persians would be in the protection of a wooden wall. Themistocles interpreted this prophecy to mean the wooden walls of a ship. He proposed that Athens use the profits to build a fleet of 200 triremes. After some debate, Athens decided to build the ships, which they would come to be thankful for later. (5)
At the battle of Salamis in 480 BC, the Greeks used their trireme ships to defeat the Persian fleet. The Greeks had 310 ships total (200 from Athens and the rest from the various Greek states), while the Persians had no less than 1000 (4). The Greek plan was to lure the Persian fleet into the small Bay of Salamis where it would be hard for the large number of Persian ships to maneuver. The Persians positioned their fleet at the mouth of the Bay of Salamis, thinking to catch the Greek sailors before they could man their ships in the morning. The Persian ships entered the bay and walked right into the Greek trap. As the Persian fleet poured into the bay, the Greek ships, hiding in a channel behind the bay, rammed them from the broadside. The Persians found it impossible to maneuver because of the small diameter of the bay. Some Persian ships sank because their own ships were crashing into each other. The Greeks had an overwhelming victory and forced the Persians to retreat (5). The Greeks lost 40 triremes and the Persians lost 200 and about 50,000 men (4).
The third advantage that the Greeks had over the Persians was their motivation. The Greeks were defending their homeland from a foreign invasion. They were willing to die for the land they loved and for the protection of their families. The Persians, on the other hand , were not fighting for the defense of their homeland. The Persian warriors were simply doing what their king told them to do. They had traveled to a land far from their home, a land they had little interest in. Their only motivation was to not disappoint their ruler. At that time in history the Persians ruled over much of the known world. A loss to the Greeks would not mean very much to the Persian Empire other than a hurt ego. For the Greeks however, it was do or die. They either had to be victorious or be conquered. It was this attitude that allowed the Greeks to continually defeat the Persians despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Superior military equipment and techniques can only take you so far. The Greeks wanted it more and that is why they won. (3)
Because of the phalanx, the trireme, and their motivation, the Greeks were able to defeat the mighty Persian Empire despite being severely outnumbered. For the Persians, the defeat did not mean too much. As for the Greeks, they took great pride in their success against overwhelming odds and became even more proud of their culture. Their victory marked the beginning of the Classical Period, considered to be the Golden Age of Greece (3).