The Persian Wars, or Greco-Persian Wars, were a succession of conflicts between shifting alliances of Greek states and the Persian Empire. Wars were fought for the control of strategically important territories, also determining whether Greek or Persian culture predominated in the Aegean Sea.
As a result of victories at the Battles of Salamis and Marathon, the Greeks were able to resist the superior manpower and resources of the Persians. Had it been otherwise, the democratic and philosophical traditions of ancient Greece that did so much to shape the Western consciousness might have been delayed or even suppressed.
In the sixth century b.c.e. Persian kings, including Cyrus II and Cambyses II, expanded Persian possessions on the Anatolian coast and annexed a series of Greek colonies and island settlements.
This process was intensified under Darius I, who acceded to the throne in 522 b.c.e. and eventually inspired the Ionian Revolt, which lasted from 500 to 494 b.c.e., during which various Persian conquests rose up and attempted to claim independence.
Eventually, the revolt was crushed, but the fact that Athens had sent a small naval force in support of the rebels provided a pretext for subsequent attempted expansion of Persian rule in Europe. A Persian force landed to the northeast of Athens in 490 b.c.e. in the vicinity of Marathon.
There, an Athenian force of around 10,000 troops met them, together with some of their allies. The Athenians under Miltiades found the Persians without their large cavalry force in attendance and rapidly attacked and defeated them. The Persians ﬂ ed and returned to Asia Minor.
Darius was succeeded by Xerxes, and he set about mobilizing a huge invasion force, made ready in 479 b.c.e. The force moved only in an unwieldy fashion, and while the Greeks were terriﬁ ed of what it could achieve, they had time to prepare for its arrival.
A League of Defense was created and led jointly by Athens and Sparta, with the former commanding the sea and the latter the land, in accordance with their military and logistic capabilities.
In both cases the Greeks were hugely outnumbered. However, the Persians had to cope with significant supply problems, forcing their ships to keep in contact with the land force. The Spartans sent their famed hoplite infantry to meet the advance of the Persians at the pass of Thermopylae.
They withstood the continual Persian onslaught, aided by the narrow ground, which limited the number of Persian troops able to attack at one time. However, the Spartans were eventually defeated, according to legend because of a traitor who enabled the Persians to outflank the position and attack from behind.
Realizing that defeat was inevitable, King Leonidas of Sparta sent most of the 7,000 Greek troops south to safety but remained to the bitter end with his Spartan troops and their Thespian allies. This is the battle that prompted Simonides to compose the monumental text "go tell the Spartans, passer by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie".
At the same time that Leonidas was resisting the Persian army, the Athenian navy and their allies, under Themistocles, were facing the Persian navy. It is recorded that Themistocles commanded 271 ships. The Persians dispatched 200 ships to try to lure the Athenians into battle, unsuccessfully.
Instead, the Athenian ships retired to their harbor while the Persians waited outside and were largely destroyed by a powerful storm. Many Persian ships remained, and the Athenians were persuaded to abandon their city and take refuge further inland.
The Persians burned Athens but, desiring to achieve a decisive victory over the Athenian army, Xerxes allowed himself to be outmaneuvered by Themistocles in deploying his fleet in the Straits of Salamis, where the more skillful Athenian sailors managed to destroy the Persian fleet at close quarters. The remnants of the Persian fleet returned to Asia Minor.
The Battle of Salamis represented the end of the second Persian invasion, with the army unsupplied and demoralized. A final victory at the Battle of Plataea ensured that the Greek mainland would be free of colonization. However, military operations continued for several decades as the Athenian-led Delian League undertook naval actions throughout the Aegean with a view to liberating Persian-held Greek colonies.
These actions achieved some success and persuaded the Persians to agree to the Peace of Callias in 449 b.c.e. The Persian invasions represented genuinely significant attempts to conquer and annex Greece and to convert Greece into a satrapy of the Persian Empire.