The Persian Wars were a 20-year conflict in the early 400s B.C. in which the kings of the vast and powerful Persian Empire attempted to conquer Greece. The small, independent city-states* of Greece united to resist these attacks and remain free of Persian control. The story of the Persian Wars was told by the Greek historian Herodotus.
In 499 B.C., Greek cities along the western seacoast of Asia Minor, with support from Athens, revolted against Darius, the king of Persia. After suppressing the revolt, Darius decided to conquer Athens and extend his empire. In 492 B.C., he assembled a great military force and sent 600 ships across the Aegean Sea to attack Greece. However, the attack came to a sudden halt when a storm wrecked half the fleet on the rocks off the Greek coast.
Two years later, in 490 B.C., Darius dispatched an even stronger fleet that crossed the Aegean safely. Persian troops landed on the plain of Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens. As they began to move toward Athens, a small army of Athenian troops and soldiers from the city-state of Plataea attacked the Persians, charging as they approached. The Greek troops killed more than 6,000 Persian soldiers and lost fewer than 200 of their own men. After the loss at Marathon, the Persian fleet returned to Asia.
Darius died in 486 B.C. before he could launch another major attack against Greece. However, his son Xerxes, who succeeded him, continued the war. In 480 B.C., Xerxes set out with a huge army and navy to attack Greece. First, he built a canal for his ships through the rocks that had destroyed Darius’s fleet. He also built a bridge of ships held together by cables. Then, for seven days and nights, his soldiers marched across the bridge to the Greek mainland. It has been said that Xerxes “marched his army over the sea” and “sailed his fleet through the land.” Xerxes himself led the troops toward Athens.
On the way to Athens, Xerxes and his men had to cross the narrow mountain pass of Thermopylae, which was held by a small force of Greek soldiers under Leonidas, a king of Sparta. For two days, the Greeks held the pass. Then, on the third day, Xerxes’ troops found another way through the mountains and circled back to attack Leonidas from behind. Knowing that he was defeated, Leonidas dismissed all his men except for the few hundred Spartans. Leonidas himself was soon killed, but the remaining Spartan soldiers continued to fight bravely until the last man died.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
Although Xerxes and his troops took the pass and invaded mainland Greece, the Spartan stand at Thermopylae is still remembered as one of the most valiant battles in history. It delayed Xerxes for three days, during which time the Persian fleet was caught in a storm and many ships were lost. The Athenian general Themistocles tricked the Persian navy into entering the narrow strait off the island of Salamis. The Greek fleet, which was waiting for them, rammed and destroyed or captured many of the Persian ships. The remaining Persian ships fled for home, while Xerxes and his troops retreated by land.
In 479 B.C., the Persian army was defeated by a combined Spartan and Athenian force at Plataea. In the same year, the Persian fleet was defeated off the coast of Asia Minor at Mycale. With these two defeats, the Persian Wars— and the threat of Persian domination of Greece—ended. (See also Armies, Greek; Greece, History of; Naval Power, Greek; Wars and Warfare, Greek.)