The nation and the empire that Xerxes was now leading to the invasion of Europe represented a concentration of military and political power such as the ancient world had never known before. Like all empires it was founded on the ruins of others but, unlike those that had preceded it, instead of remaining confined within the territorial limits of the Near East the Persian Empire was still expanding. From 547 B.C. onwards it continued to do so for some seventy years. Its first real check was in Greece, but despite even this it was not until the campaigns of Alexander the Great that its power was finally broken. Even then, when Alexander’s empire splintered after his death, the world and culture of Iran, in the shape of the new Persian Empire, revived and continued the later struggle against Rome. It did not finally collapse until the seventh century when the Arabs, always unconquered, overthrew it. For over a thousand years, the East challenged the West, and the most crucial of all these challenges was that which was now set in motion by Xerxes. Had it succeeded, the Zoroastrian creed might have been imposed upon the pagan Greeks. There would have been no fifth-century Athens, and all European history would have been very different.
The Achaemenid Empire had been founded by the elder Cyrus in 550 B.C. and there is a strong case to be made out for the theory that the whole of ancient history (which determined the history of Europe) sprang from the conflict between Persian (Iranian) culture and that of the Greco-Roman world. Although there can be no doubt that Greek culture was infinitely superior in many respects to that of Persia, it is only from the Greek Herodotus that we gain any real idea about the Persian Empire, the Persians themselves leaving only the self-aggrandising monuments of monarchs. The Persian contribution in the political and administrative sphere can never be dismissed. The fact is that the Greeks, from whom we have our only over-all picture of the time, did not understand the nature of this contribution. Xerxes, as we have seen, was merely regarded as an overbearing autocrat - instead of a thoughtful and far-planning ruler intent on building an empire that would embrace Europe as well as the East. It was enough for the Greeks to refer to the Persians and ‘the Medes’ (a generic term used to encompass both strains of the Iranian race) as ‘barbarians’ - people who go ‘bar-bar-bar’ and do not speak Greek.
The Medes had appeared on the scene of world history in 612 B.C. when Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, had fallen before a combined attack of Medes and Chaldeans. For centuries the Assyrians had dominated the Near East with their formidable war-machine. Now, out of the powers which rushed in to fill the vacuum caused by the collapse of Assyria, it was the empire of the Medes that was to prove the most enduring. It reached its limit in Anatolia, where it came into conflict with the Kingdom of Lydia. A line was temporarily drawn, but the Iranians had advanced sufficiently far into Asia Minor for it to be only just a matter of time before they came into contact - and conflict - with the Greeks who were established in that area which was known from the language and race of its settlers as Ionia.
This was to occur in the sixth century B.C. when Cyrus, the son of a Persian vassal-king and a Median princess of the ruling house, raised the standard of revolt against the hegemony of the Medes. Cyrus, whom the Athenian Xenophon was to extol some years later as the model of what a ruler should be, was not content with the stagnation that had fallen over the Medes under its recent ruler, and determined to advance the existing Iranian empire even further. Following his Median predecessor into the Kingdom of Lydia, Cyrus defeated the Lydian King Croesus and took him prisoner in 547 B.C. The importance of this Lydian defeat was soon felt by the Greeks in Asia Minor and throughout the Aegean for, both as subjects and supporters of the Lydian king, they had long maintained friendly relationships with his empire. Their influence was paramount throughout Lydia and their cultural supremacy had long been recognised and appreciated. The relationship had not been all one-sided, for the Greeks had been swift to adopt the Lydian invention of coinage, and, as merchants and sea-farers, had been quick to see how this transformed the whole economy of the Mediterranean.
Cyrus for his part was well familiar with the Greeks and with their presence in Ionia and was also aware that the Greeks were formidable warriors, even if politically divided. His first diplomatic attempts to win Greek support without recourse to arms failed signally, with the exception of the powerful city of Miletus at the end of the Meander valley which came out in support of the Persian monarch. The other Greeks, dismayed at the situation in which they found themselves, decided to appeal to Sparta as the strongest military power on the Greek mainland. The Spartans were not to be drawn into supporting the Ionian Greeks but nevertheless sent envoys to visit Ionia, and also to pay an unexpected call on Cyrus at Sardis. Clearly they were interested to discover the strength and the intentions of this formidable new Persian ruler. In view of what was to happen in subsequent years in the conflict between Persian and Greek, the first reaction of the great Cyrus to the presence of these envoys in his court is not without an ironical twist: ‘Who are the Spartans?’ he asked some other Greeks who were present.
At this moment in his career, Cyrus was more concerned with Babylon and other countries, including Egypt, which he intended to bring under Persian rule, and he left the affairs of Lydia and Ionia in the hands of a governor and tax-gatherers. It was only a short time before a revolt was raised against the Persians which ended with the imposition of a military occupation force, the colonisation of the area, and the swift realisation by the Greeks that, while they had managed happily enough under Lydian kings, the dominion of Persia was another thing altogether. The inhabitants of one Greek city, Phocaea, emigrated to Corsica rather than submit, but the majority adopted the classic strategy of retiring within the walls of their towns. Unfortunately for them the siege-engines and firepower of the Persian archers brought up against them by their commander Harpalus proved too formidable for the Ionians’ defences. One by one over a brief period the Greeks were forced to accept the rule of Persia. In all of this it cannot be said that the famous oracle at Delphi encouraged Greek resistance. Submission to the inevitable was the advice given. Persian gold may well have had some honeyed effect upon the oracle’s tongue.
The conquest of Lydia, which had confirmed the power of Persia was but the beginning. Within eight years Cyrus had carried all before him, even as far as the borders of India, and he was now ready for his major thrust - against Babylon. In October 539 the empire of Babylon and all its adjacent lands acknowledged Cyrus, king of the Medes and Persians, as ‘King of the world, great king, legitimate king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four rims [of the world]’. His immediate policy of religious tolerance towards the former subjects of Babylonia meant that Syria and Phoenicia readily paid him homage, while his popularity with the Jews was assured for all time by his restoration of the Temple of Jerusalem.
The adherence of Phoenicia to the Persian throne also meant that from now on the foremost mariners of antiquity, with all their ships and trading posts throughout the Mediterranean, were available for the expansion of Persian power, far beyond the confines of the homeland. Eight years later Cyrus, one of the world’s rulers who assuredly deserves the term ‘Great’, met his end in battle against the Massagetae on the north-eastern frontier of his empire. Herodotus (and many other intelligent Greeks) always retained a great respect for Cyrus and the characteristically Persian qualities that he embodied. He concludes his account of his life with the story of how one day a rich and influential Persian came as spokesman for the people to the Great King and suggested that, since Persia was now the most powerful country in the world, it would be a good idea if they were to emigrate from their poor and mountainous country and occupy some rich and fertile lowland.
Cyrus did not think much of this suggestion; he replied that they might act upon it if they pleased, but added the warning that, if they did so, they must prepare themselves to rule no longer, but to be ruled by others. ‘Soft countries,’ he said, ‘breed soft men. It is not the property of any one soil to produce fine fruits and good soldiers too.’ The Persians had to admit that this was true and that Cyrus was wiser than they; so they left him, and chose to live in a rugged land and rule rather than to cultivate rich plains and be slaves.
His son Cambyses, having avenged his father’s death, then set about the conquest of Egypt, the last remaining independent and
imperial power in the ancient world. It is significant that the Greeks of Cyprus and of Samos - both considerable naval powers - went over to the side of the Persian king and were willing to ally themselves with their old rivals the Phoenicians in the expansion of empire. The victory over Egypt was assured and, with the death of the last native Pharaoh, Persia was triumphant. Only in Africa, whither the ambitions of Cambyses also extended, was he unsuccessful. He died while in Syria on his way to suppress a revolt by a pretender to the throne. The pretender Gaumata (who may even have been what he claimed, a true son of Cyrus) was himself a Magus, a member of the Median priesthood, and had their support in what amounted to an attempt to overthrow the military aristocracy and restore the dominance of the Magi. A counter-revolution by the heads of the great families was led by Darius, an Achaemenid of an older branch of the family to that of Cyrus, and himself young enough to have both father and grandfather still alive. Gaumata was killed by Darius and the conspirators established Darius as king. All the conspirators were Persians and began an immediate purge of the Magi. It was hardly surprising that trouble soon stirred throughout the Empire and a determined counterrevolt was organised by the Medes. It took Darius twelve months and nineteen battles to suppress the insurgents and it remains astonishing that the fabric of the empire survived. The fact was that Darius commanded the better troops and that he was a determined and perennially cool personality. The strength and ruthlessness which he brought to his years as monarch were in evidence from the very beginning.
Now, when ‘all the dwellers in Asia were subject to him, except the Arabs’, Darius determined to set about the reorganisation of the empire. His attention to detail, his concern with economic affairs, and his inauguration of the first Persian coinage laid the foundations for the long-enduring structure of the Persian Empire. Scoffers might say that ‘Cyrus was a father, Cambyses a master, and Darius a shopkeeper’, but it was the very practicality shown by Darius that transcended the achievements of the old-style warrior-kings. In his use of coinage Darius was quick to see the value of propaganda. As A. R. Burn points out:
… in Darius’s empire, his golden dories with the device of the running archer - a crowned archer, so it represents the Great King himself, armed and swift - circulated wherever trade was considerable, and did away with the need for use of the scales when the king paid his armies. Armed and swift: this was the image of the king to be borne in the memory of millions who never saw the king or his likeness otherwise … Also, and most important, the financier-king regulated the taxes of the empire and laid down clearly the amount that each province had to pay.
The vast empire was divided into ‘provinces’ or, as they came to be known, ‘satrapies’, since each was under the rule of a satrap or provincial governor who was responsible for paying the requisite tribute to the Great King. Babylonia, for instance, which was accounted the richest province, paid an annual tribute valued at one thousand silver talents which was composed of precious metals, cattle, and fine clothing. Egypt, which paid largely in the form of grain and cattle, was reckoned to produce a tribute worth seven hundred silver talents. The royal inscription at Behistun lists twenty-three satrapies in all, ranging from Persia itself to Ionia and Scythia on the Black Sea. At a later date Libya and Nubia were added to these provinces of empire and, after Darius’ expedition into Scythia, his first holding in Europe was added - Thrace in the far north of the Grecian mainland.
The establishment of this bridgehead into Europe followed upon Darius’ determination to establish a northern frontier-limit to his empire. This was in effect unnecessary, for the Scythians were no threat to Persia or its satrapies, but the fact is, most probably, that Darius like so many great conquerors could not stop. He had established the limits of his empire to the south-east, south-west, and north-east. Only to the north-west, where he wished to secure the shores of the Black Sea, were the boundaries of his powers undefined. In 513-512 Darius marched north on his Scythian campaign. Like that of his successor Xerxes, this was a well-prepared and carefully executed invasion in which the Ionian Greeks and the Greeks of the adjacent islands co-operated. The Bosporus was bridged under the orders of a Samian architect Mandrocles, thus linking Asia and Europe, and Darius had the satisfaction of watching his army march over on to a shore hitherto unknown to Persians. A rendezvous between the army and the fleet of the Ionian allies was arranged at the Danube, where the Greeks constructed with their ships a pontoon bridge for the army to cross. Behind them the tribes of Thrace were left subdued and acknowledging the suzerainty of the Persian monarch.
When it came to the Scythians inhabiting the steppes of Bessarabia, however, even Darius found himself at a loss. He was confronted by the immensity of southern Russia and its great rivers - as well as by the fact that its inhabitants pursued a scorched-earth policy, refused to give battle, and merely retreated into their endless rolling country. Finally, Herodotus tells us: ‘Darius returned through Thrace, and came to Sestos in the Chersonese, whence he crossed over in his ships to Asia….’ He left behind him, however, a large section of the army under one of his best generals, Megabazus, who proceeded to ensure that the coastline of Thrace was thoroughly subdued. Thus the Persians secured for themselves a permanent foothold in Europe. The limit of Megabazus’ campaign was the frontier of Macedonia where Amyntas, the king of the country, formally offered him those age-old tokens of submission: earth and water. The Greek states to the south regarded the Macedonians as hardly Greeks at all, barbarians almost; yet to the farsighted it should have been clear that, under ambitious leadership, the power of Persia would hardly stop next time at the edge of the Greek world.
Darius was not content with his preliminary venture into Europe and now, with the whole of the East united behind him and with the Phoenicians and Egyptians providing him with a large navy, he set about an elaborate investigation of Greece itself and the world that lay yet farther to the west. The master-mariners of Sidon, renowned among the Phoenicians themselves and recorded as such by Ezekiel in the Bible, were commissioned to take two warships together with a supply ship and make a thorough reconnaissance of the areas in which the Great King was interested. The fact that the expedition ended ignominiously with the storeship being seized in southern Italy, and the two warships wrecked in the stormy straits of Otranto, did not alter the fact that it indicated Darius’ desire to expand his empire westwards. Herodotus, who tells the story, was far from being in a position to know everything. He certainly knew of this one ‘spying’ venture that came to grief, but this in no way means that there were not others which were unobtrusively successful.
One thing that the Persian monarch will have been swiftly apprised of, now that the Phoenicians were willing servants of his imperial aspirations, was the long-term enmity between Phoenicians and Greeks. Western Hellenism in Sicily and southern Italy was under great pressure from the great Phoenician foundation of Carthage, as well as from the Etruscans in Italy. Furthermore, true to their egocentric and individualistic nature, the Greeks in their new colonies were as divided against one another as they were in their own homeland. Syracuse, one of their greatest foundations in Sicily, was bedevilled by party struggles while most of the other cities were in the grip of tyrannies; and successful tyrants, in order to maintain their hold upon their own city states, almost invariably made war upon one of their Greek neighbours. In 511-510 B.C. the city of Croton in southern Italy attacked its rich rival, Sybaris (which has become synonymous with luxurious living), and completely destroyed it - even going to the vindictive length of diverting the River Crathis over its site so that even its memory should perish from the earth. From the reports of spies and from information readily given by expatriate Greeks in his court Darius observed and digested all the information that he needed. Cyrus, Darius and, in his turn, Xerxes must never be confused with the simple Asiatic and Northern warlords of later centuries, for whom to conquer, loot and enslave was the prime object. The Persian monarchs, served by an efficient army and bureaucracy, were -whatever the Greeks may have called them - in no sense barbarians.
The major event that triggered off the great Greco-Persian wars was a revolt against Persian rule that had its origins in Ionia. One of the principal causes was undoubtedly the economic suffering that formerly rich and tranquil Ionia suffered under Persian hegemony and taxation. Their trade in the Black Sea area had been blocked ever since Darius had gained control of the Dardanelles, and their colonies in Sicily and Italy were either at loggerheads one with another or (as in the case of Sybaris) were being destroyed by fellow Greeks. But the deciding factor was almost certainly the loss of liberty that the Ionians felt under the interference of Persian satraps. Even more distressing than this was the Persian system of putting local government into the hands of Greek ‘tyrants’. Such men, hated by their fellow Greeks and dependent entirely upon maintaining sycophantic relations with Persia, were liable to be harsher in their dealings with the Ionians than the Persian satrap.
The rebellion flared up in 500 B.C. and a mission was sent to the Greek motherland asking for help. It is significant that only Athens and Eretria on the island of Euboea promised to send naval contingents. The Spartans held aloof because they were on the verge of war with their neighbour Argos, and they were furthermore always averse to foreign entanglements. The revolt opened with an attack on the great Lydian capital of Sardis which was burned to the ground, although the satrap and the Persian garrison managed to hold out in the acropolis. This early success inspired the other Greeks throughout Ionia, from the Bosporus southwards, to rise up against the Persian yoke, even the island of Cyprus joining in the rebellion. The Great King looked north and saw not only Ionia in flames but his new colony in Thrace cut off and his communications with the Black Sea and its settlements in danger.
The efficiency and the strength of the Persian Empire was quick to show itself. Starting from the south, Cyprus was first of all recaptured, its last stronghold capitulating in 496. A year later the fleet of the Ionian confederation was decisively defeated in a battle off the coast near Miletus. This city itself, which had been the mainspring of the revolt, was besieged and destroyed in 494, and the inhabitants - to prevent any further trouble in the area - were deported to the interior of the Persian Empire. In the mopping-up operations that followed, off-shore islands such as Chios and Lesbos were brought under Persian rule. The small Athenian force which had been sent to Ionia had been withdrawn as early as 498, but their action in giving encouragement, if little help, to the Ionians was not forgotten in the court of the king. Athens and Eretria were high on the list of mainland Greek states to be punished in due course.
Mardonius, a nephew and son-in-law of Darius, was the commander selected to carry out Darius’ designs after the revolt itself had been quenched. He captured the important northern island of Thasos, secured Thrace and accepted the submission of Macedonia. It was clear that these actions were all prior to an invasion of Europe proper. Unfortunately for Mardonius his fleet ran into a violent gale on its way round Mount Athos and a great many ships and their crews were lost on that rocky and inhospitable coast. (This disaster was something that the Persians did not forget and which was why Xerxes took such great care to circumvent it.)
‘The expedition returned to Asia after a disastrous campaign/ wrote Herodotus, but he was exaggerating. The northern Aegean coast was completely occupied and the shipbuilding capacity of the Persian Empire was such that in every port not only were the losses made good but also a whole new fleet was being constructed. This was clearly intended for an invasion force, since it included a great many transports designed for carrying horses. Darius was not to be deterred by one attempt against mainland Greece, especially since it had been aborted not by the Greeks but by weather and natural hazards. As evidence of his intentions he sent heralds to demand formal submission from the islands and city-states. All the islands, menaced by the overriding seapower of Persia, submitted, as did most of the mainland states - Athens and Sparta being notable in refusing. Sparta, as has been seen, treated the envoys with contempt and threw them down a well ‘to get their earth and water from there’.
When the Persian invasion force sailed for Greece in 490 Mardonius was still incapacitated from a wound received in the previous expedition and his place was taken by Datis, a Mede, who is credited with having evolved a new plan for the attack on Greece. This was to ignore the north and strike directly across the Aegean, securing those outriders of the mainland, the Cyclades islands, and then descending upon Athens and Eretria to punish them for their behaviour during the Ionian revolt. Proceeding from Samos the fleet passed barren Ikaros and fell upon Naxos, where the inhabitants fled before them and took to the hills. Since Naxos was one of the largest islands and renowned for its pride and courage, the destruction of its capital and its easy conquest had an immediate effect upon the other Cyclades. All, within a short time, surrendered to detachments of the Persian fleet. Only sacred Delos, home of Apollo and Artemis, was treated with the greatest respect by Datis. He would not even allow his ships to anchor there and sent word to the Delians, who had taken refuge in nearby Tenos, to return and assist him to pay homage at the great altar of Apollo. The priests of Delos came back to witness the frankincense brought by the Persian general flare and fume before the giant statue of the god Apollo. All this was a very clever piece of politics, for the priests of Apollo and the oracle at Delphi were then, and later, to prove themselves of considerable help to the followers of Zoroaster. It was not difficult to equate the sun-god Ahuramazda with Apollo. Propaganda is not a twentieth-century invention.
Euboea, the long fish-like island that guards the coast of Attica, was the next target, and within six days its city of Eretria was reduced, the inhabitants like those of Miletus being deported into the heart of Persia. The disastrous news from Eretria was carried from Athens to Sparta by a professional runner, Pheidippides, who covered some 140 miles of rough road, goat-track and scree-covered slopes, reaching the unwalled city in the Eurotas plain on the second evening. Unfortunately the Spartans could not march at once. It was the feast of the Carneian Apollo, the most sacred part of a sacred month when no Spartan might go to war. ‘When the moon was full’, they said (that was in about one week’s time), ‘their army would march to the assistance of the Athenians.’ Some moderns have suggested that this was no more than a cynical ruse to keep the Spartan army for the defence of their homeland. This is to ignore the strict rules and regulations imposed by ancient religious cults. It could, in any case, in no way have availed the Spartans to lose their only powerful ally, and the only one possessing a fleet that could be any defence against the Persians.
Possibly to the surprise of the Athenians, who may have thought that the Persians would land in Phaleron Bay to the south of the city, Datis had decided to disembark his forces at Marathon. It was a sensible choice, for the plain afforded plenty of space for the deployment of his troops, and the fact that it was over twenty-five miles from the city would, in theory, give them time to get the men in order, fed, and ready for action - all very necessary measures after a sea-voyage in the rough and cramped conditions of those days. The most forceful personality among the ten Attic strategoi (generals) was Miltiades, and it was he who, in a debate of the Athenian Popular Assembly, prevailed upon the others to march out at once and engage the enemy on Marathon plain. It was a bold decision and contrary to the thinking of many, who would have preferred to wait for the enemy to advance upon the city itself. Athens was already walled at the time, but the decision of Miltiades and the agreement of the Assembly to engage the Persians at
Marathon suggests that it was not sufficiently strong to be able to withstand a well-conducted siege - and they knew what had happened to the cities in Ionia.
The story of the classic battle that followed has been often told, has inspired poets, and has passed enduring into the history of the western world. Among those who took part in the battle was Aeschylus, one of the greatest poets and dramatists of all time, whose brother was killed at Marathon. The battle itself has no part here, except in so far as the defeat of the Persians led to the later meticulously planned expedition of Xerxes - designed to wipe out for ever the memory of that fateful day in mid-August 490. Better arms and better training gave the 10,000 Athenians and their allies, the 600 or so Plataeans, a victory over a much larger army - but one which, it must be remembered, had been under the ugly conditions of shipboard for some time. It was in fact the hoplites, the heavily armoured Greek foot-soldiers who established a dominance over the archers, lighter-armed men, and a number of hastily deployed cavalry (the horses, again, not at their best after a sea voyage). Less than zoo Athenians had fallen, but the Persian dead, which were carefully counted, numbered 6400.
To the Greeks this was an amazing figure, and indeed the disparity in losses remains remarkable. To the Persians, however, it was comparatively insignificant. The greater part of their army was re-embarked aboard their ships, out of which, although exposed on a hostile shore, only seven were lost. In the Greco-Persian wars it is always important to remember that the available manpower of the two principal Greek states, Athens and Sparta, must be numbered in only a few thousands. The Persians, however, as the campaign of Xerxes was to show, could count on forces running into hundreds of thousands. A hundred dead fighting men was a more serious loss to the Greeks than several thousand to the Persians and their allies. (The situation was very similar in these terms to that of the Israelis versus the Arab states in recent years.)
Worsted at Marathon, the Persians still had no intention of conceding defeat. Rounding the southern tip of Attica, their fleet made for the Bay of Phaleron where the Greeks had originally expected them to land. Miltiades had anticipated this secondary move and -just as he had brought his troops so rapidly from Athens to Marathon, ‘running to the battle-cry’, - he now led them back at a similar pace. Nothing can better attest to the fitness, discipline and physical endurance of the Attic hoplites than their advance to Marathon, their triumph over a far larger enemy force, and then their immediate return to confront the enemy. When the Persian fleet appeared off Phaleron Bay they found the victors of Marathon drawn up in order and ready to receive them. They were not about to beach their ships and disembark in the face of those grim, visored men, their long spears a thicket of death, and their bronze shields and corselets gleaming in the triumphant sun of Greece. Datis turned the fleet about and made sail for Asia.
Three days after the full moon, the Spartans, in a notable feat of forced marching, arrived at Athens - possibly on the very same day that Datis had withdrawn. The Spartans open-heartedly congratulated the Athenians on their victory, and then ‘desired to see the Medes’. They went out to the battlefield at Marathon and viewed the dead. The Spartans had never engaged the Persians, and no doubt they wanted to inspect the quality of their arms and armour. They must have suspected (as indeed did the Athenians themselves) that this was not the last that the mainland Greeks would be hearing of the Persians.
Marathon was, indeed, a victory of the greatest significance for all of Greece. It had strengthened the resolution of Athenians and Spartans alike; it had proved the superiority of the hoplite over the Persian foot soldier; and it had confirmed the authority of Greek leadership. (The news that the Spartans were on the march, which almost certainly must have reached Datis via his scout-ships to the south, may well have hastened his retreat.) While the Greeks everywhere rejoiced, and while Marathon assumed for all time in their history the same mystique as Waterloo in that of Britain, the Persians had time to ponder over the campaign. They had lost a battle, but they had not lost the war. Their defeat at Marathon was to lead to the infinitely careful war-plan of Darius’ successor, Xerxes, and the studied preparation of an immense army and fleet designed for the conquest of Greece and of all Europe that lay beyond. In the workshops of Persia, on the slipways of the East, and out of the almost inexhaustible manpower of the empire, would be forged the hammer to crack the small stone of mountainous Greece.