Greece The Persian Wars
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
The consolidation of the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great in the sixth century B.C. posed a major threat to the fledgling states of Greece. The resolution of the clash between East and West was to shape the entire future of the region. For the Greeks, it was a question of survival; for the Persians, on the other hand, occupation of Greece was simply part of their imperial plan. Nonetheless, the Persian Wars are significant because they resulted in a separation between Greece and the Near East after centuries of fruitful interaction.
The First Persian War in 490 B.C. was a brief affair. Intending to punish Athens for its participation in a raid in Asia Minor, Persia sent a small force by Persian standards, about 20,000 infantry and 800 cavalry. The Greeks met this force with 10,000 troops at the plain of Marathon on the west coast of Attica. The combination of Greek tactics, the superiority of their armor, and the new phalanx formation proved decisive in the battle; the Persians were routed.
The Second Persian War of 481-479 B.C. was a very different proposition. Persia's king, Xerxes, planned to lead a huge expedition to conquer all the Greek states. The Greeks formed the Hellenic League, which included Sparta and its allied states. Other Greek states went over to the Persian side.
In 480 B.C., Xerxes invaded Greece with a huge fleet and an army of over 100,000 men. After overcoming fierce Spartan resistance at Thermopilai, the Persians occupied central Greece and the Greeks retreated south to the Peloponnesus. The Attic Peninsula was taken and Athens sacked. On the seas, however, the Greeks completely destroyed the Persian fleet in the Bay of Salamis. Xerxes retreated hastily to Asia then suffered a great land defeat the next year at the Battle of Plataia, in which the superiority of Greek armor and tactics was the deciding factor. Persian expansionism never threatened Greece again.
The most important result of the Persian Wars was a barrier between Greece and the Near East that ruptured a vibrant cultural zone including Phoenicia, Lydia, Egypt, and other cultures of the Near East. The barrier would not be broken until the middle of the next century, and the concept of a divided Asia and Europe became permanent.
Data as of December 1994
NOTE: The information regarding Greece on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Greece The Persian Wars information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Greece The Persian Wars should be addressed to the Library of Congress.