The seeds of the Greco-Persian crisis had been sown many years before when in 510 BC the Athenians, with the aid of the Spartan king Cleomenes, rid themselves of the tyrant-king Hippias whose family had ruled Attica for a half century. But then Cleomenes refused to leave the city. Instead he occupied the Acropolis and attempted to install a pro-Spartan government in Athens but was eventually driven out of the city. The Athenians, fearing an imminent attack from the vengeful Spartans, sent envoys across the Aegean to seek a protective alliance with Persia. The satrap(governor) demanded a gift of “earth and water” and the Athenian ambassadors, misinterpreting this request as mere symbolism, acquiesced. But to the Persians this meant Athens’ subjugation to the rule of their king, Darius I. Cleomenes and his Spartans did attack Attica, but with such speed that the Athenians had no time to call upon Persia for help. Unfortunately for Cleomenes, the Corinthians in his army refused to advance on Athens, and so the weakened Spartan-led force retired back to the Peloponnese. Thus did Athens no longer need Persia’s shield. So when the Persian emissaries from Sardis came to Athens demanding taxes as part of the empire, the Athenians brazenly refused to submit (they hurled the emissaries into a pit to die). Athens had made an enemy of Persia.
The animus between the two powers was further inflamed when the Ionian Greek states across the Aegean Sea on Asia Minor, once colonies of Athens, revolted against their Persian overlords and burned Sardis. In support of their kindred brethren, the Athenians, also probably hoping to fight them over there so as to not fight them here and halt the Persian expansion towards Europe, sent aid, ships, and even some hoplites (heavily armed citizen soldiers, so called for Greek word hoplawhich loosely translates into “equipment”) in support of what would be a failed uprising.
The enraged Persian King Darius vowed to punish the upstart Athenians and bring them to heel. It’s said that Darius had a slave come to him during each dinner and whisper in his ear: “Remember the Athenians.” In 490 BC he dispatched a force of 30,000 infantry and cavalry under the command of his general Datis along with 600 ships across the Aegean to take their city. But on the coastal plain of Marathon, 26 miles from Athens, Datis saw his lightly equipped invading army decimated and driven back onto their ships by the 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plateans arranged in powerful phalanxes and wearing the heavier bronze armor of the hoplite army. It was a resounding Greek victory; some 6,400 Persians were cut down, opposed to only 192 Greeks. The victors, exhausted by the day-long contest, nevertheless found the strength to make an all-night march back to Athens in a race to cover the 26 miles to the city before the still-intact Persian fleet that shoved off from the blood-soaked beach at Marathon landed there first. The Persian fleet arrived only to find the same Athenians who’d slaughtered them at Marathon waiting. The invaders were compelled to abandon their expedition and ignominiously sail back to Asia, sparing Greece from conquest…for the moment.
Sometime around 486 or 485 BC Darius died, and his son, Xerxes, ascended to the throne of a kingdom that stretched from Asia Minor to North Africa to the borders of India. He immediately vowed to avenge his father’s humiliation at Marathon and bring the Athenians to their knees. (Athens, in turn, insulted him yet again by sending no emissaries to celebrate his placing the crown on his own head, as no mortal man could crown a god-king). And so Xerxes assembled an army far greater than the one Darius had sent to their doom at Marathon.
As the ominous clouds of another Persian invasion grew, the Athenians were unsure how best to resist, if they could at all. Some argued that another Marathon would do the trick. That freemen hoplites in bronze could defeat an army of slaves, no matter how large. But Themistocles understood that a much more powerful Persian force than the one ten years before was on the way. They would not make the same mistake of forming up on the narrow plains of Marathon where the Athenian general Miltiades had managed to trap the invaders in a double-envelopment that neutralized Darius’ superior numbers. Themistocles believed the answer lay in a victory at sea rather than on land. As he saw it, so long as Greek warships controlled Greek waters, Xerxes’ isolated foot-soldiers, cut off logistically, could not remain in Hellas and would be compelled to withdraw. He therefore argued that Athens’ new-found wealth from fresh silver mines should go to pay for the construction of ships, and coinage to pay for the batteries of freemen rowers to power them. This was not an easy sale, as the hoplite infantry, mostly landowners with enough wealth to afford the bronze armor, shields, spears and swords, were leery of this lesser class undermining their traditional roles as the guardians of the city. But Themistocles convinced them to go along with his shipbuilding program. It would prove to be a wise decision indeed.
By 481 BC Xerxes had assembled his vast army and navy at rebuilt Sardis. In an incredible feat of engineering for the time, his men constructed a 1.4 kilometer-long pontoon bridge over the Hellespont (modern day Dardanelles) which separated Asia minor from Europe. His men moved into Thrace, Macedonia, and then swept south towards Boeotia, Attica, and the provinces of the Peloponnese. The Persian fleet sailed down the Aegean in support. The threat which had just been whispers before was now a roar. The Persians were coming, and Athens, the infant Western democracy, and thus the giver of much of our cultural heritage, was facing imminent enslavement or annihilation.
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Be sure to check out Schaeffer's acclaimed historical novel, Of Another Time And Place, available here: