Classical Greece & Achaemenid Persia | Background to the Greco-Persian Wars


Many commentators consider the Greco-Persian wars to be part of the foundation of western civilisation, and I largely agree. However, no historical event happens in a vacuum, and this is especially true for one which goes on to shape the world as we know it.


So, in this article, I take a look at the respective worlds of the Greeks and the Persians, to lay the foundation for a series of articles which explore the Greco-Persian wars in-depth.


The Greeks


A room in the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens featuring sculpture from around the time of the Greco-Persian Wars. The central figure, known as the Artemision Bronze (c. 460BC), is an icon of Greek culture. There is some debate as to whether the figure represented is meant to be Zeus or Poseidon, but we’re pretty sure it’s Zeus.


Geographically, Greece, and the Aegean in general, is an ideal place for cities in many ways, in both a macro and micro sense.


The geography of the Greek world

The Greek peninsula is located in the center of the Eastern Mediterranean, and at the narrowest point of one of only two land routes between Asia and Europe. This means that it lies right in the path of a slew of obvious trade routes. Its coastline is extremely long relative to its total land area, and that coastline is full of natural harbours for ships to shelter from the elements – a much more important factor than you might realise. It takes very little to damage a ship beyond seaworthiness, and rough swells or waves can easily smash a docked ship into the port unless the dock is not open to the ocean – as in a harbour.


This means that there are endless places where a merchant ship might stop in to conduct business while on their way elsewhere. Additionally, Greece is very mountainous, and many of the most inhabitable and fertile areas are accessible only by a handful of narrow passes. This makes those inhabitable areas extremely easy to defend by land.


All this is true of the many large and small islands of the Aegean as well – they tend to have good harbours and mountainous terrain, making trade easy and invasion difficult.


As if this wasn’t enough, Greek soil was and is very fertile and good for growing a variety of crops, notably olives and grapes. Between that and plentiful fishing, Greek cities could sustain relatively large populations without needing to import food from outside their own hinterlands.


No wonder then that the area of modern Greece has been inhabited since long before the start of recorded history. Extremely long before. The ancestors of modern humans lived there before humans were humans, and the earliest modern human remains found outside of Africa were found in Greece, dated to 210 000 BC. It’s the location of the first agriculture in Europe, and settlements in Greece have been conducting long-distance trade since at least the earliest phases of the stone age.


The Greek city-states

However, by the time of the Greco-Persian wars, there had been no major empires in Greece of the likes of the Egyptians or the Assyrians. This is largely due to that same geography I talked about earlier. Remember, Greece’s geography is ideal for cities, individually. What’s best for cities is not necessarily best for kingdoms and empires.


Egypt, for example, is ideal for an empire. It has an extremely fertile and well-connected nexus in the form of the Nile Delta, which serves as a natural center for production, administration, and population. Around the Nile Delta, the terrain is mostly flat, and easy to traverse, and the Nile itself serves as a great artery along which commerce and armies can move. There’s no great natural barrier between any major part of Egypt and any other part. Egypt does have natural barriers though – the Nubian desert to the west and south, and the Red Sea to the east. This means that no settlement within Egypt would be able to easily defend itself from any other within Egypt, and, at the same time, there is a single location which will clearly produce a settlement stronger than any other in the entirety of Egypt – the Nile Delta. Thus, it is relatively easy for a settlement in the Nile Delta to subjugate any other settlement within Egypt, and then defend the whole of Egypt from external threats once it has.


Compare this to Greece where, as outlined above, there are many locations where individual settlements can control a handful of chokepoints to completely block external threats. It is very difficult in an area like this for one settlement to subjugate another, and so it’s very difficult for a true kingdom to form.


Classical Greece

Nonetheless, the long history of trade and exchange of both goods and ideas had, by the time of the Greco-Persian wars, made Greece into a very rich and developed region, filled with rich and self-sufficient cities – and so, city-states. Most of these were ruled by hereditary kings, or tyrants. In the city-state of Athens, the tyrants had recently been overthrown, and a new system put into place – Democracy – and a cultural explosion was occurring, which was largely shared by the rest of Greece, tyrants or no.


Greece at the time was not a country in any sense of the word, and the city-states often warred with one another, but there was some conception of fraternity between the various Greek city-states. They shared not just a language, but a common mythology and religion – one so immortalised by the cultural output of the era that we still know it in detail today. Indeed, anyone not Greek was referred to as a barbarian.


This was the time period we know of as the start of “Classical Greece”.


The Achaemenid Empire (or the Persian Empire)


A relief from the tomb of the Persian Emperor Xerxes I, who will feature heavily later in the Greco-Persian wars. The relief shows the various subject peoples of the Achaemenid Empire, and someone from Wikimedia Commons has kindly labelled all of them. This goes a long way to illustrate just how multi-ethnic the Empire was.


The story begins in what is today Iran (also known as Persia). The massive Neo-Assyrian Empire had recently crumbled, and from it emerged a plethora of smaller kingdoms and tribal states that had previously been vassals and subjects. The Kingdom of the Medes, with their capital in Ecbatana in Western Iran, quickly came to dominate the Persian Plateau as the Neo-Assyrians had. However, the small kingdom of Anshan – the Persians – on the south coast of Iran would be a problem.


The explosive rise of the Persian Empire

The dynastic lines in the area were extremely tangled up with one another, and what transpired was that the King of Anshan, a certain Cyrus II, was the grandson of Astyages, King of the Medes. When Astyages sent an army to collect tribute from Cyrus, he rebelled, and a good portion of that army joined him immediately.


After 3 years of conflict, Cyrus dethroned Astyages, married his daughter (his own half-aunt), and became the ruler of the former Median Empire in 550 BC. But he by no means stopped there.


The Lydians in Anatolia (modern Turkey) sent an army to invade the now-unstable Empire. By 546 BC Cyrus had captured the Lydian capital of Sardis. Four years later, Lydia was a direct province of Cyrus’ Empire. Cyrus also conquered Lydia’s former subjects, the Ionian Greeks, but more on them later.


Revolts by former tributaries of the Median Empire lead Cyrus to conquer swathes of central Asia and establish garrison towns there to cement his rule. War broke out between the Persians and Babylonians which ended in Cyrus capturing Babylon and annexing the Babylonian Empire, which had included the whole of very-fertile Mesopotamia.


Cyrus II, now known as “the Great”, died sometime around 530 BC, having carved out the largest empire the world had ever seen up to that point. His son Cambyses II would go on to conquer Cyprus, Egypt, and, without a fight, Libya (including two Greek colonies on the Libyan coast).


Darius the Great and his odd ascendance

There was some serious shuffling around of leadership at this point, and the events are still subject to serious historical scrutiny. Suffice to say that Cambyses died, someone who looked exactly like his brother (but possibly not his brother) took the throne, and then was overthrown by Darius I in 522 BC, who was not closely related to the royal family. However, Darius claimed that he and the royal family shared a common ancestor some 4 generations back, Achaemenes, who was the father of the first Persian king of Anshan. It’s from this Achaemenes that the term Achaemenid Empire originates!


Darius “the Great” initiated a massive military expedition in 513 BC across the straits of Messina, conquering the Northeastern Balkans (including Macedon), and cementing rule in the area despite several revolts.


The Persian Empire before the Greco-Persian Wars

In terms of modern borders, the Achaemenid Empire filled the entire area between India, Kazakhstan, and the Caucasus Mountains, controlled all of Egypt, Libya, Anatolia, Northern Greece, and the Northeast Balkans. It was a self-acknowledgingly multi-ethnic empire with surprisingly fair treatment of subject peoples, and a multi-ethnic army and administration, and it was more or less undefeated up till this point.


Importantly, it was also the direct overlord of the Ionian Greeks, a large collection of Greek city-states along the Western Anatolian coastline.


The Ionian Revolt – the first conflict between Greece and Persia

The status of the Ionian Greeks in Western Anatolia was not that big of a deal to the Greek world. Those Greek colonies had only been autonomous briefly, and had otherwise been under the dominion of various kingdoms and empires in Anatolia for most of their history, and had generally been treated fairly well – the Greeks were extremely good at making a lot of money if left to their own devices, and that’s good for any ruler.


This was no less true with the Persian Empire, which appointed tyrants to rule in their stead in the area, sort of like appointed sub-monarchs – think of viceroys or governors that rule for life.


Long story short, one of these appointed tyrants led a failed expedition to conquer the island of Naxos. Sensing that he was about to be removed from this prestigious position for his failure (which would essentially end his career, his family’s prospects, and possibly his life), he decided to burn the house down rather than hand over the keys. He incited the Ionian Greeks to revolt against Persian rule, which they did with gusto.


The Athenians and their Eretrian allies (another nearby Greek city-state) were convinced by an envoy to get involved and sent a military expedition to Ionia. They proceeded inland and participated in an attack on the Persian equivalent of a provincial capital, Sardis, which resulted in large parts of the town burning down, including an important temple. However, the expedition was quickly defeated by the Persians, and the Athenians retreated back to their capital, refusing to aid the Ionian revolt further.


The end of the Ionian Revolt

Despite the briefness of Athenian involvement, it provided the casus belli for the Persian invasion of mainland Greece, and so, the start of the Greco-Persian wars.


The Persians eventually crushed the Ionian Revolt (imposing terms on the Ionians that were considered very fair by all contemporary commentators), and turned their sights on the conquest of Greece and the punishment of Athens.


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