Casting Through Ancient Greece

33: Persia in Defeat

June 18, 2021 Mark Selleck Season 1 Episode 33
Casting Through Ancient Greece
33: Persia in Defeat
Show Notes Transcript

The Persian Empire had launched its first invasion against Greece in 492 BC after their involvement in the Ionian revolt. The campaign that came across the Aegean Sea would fall short of capturing Athens in 490 BC at the Bay of Marathon, seeing the invaders withdraw back into the empire. Though, Greece was not forgotten, Xerxes the new king launching the second invasion in 480 BC.

The second invasion would see one of the largest forces ever assembled to march west, heading through northern lands into Greece. This invasion would see a number of land and naval battles fought over the next two years. Defeats at Salamis, Plataea and Mycale would see the second invasion stopped with the Persians failing in subjugating all of Hellas.

How did the Persian army being the size it was fail to capture Greece? Had their equipment and training been up to the same standard as the Greeks? Had they underestimated the way the Greeks fought, with their lands and armies quite different to what they encountered in the east. Or had their sheer size and reliance on various nations for their numbers brought them undone? 

Although the Greeks had won a major victory with it defining a generation, how did this affect the Persian Empire? Victory verses defeat is not often a zero-sum game. The Greek theatre was on the extreme western fringe of the Empire and the integrity of the Persian Empire remained intact. But the defeat and the ongoing operations would have consequences as the decade’s past. 

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Episode 33

 Persia, in defeat


When Xerxes realised the severity of the disaster that had occurred, he became afraid that one of the Ionians would advise the Hellenes to sail to the Hellespont and break apart the bridges, so that he would be trapped in Europe and in danger of perishing there. And so, he made plans to flee.[1] 

From Herodotus’ Histories 

Hello, I’m Mark Selleck and welcome back to Casting Through Ancient Greece, Episode 33, Persia, in Defeat.


We have now reached a point where the Persian operations in Greece had come to an end, not that the Greeks would have known that at the time. As we will see they would take measures to attempt to prevent the Persians launching another invasion as we continue the series. The Persian threat had come about nearly 30 years earlier when mainland Greece, namely Athens and Eretria had become involved in the Ionian cities revolt over on the Anatolian coast, on the western edge of the Persian Empire. The revolt would last some 6 years but would finally be brought under control in 494 BC. Athens and Eretria would only take an active role in the revolt during one campaigning season in 499 BC, where the Greek army was defeated at Ephesus. Though, what now brought Persian interest to Greek lands was an action under taken during that campaign in the city of Sardis. When the Greek army marched into Sardis, the governing city of the region, a fire would break out. This blaze would destroy much of the city around the acropolis as well as important temples and shrines. The sources talk of one of the Greeks setting a house on fire which quickly spread to the rest of the lower part of the city.[2] The Persians would make no mistake of it being an act of aggression on behalf of the Greeks. Once the Ionian revolt had been brough under control, the spot light had been placed further west, with outside lands interfering in Persian affaires. Adding to this was an event that had taken place even earlier, when Athens was attempting to gain support against an aggressive Sparta in 507. Athens had sought friendship with Persian to strengthen their position, though Persian demands were for them to provide earth and water in an act of submission to the Persian Empire. The Athenian delegates had agreed to these symbolic gestures, not giving them much of a thought.[3] So, in Persian eyes Athens may well have been yet another revolting city that had to be dealt with. Whatever the main reason for the Persian attention to be cast in Greece’s direction, this point would be seen as the ignition for the Greek and Persian wars and preparations began for operations against Greek lands.

The initial Persian campaign march north through Thracian and Macedonian lands had encountered some setbacks in 492 BC, with the Persian fleet being wrecked off of Mount Athos and the Persian army encountering hostile Thracian tribes. Another campaign was then sent in 490 BC, where the forces sailed across the Aegean capturing many Islands on their way to Greece. This was also an exercise in punishing those who had assisted in the revolt earlier. Eventually the Persian forces made it to the bay of Marathon where after 10 days in the field with no action, the Athenians and their Plataean allies defeated the Persian force. After the chance of taking Athens evaporated the Persian force then sailed back into the Persian Empire.  

After 10 more years though, the new king Xerxes would not forget about Greece and would launch another invasion. This time the forces assembled were on a far greater scale than previously, with it seeming far more resources would be devoted to the enterprise this time around. Xerxes forces marched through Thrace and then descended into central Greece where after 7 days they brushed aside a Greek force headed by the Spartans at Thermopylae. His fleet also engaged the Greeks some 40 km away at Artemesium, where the Greeks withdrew after 3 days of fighting. The gates to Greece were now wide open, the Persians now being able to march on Athens and capture it. Another naval battle then developed at Salamis, an island east of Athens, here the Persian force was defeated and would take not further part in the campaign. Though, Xerxes army had yet to be defeated, he would travel back to within the Persian Empire leaving Mardonius in command of a picked force. After another year of the Persians in Greece, the Greeks eventually united again to challenge Mardonius’ force near the small polis of Plataea. Once again 10 days of relative inactivity would take place before a day of bloody engagements would see the Persian army defeated and unable to continue their operations in Greek lands.

So, here we have a very quick recap of the Persians actions against Greece during the Greek and Persian wars. But now that the invasions had come to an effective end and we looked at the Greeks actions directly after Plataea and Mycale. I wanted to now turn to what the Persians were doing, first I want to analyse what the defeats throughout the invasions had meant for them. Then we will turn to how much of an impact the overall defeat of the wars was for the Persian Empire, Then at the end of the episode I will reveal a special episode that will follow this one next fortnight which will explore and build on some of the themes we talk about today with someone with a greater knowledge of the Persian Empire.

After Marathon:

The defeat of the Persian forces at the battle of Marathon saw the first Persian Invasion reach it’s furthest extent westward. This initial battle of the Greco-Persian wars was won primarily by Athens, with the small polis of Plataea also providing as many hoplites as they could. The Athenian force had numbered some 10,000 hoplites[4], while the Persian are thought to have had a force upwards of 25,000.[5] To the Athenians, this was a great feat and, in their eyes, they had won a monumental victory, not just for them but all of Greece. Though, for the Persians had they seen their defeat on the same scale that the Athenians had their victory? In short, probably not. Although Greek sources represent this invasion as an attempt to conquer all of Greece, it doesn’t appear that this was the intention of this invasion.[6] 

With the Persian reconquest of Ionia and neighbouring regions during the Ionian revolt we saw that those who had decided to revolt against the Empire were treated very harshly. Either individuals were executed or whole cities would suffer the consequences, such as being captured and even raised to the ground like that of Miletus and a number of cities in Ionia and surrounding regions.[7] In the case of Miletus, and later on with Eretria, we also here of the inhabitants being resettled and deported to within the Empire. This resettlement was a common practice used by rulers within their empires, used to help eliminate problem populations where they would have a much harder time uniting to cause a revolt. This had happened under Cyrus as well as other rulers of past empires, think of the Babylonian resettlement of the Jews, this was for the most part a similar type of policy.[8] With the final defeat of the Ionian revolt at the battle of Lade in 494 BC, just some minor mopping up operations were left, to where the regions within the Empire that had revolted were back under control. So, now what about those cities and Islands that had also taken some part in the revolt, were they to be ignored?

Ignoring these outside cities would seem as though it would set a dangerous precedent and not a message the Persian Empire would want to send to the regions within the Empire and especially those on the edges. Herodotus suggests the campaign was an act of revenge by Darius but as we have seen his response was just inline with Persian policy when it came to dealing with revolts. Also, as I said earlier it is possible the Persians may have already seen Athens as a subjected city or one, they had come to arrangement with. It would be even more imperative to act against Athens if they had gone against this perceived agreement. So, perhaps from the Persian perspective this first Persian Invasion of Greece was but another phase in the fallout of the Ionian revolt. We saw on their advance towards Greece, whether it was during the 492 expedition or the 490 one, a similar patter occur with cities being offered the opportunity to submit or face the consequences for their defiance. In the 490 campaign across the Aegean, we also saw the policy of punishing those who had assisted in the revolt continue, with Naxos destroyed[9] and Eretria just short of the Greek mainland, suffering a similar fate. [10]  

Although, defeat would have not been ideal for Darius and the prestige of the Persian Empire, this campaign would have barely made a ripple in the Empire. It could also be argued that the campaign could have been seen as a success since most other objectives had been met. The forces committed were a tiny fraction of what the Persians could call upon and Darius himself did not take an active role. This suggests that there were other matters more important within the Empire that required his attention. We even saw during the Ionian revolt, Darius not taking on an active role and there where multiple Persian armies in the field bringing the western edge of his lands back under control. It was probably likely that the various regions east of Anatolia had very little idea of the campaign against Greece, let alone the defeat of the Persians there. 

This campaign, from the Persian perspective can probably be seen as an extension of the operations that had occurred after the Ionian revolt. The initial expedition north commanded by Mardonius was most likely reasserting control in areas of Thrace and Macedon, though Herodotus suggests the aim of this campaign was Athens and Eretria. The second expedition could well have already been in the planning phase with its aim to take care of the cities and Islands in the Aegean, but not a response to the Greeks perceived failure of Mardonius’ first campaign. In any event, the Persians would return back into the Empire without having captured Athens, but they would return in 10 years’ time with a new king heading the Empire and who would accompany the invasion this time.

After Salamis:

The 10-year gap between the invasions would come about because of other more important matters that had to be dealt with within the Empire itself. Herodotus would present the failure of taking Athens as remaining in the forefront of Persian considerations, with Darius apparently planning right away for a larger campaign.[11] Though, discontent within the Empires boarders would see focus shifting away from Greece. In 486 BC one of the most important regions within the empire would break out in revolt, Egypt. There is very scant information relating to this revolt but we are aware that it was effectively dealt with by the new king Xerxes and would cause very little trouble for the next 20 years with Xerxes having installed one of his brothers as satrap of Egypt. Herodotus also telling us Xerxes put a much tighter hold on the region.[12] More trouble was also at hand with yet another wealthy and important region breaking out in revolt, this time in Babylonia. Here the details are also hazy, but it is thought there may have been two separate revolts taking place between 484 and 479 BC. Records kept in Babylon show the names of two kings reigning during this period for only a few months, but this is about as far as the details take us.    

After both these revolts of the 480’s had been dealt with the focus would now shift back west towards Greece. Herodotus has Mardonius urging Xerxes to finish what had been started 10 years earlier.[13] While a number of other characters either also arguing for action against Greece or providing words of caution. It would seem from the Greeks point of view this invasion was coming with vengeance to finish the job that had failed at Marathon and for the Greeks defiance.

There may well be a hint of frustration at not taking Athens the first time around and some motivation may lay here. But the Persians had previously conducted campaigns on the edges of their empire in the Aegean and southern Europe which would allow for Persian expansion to take place a bit later. So, perhaps the same was taking place now, the earlier more limited campaign had secured routes which would allow for lines of supply to flow back into the Empire while also securing the cooperation of many regions to allow for a relatively unhindered advance west. Maybe we can think of the first invasion as being a recon in force securing limited objective to then allow for a much larger force to undertake Persian expansionism. As we had seen with the Persian Empire when looking at their rise, every King had been following a policy of expanding the Empire in some form since its founder Cyrus the Great. This line of thinking also fits in with the number of troops deployed in each invasion, the first being only some 10 percent of what Xerxes second invasion would be.

Though, this attempt at expanding into Greece would start to come undone at the battle of Salamis with the Greek fleets victory over the Persian’s. With this defeat we see the withdrawal of Xerxes with some of the Persian force back to the Empire, but the reasons for explaining this withdrawal are not very clear from the sources that survive. Herodotus gives the impression that Xerxes withdrawal was a rushed, haphazard retreat, giving the sense that the defeat had caused some panic. He provides two accounts he has heard, one, where he accompanies the army back along the path they marched into Greece on. Though, it was done in a rush, with the army covering the distance much quicker, but as a result suffered from starvation and illness due to being ill prepared for the retreat.[14]  The second version almost comes across showing Xerxes as a coward not being able to get back into Persia quick enough. He is meant to have entrusted the army to another commander while he sailed across the Aegean. On this journey back to Anatolia, his ship was caught in a storm where he then orders many of the men aboard to jump overboard, lightening the load on the ship so he can make it back safely.[15] 

It does seem unlikely that these stories were what actually happened, but the Greeks would have been all to happy to circulate them. Even from how Herodotus presents events leading up to Xerxes withdrawal would suggest a much more planned withdrawal from Greek lands. There appears to have been much discussion and planning on how operations would continue in Greece.[16] Then an organised march takes place, pulling the Persian forces back into Thessaly for the winter before then leaving Mardonius in command of the forces remaining.[17] This all pointing to a much more planned out operation for withdrawal back home. 

But again, why? Well, there doesn’t appear to be a clear answer to this, but just interpretations based off what are found in the sources for possible reasons. One explanation points to Xerxes wanting to distance himself from failure and allowing a subordinate commander to take on this responsibility. With failure of expanding into Greece a real possibility now, best to leave one of his slaves with this burden. He can always punish one of his subjects for failing to carry out Persian royal policy. If he was directly connected to the failure then this would harm and call into question the authority of power the Persian Empire rested upon. Xerxes may not have been a god, but he was raised far above his subjects having been given divine authority to rule. This line of thought can also be found in Herodotus’ account where he has Xerxes seeking the advice of Mardonius and Artemisia.[18] 

Another line of reasoning lays with possible troubles in the Empire, such as revolts potentially breaking out. We get hints of 2 separate regions that may have impacted Xerxes decision to return, that of Ionian and Babylonia. Herodotus tells us that once the Persian fleet was defeated it was sent off of the Anatolian coast, close to all the Ionian cities. Where they were to guard against another Ionian revolt breaking out, this seems to suggest there were hints that Ionia was not as stable as Xerxes would have liked.[19] This also feeds into the fact we know the Ionians would revolt again after the battles of Plataea and Mycale a year later. Babylon, is another area that is seen that may have given Xerxes reason to return home. We had seen before Xerxes invasion, he had to deal with a revolt in 484 BC in Babylon, with it being thought there may have been 2 separate revolts. The second is sometimes thought to have broken out in 479 BC. If this was the case, word of troubles back in Babylon may have reached Xerxes in Greece. 480 was coming to a close fast and by the time Xerxes reached Persia and was able to arrange a force it could well have been into 479 BC. With news of his arrival and march onto Babylon, the rebel leaders may have seen the only option now open was to break out into full revolt, as they would have surely been punished anyway. Though, it much be pointed out that the idea of a revolt breaking out in Babylonia is debated between historians. 

We looked at the idea of possible revolts being the reason for returning from a campaign, we need to keep in mind that putting down revolts in the Empire had been seen as far more important than expanding into Greece. We had seen operations west taking a back seat while regions already apart of the Empire were brought back under control. Persian policy may have been focused on keeping secure what they already possessed over any new enterprises. 

Plataea, Mycale and Persian defeat:

For the Greeks it would have been crazy to not take advantage of Xerxes departure, laying the reason at his fleet suffering such a disaster. The reality though, was that the Persians still possessed a strong army in Greek lands and their fleet although now off the coast of Anatolia still numbered some 300 triremes. 

After the Greeks had managed to unite the Hellenic league once again they would march into Boeotia where they would face the Persians near the polis of Plataea. Here after 10 days of standoff and skirmishing the battle of Plataea would finally be fought, seeing Mardonius killed and the Persians defeated. Herodotus would present the defeat as a slaughter with him telling us that the Persians lost 257,000 troops out of 300,000,[20] but as we discussed in the episode on Plataea it would appear a Persian force of up to 100,000 strong was probably more realistic. We then saw how a sizable Persian reserve was able to retreat out of Greece and the Greeks allied to the Persians were able to retreat back into Thebes. Although the defeat at Plataea would effectively end Persian operation in Greece, the defeat doesn’t appear to be on the scale as reported by Herodotus, though to the veterans on the field of battle that day it may well have seemed it was.

As well as suffering this defeat in Greece, the Persians would also suffer a defeat within the territory of their own Empire, at Mycale. The Greek naval force would end up sailing to Samos to engage the Persian fleet. The Persians though, would retreat back onto the Anatolian coastline at Mycale where they were met by reinforcements form Sardis. The Greeks would then pursuit the Persian where this naval battle would develop into a land battle. This would mark a transition in the war, with it being the first-time offensive operations would take place in Persian lands. The Persians at Mycale appear to have been decisively beaten with only sporadic groups of Persians escaping the carnage. The losses suffered by the Persians and the confusion that ensured was further magnified with their former allies, the Samians and Ionians turning on their former masters.    

Defeat of the Invasions:

So, how catastrophic was the Persian defeat in the Greek and Persian wars to the Empire. There is no question that the situation in 479 BC had changed the status quo in the Aegean. Previously the Persians controlled the Anatolian coast and just beyond, now though the Greeks were able to free a number of Islands and cities in the region. The Greeks involvement in this part of the Aegean, Anatolia and Hellespont would continue in an attempt to build up a defensive buffer against another Invasion being directed at them. This would see the Persians lose control over some areas on the extreme western boarders of the Empire. Although the western boarder of the Empire was in worst shape than it was before embarking on the Invasion of Greece, it would not seem to affect the stability or even the prestige of the Empire. The Persians were now finding themselves having to respond to Athenian operations in the Aegean and Hellespont. But this was on the Western border, on the fringes of the Empire, they would not pose any real threat to the Empire itself. A large motivation of Athenian operation in these areas would also be related to the Athenians economic security, they really had no reason to attempt to penetrate into the Persian Empire. Also, the Athenians and the league lacked the resources to sustain any operations deeper into Persian territory. It would be around 150 years later that this threat would be realised, though by Macedon, who would have defeated the various Greek city states and united them under their leadership.

As for how the Persians saw the outcome of this campaign, we are unsure as no Persian accounts of the campaign been found. Though having seen what took place over the invasions it is easy to see how it could have been reported back as a success to the wider Empire. Xerxes had assembled the largest force yet, to be sent west which would collect tokens of submission from countless tribes and cities. All they encountered that resisted were overcome on the Persian army’s march into Greece. The first resistance they encountered was that of the Spartans, with the greatest reputation of all the Greeks in warfare. Though, this force was wiped out with their King also being killed in the fighting, so much for this warrior society. After this Greek defeat, yet more cities submitted to Xerxes as he march into central Greece where he encountered no more organised resistance. He now captured Athens and had it burnt to the ground, claiming vengeance for the Athenians involvement in the Ionian revolt. Many Greeks would have also been captured and sent back into the Empire as slaves or sold to other regions in the slave markets. With Persia having gained revenge over Athens, Xerxes now returned back home satisfied that the objective of the campaign had been fulfilled. There would be no need to report on other matters, even if the intensions of the campaign were of a grader vision. Xerxes just needed to report what had been achieved and align these with objectives in hindsight. Once Xerxes had departed Greece, this would in effect become a side show, with very little knowledge, if any filtering out into the various regions of the Empire. To wider Persian society it could quite easily be seen that Xerxes campaign west had been a success as we can see, if only select aspects of the campaign were reported. The only ones who would have had an idea of what really had occurred were those commanders in the higher ranks, even the soldiers who campaigned could be fed proper gander, as they would not have been aware of the wider picture of the campaign itself. So, in relative terms only a very small proportion of the Empire would have some idea of the true outcome of the invasion.          

What was happening in Persia in the wake of the defeat?   

We basically have no knowledge from the Persians themselves of what Xerxes was doing in the direct aftermath of plataea and Mycale. But we do have accounts given to us in the Greek sources, so let’s now turn to what we hear of taking place according to the Greeks and how much stock can we place in these accounts. Both Herodotus and Diodorus, present Xerxes as having been in Sardis when the battle of Mycale was fought. Herodotus then telling us with his last reference to Xerxes and with the defeat at Mycale, that “He left Sardis for Susa”.[21] Diodorus, gives much the same story but with Xerxes destination being Ecbatana.[22] Though we hear through, Ctesias, who served as a physician to Artaxerxes II some 80 years later, that it appears Xerxes had remained in the western part of the Empire and had even directed counter attacks against the new revolt that was breaking out in Ionia.[23] He also has Xerxes intending to make his way to Babylon, which then starts to align with the theory that Babylon had broken out in revolt in 479 BC. Perhaps both Herodotus and Diodorus had heard of Xerxes heading east after Mycale and assumed this was a response to the Greek victory, which seems a reasonable assumption for any victorious side to make, the destinations they give could just be based on an assumption since these were capitols further east. No sources seem to be aware of troubles in Babylon which could give Xerxes departure of Sardis more context. As we have spoken about before, if this revolt in Babylon was taking place, Xerxes actions are in line with previous examples where the west of the Empire was relegated to secondary importance over regions more central to the Empire. So, Xerxes departure from the western theatre could be due to more important matters to deal with rather than running away in fear from defeat.    

Why were the Persian defeated?:

So far we have looked at to what extent the Persians were defeated, looking at the Greeks perspective and their own. Ultimately, it would be a defeat, as the objectives appear to have been more extensive than what the Persians had achieved, plus offensive operations were now taking place on the western edge of the Empire. So, let’s have a look at possible reasons that may have led to their defeat in Greek lands.

Military inferiority:

Throughout the Greek sources we get a picture during the battles that took place of the Persian forces as being armed and armoured with inferior weapons and armour, and even lacking skill. At Thermopylae we hear of the Persian forces being sent in, having shorter spears than that of the Spartans.[24] This would see them having to get well within the killing zone of the Greek spears before they could have any effect with their own. At Plataea Herodotus says, “… in courage and strength they were as good as their adversaries, but they were deficient in armour, untrained, and greatly inferior in skill.”[25] Herodotus also gives us a picture of how all of the troops within Xerxes army were equipped. The ethnic Persians as well as some other contingents are described as wearing tunics with fish scale armour, wicker shields and short spears.[26]Compared to the Greeks heavy bronze shield, greaves, breast plate and helmet they were much more lightly equipped. We do hear of some Persians being armoured much more effectively but these seem to just be the commanders, such as Masstius at the opening cavalry action at Plataea.[27] Though, it would take more than just a disparity in equipment to bring the invasion undone.   


The next aspect, in my opinion would play a much larger role in explaining why the Persians were not as successful on the battlefield as they should have been given their numbers. The Persian cavalry was the main offensive power behind the army in the field. We hear of their superiority in the campaigns of expansion throughout the near east. Also, the cavalry would see the Greek force outside Ephesus being routed during the Ionian revolt.[28] Before the first Persian invasion great care had been undertaken to have a full cavalry force sailed across the Aegean. Though, at the battle of Marathon the cavalry seems to not have played a role in battle, with us looking at all of the possible reason for this in the episode covering that battle. Marathon had been chosen due to the open space that could support the cavalry. In Greece, the Persians would find that these open spaces suitable for cavalry operations would be few and far between. At Thermopylae, there was no part for the cavalry to take part due to the enclosed ground. Even, once down in Attica and in possession of Athens, the Persian force was wary of deploying for a land battle due to the terrain being unsuitable for the cavalry. We saw Mardonius withdrawing north into Boeotia so as to find terrain for his strongest arm to operate. Plataea would see the Persian cavalry finally being of more use and caused the Greeks much trouble. But even here the terrain was not as open as the cavalry would have been use to operating in the open plains in the Near East. Also, they were deployed against an enemy whose formations and tactics were relatively new to them and unlike what they mostly encountered in the East.  


Failure to adapt to Greek tactics:

The advent of Hoplite warfare was a relatively new development in the Greek world, with most city states adopting it. The Persians on the other hand would have had limited exposure to this novel way of fighting a battle. At Ephesus the Greeks were deployed on flat open ground ill-suited to a phalanx, but the phalanx and hoplite development came about due to the typical terrain found in Greek lands. During the Persian invasions the Greeks were operating with a force that had developed over time that used the typical Greek country side to their advantage. On the flip side the Persians had developed an army perfect for fighting in vast open country against forces arranged in a very different manner. Though, they would have a sizeable Greek contingent fighting on their side during the second invasion, who would have been deployed in their phalanx formations. This we saw at Plataea would see the left wing evenly matched for some time.  Now they were in a land very different to their own, against a different enemy and trying to employ their same tactics that had seen them dominate battle in the east. With the Persians only being involved in a hand full of battles against Greek phalanxes, it would appear they may not have had enough time to learn and adapt to how the Greeks fought. Though perhaps there was some degree of attempting to change, as we saw at Marathon the Persians had stationed their best troops in the centre, the Greek hoplite line always stationed their best formation on the right wing, the position of honour. By the time of Plataea we see Mardonius stationing the Persians to oppose the Spartans on the Greek right, as they were seen as being the strongest part of the Greek line. Also, there is no indication that the Persians approached battle with a combined arms strategy. Each arm of the arm appears to have operated independently, with no coordination with the other arms. Though, to pull the Persians up for this is a little unfair as it seems the Greeks were guilty of the same ill co-ordination, but we get hints that the light troops and hoplites were working together at Plataea. It wouldn’t be until Phillip II and Alexander the Great nearly 150 years later that combined arms tactics would come into their own. Once used it would quickly become the standard way of battle due to the success Alexander would have. If one didn’t quickly adapt to this new style of warfare defeat usually quickly followed. 

Persian Allies:

Another aspect we can look at is the makeup of the Persian army in regards to the various nations that made it up and their reliability. First when looking at the Greek sources we need to understand the context of “Persians” when referred to. In some instances, its used to talk of the Persian troops in general terms and in some, Persians, is used to talk specifically of ethnic Persians. But for the most part it becomes apart what sense the word Persian is being used in.

Throughout the Greek sources for the Greek and Persian wars we continually come across the notion that the ethnic Persian were the most capable, often with the Medes and Sacae alongside. This then puts forward the question, was only a portion of the army committed to Persian victory. This does make some sense as the Persians had more of a steak in the success of the Empire, with the Medes also having important roles within the empire. It could be seen the majority of the other contingents were along for the ride, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter which empire they were a part of, it was just in their interests to fight for Persia at this point in time. So, was the vast makeup of the Persian army its weak ling during the fighting in Greece.  

At Marathon the Persians, Medes and Sacae would make up the centre of the Persian line. As the battle was joined this part of the line overcame their Greek opponents, advancing deep into the Greek position. Unfortunately for them, the Greek right and left wings soundly defeated the Persian wings, which saw the Persian centre surrounded.[29] We are unsure of what contingents made up the Persian wings, but from Herodotus’ description it wasn’t the ethnic Persians, Medes of Sacae since they are specifically pointed out as being in the centre. So, had the weakness of the Persian’s subjected contingents been the cause of there overall defeat at Marathon. 

Thermopylae 10 years later seems to be an example where the terrain of the battlefield seems to have nullified much of the advantages the Persians held over the rest of the Persian army. They would suffer just as much as the other contingents sent in when attacking the Greeks head on.[30] But where the difference seems to come in, is their resilience after taking such heavy loses. It would be the Persian Immortals after suffering their rough handling on the first day, that would be sent on the night mission to outflank the Greek position and eventually defeated it. Other lesser contingent after suffering a beating would probably need to be taken from the action and rested. 

If the Persian army had relied upon a core of disciplined and well-trained Persians, Medes and Sacae, what about the fleet. The Persians themselves had no tradition of sailing and their navy is almost completely outsourced to their subjected peoples such as the Phoenicians, Egyptians and Greeks from Anatolia. Well here, there was no specific Persian contingent, but the command structure rested with the Persians, they would make up the entire command systems controlling the various contingents. Further to this the Persians, Medes and Sacae would also be present in the fleet, not manning the ships, but acting as the marines throughout the fleet. This may have provided some backbone to the contingents when discipline may have ordinarily begun to waver. These more loyal troops would see that order would be kept aboard the ships. Though, it must be noted that there would not have been enough of them to man all the fleets’ ships. 

We also see that it was thought the navy would fight harder and be more reliable when Xerxes himself was present. This may have had the impression that the contingents were going to be held more accountable for their actions during a battle. We see this presented by Herodotus as being a conscious decision after Artemesiuim and before the Battle of Salamis.[31]

Once again back on land at Plataea and Mycale we hear of the Persians being singled out as the cream of the army. We saw that Mardonious made sure they were the ones to oppose the Spartans on the right wing, as they had deemed this to be the strongest part of the Greek line.[32] Once the battle was joined, the Spartans and Tegeans crashed into the Persians position that had come forward. We hear of them matching the Spartans in courage and strength, with small bands of Persians taking the initiative to mount attacks along the Spartan line.[33] We are given the picture here that this was the action in the battle which would decide the outcome. Mardonius had even come forward, protected by a Persian guard, to help bolster the Persian line under extreme pressure. Persian moral would finally be broken once their commander had been killed in action. This is the point where the entire Persian army began to collapse, the sight of the Persian wing in retreat would see the rest of the contingent now give up the fight. Herodotus here echoes the notation of the importance of the Persian troops in the campaign. “It is clear to me that the Barbarians depended entirely for their success on the Persians, since it was because they saw that the other Persians fleeing that Artabazos and his troops fled from the enemy, though they had not yet even joined in the battle”.[34]  

Having said all of that there are examples which point out some of the subjected contingents’ abilities in the field. These, though seem to be achieved while the core elements of the Persian army or command structure was still intact. But, there is one example of a group fighting effectively even after the Persians were routed at Plataea. This was the Theban cavalry, who would screen the retreating Persians and still harassed the Greeks on the battlefield while the rest of the army began to break.[35] I think in this example, self-preservation and the protection of Thebes itself were the primary motivator. The battlefield was just outside the city state of Thebes and the Thebans had been one of the largest Greek contingents to fight with the Persians. It would be in their interest to prevent the destruction of the Persian forces, if they were beaten, Thebes would be the first to face the consequences of the defeat.



This was by no means a comprehensive look at the reasons for defeat in the Greek Theatre, but I hope it puts the point across that it is impossible to lay the reason at one particular thing. These threads of thinking that I have put forward have the potential to be dug into much further and more connections to be made. If you find this particularly interesting, I encourage you to take a deeper look at these lines of thought and the sources surrounding the events. After all this was one of my aims of doing this series, was to spread my enthusiasm of Greek history and encourage others to look into different aspects of the time period for themselves to see what else they can discover. Perhaps, I may explore this aspect a little deep in one of my bonus episodes that are available on Patroen. I have found these bonus episodes are a good way of letting me explore topics in isolation without having to worry about a narrative flow.  

Next episode, we will be continuing our look at Persia’s experience during the Greco-Persian wars. Trevor Culley from History of Persia Podcast was kind enough to accept my offer in coming on the show to tackle some of the points raised in this episode. He has a deeper knowledge and understanding of the Persian Empire, so I thought it would make for a good follow up to this episode. I found our talk very insightful and I hope you do as well. I will also be making available the video version of the episode to all patreon and buy me a coffee supporters.

As for where we are in the series now, we are approaching somewhat of a demarcation point in our narrative in the history of ancient Greece. Like I have said over the past few episodes we had been approaching the end of the Greek and Persian Wars and the end of Herodotus subject matter, who was the main and most complete source on the wars. This would not be the end of Persian interactions in the Greek world but the experiences and decisions made during this period would have a flow on effect. With our benefit of hindsight this lets us see a recognisable shift into a new stage of development and events in the Greek world. This also lines up with a change in historical source, as we transition from Herodotus to Thucydides. Though, like with Herodotus he won’t be our only source, but he becomes our most comprehensive account of the next period in ancient Greek history.  

Before we begin diving into this next period in the Greek story though, I will be taking a slight digression, following the example of Herodotus. I have outlined before that I will be doing a look at some of the areas that were apart of the Greek world but perhaps more on the fringes. These episodes will be themed the periphery of the Greek World. This will allow us to go back and look at regions such as Sicily, Macedonia and Thrace from early points in time through to the Greek and Persians wars. This will also give some more context to these outer regions as we move forward with our story as they start to interact more with the central Greek world after the Persian wars. After this we will have a look at Herodotus as a historian and what he was doing with his work. Then we will turn to doing an introduction to Thucydides so we can perhaps get some what of an understanding of who he was, what he was writing and how he presents his work. From there I think we will be in a good position to continue where we left the narrative, though, as always this plan my evolve. I also want to begin looking at some city states and their developments over time in much the same manner as I did with Athens and Sparta. Here I am thinking of Thebes and Corinth as they begin to become more influential in the narrative. I’m sure as I continue it will become more apparent when I should do these episodes.   

I will also be doing a recap and Q&A of the Greek and Persian wars to tie this period together in a couple of episodes time. This will allow a brief refresher of the Wars which we began with some 18 episodes ago and allow a chance for listeners to have some questions answered on the events we covered. Whether it be on aspects they didn’t understand, questions they may have had that are still left unanswered or clarifications, anything really. If you have any questions there is still time to get them in and I will try and answer everything I can.


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I hope you can join me next time for Episode 34, Persia’s Greek War featuring Trevor Culley

[1] Herodotus 8.97
[2] Herodotus 5.101
[3] Herodotus 5.73
[4] Pausanias X.20 / Plutarch Moralia 305
[5] Peter Green, The Greco-Persian Wars p30 / Tom Holland, Persian Fire p182
[6] Herodotus 6.94
[7] Herodotus 8.18
[8] Jeremiah 40:1-6
[9] Herodotus 6.96
[10] Herodotus 6.101
[11] Herodotus 7.1
[12] Herodotus 7.7
[13] Herodotus 7.5 - 6
[14] Herodotus 8.115
[15] Herodotus 8.118
[16] Herodotus 8.100 - 104
[17] Herodotus 8.107
[18] Herodotus 8.100 - 103
[19] Herodotus 8.130
[20] Herodotus 8.113
[21] Herodotus 9.108
[22] Diodorus 11.36
[23] Ctesias, Persica s27
[24] Herodotus 7.211
[25] Herodotus 9.62
[26] Herodotus 7.61
[27] Herodotus 9.22
[28] Herodotus 5.102
[29] Herodotus 6.113
[30] Herodotus 7.211
[31] Herodotus 8.86
[32] Herodotus 9.31
[33] Herodotus 9.62
[34] Herodotus 9.68
[35] Herodotus 9.68