TOPIC 12. THE PERSIAN INVASIONS OF GREECE
Included here are some background notes on the Persian Empire and the Persian Wars
of 490 and 480/79BC. For an indication of the sorts of questions to consider, and of the
actual campaigns and the historical considerations related to them (which are the more
important things for you to examine), see the ‘Points for your Consideration’ selection
below. NB all page references to Herodotos are to the 1974 Penguin edition, those to
Plutarch’s Lives are to the 1969 Penguin edition, those to Thucydides are to the 1972
I. THE PERSIAN EMPIRE
By 500 BC the Persian empire stretched from the Ionian coast (modern-day
Turkey) to India and from the Black sea to Egypt and to the Red Sea. The empire was
an absolute monarchy (although the Persian aristocracy was sometimes consulted over
decisions by the King) with a sound internal organization. Persia was divided into
administrative areas known as satrapies (each governed by a satrap who was
responsible to the King) which were connected to each other by a fairly well-developed
network of roads and an efficient courier system. The Persians and their near relations
the Medes were the ruling group within the empire, which contained many different
racial groups held in varying degrees of subjection. It was an empire which had been
formed by conquest.
II. THE ADMINISTRATION OF THE PERSIAN EMPIRE
(a) The Position of the King
The Persian Empire was in practice an hereditary monarchy, with the
Achaemenids forming the royal dynasty. Although strict protocol demanded prostration
before the King in the case of inferior officials, the Persian nobility was treated much
more respectfully. The Great King was not divine, but had a fair claim to be considered
an absolute monarch although bound on occasions by law and custom, and limited by
the privileged position of the Iranian aristocracy (Persians and Medes). Such
restrictions as were imposed on his behaviour were mostly of his own choice, i.e. he
sometimes deigned to take advice. The Royal Family provided a very large proportion
of higher officials and army commanders and the security this provided was
The Achaemenids in general brought a new approach to the administration of
conquered areas. They tried to retain as much as they reasonably could of the
customary administrative or political systems they found in each new area, and even
extended their tolerant approach to native religions. In Greek Asia Minor Persia had to
tread particularly warily. The Greeks were less accustomed to domination by a large
foreign power and were quick to resent any checks on their liberty. Lydian control had
been lax, but the Persians encouraged the establishment of tyrannies in the cities to
ensure the ruling families would be dependent on Persia for their positions.
(c) Satrapal Organisation
Satrapy = ‘province’ or ‘adminstrative district’; satrap = ‘governor’. But literally
translated ‘satrap’ means ‘protector of the realm’. Satrapies were organized right from
the start by Cyrus, but it was Darius’ achievement to fix their borders and levy a set
amount of tribute from them. The powers of the satrap were very wide. He was
governor of a vast territory, but appointed by and directly responsible to the King. He
was ultimately responsible for the defence of the satrapy and conducted the mass levies
when mobilisation was ordered.
II. THE IONIAN REVOLT AND ITS AFTERMATH
By the end of the sixth century BC the main direction of Persian expansion was
towards Greece and the Thracian area was annexed between 512 and 510 BC. At this
stage, Persia presumably saw Greece as a minor frontier state of no particular interest
but this changed when the Ionian Greeks, led by Miletos, revolted from Persian rule in
The important thing to note is that two Greek states, Athens and Eretria (on the
island of Euboea) sent ships to aid their Ionian kinsmen. The effect of these
reinforcements (25 ships in total) was not large, but they did participate in the burning of
the King’s summer palace at Sardis. This did not please the King at all, but more
importantly, the Persians probably saw the actions of Athens and Eretria as
unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of the Persian empire. By 493 BC the
revolt was over and the Persian King, Darius, decided to attack Greece.
A Persian invasion fleet was sunk in a storm of the peninsula of Athos (in the
Chalcidice) in 492, but by the end of the following year the Persians had secured the
entire Thracian coastline and sent envoys to the Greek states to demand earth and
water from each city (as a token of submission). Some states did so (especially Aigina
and other islands) but Athens and Sparta killed the ambassadors sent to them.
III. THE MARATHON CAMPAIGN (490 BC)
In 490 BC a Persian naval expedition, carrying approximately 25,000 troops
crossed the Aegean sea, subduing Greek island states on the way, and attacked Eretria
and Athens. One of the big questions concerning this expedition is whether it was a
punitive attack or an attempt to conquer Greece. The former is perhaps more likely
given the size of the force used (unless the Persians had underestimated the numbers
required to pacify Greece) and the fact that it was Eretria and Athens which seemed to
be the focus of the attack. However, the demand for earth and water prior to the
invasion suggests that the Persians would have accepted the opportunity to take over
Greece had the opportunity arisen.
The city of Eretria was besieged and fell (through treachery) after six days. The
Persian force re-embarked and sailed across to Marathon. It was a much shorter sea-
voyage than sailing around to Athens itself and the plain there was one of the few areas
in Attica which was suitable for cavalry. Hippias, the exiled tyrant of Athens, was
accompanying the expedition and it was on his advice that the Persians chose Marathon
(Herodotos 6. 102 = Penguin, p. 424).
The Athenians marched out to meet them with a force of 10,000 hoplites (including
a small contingent of Plataians, their allies from Boiotia). The Spartans were asked to
send help too, but refused because of a religious festival.
For the engagement at Marathon read the account in Herodotos, 6. 106-16 (=
Penguin, pp. 422-30). However, the essential course of the battle was as follows. The
Athenians deployed in the hills and waited for some time before attacking. The
Athenian/Plataian force (hereafter called the Athenians for simplicity) was drawn up in
the normal hoplite phalanx, but in order to stretch the formation to cover the entire
Persian line the Athenians weakened their centre and added to their wings. The Greeks
attacked at a run downhill and caught the Persians by surprise—according to Herodotos
they did not believe that such a small force would attack them without cavalry and
archer support (6. 112 = Penguin, p. 429). Although the Persians broke through the
weakened Athenian centre and pursued their opponents, the two strengthened Greek
wings beat the Persians opposite them and joined up to cut off the Persian centre.
About 6,400 Persians were killed, for the loss of 192 Greeks, the remainder of the
Persians escaping in their ships. These sailed around Sunium in an attempt to surprise
Athens (note the mysterious shield signal in Herodotos 6. 115, 122-4 [= Penguin, pp.
429-30, 431-2] which suggests a pro-Persian group within Athens), but the Athenian
army saw the danger and by means of a forced march regained the city before the
enemy. Shortly afterwards a contingent of 2,000 Spartans arrived, viewed the bodies,
complimented the Athenians, and went home (Herodotos 6. 120 = Penguin, p. 431).
IV. THE INTER-WAR PERIOD (489-81 BC)
See Herodotos 7. 19-172 (= Penguin, pp. 452-502) on the preparations of both
sides for renewing the conflict. The Persian preparations took ten years—largely
because of an Egyptian revolt and Darius’ subsequent death (486 BC). His son Xerxes
succeeded him, but had to spend several years securing his position against possible
competitors and the Persians were unable to launch their invasion until 480 BC.
The Greeks seem to have become aware of the Persian preparations in the late
480s and, although rather slowly, began to take counter-measures. The first of these
was the construction of an Athenian fleet at the instigation of Themistokles. In 482/1 BC
he persuaded the Athenians to build a fleet with the income from a new find of silver in
the Laurium mines in Attica. Themistokles’ opponent, Aristeides, suggested the profits
should be shared out to all citizens, but interestingly the Athenians avoided this
temptation and opted for Themistokles’ plan which would benefit the state as a whole
(see Herodotos 7. 143 = Penguin, p. 490, and Plutarch, Themistocles 4 = Penguin, p.
80). This fleet was to become the mainstay of Greek naval resistance in the coming
In 481 BC, representatives of various Greek states met to plan their course of
action. Only 31 states ultimately committed their support and fought against the
Persians (see document 8)—probably because of the size of the Persian threat but also
because of the influence of the Delphic Oracle (which seems to have decided the
Greeks would lose and advised some states, including Crete, not to fight) and because
of internal dissension. See Herodotos 7. 145 (= Penguin, p. 490) on the conference, but
the essential points agreed upon were that:
• the Spartans would hold the supreme command by land and sea,
• all states would terminate their feuds with other states,
• oaths were taken to resist the Persians and to punish any Greek city which
‘medized’ (went over to the Persians),
• spies were sent to Persia to discover the extent of the preparations, and
• assistance was requested from Argos, Crete, and the Greek communities in
Crete, however, refused to send assistance—after receiving an unfavourable
response from the Delphic oracle when they asked what they should do. Similarly, the
Greek communities in Sicily were rather preoccupied with the more immediate threat to
them from Carthage and although Gelon, the tyrant of Syracuse, offered numerous
ships and troops, this was conditional upon his being given supreme command and the
mainland Greek states rejected this (Herodotos 7. 157-62 = Penguin, pp. 496-8). Argos,
too, refused to participate unless given joint command with her long-time foe, Sparta
(Herodotos 7. 148-9 = Penguin, pp. 491-3).
V. THE SECOND INVASION (480-79 BC)
According to Herodotos 7. 60-99 (= Penguin pp. 465-74), the Persian force comprised
1,700,000 infantry and 80,000 cavalry, with a fleet of 3,000 ships (1,207 of which were
warships). The crews (including marines) needed for the navy would be about 530,000
and with the addition of about the same number of camp followers, the total would have
been about 5 million. This number seems incredible and a more likely estimate (based
on what size force could be physically supported in Greece) is closer to 180,000 -
200,000 (including camp followers). When this force was in Thrace, a combined Greek
army of 10,000 hoplites was sent north, at the request of the Thessalians, to defend the
pass of Tempe. However, when they arrived they discovered not only that there were
two other passes by which the enemy could enter Thessaly but also that there was a
strong party amongst the Thessalians who did not want to resist. As the Greek army
was too small to block all three passes it returned home without contact with the
Persians. All of Greece north of Thermopylai (the next natural defensive site) promptly
went over to the Persians.
On Thermopylai/Artemision see Herodotos 7. 175 - 8. 22 (= Penguin, pp. 503-
532). One of the key aspects of the campaign of 480/79 BC is that it was a joint
operation: the Persian invasion force consisted of both army and navy and their overall
strategy made use of both (not least because of the use of supply ships to help
provision the army). This also determined the Greek response—a purely land defence
would have been ineffectual as the Persians could have outflanked any blocking force
by using the fleet to land troops in its rear.
The Greeks deployed 280 warships, a large proportion of those available, but the
land contingent was only 7,000 strong (including 4,000 men from the Peloponnese).
The Spartans stated that this was only a vanguard and that the remainder of the
available land forces would march after the Carnean festival had been celebrated at
Sparta, and the Olympic games were over (Herodotos 7. 202-6 = Penguin, pp. 511-13).
The Persian forces arrived at Thermopylai in July and the fleet was caught in a
storm and suffered considerable loss. A series of fairly indecisive naval engagements
followed (see Herodotos 8. 6-17 = Penguin, pp. 527-30, for details), during which a 200-
strong Persian squadron was lost in a storm while trying to sail around the outside of
Euboea to take the Greeks from behind. So, the Greeks held their own at sea and the
Persians suffered quite badly from storm-losses.
On land, though, it was rather a different story (see Herodotos 7. 207-33 =
Penguin, pp. 513-521). Leonidas, the Spartan King, deployed most of his army in the
pass itself, with the Phokian contingent guarding a small track, the Anopaea path, which
allowed an inland bypass of the narrowest part of Thermopylai. Xerxes waited for four
days apparently expecting the Greeks to withdraw in the face of his overwhelming force.
When they did not do so, he began the battle. Because of the narrowness of the pass
he could only deploy a small section of his army at a time and the Greeks quickly
confirmed their superiority against equal numbers of Persians. Even the Immortals (the
crack, 10,000-strong elite Persian force) proved no match for the Greek hoplites.
This situation could have continued for some time but after two days, guided by a
Greek called Ephialtes, Xerxes despatched the Immortals (or perhaps more likely a
contingent of them) around the Anopaia track. The Phokian flank guard were ignored
and the Persians attacked the main Greek force in the rear (Herodotos 7. 218 =
Penguin, pp. 516-7).
Leonidas, warned of the impending attack, managed to evacuate the larger part of
his force southwards, before the Immortals arrived. Leonidas ended up with 1,400 men
in the pass. He used the 300 Spartans to hold the main Persian force while the
remaining 1,100 faced the outflanking force. Herodotos 7. 223-5 (= Penguin, pp. 518-9)
gives a very vivid description of the final action, with the Spartans reduced to fighting
with their bare hands when their weapons broke against the overwhelming Persian
numbers. All were killed, although a substantial part of the Theban contingent
apparently survived—according to Herodotos 7. 233 (= Penguin, p. 521) because they
surrendered very early on, but this may be a later story, following Thebes’ joining of the
Persian side shortly after Thermopylai.
The withdrawal from Artemision and Thermopylai had grave implications for the
safety of the Greek states north of the Isthmus of Corinth, the next readily defensible
natural feature (the mountains separating Boiotia and Attica had too many passes to
allow for defence by anything other than a very large army). Most states north of Attica
medized after Thermopylai (although there were some exceptions, including Plataia)—
quite reasonably as it had probably become clear to them that the Peloponnesian
states, led by Sparta, (and which provided the bulk of the Greek ground forces) were
planning a defence based on the Isthmus (see Herodotos 8. 40 = Penguin, p. 537). For
the Salamis campaign see Herodotos 8. 40-103 (= Penguin, pp. 537-59) and map 4.
Athens and the cities south of her decided to continue resistance. The Athenians
even abandoned their city to the enemy land forces in order to keep fighting for the
Greek cause (see Herodotos 8. 40-1, 51-2 = Penguin, pp. 537, 540-1, Plutarch,
Themistocles 9-10 and Cimon 5 = Penguin, pp. 86-8, 146). This was a considerable
sacrifice on the part of Athens, which continued to supply by far the largest single
contingent to the Greek navy. According to Herodotos, the Peloponnesian states were
not really committed to a battle at Salamis, and were putting a large effort into building a
wall across the Isthmus of Corinth.
Herodotos believed, though, (and with some reason) that this would have been
futile if the Athenians had withdrawn their naval support (Herodotos 7. 139 = Penguin, p.
487). This is an important point and needs close examination. His argument basically
was that a wall across the Isthmus could have been bypassed by a Persian naval
landing in the rear of the Greeks, specifically aimed at knocking the coastal cities of the
Peloponnese out of the war. Whether this was a viable option for the Persians, even
with Athenian assistance, if the remainder of the Greek fleet were stationed at Aigina, or
at Cenchreia (to the east of Corinth), or at Epidaurus (further down the coast), is open to
some debate. Although a successful naval action to clear the Greeks from the sea
would have given complete freedom of movement to the Persian navy, you do need to
consider the respective sizes of the two fleets and whether sufficient troops could have
been moved by sea to seriously threaten the Greek rear (and what, if anything the
Peloponnesians could have done to counter this). The likely intentions of Argos would
also be a factor in this (cf. Herodotos 7. 148-55 = Penguin, pp. 491-4).
According to Herodotos the battle of Salamis occurred because of the efforts of
Themistocles (Herodotos 8. 74-82 = Penguin, pp. 548-50; cf Thucydides 1. 74, 138 =
Penguin, pp. 79, 117, and Plutarch, Themistocles 11-12 = Penguin, pp. 88-90).
Whether this is true or not, it seems that the despatch of the Egyptian squadron around
to the west of Salamis gave the Greeks no option but to do so. The battle itself
(Herodotos 8. 84-96 = Penguin, pp. 551-5; cf. Plutarch, Themistocles 14-15 = Penguin,
pp. 91-2, and document 3) was a resounding Greek success. The Persian fleet sailed
into the narrows (which look broader from outside), fouled each other, and were
decisively beaten by the Greeks.
Nevertheless, Mardonius remained in Greece with a large force (300,000
according to Herodotos) arguing that ‘what are a few planks and timbers? The decisive
struggle will not depend upon them, but upon men and horses.’ (Herodotos 8. 100 =
Penguin, p. 557). The threat to Greece was not over.
Plataia and Mykale
Mardonius wintered in Thessaly. However, there was some activity on the
diplomatic front (see Herodotos 8. 132, 140-4 = Penguin, pp. 569, 572-5) and the
Persians had to try to put down revolts in Greek cities in the Chalcidice (these had risen
up after Xerxes had passed them on his way home. On his failure to seduce Athens
from the Greek alliance, Mardonius marched south again the following spring and re-
entered Attica. A second attempt to bring the Athenians over to his side failed
(Herodotos 9. 4-5 = Penguin, pp. 577-8) and the Athenians (by dint of threatening to join
the Persians) eventually persuaded the Spartans to mobilise the Greek army and move
north against the enemy (Herodotos 9. 6-12 = Penguin, pp. 577-80). Meanwhile, the
Greek fleet moved west, following (but not pursuing) the Persian navy.
After an abortive attempt to cut off the Greek vanguard, Mardonius had the city of
Athens totally devastated and retired to Boiotia where the combined Greek army caught
up with him and challenged him to battle. Herodotos describes the action at Plataia and
the preliminaries to it at 9. 15-71 (= Penguin, pp. 582-605), although his account of the
battle itself exhibits some confusion (see for example the introduction to the Penguin
edition, pp. 34-6).
The important things to note about the lead up to the battle are the Persian
dominance in cavalry, which caused the Greek army considerable distress (particularly
when the Persian cavalry turned its attention to the Greeks’ local water supply and their
resupply route) and the role of religion. According to Herodotos, neither side was willing
to open the hostilities because their seers predicted disaster if they did. It is a little
difficult to follow Herodotos’ account, which has the battle start when some Greek
contingents the Greeks which had been ordered to adjust their position rearwards
retired too far. The remaining contingents (predominantly the Spartans and Athenians),
which had been held up by an insubordinate Spartan unit-commander who initially
refused to withdraw, were then attacked by the Persians.
Although the Greeks seem to have been caught rather by surprise according to
Herodotos, they do appear to have been drawn up in battle order (perhaps the Greek
manœuvring wasn’t as disorganized as Herodotos suggests?) and beat off the Persian
attack. The Greeks followed up their success energetically and pursued the Persians to
their fortified camp; this was duly stormed and the Persians slaughtered (although some
Greek contingents suffered heavily when they broke formation to pursue the enemy foot
and were attacked by the Thessalian cavalry serving with the Persians). The initial
Persian attack seems to have been launched in rather an undisciplined fashion in the
belief that the Greeks were retiring in disorder but, as at Marathon and Thermopylai, the
Greek hoplite proved himself superior to the Persian infantryman. Apparently, divisions
in the Persian high command also affected the Persian army’s performance here.
Shortly after Plataia (traditionally, but probably incorrectly, on the same day) the
remains of the Persian navy and a Persian land force were defeated in the battle of
Mykale, in Asia Minor. After Salamis, the Greek navy had followed the Persians
westwards and at Mykale the Persian admiral beached his ships and relied on the
accompanying land force to deal with the Greeks. However, the Greek marines were
landed, defeated the Persians (whose Ionian Greek allies turned on them during the
battle), and the Persian navy was burned on the beach (Herodotos 9. 96-106 = Penguin,
pp. 614-8). The battle of Plataia had cleared the Persians from mainland Greece and
ended the land threat; with Mykale, the Aegean Sea was safe from the Persians for the
Notes prepared by Iain Spence (1999)
' POINTS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
(a) The nature and causes of the wars
Consider the objectives of both sides and the importance of the war to the
Persians as well as to the Greeks.
(i) Was the war a struggle between free European civilisation and regimented Asiatic
(ii) Was the war a result of the desire of the Persian king to expand his empire?
(iii) Was the war a result of the attitude of Ionian Greeks, i.e. was it possible to hold
down Ionia when mainland Greece remained free?
(iv) How far were the Greek states responsible? Compare the attitudes of Athens and
(b) The reasons for Persian failure
Aim to understand the preparations made by both sides, their respective plans of
action and the main battles. Consider:
(i) how the Persian and Greek troops compared in training, skill, armour and equipment
as well as in numbers.
(ii) why the Persian superiority in cavalry did not win the battles for Persia.
(iii) the problems involved in providing logistic support (especially food supplies) to
Xerxes’ army. (Why was the army reduced after the battle of Salamis?)
(iv) the degree of unity attained by the Greeks. (Remember that there were pro-Persian
parties in most cities; consider the attitudes of Argos, Thebes, the Delphic Oracle,
Crete, and the Thessalians, and the discussions before Salamis.)
(v) the contributions of Sparta and Athens, the role the hoplite and the navy, and the role
of individuals such as Pausanias and Themistokles.
Herodotos is almost the only authority for the Persian wars, as for earlier
events. For a guide to the main passages about the actual campaigns in
Herodotos, see the ‘Guide to Herodotos’.
Selected documents for this topic
M. Dillon and L. Garland, Ancient Greece, chapter 7.
A. Prescribed books
Herodotos (for the relevant passages, see the‘Guide to Herodotos’).
Plutarch, Lives of Themistokles and Aristeides (888.8/01).
V. Ehrenberg, From Solon to Socrates, chapter 5, pp. 134–174.
J.V.A. Fine, The Ancient Greeks: a Critical History, pp. 278–328.
B. Other reading
Aeschylus, The Persians (some excerpts below; see Dillon & Garland, Ancient Greece,
doc. 7.34; there are many translations of Aeschylus’ plays—try the one in the
Penguin Classics series: 882.1/O7L549 ).
H. Bengtson et al., The Greeks and the Persians (London, 1968), chapters iii–iv
A.R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks, esp. pp. 236–257 (Marathon), 337–475 (Thermopylai
D. Kagan, Problems in Ancient History, Vol. I – The Ancient Near East and Greece,
Section VIII, pp. 263–307.
O. Murray, Early Greece, pp. 232–246, 259–262, 267–279.
A.T. Olmstead. History of the Persian Empire (1948)
R. Sealey, A History of the Greek City States, pp. 181–230.
v SOME ADDITIONAL DOCUMENTS
The major source for the Persian invasions is Herodotos, a prescribed book. For this
topic you should study Herodotos’ account of the Persian Wars in detail. For a guide to
the references in Herodotos to the various aspects of and campaigns in the Persian
invasions, see the‘Guide to Herodotos’.
1. Aeschylus, The Persai (The Persians)
This play, which was produced in 473/2 BC, is unusual in that it is the only surviving 5th century
Greek tragedy dealing with a contemporary historical event. It celebrates the Greek victory over
the Persians at the battle of Salamis, but being written by an Athenian dramatist it naturally
reflects an Athenian point of view, seeing that battle as largely an Athenian victory. Because the
play does deal with a contemporary historical event, and the author was an eyewitness to the
battle at Salamis, it can be useful as evidence, but obviously one has to be careful in using it as
such, not only because of its bias, but also because it is a play, meant to be performed, and with
all the conventions of a 5th century Greek tragedy. Unless otherwise specified the translations
are from P. Vellacott’s Penguin Classics translation; you may wish to read the play in its entirety.
[Atossa, the Persian Queen-mother, talks to the chorus of Persian elders.]
Atossa: But why should my son yearn to make this town [Athens] his prey?
Chorus: Athens once conquered he is master of all Hellas.
Atossa: Have they such rich supply of fighting men?
Chorus: They have; soldiers who once struck Persian arms a fearful blow [at
Atossa: Besides their men, have they a good store of wealth at home?
Chorus: They have a spring of silver treasured in their soil.
Atossa: Are they skilled in archery?
Chorus: No, not at all: they carry stout shields, and fight hand-to-hand with spears.
Atossa: Who shepherds them? What master do their ranks obey?
Chorus: Master? They are not called servants to any man.
Atossa: And can they, masterless, resist invasion?
Chorus: Yes! Darius’ vast and noble army they destroyed.
(ii) 353-516 [trans. H. W. Smyth, Aeschylus vol. 1 (Loeb, London, 1956)]
Atossa: Is then the city of Athens not yet despoiled?
Messenger: Nay, while her sons still live her ramparts are impregnable.
Atossa: But the beginning of the encounter of the fleets — tell me of it. Who began
the onset? Was it the Hellenes [= Greeks]? Or my son, exulting in the
multitude of his ships?
Messenger: My Queen, some destructive power or evil spirit, that appeared I know not
whence, caused the beginning of our utter rout. A Hellene, from the
Athenian host, came to thy son Xerxes and told this tale: that, when the
gloom of sable night should set in, the Hellenes would not hold their station
but, springing upon the rowing benches of their ships, would seek, some
here, some there, to preserve their lives by stealthy flight. But Xerxes, on
hearing this, not comprehending the wile of the Hellene nor yet that the gods
grudged him success, straightway gave charge to all his captains to this
effect — that when the sun had ceased to illumine the earth with his beams,
and darkness had covered the precincts of the sky, they should bring up in
serried order the main body of the fleet, disposed in triple line, to bar the
exits and the sounding straits, and station other ships in a circle around the
island of Ajax; with the warning that, should the Hellenes escape an evil
doom, finding by stealth some means of flight for their fleet, it had been
decreed that every captain should lose his head. So he commanded in full
confidence of heart, since he knew not the issue purposed of the gods. Our
crews then, with no lack of order, but with an obedient spirit, prepared their
evening meal, while each sailor looped his oar about its thole-pin so that it
fitted well. But when the light of the sun had faded and night drew on, each
master of an oar and each man versed in arms went on board. The long
galleys cheered each other, line by line; and they held their course as each
captain had been ordered, and all the livelong night the commanders of the
fleet kept their whole force cruising to and fro across the strait. Night began
to wane, yet the fleet of the Hellenes in no wise endeavoured to put forth by
stealth. When, however, radiant Day with her white coursers shone over all
the land, first of all from the Hellenes rang out loud a cheer like unto a song
of triumph, and, at the same instant, clear from the island crags Echo
returned an answering cry. Terror fell on all the barbarians, baulked of their
purpose; for not as in flight did in that hour the Hellenes chant their solemn
paean [hymn before battle], but as men rushing to the onset with the
courage of gallant hearts. The trumpet with its blast fired all their line; and
instantly, at the word of command, with the even stroke of foaming oars they
smote the briny deep. Swiftly they all hove clear into view. Their right wing,
well marshalled, led on foremost in orderly advance, next their whole
armament bore out against us, and at the same time a mighty shout greeted
our ears: ‘On, ye sons of Hellas! Free your native land, free your children,
your wives, the fanes of your fathers’ gods, and the tombs of your
ancestors. Now you battle for your all.’ And now from our side arose
responsive the mingled clamour of Persian speech; the time brooked no
delay, but instantly ship dashed against ship its bronze-sheathed beak. It
was a ship of Hellas that began the charge and sheared off entire the
curved stern of a Phoenician barque. Each captain drove his ship straight
against some other ship. At first, indeed, the stream of the Persian
armament held its own; but when the mass of our ships had been crowded
in the narrows, and none could render another aid, and each crashed its
bronze-faced beak against each of its own line, they shivered their whole
array of oars; while the Hellenic galleys, not heedless of their chance,
hemmed them in and battered them on every side. The hulls of our vessels
rolled over and the sea was hidden from our sight, strewn as it was with
wrecks and slaughtered men. The shores and reefs were crowded with our
dead, and every ship that formed a part of the barbarian fleet plied its oars
in disorderly flight. But, as if our men were tunnies or some haul of fish, the
foe kept striking and hacking them with broken oars and fragments of
wrecked ships; and groans and shrieks together filled the open sea until the
face of sable night hid the scene. But the multitude of our disasters I could
not narrate in full at thy request even were I to make a ten days’ story of my
tale. Be well assured of this — there never perished in a single day so great
a multitude of men.
Atossa: Alas! In sooth a mighty sea of troubles has burst upon the Persians and the
entire barbarian race.
Messenger: Rest well assured of this, the disaster is not as yet told. So dire an
affliction of calamity fell upon them as to outweigh these ills, aye twice over.
Atossa: But what fortune could have befallen yet more malign than this? Speak!
What is this other disaster thou sayest came upon our host, sinking the
scale to greater weight of ill?
Messenger: What Persians were in their life’s prime, bravest in spirit, pre-eminent for
noble birth, and ever among the foremost in loyalty unto the King himself —
these have fallen ignobly by a most inglorious doom.
Atossa: Ah, wretched that I am, my friends, by reason of his cruel pass! By what
manner of death sayest thou they perished?
Messenger: There is an island [Psyttalea] fronting Salamis, small, a dangerous
anchorage for ships; and upon its sea-washed shore dance-loving Pan is
wont to tread. Thither Xerxes dispatched these, his choicest troops, in order
that when the Hellenic foe, wrecked from out his ships, should seek escape
in safety to the island, they might slaughter his force, an easy prey, and
rescue their comrades from the narrows of the sea. Grievously did he
misjudge the issue. For when some god had given the glory to the Hellenes
in the battle on the sea, that self-same day, fencing their bodies in armour of
goodly bronze, they bounded from their ships and encircled the whole island
round about, so that our men were at a loss which way to turn. Oft-time
they were struck by stones slung from their hands, and arrows sped from
the bowstring kept ever falling upon them and working them destruction. At
last the Hellenes, charging with one shout, smote them and hacked to
pieces the limbs of the poor wretches, until they had utterly destroyed the
life of all. Xerxes groaned aloud when he beheld the depth of the disaster;
for he occupied a seat commanding a clear view of all the armament — a
lofty eminence hard by the open sea. Rending his robes and uttering a loud
wail, he forthwith gave orders to his force on land and dismissed them in
disorderly flight. Such, besides the one already told, is the disaster thou
Atossa: O hateful divinity, how hast thou foiled the purpose of the Persians! Cruel
was the vengeance brought upon himself that my son designed for
illustrious Athens, and the barbarians whom aforetime Marathon destroyed
were not enough. For them my son thought to exact retribution, and has
drawn upon himself so great a multitude of woes. But the ships that
escaped destruction — tell me of them. Where didst thou leave them?
Know’st thou to make clear report?
Messenger: The commanders of the ships that still remained fled with a rush in
disorder before the wind. As for the survivors of the army, they perished in
Boeotian land, some distressed by thirst beside a refreshing spring, while
some of us, exhausted and panting, won our way to the land of the
Phocians, to Doris and the Melian gulf, where the Spercheus waters the
plain with kindly stream. Thence the soil of the Achaean land and the cities
of the Thessalians received us, sore in want of food. There it was that full
many perished of thirst and hunger—for we were oppressed by both. And
we came to the Magnesian land and to the country of the Macedonians, to
the ford of the Axius and Bolbe’s reedy fens, and to Mount Pangaeus, in
Edonian land. But on that night the god roused winter before its time and
froze the stream of sacred Strymon from shore to shore; and many a man
who ere that had held the gods in no esteem, implored them then in
supplication as he worshipped earth and heaven. But when our host had
made an end of its fervent invocation of the gods, it ventured to pass across
the ice-bound stream. And whosoever of us started on his way before the
beams of the sun-god were dispersed abroad, found himself in safety; for
the bright orb of the sun with its burning rays heated the mid-passage and
pierced it with its flames. One upon another our men sank in, and fortunate
indeed was he whose breath of life was sundered soonest. All who survived
and won to safety, when they had made their way through Thrace, as they
best could, with grievous hardships, escaped and reached—and few they
were indeed—the land of hearth and home; so that the city of the Persians
well may make lament in regret for the best beloved youth of the land. My
tale is true. Yet much remains untold of the ills launched by Heaven upon
the Persians. [Exit]
Chorus: O unearthly power, source of our cruel distress, with what crushing weight
hast thou sprung upon the whole Persian race!
[The chorus of Persian elders is bewailing the downfall of Persian power, after hearing a
description of their defeat at Salamis brought by a messenger.]
From East to West the Asian race
No more will own our Persian sway,
Nor on the King’s compulsion pay
Tribute, nor bow to earth their face
In homage; for the Kingly power
Is lost and vanished from this hour.
Now fear no more shall bridle speech;
Uncurbed, the common tongue shall prate
Of freedom; for the yoke of State
Lies broken on the bloody beach
And fields of Salamis, which hide
The ruins of our Persian pride.
[The chorus, having discussed Xerxes’ defeat with the ghost of the dead king Darius, comments
on the extent of Persian power during his reign.]
When our good King Darius, aged, all-powerful,
Invincible, ruled like a god over Persia,
Then splendour and wealth adorned our city;
Our armies won for us fame in the world’s eyes,
Our laws were a tower to protect and guide the State;
From battle our men returned without loss, unwearied,
Victorious, to their homes.
How many towns he captured, without crossing
The river Halys, or leaving his native soil!
Close to the Strymon’s mouth and the Thracian settlements
Numerous island states, and the mainland towns
Ringed with stone, acknowledged him lord;
The cities that proudly gaze over Hellespont,
Remote Propontis, and the Northern Estuary;
The island fringing the sea-drenched headland
On our westward shore—Samos, garden of olives,
Lesbos and Chios, Paros and Myconos, were his,
Naxos, and Andros lying close to Tenos.
Darius ruled moreover over the Seaward islands
That lie midway between Europe and Asia; Lemnos,
Icaros, Rhodes, Cnidos, the Cyprian towns
Paphos and Soli, and Salamis, daughter
Of the dreaded name that is cause of all our tears.
In Ionia too those rich and populous Hellene cities
Darius ruled according to his own desire;
And, mingled of every race,
An unwearying force of warriors moved at his word.
Now God has proclaimed his will and reversed our fortune:
War and the sea have shattered and conquered us.
2. Herodotos IV.88.2
The expedition against the European Scythians in c. 513 crossed the Bosphoros on a bridge of
ships, designed by Mandrokles, a Samian who later dedicated a picture of this bridge in the
Heraion at Samos. The painting represented the march across of the army, with Darius sitting
watching. Darius left various Greek tyrants at the bridge, amongst them Miltiades the Younger,
Athenian tyrant of the Chersonese, who was said to have urged the tyrants to break up the bridge,
doubtless apocryphally. He remained tyrant after the failure of the Persian expedition and was
not punished for his ‘treason’ which would assuredly have been reported by one of the other
tyrants. The campaign against the European Scythians was abandoned.
After bridging the fishy Bosphoros, Mandrokles
Dedicated this to Hera as a monument of his bridge,
Providing a garland for himself, and glory for the Samians,
Since he accomplished it to the satisfaction of King Darius.
3. The ‘Decree of Themistokles’
[Marble stele, third century lettering, Troezen, 480 BC. (Note that the authenticity of the decree
is contested; items in square brackets here are reconstructions of damaged/missing sections of
the text; vertical lines indicate the end of a line on the stone, a double vertical line indicates the
beginning of every fifth line; words in italics are only partly preserved.)]
[Gods.] | Resolved by the Boule and the People. | Themis[tokl]es son of Neokles of
Phrearrhioi made the motion.1 | The city shall be entrusted to Athena, Athen||s’
[Protectress, and to the] other gods, all of them, for protectio|n and [defense against the]
Barbarian on behalf of the country. The Athenian|s [in their entirety and the aliens] who
live in Athens | shall place [their children and their women] in Troezen | [-21-]2 the
Founder of the land [T|he elderly and (movable)] property shall (for safety) be deposited
at Salamis. | [The Treasurers and] the Priestesses are [to remain] on the Akropoli|s [and
guard the possessions of the] gods.3 The rest of the Athe|[nians in their entirety and
those] aliens who have reached young manhood shall em|bark [on the readied] two
hundred ships and they shall repu||lse the [Barbarian for the sake of] liberty, both their |
own [and that of the other Hellenes,] in common with the Lacedaemonians,
Co|rin[thians, Aeginetans] and the others who wis|h to have a share [in the danger].4
Appointment will also be made of trie|rarchs [two hundred in number, one for] each ship,
by the g||enerals, [beginning] tomorrow, from among those who are own|ers [of both
land and home] in Athens and who have children | who are legitimate. [They shall not
be more] than fifty years old and t|he lot shall determine each man’s ship. (The
generals) shall also enlist mar|ines, ten [for each] ship,5 from men over twenty years o||f
age [up to] thirty, and archers, fou|r (in number). [They shall also by lot appoint] the
specialist officers6 for each ship wh|en they appoint [the] trierarchs by lot. A list shall be
mad|e also [of the rest,7 ship by] ship, by the generals, on n|otice boards, [with the]
Athenians (to be selected) from the lexiarchic re||gisters,8 [the] aliens from the list of
names (registered) wi|th the Polemarch. They shall write them up, assigning them by
div|isions, up to two hundred (divisions, each) [of up to] one hundred (men),9 and they
shall appen|d to each division the name and the trireme and the tri|erarch and the
specialist officers,10 so that they may know on w||hat trireme each division shall
embark. When assign|ment of all the divisions has been made and they have been
allotted to the tri|remes, all the two hundred shall be manned by (order of) the Boule |
and the generals, after they have sacrificed to appease Zeus the | All-powerful11 and
Athena and Nike and Posei||don the Securer.12 When they have completed the
manning of | the ships, with one hundred of them they shall bring assistance to the
Artemis|ium in Euboea,13 while with the other hundred they shall, all round Salam|is and
the rest of Attica, lie at anchor and guard | the country. To ensure that in a spirit of
concord all Athenians || will ward off the Barbarian, those banished for the [t|en] - year
span14 shall leave for Salamis and they are to remain [ther|e until the People] decide
about them. …
1. A prescript with mover’s patronymic and deme is not usual in Athenian inscriptions
until about 350 BC.
2. = gap of 21 letters, suggestions include — ‘[their Protector being Pittheus]’:
Jameson; ‘[to be entrusted to Theseus or to Pittheus]’: Habicht. Neither seems to
fit in with the traces of letters legible.
3. Cf. Herodotos 8. 51.2, where those who remained at Athens are ‘Treasurers of the
shrine and poor men.’
4. Cf. for the language, Herodotos 7. 144.3, 178. 2.
5. Cf. Herodotos 6. 15.1 (70 Chiot marines per ship at Lade), 7. 184. 2. But see also
Thucydides 1. 14.1, Plutarch, Kimon 12. 2.
6. Or ‘the servicemen’: Jameson. See B. Jordan, CSCA 2 (1969), 183-207.
7. Or ‘[of the sailors].’
8. Registers in which all Athenian citizens, with the possible exception of the thetes,
9. The normal number was 200 (Herodotos 8. 17).
10. See note 6.
11. ‘to Zeus (and) to the | All-powerful and the Athena Nike’: Amandry, assuming the
word ‘and’ was misplaced. Pankrates (‘All-powerful’) was a hero usually distinct
from Zeus, while Nike (‘Victory’) is generally Athena Nike and not a separate deity.
12. These gods are invoked by titles appropriate to the special situation: Zeus ‘All-
victorious,’ ‘Athena (bringing) Victory,’ Poseidon ‘the Securer’ or ‘who never slips,’
the aspect of Poseidon most crucial to sailors.
13. There were 147 Athenian ships at Artemision, 20 manned by Chalcis (Herodotos. 8.
1.2); 53 more came later as reinforcements (8. 14. 1).
14. I.e., ostracized. In Aristotle, Athenaion Politeia 22. 8, the ostracized had already
been recalled in the archonship of Hypsichides (481/0). What seems envisaged
here (for which there is otherwise no support) is that the men were recalled but
confined to Salamis without yet receiving their citizen-rights.
trans. C. W. Fornara, Archaic Times to the End of the Peloponnesian War (Baltimore,
1977), pp. 53-5
4. Plutarch Themistokles 13.2–5
[Themistokles performed the usual animal sacrifice before the battle of Salamis. Plutarch’s story
of human sacrifice here, though colourful, is not accepted as historical by some modern
13.2 But while Themistokles was slaying the sacrificial victims beside the admiral’s trireme three
captives were brought to him, most beautiful to look at in appearance, and adorned magnificently
with clothing and gold. There were said to be the children of Sandake, the King’s sister, and
Artayktes. 13.3 When Euphrantides the seer saw them, simultaneously a great and bright flame
flashed up from the sacrifice, and a sneeze from the right-hand side declared an omen,
whereupon he grasped Themistokles’ hand and told him to offer prayers and consecrate the
youths and sacrifice them all to Dionysos Eater of Raw Flesh (Omestes); for in this way the
Greeks would have both safety and victory. 13.4 Themistokles was struck with fear as at a great
and terrible prophecy, but the many, as usually happens in great contests and difficult situations,
hoping for safety from irrational rather than rational actions, invoked the god together with one
voice, and leading the prisoners to the altar, compelled the sacrifice to be carried out, as the seer
had ordered. 13.5 This, indeed, was what Phanias of Lesbos said, a philosopher and a not
5. Dedication of the Athenian Portico at Delphi, (?) 479 BC
[R. Meiggs & D. Lewis, Greek Historical Inscriptions, no. 25 (= IG I3 1464)]
The date of this dedication is disputed. The letters of the inscription date to c. 510–470, and it has
also been thought to represent the victory over the Chalkidians and Boeotians in 506 or over the
Aeginetans (c. 500–480). The event, however, would have needed to be important to warrant a
stoa, and Salamis is a likely candidate on these grounds.
The Athenians dedicated the stoa and the weapon[s a]nd prows they took from the en[em]y.
6. Plutarch Aristeides 19.5–7 (Kleidemos FGH 323 F22)
[Thuc. III.58.4 mentions the Spartan dead at Plataea and the honours that were paid them;
according to Paus. IX.2.5 the Greek dead had a common tomb at Plataea, but the Athenian and
Spartan dead had separate graves, on which there were verses by Simonides; the helots were
buried seperately (Hdt. IX.85.2). According to Paus. IX.2.5 the festival of the Eleutheria,
‘Freedom’, was celebrated every four years and included an event at which prizes were awarded
for running in armour. It was still celebrated in Pausanias’ time, the second half of the second
19.5 Out of the three hundred thousand (Persians) only forty thousand are said to have fled with
Artabazos, while of those who fought on Greece’s behalf there fell in all one thousand, three
hundred and sixty. 19.6 Of these fifty-two were Athenians, all from the tribe of Aiantis, as
Kleidemos says, which fought with the greatest valour: for this reason the Aiantids used to make
the sacrifice ordained by the Delphic oracle for the victory to the nymphs of Sphragidion, taking
the necessary money from the public treasury; ninety-one were Spartans, and sixteen Tegeates.
19.7 Herodotos’ statement is therefore surprising, when he says that these were the only ones
who came to grips with the enemy, and that none of the other Greeks did. Surely the number of
those who fell and the monuments are proof that the achievement was a common one; and they
would not have inscribed the altar like this, if only three cities had taken part in the struggle, and
the rest sat by at leisure:
‘The Greeks by might of victory, by the work of Ares,
After driving out the Persians, to a free Greece
Dedicated this common altar of Zeus Eleutherios’.
7. Greek thank-offering for victory in the Persian War.
[Engraved on the bronze coils of the ‘Serpent-Column.’ Phokian writing, Delphi (though
discovered in Istanbul). 479 BC.]
(Coil 1) By these [the] | war wa|s fought. | (2) Laced[aemonians,] | Athenians, |
Corinthians, | (3) Tegeans, | Sicyonians, | Aeginetans, | (4) Megarians, | Epidaurians, |
Erchomenians, | (5) Phleiasians, | Troezenians, | Hermionians, | (6) Tirynthians, |
Plataeans, | Thespians, | (7) Mycanians, | Ceians, | Malians, | Tenians, (8) Naxians, |
Eretrians, | Chalcidians, | (9) Styrians, | Haleians, | Potidaeans, | (10) Leucadians, |
Anactorians, | Cythnians, | Siphnians, | (11) Ambraciots, | Lepreans.
trans. C. W. Fornara, Archaic Times to the End of the Peloponnesian War (Baltimore,
1977), p. 57
8. Thucydides I.89.2–3
After the defeat of the Persians at Mykale, the allied fleet sailed for the Hellespont; when the
allies reached Abydos, they found the bridges which had been constructed by the Persians over
the Hellespont already destroyed, and Leotychidas and the Peloponnesian allies returned home,
while the others stayed to besiege Sestos, for which see Hdt. IX.106, 114.1–2.
In 478 the Spartans resumed their involvement in the campaign and Pausanias, son of
Kleombrotos and regent for Pleistarchos, was dispatched as commander of the Hellenes,
conquering most of Cyprus and then capturing Byzantium, which was still occupied by the
Persians. It was at Byzantium that Pausanias made himself unpopular with the Ionians and
Athens began to assume the leadership of the recently liberated Greeks (Thuc. I.94.1–95.2).
I.89.2 When the Persians retreated from Europe, after their defeat by the Greeks both
with ships and infantry and those who had fled with their ships to Mykale had been
destroyed, Leotychidas, the king of the Spartans, who commanded the Greeks at
Mykale, returned home taking with him the allies from the Peloponnese, and the
Athenians and the allies from Ionia and the Hellespont who had already rebelled against
the King of Persia stayed behind and besieged Sestos which the Persians held. They
spent the winter there and took it once the barbarians had left, and after this sailed
away from the Hellespont, each to their cities.