The Persian Wars: How the Greeks Won
The Persian Wars were a series of conflicts fought between the Greek states and the Persian Empire from 500-449 BC. It started in 500 BC, when a few Greek city-states on the coast of Asia Minor, who were under the control of the Persian Empire, revolted against the despotic rule of the Persian king Darius. Athens and Eretria in Euboea gave aid to these Greek cities but not enough, and they were subdued by the Persians. The Persians became determined to conquer Hellas and make Athens and Eretria pay for helping the Ionian cities. In 492 BC, the first Persian invasion had its fleet crippled by a storm before it could do any damage. King Darius sent another Persian expedition in 490 which destroyed Eretria and then faced the Athenians at the battle of Marathon. The Persian were defeated and forced to return home. Darius died before his preparations for a third invasion were completed, but they were continued by Xerxes I, his son and successor. In 480, Xerxes reached Greece with a tremendous army and navy. The Persian land forces had to pass through the narrow pass of Thermopylae, which was defended by the Spartan Leonidas. His small contingent held back the Persians but were eventually defeated. The Persians continued on to Athens, which had been abandoned, and burned it. The Athenians had fled with their fleet to the island of Salamis where they met up with other Greek forces. Shortly afterward, the Persians followed and were defeated in a sea battle off of Salamis. Xerxes returned to Persian but left a military force in Greece which was defeated in 479 BC at Plataea by a Greek army under the Spartan Pausanias, ending the threat of the Persians once and for all. (1)
These wars were a defining moment in Greek history. The Persian Empire was bigger, richer, and had more manpower, yet the Greeks were able to unite successfully to defeat them. The Greeks did, however, have several advantages which enabled them to be victorious. The Greeks defeated the Persians because of three benefits: the phalanx, the trireme, and their motivation.
The phalanx was the military system that the Greeks used to organize their troops which had been perfected through centuries of fighting one another. It consisted of a column of heavy infantry carrying long spears and swords. The spears, called pikes, were six to twelve feet long. They were not thrown but were used for thrusting. The soldiers in the phalanx were called hoplites, named after the hoplon which was the round shield they carried into battle. The hoplites wore metal armor on their chest, forearms, and shins, plus a metal helmet. These soldiers were extremely well trained. They made up for their lack of numbers with superior equipment and discipline. (2)
The Persians, on the otherhand, were able to raise an immense army due to the enormous size of their empire. However, these warriors were by far not as well trained or as well equipt as the Greek armies (2). The Persians did not fight as a unit like the Greeks did. They fought like Indians did in old western movies: they would weave and dart as individuals instead of slugging it out in infantry warfare like the Greeks (3). The Persians were courageous, but they were no match for a Greek hoplite on the battlefield. Their shield was obsolete and they wore practically no armor. One of their main weapons was the short bow, which was of little use against the heavily armored Greeks. The Persian army also consisted of cavalry which added a lot to their army mostly because of its speed, but still they were never able to defeat a well organized phalanx (2).
The superiority of the Greek phalanx can be seen by analyzing the battle which took place at Marathon in 490 BC. At this battle, the Athenian phalanx was able to defeat the entire invading Persian force without the help of the Spartans, who had promised to send their army towards Marathon but their religion forbid them to move before the moon was full (2). The Greek forces consisted of 10,000 hoplites while the Persians army was numbering in more than 120,00 men although some sources have the Persian forces at around 50,000 (4). The great Athenian general Miltiades came up with a shrewd battle plan. He decided to thin out the ranks in the center of the phalanx to strengthen the wings. During the battle, the Greek wings crushed the Persian wings and forced them to retreat. At the same time, the Persians in the middle managed to break through the weakened center of the phalanx. Instead of pursuing the retreating Persian wings, the Greek wings moved backward to attack the Persians that had broken through the Greek defenses. The Greek center then turned around so that they had the Persians surrounded. The Persians were slaughtered (5). According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Persians lost 6400 men while te Greeks lost only