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The Persian Empire | Persia Chronology | Desert Warfare | Alexander | Crassus | Saladin

The Persian Empire to 480 B.C.

By Jack Barkstrom

Cyrus the Great - First Imperial Persian Ruler

The Pasargadae were described by Herodotus as 'the most noble tribe of the Persians.' [1] Based in the valley of the Medus (modern Pulwar), the nobility of the Pasargadae had its foundation in the hardy mountain peasants who came to form the core of the Persian army. Cyrus II, known to the world as Cyrus the Great, would name his first capital after his clan.  At a site 60 miles northeast of modern Shiraz, Iran (and 54 miles northeast of Persepolis, the later capital), Cyrus built Pasargadae (sometime after 550 B.C.).  In contrast to the later imperial center of Susa, situated in a fertile plain at the foot of the Zagros mountains, Pasargadae and Persepolis were surrounded by country which could be described as desolate.  If the rocky hills (and arid climate) limited agricultural production, they were a good source of high-quality limestone for building.

Cyrus, in response to a suggestion by one of his noblemen that he establish his court in a city with a more pleasant climate, is said to have replied: 'Soft lands breed soft men.' [2] Whether his statement was intended as an expression of the devotion he felt for his native clan, as an indication of his views on political power, or as an acknowledgement that his continued survival was based on the lessons his hardy peasants could learn from an unforgiving land, Cyrus could hardly be accused of going soft. He, together with much of his army, was killed leading a campaign against nomadic tribes in the east in 530/529 BC.  (Some identified the tribes as being led by Queen Tomysis. Herodotus named them as the Massagetae).  He had conquered Lydia in 547 - 546, defeated the Asiatic Greeks (546 - 545), campaigned in central Asia in 541, and conquered Babylonia (540 - 538).  Whatever advantages Pasargadae offered as a training ground for future officials were not enough to save it. It would be abandoned by Darius I, in favor of Parsa (Persepolis), construction of which began c. 518 BC. Cyrus' tomb would remain at Pasargadae.

Kurush was the name Cyrus II was given at birth, which occurred sometime around 575 BC.  Kurush was the son of a Persian king named Cambyses.  In 559 B.C. Cyrus II came to the throne of the kingdom of Anshan, a vassal state of the Median kingdom.  Anshan was the western half of the Persian dynasty, which had been founded by Achaemenes.  (Cyrus I, the grandfather of Kurush, had been granted the kingdom of Anshan when Cyrus' father Teispes had divided the Achaemenid kingdom. Ariaramnes had received the eastern half.  Anshan had passed to Cambyses, the father of Cyrus II.)  Following his ascension to the Anshan throne, Cyrus II contrived a plan to subjugate its eastern neighbor.  By 550 B.C. the plan had been completed and the eastern kingdom had been assimilated. The expansion alarmed the king of the Medes, Astyages, who decided to end the threat posed by the ambitious Cyrus and led an army against him.  According to the Babylonian chronicle of Nabonidas, when the armies met on the plain of Murghab, Astyages' army mutinied, placed him in chains, and delivered him to Cyrus.  Pasargadae would be established not far from the site of the confrontation, a commemoration of the victory.

The capital of the Median Empire was at Ecbatana (modern Hamadan). Following the defeat of Astyages, Cyrus led his army against the city, which offered no serious resistance.  The only indignity suffered by the city was that Cyrus transferred some of its treasure to Anshan.  Ecbatana became the summer residence of the Persian rulers. Susa, capital of Anshan, now became the capital of the Persian Empire.

The conquest of the Median Empire threatened to undo an uneasy peace which had existed between the Medes and the kingdom of Lydia, in Asia Minor.  In 485 the two kingdoms had agreed to let the Halys River serve as the boundary dividing the kingdoms.  Lydia controlled the territory west of the Halys; the Medes controlled the east.  In the spring of 547 (or 546) the Lydian king, Croesus, took an army across the Halys into Cappadocia.  The fortress of Pteria was besieged and captured.  According to Herodotus, Croesus had asked the oracle at Delphi whether he should attack Persia.  In hindsight, the answer he received was ambiguous - if he attacked the Persians across the Halys, 'he would destroy a great empire.' Croesus apparently did not stop to consider that the empire destroyed might be his own. [3]

The distance from Susa to Pteria is 1,200 miles. Cyrus was able to reach the outskirts of Pteria with his army by early summer. The two armies confronted each other outside the walls.  Although the battle lasted an entire day, it was indecisive.  The Lydian army withdrew within the walls of Pteria, then abandoned the city the following morning.  Croesus crossed the Halys and returned to Sardis.  Believing that the approaching winter meant an end to the campaigning season, Croesus began demobilizing his army for the year.  Cyrus however had not remained at Pteria, but had followed Croesus to Sardis.  Whether his intent was to surprise Croesus simply by extending the campaigning season or whether his timing was fortunate, he arrived while the demobilization was in progress.  Croesus still managed to reassemble an army to face the Persians.

Cyrus surprised the Lydian cavalry by placing a train of baggage camels at the front of his line. The smell of the camels panicked the charging Lydian horses, which bolted, leaving the Lydians without a cavalry force.  The loss was a serious blow to Croesus' chances for victory, but the discipline of his army held long enough to reach safety within the walls of Sardis.  Cyrus was faced with the prospect of an extended siege against a fortification above the city believed to be impregnable.  On the 13th day, one of his soldiers observed a Lydian climb down from the walls to recover a helmet, which had fallen down the hill, then climb back up the walls..  The recovery and return revealed a hidden route up the cliff-like face of the hill.  The next day the Persian soldier led a small force up the cliffs following the route he had observed the Lydian climb.  The city was soon in Persian hands. Croesus, according to tradition, attempted to burn himself to death.  According to Herodotus he was burned to death on the orders of Cyrus, following his capture. [4]

In 540 Cyrus began a campaign against his onetime ally, Babylon, which was ruled by Nabonidus. Nabonidas, despite coming to power as a result of a court conspiracy, had held power for seventeen years. Discontent with his rule, which could be traced in part to his religious policies, was said to be high.  Babylonia's chief god, Marduk, had been neglected, it was said. His mother, a priestess of the ancient moon god Sin, exercised too much influence. Babylon's treasury was spent on a temple to Sin, while ordinary ceremonies and festivals honoring Marduk were ignored.  Nabonidas was also faulted for abandoning the capital (he was away on campaign for eleven years) and leaving military and operational affairs over the city in the hands of his son, Prince Belshazzar.  (In view of Cyrus' propensity to engage in foreign military operations, Nabonidas' absence from Babylon may or may not be a valid criticism.) Unfairly or not, Belshazzar's abilities have been tainted by a single Biblical anecdote - the 'writing on the wall.'  "Mene men tekel u-pharsin." "You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.  Your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians,." according to interpretation given by Daniel of what the hand supposedly wrote. [5]

Nabonidas, in his final preparations for Cyrus' invasion, played into the hands of his critics.  He moved images of the gods from their home cities to Babylon. The images may have been protected from Persian armies, but the home cities had lost the protection offered by the gods.  Marduk suffered the additional humiliation of hosting competing gods in his own city. [6]

It is not known what route Cyrus' army took when it invaded Babylonia.  It may have been from the east, which would have involved the Zagros gates, or it may have been from the north, along the Tigris.  The fact that the city of Opis, on the Tigris to the north of Babylon, was captured after fierce fighting, suggests that the army took the northern route.  Cyrus divided his army following the capture of Opis.  The city of Sippar surrendered, without a fight, to the army commanded by Cyrus. One of Nabonidas' own governors, Ugbaru (Gobryas), who had rebelled to join Cyrus, took the second army, consisting of his own troops and troops from the Persian force, south. (Ugbaru had been governor of Gutium, a district north of the captured city of Opis.)  On the 16th of October (Tishri), 540, Ugbaru's forces marched unopposed into Babylon. Nabonidas was taken prisoner.  Cyrus entered the city on November 3rd and Belshazzar was killed a week later. [7]

With the conquest of Babylon, Cyrus now controlled the lands formerly held by the Medes, Lydians, and Babylonians.  The conquest also gave him a claim to countries further west, such as Phoenicia and Syria.  Egypt had yet to become part of the Persian Empire, but Cyrus had his eyes set on acquiring it.  He assigned the campaign to his son, Cambyses.  Cyrus himself took an army east and was killed in fighting in 529.  The enemy force was never definitively identified.  Herodotus thought it was the Massagetae, a tribe residing east of the Caspian. Ctesias believed it was an alliance of the Derbices and Indians.  Berosus identified a desert tribe called the Dahae. [8]

In Herodotus' version Cyrus crossed the Araxes and marched about one day's journey into Massagetae territory, where he built a camp.  The main force then retreated toward the Araxes, leaving a force, comprised of the sick and wounded, behind as a decoy. Those in the camp were overwhelmed by the Massagetae attack.  When the Massagetae plundered the camp following their victory, they found a quantity of wine, became drunk, and fell asleep.  Cyrus then returned with his main force and killed or captured the sleeping Massagetae.  Among those captured was a general named Spargapises, who was the son of the Messagetae queen, Tomyrus.  Tomyrus demanded his release, but he committed suicide when the opportunity arose. Tomyrus then gathered a large force and fought a pitched battle with the Persian army.  The Messagetae destroyed most of the Persian force. Cyrus was killed in the fighting. Tomyrus located his body, beheaded him, and threw the head into a skin which had been filled with human blood.  She had threatened, before the battle, to give Cyrus his fill of blood. [9]

Cambyses and the Conquest of Egypt

Before his death, Cyrus indicated that Cambyses, his eldest son by Cassandane, of the Achaemenid line, was to be his successor. Cambyses II, (Cambyses I had been the father of Cyrus), on his accession in 529 BC, was not ready to lead an expedition against Egypt.  The invasion would take place in 525, four years after he assumed power.  The fall of Babylon had provided Persia with resources which would prove valuable in any Egyptian undertaking.  The Phoenicians, who could provide the ships for a naval force, were eager to enter into a Persian alliance.  Cambyses, in laying the groundwork for an attack, also had been making diplomatic efforts to weaken Egypt.  He tried to persuade the Cyprians to send a contingent to join the Persian forces.  He sought to strengthen his naval forces by requesting that Polycrates of Samos put his fleet at the disposal of the Persians. 

In 525 Cambyses assembled his army at Gaza in Palestine.  The city of Acre was to serve as the base for the invasion fleet.  The plan was to march the army along the coast road into Egypt, using the fleet to support the army.  Supplying the troops with water was the main problem of the desert march and Cambyses solved the problem by establishing friendly relations with the Arabs in the region. [10]  The first major clash between the Persian troops and the Egyptian army took place near the city of  Pelusium.  The Egyptian army was decisively defeated, although the garrison in the city held out for awhile before surrendering.  What was left of the Egyptian army retreated to the city of Memphis, which, in turn, fell after a siege.  The Egyptian king Psammetichus III was captured, along with the city.  By May 525, Cambyses was able to claim the Egyptian throne.

The speedy success of Cambyses' campaign may have been due to his skills as a military tactician, but there is also evidence that the invasion came at a time of  internal turmoil and a deteriorating political situation in Egypt. The Egyptian admiral Phanes is suspected of using his position to keep the Egyptian fleet out of action.  Just before the invasion he fled Egypt and joined Cambyses in a position as an advisor.  Militarily the Egyptians had come to rely on foreign mercenaries, which not only caused resentment among native Egyptians, but also proved a costly drain on the temple revenues.  Their position was further weakened by the defection of Polycrates of Samos from their alliance. He offered his support to the Persians.

Cambyses himself, soon found that relying on a non-Persian force could prove a hindrance to expansionist plans.  The speedy conquest of Egypt resulted in the submission of Libya and Cyrene, moving the boundaries of the Persian Empire further west along the north African coast.  Carthage, still further west, was unimpressed.  It neither offered its submission nor worried about negotiating an agreement with the Persians.  The only way to bring Carthage within the Persian sphere was by military conquest.  However, there was no coast road over which an army could march. Troops would have to be transported by sea. The Phoenicians were reluctant to lend their ships for an expedition against a people they considered their kinsmen.  Their non-cooperation doomed the expedition, forcing Cambyses to abandon it before any ships were sent out.

The abandonment of the Carthaginian expedition did not end Cambyses' dreams of expansion. A 50,000-man force was sent from Thebes to subjugate a colony of Greeks at the oasis of Jupiter Ammon (Siwa Oasis).  The army was reported as reaching the city of Oasis (el-Kharga), seven days distant, safely.  According to Herodotus the entire force was buried in a sand-storm before it reached the Greek colony.  Cambyses himself led another part of his army in an expedition south against the Ethiopians. According to Herodotus, before the expedition had gone one-fifth of the way, supplies gave out, forcing the soldiers to eat their baggage animals, and, as a last resort, grass.  He asserts that the army, which was apparently following the Nile, had not yet ventured into the desert. Cambyses' determination to continue was shaken when the army resorted to cannibalism, choosing every tenth soldier by lot, to be eaten, in preparation for a desert journey. At this point, according to Herodotus, Cambyses became fearful and ordered a retreat to Thebes,  Clearly the expedition had been overtaken by some disaster. In some ways however, the sequence of events related serves as much to illustrate the point that Cambyses' was descending into madness as it does to recount the events surrounding the expedition.  It is unusual for an advancing army to eat its pack animals and grass. That behavior seems more appropriate for an army which has already been beaten and is in retreat.  Cannibalism, as well, seems more closely related to defeat and the conduct of a vanquished force, than one intent on, or capable of, advancing. [11]

While Cambyses had failed in his efforts to expand the Persian Empire further into Africa, the disaster did not bring about the collapse of Persian rule in Egypt.  (It was strong enough to survive (or at least avoid) the turmoil which erupted in other parts of the Empire following Cambyses' death.)  The Ethiopian capital city of Meroe was not captured, but a garrison at Elephantine had been established. (Elephantine is an island near Aswan on the Nile, near the first cataract.) Persia would remain strong enough militarily to garrison the Elephantine fortress for the next hundred years. [12]

In the spring of 522 Cambyses returned to Persia. According to Herodotus, he died at the Syrian city of Ecbatana, (not the Median capital city). (Other accounts place the death at Damascus or Babylon.) He suffered a wound in the thigh from his unsheathed sword as he leaped on his horse. The wound became infected, then turned fatally gangrenous. The death may have been a suicide. Whether Cambyses' return was prompted by reports of unrest at home is not clear. He may not have been aware of disaffection.  What was later reported was that the throne had been usurped by a Magian named Gaumata, who was impersonating Cambyses' brother Smerdis. If the death was a suicide, it may have been related to his madness, or it may have been related to an understanding of just how far the revolt had spread. [13]

The satrap Aryandes had assumed command of Egypt when Cambyses left. He proved to be strong-willed and independent, striking coins with his image and leading an expedition to capture Cyrene when it rebelled against the Dorians. That independence proved too much for Darius, who had him executed in 517.  Pherendates was appointed to replace him. [14]

Darius the Great - Consolidating Power and Reorganizing an Empire

Darius was a distant cousin of Cambyses and had served under him as an officer in Egypt. He would emerge as the ruler of Persia in the wake of the turmoil following the death of Cambyses. Just how he came to power is a matter of speculation. One version suggests that he became involved in a plot to seize power shortly after the death of Cambyses. The plotters killed Cambyses' brother, Smerdis, who had taken the throne while Cambyses was in Egypt, then had come up with an elaborate cover story to justify their actions.  The official version, propounded by Darius, was that Smerdis had been secretly murdered on Cambyses' orders before the Egyptian expedition began and that Darius became involved because of Gaumata's usurpation. [15]

Darius recorded his version of the story on the face of a cliff near the village of Behistun, a settlement on the caravan route between Ecbatana and Babylon. There was something odd, even contradictory, about the circumstances under which the inscriptions had been created.  The author or authors seemed intent on reaching an audience well outside the boundaries of Persia, since the text was presented in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. While Behistun, as a caravan stopover, would ensure a constantly changing audience, it was an unlikely location to wage a major public relations campaign within Persian.  Nor was the placement of the Behistun text, some 300 feet above the ground, likely to attract the attention of caravan travelers. At that height, even if noticed, it was virtually unreadable.  Between the ground and the text was a smooth cliff face, an impediment to those curious enough to want to read the inscriptions. When the workmen had finished their carving, the rock below the text, down to the ground, had been chiseled smooth. There was no path or route allowing easy access. If the difficulty of the climb discouraged the occasionally curious traveler or tourist, it also served as a deterrent to local vandals.  But Darius probably was not worried that local vandals might attempt to deface the writing.  He was more worried that political opponents might want to re-write the history.  Whether armed guards were posted to protect the inscriptions for a time, the natural obstacles proved sufficient.  The text would survive some twenty-five centuries. [16]

Darius, in the Behistun inscription, claims that Cambyses had his brother Bardiya (Smerdis)  murdered before he left for Egypt  While Cambyses was in Egypt, a Magian named Gaumata, came forward, claiming that he was Bardiya, instigating a revolt against Cambyses and seizing the throne. Herodotus' version of events is slightly different. In his story Cambyses, following Smerdis' death, had left his Magian steward, Patizeithes, in charge of his household.  Patizeithes had a brother who happened to have the same name as the murdered brother - Smerdis.  The Magian Smerdis also looked remarkably similar to the murdered Smerdis.  Smerdis was then proclaimed king. [17]

Darius, to deal with Gaumata's conspiracy, enlisted six Persian noblemen, to re-take the throne - Intaphrenes, Otanes, Gobryas, Hydarnes, Magabyxos, and Ardumanish.  Darius, along with the six, found Gaumata at Sikayauvatish, in the Median province of Nisāya, and killed him.  His death took place in the autumn of 522. With Gaumata's death, nothing stood in the way of Darius' accession to the throne.  Darius avoided the question of his royal lineage. His father Hystaspes would have had a stronger claim under the rules of succession. Instead he would serve Darius as the satrap of Parthia. [18]

Darius inherited a kingdom on the verge of disintegration. He immediately had to deal with revolts in Susiana and Babylon. Atrina (Ashina), the son of Upadaranma, claimed the kingship of Susa.  Darius did not go personally to the province, but sent an army, which captured Atrina and quickly subdued the rebel forces. Atrina was executed.  Nidintu-Bel became king in Babylonia, choosing to rule under the name Nebuchadrezzar, the son of  Nabonidas.   In December 522, Darius led his army against Babylon.  He inflicted a defeat on Nidintu-Bel's army, first at the Tigris, and four days later, at the Euphrates.  He then laid siege to Babylon.  The city fell within several months. (Herodotus' recounts a siege of twenty months.   Nidintu-Bel was captured and killed and Darius was recognized as king (Jan.- Feb. 521).  A second revolt had broken out at Susa. Martiya, from the town of Kuganakā, claimed the throne and ruled under the name of Imanish.  Darius claims that, before he reached Susa with another army, the Susians killed Martiya. [19]

Darius had barely secured Babylon when he was forced to deal with twin revolts in Media and Armenia.  The Median revolt may have broken out as soon as Darius left on the Babylonian campaign, although he only became aware of it after entering Babylon.  Darius had been aware of the Armenian revolt during the march on Babylon and had detached part of his army to deal with the revolt there before Babylon had been captured.  The Persian general Vaumisa was placed in command of the force, which left after the battle at the Euphrates.  In January 521, his army defeated the Armenian forces at Izzila in Assyria.  Vaumisa would inflict a second defeat on the Armenians in May 521 at Autiyāra in Armenia.  Despite these defeats, the rebellion had not been broken.  A second army, commanded by the Armenian general, Dādarshi, was dispatched.  It battled the rebel forces at Zuzza, Tigra, and Uyamā. Vaumisa and Dādarshi waited for Darius' moves against Media.

The Median revolt was led by Fravartish, who reigned as king under the name Khshathrita.  To deal with this threat, once he had entered Babylon, Darius sent another part of his army, commanded by Hydarnes.  In January 521 his army fought the Median forces at Marush, in Media.  He claimed victory, but was unable to advance against Ecbatana in the face of resistance from the Median forces. Darius joined Hydarnes and the combined Persian forces defeated Fravartish at Kundar. Darius then advanced on Ecbatana and captured the city. Fravartish, who had fled to Ragae in eastern Media, was captured, taken to Ecbatana, and executed.  Hyrcania and Parthia held out, despite the collapse of the rebellion.  In March 521 Darius' father Hystaspes, is said to have defeated the rebels at Vishpauzātish in Parthia, but the rebellion would remain alive for another year.  Hystaspes would score a major victory in April 520 at Patigrabana in Parthia.[20]

The satrap of Bactria, Dadarshi, in the east, had to deal with a revolt which broke out in the province of Margush (Margiana).  Frāda, the leader of the revolt, was defeated in December 521. Sargatia came out in revolt as well, with Citrantakhma claiming the throne.  He was eventually captured and executed at Arbela in Syria.  Still another Persian province, Yautiyā, rebelled and named Vahyazdāta of Tāravā king.  Darius' forces defeated him at Rakhā in May 521. Retreating to Paishiyāuvādā, Vahyazdāta managed to keep the revolt alive until April 520, when his forces were defeated.  He was captured and executed.  The satrap of Arachosia, Vivāna, had defeated one of Vahyazdāta's armies in December 521. Vivāna defeated the force a second time seven weeks later, capturing and executing its leaders.  Babylon, following the departure of Darius in the summer of 521, had attempted a second rebellion.  An Armenian named Arakha declared himself king.  Another Persian force, commanded by Intaphrenes, was dispatched there, capturing Arakha and putting him to death. [21]

The Behistun inscription does not provide a detailed account of rebellion in Egypt.  If it occurred, its suppression apparently was not considered a significant military operation.  Nevertheless, the satrap of Egypt, Aryandes, was put to death when Darius came there (517 B.C.).  Oroites, satrap of the island of Sardes, was also executed.  His replacement was Syloson, Polycrates' brother.  Darius had one last rebellion to deal with. Susiana briefly tried to break away again, but the revolt was put down (between 518 and 516).[22]

The need to deal with subjects and regions in revolt did not prevent Darius from expanding the Persian Empire to the east.  The countries of Gandara and Sattagydia, India are mentioned in the Behistun inscriptions, indicating that parts of northern India had been brought within the boundaries of the empire fairly early in Darius' reign. The geographical area probably extended to the Indus basin west of the Indus, now the country of Pakistan.  Herodotus suggests that he led a campaign which followed the Indus to the sea.  It would bring the greatest amount of tribute - 360 talents of gold dust a year, according to Herodotus.[23]

In order to govern the empire, it had been divided into twenty satrapies, or provinces. The satrap, "protector of the realm," in Persian, was the governmental administrator of a region.  The first, on the western coast of Asia Minor, included Ionia, Magnesia, Aeolia, Caria, Lycia, Milya, and Pamphylia.  The second incorporated the Mysians, Lydians, Lasonians, Cabalians, and Hytennians. Dascylium, the third, included the Hellespontines, Phrygians, Asiatic Thracians, Paphlagonians, Mariandynians, and Syrians. Cilicia was the fourth satrapy.  Abar-Nahara, or "Beyond-the-River," was the fifth, which included Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine, and Cyprus.  The sixth included Egypt, Libya, and Cyrenaica.  The seventh included the Sattagydae, Gandarii, Dadicae, and Aparytae.  It was located next to India.  Susiana, the eighth, included Susa and the Cissian country. Assyria, the ninth, included Babylon and Assyria.  Media was the tenth.  The eleventh, north of Media and west of the Caspian Sea, incorporated the Caspii, Pausicae, Pantimathi, and the Daritae peoples.  Bactria was the twelfth satrapy.  Armenia was the thirteenth and extended to the Euxine Sea.  The fourteenth included the lands of the Sagartii, Sarangeis, Thamanaei, Utii, Myci, and those inhabiting the islands of the Red Sea.  The fifteenth took in the Sacae and the Caspii.  The sixteenth extended from the southeast corner of the Caspian to the Aral Sea, and included the Parthians, Chorasmians, Sogdians, and Arians.  The Paricanians and 'Ethiopians' were incorporated into the seventeenth (the modern country of Baluchistan).  The eighteenth, surrounding Lake Urmia, included the Matieni, Saspiri, and Alarodii.  The nineteenth satrapy, southeast of the Black Sea, took in the Moschi, Tibareni, Macrones, Mossynoeci, and Mares.  India (modern Pakistan) was the twentieth satrapy. [24]

Crossing the Danube - The Balkan Campaign Against the Scythians

The Danube River serves as the boundary between the modern countries of Bulgaria and Romania, although the Danube Delta, where the river enters the Black Sea, is claimed as part of the Dobruja region of Romania.  One of the branches marks the boundary with Ukraine. Like the Nile, the Danube Delta is subject to annual flooding, which deposits some forty million tons of silt in the marshes in the spring. A boon to the wildlife, the quantity of silt has virtually doomed the only modern port, Sulina, since dredging operations are expensive and only sufficient for small-capacity ships. Since the construction of the Danube-Black Sea Canal, larger freighters no longer need to enter the Delta. For the relatively shallow draft Greek merchant ships plying their trade in the Sixth Century B.C., the Danube silting problems were not as formidable as those faced by the deep-water freighters of today.  The Greeks established a port, called Tulcea, which became known as the "Threshold of the Delta."  Below Tulcea, the river splits into three branches, Chilia, Sulina, and Sfântu Gheorghe.[25]

In 516 B.C. Darius had managed to bring the myriad rebelling kingdoms within the Persian Empire back under Persian control.  He now made plans to expand his empire into Europe. The Danube, which marked the northern boundary of Thrace (modern Bulgaria), was considered the starting point for his campaign, although to reach that point he decided to take his army through Thrace, which had yet to be conquered. (Its tribes quickly submitted when his army arrived.) 

Beyond the Danube, the people Darius intended to conquer were known by the Greeks as the Scythians.  Scythia the country was a region north of the Black Sea (roughly the geographical area incorporated into the modern countries of Romania, Moldava, Ukraine, and Georgia). The Scythians were an Indo-Iranian people believed to have originated in the Altai Mountains of Central Asia. They were related to the Parthians, a nomadic Iranian people, as well as the Saka, Sarmatians, and Yue-Qi.  While their westward migration took them across the steppes of Asia, they sent raiding parties as far south as Palestine and Egypt.  The modern Ossetians, inhabitants of the Russian Federation and Georgia, are believed to be descendents of the Scythians. The Scythians had some contact with the Greeks.  Peisistratus (Pisistratus), the Athenian tyrant (561-60 - 528-7 B.C.), included Scythian archers in the mercenary force which maintained order in Athens. [26]

The real starting point of the European invasion was the Bosporus. A bridge, probably a pontoon bridge of boats or rafts lashed together, had been built across the strait by Mandrocles of Samos.  Herodotus' estimate of the size of the Persian army which marched over the bridge was 700,000, aided by a fleet of 600 ships.  (While the force was large, the 700,000 figure is probably an exaggeration.)  After crossing the Bosporus, the army marched through Thrace to the mouth of the Danube (Ister) River.  The Getae, a Thracian peoples inhabiting the lands through which the army marched, either surrendered or were quickly conquered.  An Ionian fleet sailed ahead to the Danube, with orders to construct a bridge across the river.  The bridge was constructed at a point 'two days' journey' from the sea, near Galatz or Braila. [27]

Darius apparently was so confident in the ultimate success of his campaign that he was willing to cut his lines of retreat - or escape.  Once his army was safely across the Danube, he ordered the Ionians to destroy their bridge of boats and join the army in the advance. Cöes of Lesbos advised him however to leave the bridge intact, since it would provide the only means of escape, should disaster strike the expedition.  Darius, according to the story, then summoned the Ionians together.  He told them to maintain the bridge for two months and, to mark the time, gave them a strap tied into sixty knots.  After he had left, they were to untie one knot every day.  If he had not returned by the time all the knots had been untied, they were free to take their boats and sail home.  Until that time, they were to guard the bridge. [28]

The Scythians sought the aid of neighboring peoples, such as the Taurians, the Agathyrsi, the Neuri, and the Sauromatians.  The Geloni, Budini, and Sauromatians offered their help, but other tribes refused.  Realizing that their forces were insufficient to risk an all out confrontation, the Scythians decided to adopt a hit-and-run campaign in conjunction with a "scorched earth" policy. The Scythian plan was to retreat before the Persians if they advanced, or to attack, if the Persians moved away. When they retreated before the Persian advance they were to fill in wells and springs and destroy the grass, presumably by setting the steppe grasslands on fire. [29]

Darius may have begun the campaign with a specific geographic objective in mind, such as the gold mines of Dacia, where the Agathyrsi resided, and the trade routes from that region to the Danube.   That idea was dropped in favor of the destruction of the Scythian army. That objective proved illusive, since the Scythians were unwilling to meet his forces in any type of large encounter. Their cavalry sometimes made an appearance ahead of his army, but made camp a day's march ahead of the Persian advance.  The Persians decided to follow one of the large Scythian "divisions" as it retreated east.  They are said to have crossed the Tanais River into the land of the Sauromatians and, once through that, into the land of the Budini. It is said that they burned an abandoned wooden town, but found little else to take or even to destroy, since the land was dry and barren.  At the Oarus (Volga), Darius found that the Scythians had simply vanished.  While his army paused he constructed eight fortifications, sixty furlongs (about seven-and-a-half miles) apart. He then decided to head west, into Scythia itself, and abandoned the forts. [30]

Once the army reached Scythia, the Scythian forces appeared again.  They still would not offer battle, choosing instead to stay a day's march ahead of  the Persians.  In exasperation Darius sent a horseman over to the Scythian lines. Through the messenger Darius asked the Scythian king, Idanthyrsus, why he kept retreating.  If he felt he was strong enough to fight the Persians, he should stand and fight.  If he knew he could not win, then why not acknowledge Darius as master and enter into negotiations.  As a token of submission, Darius asked for earth and water.  Idanthyrsus' reply was that, since the Scythians did not live in cities or plant crops, the threat posed by the Persians was not enough to force them to fight.  They had nothing that could be captured or destroyed.  The only "possession" they considered valuable enough to fight for was their ancestral burial grounds - if the Persians could find them.  Darius would receive, not earth and water, but what the Scythians thought would be appropriate.  Darius, he added, would be sorry that he claimed to be their master. 

Angered by what they considered Persian arrogance, the other Scythian kings decided to change tactics.  Instead of retreating, they now began to aggressively attack when they felt the Persians were weak.  Foraging parties which ventured too far beyond Persian lines when they went in search of provisions found themselves under attack by Scythian horsemen.  The Persian cavalry proved no match for that of the Scythians and fled for the safety of the foot soldiers.  The Persians could take some comfort from the presence of asses and mules among their transport animals, which tended to frighten the wild Scythian horses.  Nevertheless the relentlessness of the attacks made it difficult to re-provision and the Persian army watched its supplies fall to dangerously low levels.  It is said that the Scythians, deducing that their attacks were having the desired effect on the Persian supply situation, switched tactics, in an attempt to destroy Darius' army.  They would leave behind small flocks for the Persians to find, not large enough to replenish their stocks, but enough to provide an illusion of success - all in hopes of masking the true supply situation and causing Darius to delay a decision to order a retreat.

It was now that the Scythian kings sent Darius a messenger bearing gifts: a bird, a mouse, a frog, and five arrows.  Despite the desperate situation of his army, Darius' initial reaction was that the gifts were tokens of surrender, symbolic of the earth and water he had demanded.  He reasoned that the mouse was a creature of the earth, the frog a creature of the water, and the bird was the closest to a horse (possibly related to the horsemanship of the Scythian cavalry). The arrows were to signify the surrender of the people's valor.  Gobryas, one of the co-conspirators with Darius in the Magi killings, provided a more pessimistic reading: "If you [the Persians] do not become birds, and fly away, or mice, and burrow into the ground, or frogs, and leap into the lakes, there will be no homecoming for you, for we will shoot you down with our arrows." [31]

Darius remained undecided about the true interpretation of the gifts until the Scythian forces were arrayed to attack the Persians. Before the attack began a hare ran between the two armies.  The Scythians, seemingly unmindful of the presence of the Persian forces, began shouting amongst themselves and running after the hare.  Darius asked what the commotion was.  When he was told that the Scythian soldiers were chasing a hare, he responded that they must utterly despise the Persians. He now realized that Gobryas' interpretation of the Scythian gifts was closer to the truth than his. The question was no longer whether he could defeat the Scythians, rather it was whether his army could escape annihilation.

Darius' plan was to leave camp under cover of darkness, in hopes of escaping detection by the Scythians, and then march as quickly as possible to the Danube. To fool the Scythians into thinking the army was still in camp, he left those who were wounded or sick, along with the asses. To give an impression of normality, watch fires were lit.  Those being abandoned were told that they were being left to guard the camp, while the army was going out to attack the Scythians.  (Coincidentally or not, the plan to leave the sick and wounded behind as decoys, bore a remarkable similarity to that said to have been employed by Cyrus in his ill-fated campaign against the Massagetae.) [32]

At daybreak, those in the camp realized that they had been abandoned and surrendered to the Scythians. The Scythians, seeing that the main Persian army had left, consolidated their forces and set off in the direction of the Danube, hoping to overtake the retreating army.  Being on horseback, they managed to reach the Danube ahead of the Persians.  They had taken a different route and not made contact with the opposing army.  When they came to the crossing point, they found the Ionians still guarding the bridge.  They urged them to break up the bridge and leave, as they were now free of the Persians.  The Scythians would soon put an end to Darius and any plans for future expeditions. 

The Athenian general, Miltiades, was in favor of the plan, since it was an opportunity to free the Greek states from Persian rule. Histiaeus of Miletus however, was reluctant to join in any rebellion. The Ionian princes had more to fear from the democratic forces within their own cities than they did from the Persians, he argued.  Whatever grievances they may have had against the Persians had to be weighed against the fact that the Persians kept them in power. Allow Darius to be destroyed by the Scythians and Histiaeus, as well as the rulers of the other Ionian cities, would be overthrown by their own people.  His argument proved persuasive and the Greeks voted to hold the bridge until the Persian forces reached the Danube. Afraid of openly defying the Scythians, or providing them with a passage over the Danube, the Ionians took the precaution of moving the boats on the Scythian side out of arrow range.  The maneuver was done in such a way as to appear to be taking the entire structure down.  The Scythians left to search for the Persians. They failed to find the Persian force, which managed to reach the Danube. [33]

The Persian army arrived at the crossing point at night, only to find that the bridge was gone. Terrified that they had been abandoned, Darius finally had one of his Egyptian soldiers call over to the other side. Histiaeus heard him, brought the boats over, and reconstructed the bridge, allowing the Persian army to cross over.  Darius took the remnants of his army and marched through Thrace to Sestos, in the Chersonese (the Gallipoli Peninsula), where he crossed back into Asia.  Part of the army, said to number around 80,000, was left in Thrace, under the command of the Persian general Megabazus.

Megabazus expanded Persian control in Thrace, subjugating the region along the coast between the sea of Marmora and the Strymon.  He was unable to subdue Macedonia. When he sent envoys there demanding its submission, the crown prince, Alexander, had them murdered.  Megabazus lacked the troops to exact punishment.  Otanes, who replaced Megabazus, would recapture Byzantium and Chalcedon. He also captured the island cities of Lemnos and Imbros, with Greek fleets.

The exact route Darius took on his Scythian expedition, once he crossed the Danube, is unknown.  Herodotus believed that he followed the Black Sea coast and reached the Volga (Oarus) River in Russia. He even claimed to have seen the ruins of the eight forts which Darius abandoned.  There is some speculation that the legendary 'forts of Darius' were, in reality, ordinary Scythian kurgans, or burial mounds.  Herodotus also mentions the Agathyrsi, a neighboring tribe of the Scythians, which resided in the region of the Carpathian Mountains, an indication that his army did not move toward the steppes of Russia but moved directly north or west (northern Romania) of the Danube starting point. Herodotus also makes reference to the fact that the Scythians urged their people, when fleeing the Persian advance, to drive northward [from the Persian crossing point on the Danube].[34]

The Ionian Revolt - (499 - 493 B.C.)

Whatever the judgment of history about their rulers, the Persians boiled their accomplishments down to a single word or phrase.  Cyrus they called a father, Cambyses they labeled a master of slaves (tyrant), and Darius they remembered as a merchant (shopkeeper).  After the debacle in Scythia, Darius may have had second thoughts about trying to change his image from 'merchant' to that of 'warrior.'  At any rate, his appetite for risky military adventures was sharply curtailed after 512.  It was replaced by an interest in trade, innovation, and the economic well-being of his subjects, which, not only reinforced the merchant image, but also accounted for the relative calm the empire experienced between 512 and 500 BC.  The merchant label was said to be related to Darius' seeming obsession with petty accounts, which probably was associated with his overhaul of the tax system. [35]

The peace would be shattered in 499 B.C., when the Ionian Greek cities chose to revolt. The very people who had shown their loyalty to Darius by guarding their bridge of boats at the Danube were now leading the rebellion.  The immediate cause of the revolt seemed to be the failure of a relatively small military venture to capture the island of Naxos.  After a four-month siege the Persians gave up.  Persian prestige suffered as a result. It was clearly not the only cause, since the catastrophe of the Scythian campaign had been a far more serious blow to Persian military credibility, than the failure at Naxos.

Naxos is an island in the Aegean Sea north of Crete, about midway between Athens and the Ionian coast (modern Turkey). With an army of 8,000, augmented by a fleet of warships, it could not be considered defenseless.  While it was fairly far south of  the islands of Lemnos and Imbros, 0captured by Otanes, it was not an illogical choice for expansion.  The Persians prepared an expedition, consisting of 200 triremes and a large army, commanded by Megabates, a cousin of Darius.

The pretext for the expedition was the re-installment of the former oligarchs of Naxos, who had been overthrown by the party of democrats.  While they had come to the Persians seeking help, it is not clear whether they found the Persians, who were otherwise reluctant to get involved, or whether the Persians found them - a convenient excuse to add another rich island to their territory. The catalyst for the expedition was Aristagoras, the administrator of Miletus, a city on the Ionian coast.  It was the city which had been formerly ruled by Histiaeus, the man who had saved Darius' army by holding the bridge on the Danube.

Histiaeus, highly regarded by Darius for his actions at the Danube, had fallen out of favor with the king.  As a reward for his actions Darius had granted him a city in Thrace called Myrcinus.  The region was a rich source of timber and silver.  Megabazus, the Persian general charged with subjugating Thrace, began to see Histiaeus' activities as a threat.  He convinced Darius that he should be removed and the king requested his presence at Susa. When he arrived he was placed under house arrest. Considering that the penalty for disloyalty was often death, Darius' choice of imprisonment may have been an indication that he still felt some obligation to him. Aristagoras, a son-in-law and cousin of Histiaeus, took over as administrator. When the Naxian exiles approached Aristagoras about retaking their city, he told them he would try to persuade the satrap Artaphrenes, Darius' brother, to finance an expedition.  Word of the expedition reached the Naxians, who made preparations to receive the attack.  Food and water supplies were increased and the fortress walls were reinforced. When they arrived the attackers began a siege. After four months they ran short of funds and were forced to lift the siege. 

Megabetes, the Persian general commanding the expedition, was blamed for its failure.  The accusation is that he betrayed it by warning the Naxians before it arrived. The cause was an argument with Aristagoras over discipline. When the fleet was anchored off Caucas, on the island of Chios, Megabetes made an inspection round of the individual ships.  He found one of the ships of Myndas with no guards posted.  The captain was immediately arrested and, as punishment, was bound and placed in a position next to the ship's hull so that his head protruded through an oar-hole.  Aristagoras asked Megabetes to let him go.  When the request was refused, he released him anyway.  Megabetes confronted him for interfering in a disciplinary matter. Artaphenes' reply was that he was in charge of the expedition and that Megabetes was to take orders from him.  Angered by the response, Megabetes, after nightfall, sent a boat ahead to warn the Naxians. [36]

Whether Megabetes betrayed the expedition over a disciplinary matter or whether he betrayed the expedition at all is unknown. Aristagoras may have been the culprit, or he may have concocted the story, knowing that he was likely to be blamed for the failure in any event. Fearful of losing his position as leader of Miletus, Aristagoras contemplated revolt   From his perspective, chances of success, or even survival, were better outside the Persian system than within.  The failure of the expedition was a blow to Persian prestige, but Aristagoras, as a participant, was in a position to observe weaknesses which otherwise would have gone unnoticed by the wider world.  The Naxian oligarchs had been unable to prevent their own overthrow and could only be restored with the help of the Persian military. The fact that the Naxians had survived at all, whether they had been forewarned, was an indication that the military balance was changing.   The story is that Aristagoras received encouragement about this time from an unexpected source, his exiled father-in-law, Histiaeus. Histiaeus, still at Susa, had tattooed a message on the shaved head of a slave, urging revolt. After his hair grew out, he was sent to Miletus. Once there his head was shaved and Aristagoras was able to read the message.

Aristagoras, when he did act, acted decisively. The generals from the oligarchies who had participated in the Naxos expedition had not been decommissioned and were with the fleet at Myus.  It was decided that the Milesian general Iatragoras would go there and attempt to arrest them. Oliatus of Mylasa, Histiaeus of Termera, Cöes of Mytilene, and Aristagoras of Cyme were among those arrested.  Aristagoras then abolished the oligarchy in his own state of Miletus and replaced it with a democracy.  He overthrew the oligarchs and set up democracies in the other states, although it is not clear what authority he used to justify his actions. Those rulers who had escaped arrest at Myus were forcefully deposed. For those arrested, democratic governments were installed in their absence. Once the new governments were in place the imprisoned oligarchs were handed over to them for punishment.  It is said that most were released. [37]

Democracy, Aristagoras' political instincts told him, was a potentially powerful resource, which could both justify his actions and rally people to his cause. The irony was that, while he paid lip service to democratic ideals, he used force to install democratic governments. The fledgling democracies were, in fact, controlled by military governors, who had been installed along with the democratic governments.  Aristagoras probably realized that the political force he hoped to harness against the Persians was also extremely dangerous.  When Cöes, the ruler of Mytilene, was handed over to his former subjects, they stoned him to death.  In the case of the Ionian cities the military presence, while available to control mob unrest, was more likely intended as a deterrence against the former oligarchs.  Aristagoras, in all likely, was reading the political climate of the region accurately.  The oligarchs, as rulers, were hated by the cities they ruled, and Persia, by association, was blamed for the shortcomings of local administrators. If Aristagoras championed the anti-Persian cause to save himself, he was also tapping into a notion with widespread popular support among the Ionians. It has been suggested that the speed with which the rebellion spread was due, partly, to a lack of flexibility on the part of Persian administrators.  They continued to rely on an oligarchic system which was outdated and could only be maintained by force.  They were, in other words, slow to recognize the shift in political power away from the oligarchs, and slow to change sides, once it occurred. [38]

There was an economic element which played a role in the intensity, as well as the timing, of the revolt.  Ionian cities, toward the end of the sixth century, were running into competition in established markets. Demand for Ionian pottery produced at Miletus, Samos, and Chios declined, particularly at the Egyptian mart of Naucritis, after the Corinthians introduced a superior quality pottery.  Athens, with black-figure ware, began competing in the Black Sea market. Another market, the Egyptian city of Naucritis, was impacted by Cambyses' invasion.  The Italian city of Sybaris, a trading partner of Miletus, was destroyed in 510. Carthage and Etruria combined to limit trade with the western Mediterranean. [39] 

While Aristagoras had some success at organizing a confederacy, which issued its own coinage, the Persians, during the winter of 499-498 B.C., appeared to take the revolt for granted.  They were unprepared in 498 when a rebel force commanded by Charopinus and Hermophantus, which included twenty ships supplied by the Athenians and five by the Eretrians, attacked Sardes, Artaphrenes' headquarters.  They captured the city, although Artaphrenes managed to retreat to the acropolis and hold out there. After setting fire to the city, the Greeks withdrew in the face of stiffening Persian resistance.  The Persians followed the retreating force and inflicted a defeat on them at Ephesus. The Eretrian general, Eualcides, was killed. Athens would afterwards withdraw from the conflict and send no further help. The Ionians, in the closing months of 498, sailed to the Hellespont and reduced Byzantium and nearby cities, then sailed south to Caria (a region on the coast south of Lydia), where the city of Caunus, impressed by the burning of Sardis, joined them.  Cyprus, at the urging of Onesilus, the brother of the king of the Salaminians, joined the rebels as well.

Cyprus, among the last to join the rebels, would be the first to fall to the Persians when they finally organized their counteraction at Cilesia (Cilisia) in 497.  Not all of Cyprus had joined the rebellion. The Phoenician towns of Amathus and Citium had remained loyal. Onesilus laid siege to Amathus.  The Persian general, Artybius, made plans to relieve Amathus with the army he had assembled in Cilesia.  A large Phoenician fleet transported the troops to the island  The Phoenician ships, which had remained off the coast, were confronted by an Ionian fleet, sent down to help the Greek forces. In the ensuing battle the Phoenicans were defeated, leaving Artybius' force stranded on the island.

The Persian army marched to the plain of Salamis to face a Cypriote Greek force.  While the Persians suffered the loss of their general, Artybius, who was killed by Onesilus, the Greeks were weakened by the desertion of Stresenor, of Curium. The desertion of the Curians was followed by that of  the Salaminian chariot force.  The two contingents were considered among the best of the Cypriote forces.  The battle turned in favor of the Persians.  Onesilus and the king of Soli, Aristocyprus, were killed in the rout of their army.  The city of Salamis immediately surrendered.  Other Greek cities tried to hold out, but most of the sieges were of brief duration.  The city of Soli held out the longest, five months.  By the end of 497 the Persians controlled the entire island.[40]

On the Hellespont, a Persian army under Daurises, a son-in-law of Darius, began a campaign in the spring of 497 which would capture the cities of Dardanus, Abydos, Percote, Lampsacus, and Paesus. He was ready to attack Parium, when news of the revolt in Caria reached him.  He then took his army south.  A second Persian army operated to recapture settlements in the Troad, the Ionian coastline opposite the island of Lesbos.  A third army, under Artaphrenes and the general  Otanes, operating near the Hermus River, west of Sardis, captured the cities of Clazomenae and Cyme.  Cyprus had been the only island which the Persians were able to recapture in 497. (The victory of the Ionian fleet at Cyprus may have been a serious blow to the Phoenician naval forces, which temporarily deprived the Persians of an effective naval force.)  There were also major mainland cities, Byzantium, Ephesus, Cyzicus, and Miletus, which they were unable to retake. 

The campaign in Caria proved disastrous.  The Carians proved tenacious.  They are said to have suffered a loss of 10,000 men in their first encounter with the Persians, were defeated with similar losses a second time, and yet, came back to attack still a third time.  The army which Daurises had taken south crossed the Maeander River where it met the Marsyas River.  The Carians attacked, once they had crossed.  In heavy fighting the Persians suffered a loss of 2,000.   The Carians retreated to Mt. Latmus, where they were reinforced by the Milesians. In the second battle, the Persians drove the combined force off the heights and onto the plain of Mylasa, again inflicting heavy casualties.  The Persians pursued the Carian and Milesian force as it retreated in the direction of Pedasus (Pedasa). Perhaps overconfident from their twin victories, the Persians may have been careless in setting up camp or in posting a guard. They were ambushed at night. Daurises, along with two other Persian generals, Amorges and Sisimaces, were killed.  Their army was annihilated. [41]

Although the Carian disaster set the Persians back for several years, it also claimed a victim on the Greek side. Aristagoras, the Milesian who had instigated the revolt, fled to Thrace.  He was killed in 497, and his force with him, by the Thracians, while he was trying to capture one of their cities.

In 494 the Persians had recovered sufficiently to renew operations. Miletus, the troublesome city which had begun the revolt, was to be the starting point of the campaign, and a large army was sent overland to take the city.  Persia was in a position to fight a war at sea, as well, with a resurrected Phoenician fleet, augmented by ships from Cyprus, Cilicia, and Egypt.   The first assignment of the combined fleet, said to number 600 vessels,  was the operation to capture Miletus.  The ships assembled near the island of Lade, off the city of Miletus.   The Ionians, without any clear leadership since the departure of Aristagoras, managed to assemble a fleet of 353 triremes, 100 supplied by Chios, eighty by the Milesians, and seventy by the Lesbians. 

The two fleets did not immediately engage, once assembled, but waited for an opportune time to begin.  The Persians sent messengers over to try to persuade the forces from individual cities to desert.  Each day, in the interim, the two sides would conduct maneuvers in battle formation.  The Ionian ships had been placed under the command of the Phocaean general Dionysius.  He was able to keep them in line for seven days, according to Herodotus. On the eighth day they mutinied and refused to leave camp to go out on maneuvers.  Their actions caused the Samians to accept the Persian offers.

The Persians, after a week, apparently felt confident enough to force a battle and put their Phoenician ships in battle formation. The Ionians, along with the Samians, realized that the Persian force was ready to fight, and took to their ships to meet the Phoenician threat. Once the two fleets were in line however, all but eleven of the Samian ships deserted and sailed for home.  This caused the Lesbian ships, and most of the other Ionian vessels, to abandon the line as well.  The Chians fought on for a time, but, in the end, suffered so many losses, that they retired from the fight and sailed for home.

Herodotus' story almost avoids the outcome of the battle - the Greeks had suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of a fleet they had decisively defeated three years earlier. Dissension among the Ionians may have played a role in the loss, but betrayal, as an explanation, also offered a face-saving explanation for poor performance.  Herodotus was unlikely to concede that a non-Greek force had proved superior to the Ionians.[42]

Following their victory, the Persians besieged Miletus.  The Milesians put up a vigorous defense, requiring the attackers to employ siege engines, in combination with tunneling.  It was stormed and fell in 494. With the Phoenician fleet, the Persians were able to attack the island cities.  The last of the rebelling cities were re-captured by 493 BC.  The fleet wintered near Miletus, then captured Chios, Lesbos, and Tenedos in the spring of 493. 

Histiaeus of Miletus, the savior and one-time prisoner of  Darius, kept the rebellion alive for a time.  Darius had allowed him to return to the Ionian region, in hopes of his mediating an end to the dispute. However, he eventually joined the rebellion and, with a Lesbian fleet, took to raiding shipping passing through the Bosporus from the Black Sea.  Following the Ionian defeat at Lade, he took a Lesbian squadron, attacked Chios, and made Polichne his base of operations.  He attacked Thasos.  He was captured while foraging in Aeolis.  When he was brought to Artaphrenes, he had him executed, fearing that he might be pardoned by Darius if kept alive.  He was impaled and beheaded.  His embalmed head was then sent to Darius, at Susa.

Persian retribution against the Ionian cities was severe, but relatively brief.  The populace of Miletus, mostly surviving women and children, were forcibly exiled to Mesopotamia and resettled on the Tigris. The nearby city of Didyna (Branchidae), which housed the temple and oracle of Apollo, was plundered and burned.  In other cities which were captured, boys were castrated and the best-looking girls were sent to Darius. The cities were then burned.  Cities in the Chersonese were burned as well. The inhabitants of Byzantium fled. 

Artaphrenes, as a result of the rebellion, decided that institutional changes needed to be made to the Persian administrative system.  During 493, a legal system was set up to handle disputes between cities. They would no longer be permitted to organize military expeditions against each other, but would have to submit disagreements to a court. Artaphrenes also reorganized the tax system. New taxing districts were created and measured. The amount of the tax levy to be paid would be determined by his administrators.  Darius decided to completely overhaul the governmental system in Ionia.  In 492 he sent his son-in-law Mardonius, son of Gobyrus, to Cilicia, at the head of a large land and sea force.  With the force he visited all the Ionian cities along the coast and forcibly replaced the oligarchies in power with democracies.[43]

Darius' Second European Expedition

When Darius received word that Sardis had been burned in 498 by the force of  Ionians, Athenians, and Eretrians, his only question was, "Who are the Athenians?"  He then asked for a bow and, shooting an arrow into the air, he prayed, "Zeus, grant me the opportunity to punish the Athenians." He also is said to have ordered one of his servants to repeat three times at every meal, "Master, remember the Athenians." [44]

Athenian participation in the attack on Sardis may have come as a surprise to Darius, but he was fully aware of the city's existence long before 498.  Hippias, the former Pisistradid ruler of Athens, who had been banished from the city some twelve years earlier, in 510, was residing in Susa, hoping to obtain Darius' help in restoring him to power.  For a time he had taken up residence in Sardis. The Athenians, following the Spartan intervention by Cleomenes (508-507), had had sent emissaries there as well.  The satrap Artaphrenes asked a question similar to that of Darius: "Who are these people and where in the world do they live that they would ask the Persians to become their allies?"  If they were willing to submit, he responded, then they could become allies. "If the Athenians are willing to give King Darius earth and water, he offers an alliance to them; if not, they should leave."  The burning of Sardis may have caused Artaphrenes to regret his earlier condescending reply.  Darius, among the various reports about the Ionian revolt, now had another factor to consider.[45]

For their part, the Athenians may have believed that Darius was obsessed with their destruction or punishment and that they were the motivating force behind a new expedition. Yet, they had other reasons for emphasizing the obsessive side of Darius' character.  The idea of a maniacal  Asian ruler bent on the destruction of a single Greek city was a message which would resonate among fellow Greeks, even those Greeks who otherwise might have reason to fear the political and military power of Athens.

Apart from any desire for revenge, Darius might have had other reasons for conquering Athens.  Militarily, it would be advantageous to eliminate a growing threat, or, alternatively, to add a potent Athenian navy to his arsenal. With such a fleet, he could think of expanding his empire to Italy, Sicily, or, Cambyses' ambition, Carthage. If nothing else Athens would mean another revenue-producing province.  But the goal of his second expedition may have been more modest or, if just as ambitious, aimed in a different geographical direction.  The Ionian revolt had allowed Thrace and Macedonia, not entirely conquered prior to the rebellion, to regain a measure of independence. Mardonius hoped to restore Persian rule to those areas already taken and to push the empire's boundaries further west.  There was a strong economic incentive to control the region.  Gold mines on the island of Thasos and the mainland opposite Samothrace contributed to annual revenues for the island of between two hundred and three hundred talents.  The gold mines of Scaptesyle alone generated eighty talents a year.[46]

Mardonius' installation of democratic governments in the former rebel cities was the opening act of the second European expedition of Darius.  When his army was assembled in the Hellespont in 492, Mardonius transported it by ship to the European side. It then marched overland through Thrace and into Macedonia.  The fleet sailed to Thasos, which surrendered without a fight. On land the army was successful in subduing the Macedonians, who submitted as well. 

From Thasos, the fleet sailed along the coast of Chalcidice, reaching Acanthus, where it put to sea.  When it tried to round the promontory at Mount Athos, it ran into a severe storm.  Three hundred ships are said to have been wrecked and 20,000 men killed, some eaten by sharks or dashed against the rocks, others drowned.  Mardonius, with the army, was seriously wounded in a night attack by one of the Thracian tribes, the Brygi (Phrygians).  The attack did not prevent the conquest of Thrace or Macedonia, but Mardonius' wounds may have been serious enough to prevent his re-appointment as commander of a subsequent expedition.  With the conquest of the two countries, Mardonius took the army back to Asia.

Darius' Third European Expedition

Before the Persians could think of sending another expedition across the Bosporus, they needed to give their forces time to recuperate.  The Phoenician fleet, depleted by the losses suffered off Mount Athos, needed time to rebuild.  The fleet had a more important role to play, since the new campaign would be directed at the southern islands and at Athens.  The exception was Thasos, the island which had surrendered the previous year.  The Thasians were ordered to pull down their defensive walls and move their fleet to Abdera, on the mainland.   While preparations were underway, Darius sent emissaries to the Greek cities asking for earth and water, as tokens of submission.

Commanding the new expedition, which left in 491, was Datis, a Mede, and Artaphrenes, the son of the satrap Artaphrenes.  The first goal of the southern campaign was the island of Naxos and the nearby islands, known as the Cyclades.  Once Naxos had been captured, the fleet turned north, to attack Delos. Sailing north to Euboea, they besieged and captured Carystus. Eretria, the city which had lent five ships to the Sardis expedition of 498, held out against Persian attacks for six days, then was betrayed. The inhabitants were enslaved.[47]

The Persian army, under Datis, had beem transported across the strait and landed in the bay of Marathon (September 491 or 490) before the fall of Eretria.  Hippias, the former Athenian tyrant, accompanied the Persians.  An Athenian force, about 9,000 strong, supplemented by a later-arriving contingent of Plataean allies of about 1,000, had marched from Athens in response to Eretrian requests for help.  Arriving about the same time as the Persian landing the Athenians occupied the higher ground of the valley of Vrana.  The Persian encampment was probably along the Charadra River, closer to the sea. Behind them was the "Great Marsh."

The armies faced each other without fighting, for eight days.  The Athenians were in no hurry to attack the numerically superior Persians, estimated to number around 15,000.  Their commanders were evenly split over the question. Their big fear was that, while they confronted the Persians at Marathon, Athens was unprotected.  If Eretria fell, the bulk of the Persian army would be free to sail around Attica and attack an undefended city or, alternatively, provide additional troops and cavalry for the forces at Marathon. While waiting they learned of the fall of Eretria.

The Athenians and Plataeans opened the battle by advancing against the Persian lines, roughly a mile away.  When they came within bowshot, the last two hundred yards separating the lines, they advanced on the run.  In the close-in fighting the Persian center, composed of Persian and Sacae troops, broke the Athenian lines and pursued their retreating foes toward the Athenian camp.  The Athenian right and left wings held however and, closing ranks, attacked the Persians who had broken through the center.  Disorganized by the attack, the Persians fled to their ships.  Seven of the ships were captured by the Athenians.  Persian losses were 6,400 killed, while the Athenians lost 192.[48]

Following the battle, the Persian fleet sailed south and around Cape Sunium, while the Athenians marched back to Athens. They arrived just ahead of the Persian fleet.  The fleet anchored in the Bay of Phalerum for a time, then, realizing that there would be no uprising and little chance of forcing a landing, let alone capturing the city, sailed for home. 

Darius was said to be angered by the failure and made preparations for another expedition.  It took three years to organize the new undertaking.   However, before the new expedition could be sent out Egypt revolted. Darius died shortly after, in the autumn of 486 (485), to be succeeded by his son, Xerxes.  

Xerxes' European Expedition

The death of Darius set the timetable for invasion back by another four years, to 481.  Part of the reason for the delay was the seriousness of the revolt in Egypt, which took a year to put down.  In Herodotus' eyes a more serious obstacle was Xerxes' indecision.  He vacillated between war and peace.  At one point, having made the decision to go to war, he ordered his nobles to begin preparations to assemble an army. Not long afterwards he reversed himself and called the venture off.  The nobility who had been ordered to make final preparations for war were now told that they could go home. 

Xerxes, about this time, began to experience visions at night. The night before his announcement that the invasion had been called off, he saw a man standing over him, rebuking him for reversing his decision: "Are you changing your mind, Persian, and will not lead your army against Greece after you have bidden the Persians to gather their host? You will not do well, so to alter your counsel, nor will he who stands before you prove forgiving."   The following day he decided to ignore the vision and announce his decision to call off the invasion. The vision re-appeared that night: "Son of Darius, you have appeared before the Persians and revoked your war and set my sayings aside, treating them as of no account and coming from a nobody. Be sure of this. If you do not launch your war at once, this shall be the outcome: just as in a short while you were raised to greatness and might, just as quickly shall you become humble." [49]

The vision, in Herodotus' story, comes across almost as a political consultant, rather than a divine messenger.  Xerxes must make war on Greece, not because its conquest will add to the greatness of the Persian Empire, nor out of  revenge for the Athenian attack on Sardis, nor because Athens represents a threat. He must go to war because changing his mind, once he has announced his decision to go to war, gives the appearance of weakness.  Sound political advice, for a domestic audience, but not particularly reassuring when it comes to the commitment needed for a military operation.  As a ruler, Xerxes should not be relying on a vision for political advice.

Still undecided after the second appearance of the vision, Xerxes persuaded Artabanus, the sole opponent of the war, to sleep in Xerxes' bed, dressed in Xerxes' clothes, in an attempt to expose the vision. The vision made its nightly visit, but was not fooled by the ruse.  Speaking to Artabanus, it said: "You are the man who has persuaded Xerxes not to make war on Greece, out of concern for him! But you yourself will not escape unscathed for trying to reverse fate, neither hereafter nor in the present.  What Xerxes shall suffer if he disobeys has already been told to him." The apparition took on a threatening appearance and tried to burn out his eyes with hot irons, causing him to awake with a cry and jump out of bed.  Xerxes was convinced by his story that the message was from the gods.  He would obey and take Persia to war. [50]

A third vision came to Xerxes while he slept. In the vision he saw himself crowned with an olive branch, from which shoots had emerged which overshadowed the entire world. However, before he awoke, the crown had vanished.  When he asked the Magi what the dream meant, he was told that the dream referred to all the world and that all mankind would serve as his slaves.

In contrast to his timid or irresolute approach to the question of hostilities, Xerxes' preparations for war were thorough. Four years (484 - 481 B.C.) were required to lay the groundwork for the expedition, according to Herodotus.  A canal was dug across the isthmus of Mount Athos, where Mardonius' fleet had lost a large number of ships to the storm in 492. The canal was about a mile and a half long, wide enough for two triremes, and took three years to complete.  In addition a bridge of boats was built over the River Strymon.  Supplies were stockpiled along the route the army would take as it marched through Thrace; the largest at a place called the White Shore, another at Tyrodiza, another at Doriscus, and others at Eïon, on the Strymon, and in Macedonia.

The thoroughness suggested by Herodotus may be an indication of Xerxes' determination to make the expedition a success.  Alternatively, the time and effort invested may not have been geared to an invasion of southern Greece, but to a consolidation of gains in Thrace and Macedonia.  As Herodotus points out, if Xerxes' goal had been simply to avoid the dangers of sailing an invasion fleet around the promontory of Mount Athos, it would have been much easier to drag the ships overland across the isthmus.  His goal, in building a canal, may not have been so much military, as commercial.  Warships were not the only victims of storms.  A canal would allow for the commercial exploitation of whatever resources were extracted from Thrace and Macedonia.  At least one of those products, timber, could be more safely transported west, while products coming out of Persia would have easier access to markets in northern Greece and Europe.  A similar argument could be made about the food stores. They were created, not so much to support an invading army, as to serve army garrisons permanently stationed in the region. They were supply depots rather than temporary food caches.

In Xerxes' invasion, Greece was confronted by seemingly overwhelming odds.  It was not just the thoroughness of the planning which weighed against the Greeks, it was also the size of the force which Xerxes had assembled, which totaled exactly 5,283,220, according to Herodotus.  The figure was further broken down into a fighting force of 2,641,610,  with a land army of 1,700,000  and a combined naval and land force of 2,317,610.  The number of triremes, 1,207, formed a large fleet, in comparison to past expeditions, although somewhat small, if it was expected to carry the number of sailors cited by Herodotus.[51]

With a fighting force numbered in the millions, Herodotus had converted a simple struggle for survival by Athens and Sparta into an epic venture against overwhelming odds.  However that struggle may pale in comparison to the difficulties Xerxes faced in trying to feed such a large host. Herodotus himself calculated that 1,100,340 bushels of wheat would have been required each day to feed a military force of five million. That figure did not include the amounts needed by women, eunuchs, baggage animals, and dogs. Given the level of development of transport in 480 B.C. Herodotus' figure seems well beyond the capabilities of any ancient force.[52]

Xerxes' army was a sizeable force, but probably well below five million. Modern estimates place the figure closer to 180,000, or even under 100,000.[53]

In the fall of 481 B.C. Xerxes traveled from Susa to Critalla in Cappadocia (northeast Asia Minor, now eastern Turkey), where the army was waiting.  With Xerxes leading, the army then marched to Sardis, where the final invasion force was to be assembled.  Perhaps hoping that news of the invasion force would be enough to intimidate cities into surrendering, Xerxes sent heralds to all the Greek states, except Athens and Sparta, demanding earth and water.  Wintering in Sardis in 481- 480, the army left for the Hellespont in the spring.

Like Darius' Scythian expedition of 516 B.C., Xerxes' army would cross into Europe over a bridge which spanned one of the straits separating Asia from the European continent.  The location was not the strait of the Bosporus, but the strait known as the Hellespont (Dardanelles), closer to the Aegean Sea.  The European side was located on the Chersonese peninsula, close to Sestos and the Asian end was near the city of Abydos.   It took two attempts before the bridge was completed. Phoenician and Egyptian engineers had completed a bridge, possibly parallel bridges, since the Phoenicians had used white flax, while an Egyptian span had been made of papyrus.  A storm came up and destroyed the bridge.  Angered by the destruction, Xerxes had the engineers beheaded. To punish the sea, he ordered that the waters be lashed three hundred times and that a yoke of fetters be lowered into the sea as well.

Whether the design flaw of the first bridge had been its construction as an unsupported length of cable or cables, the second attempt seemed closer to the design of 516 B.C., i.e., a bridge of boats.  The boats used were much heavier. Penteconters, Greek vessels of fifty oars, and triremes, warships with three banks of oars on each side, were incorporated into the structure. The eastern span used 360 ships while the western span (closest to the Aegean) used 314. The re-designed bridge did not eliminate the use of cables.  Two cables of white flax and four of papyrus were used for each span.  The cables were meant to support the walkway over which the army would march. The walkway was made of planks of wood laid directly on the cable, covered by a layer of brushwood, on top of which was a layer of earth. The entire walkway was covered so that the baggage animals and horses would not be frightened by a view of the water below. [54]

At sunrise, on the day the crossing began, Xerxes poured a libation from a golden cup into the sea and offered a prayer to the sun.  He then threw the cup, together with a golden mixing bowl, and an acinaces, a Persian sword, into the sea.  After the ceremony, the army began its crossing.  The cavalry and foot soldiers crossed by the eastern bridge, while the baggage animals and transport crossed using the western bridge. Xerxes himself may have crossed on the second or third day or, alternatively, after the entire army had made the crossing. It is said that the crossing took seven days and seven nights.  The fleet sailed ahead to the Cape of Sarpedon to wait for the army.

The army moved up the Chersonese past Cardia, then turned west to follow the coast through Thrace to the Persian-garrisoned city of Doriscus, where the Hebrus River enters the Aegean.  The army, on leaving Doriscus, is said to have been divided into three columns.  Mardonius and Masistes commanded the army taking the coast road.  Tritanaechmes and Gergis commanded the column taking the inland route.  Xerxes himself went with the middle column, commanded by  Smerdomenes and Meabyzus.  The fleet was waiting at Therme.

While Xerxes was at Pieria, near Therma, the heralds who had been sent to the various Greek cities returned from their missions.  Among those rendering tribute were the Thessalians, Dolopians, Locrians, and Thebans.  Of the Boeotians, only the Thespians and the Plataeans refused.   Heralds had not been sent to Athens or Sparta because of the treatment earlier missions sent to those cities received.  When Darius sent heralds, the Athenians had thrown them into the Pit, the place where criminals were thrown for punishment.  The Spartans threw their heralds into a well, telling them that they could obtain their earth and water there.

With Xerxes expected to bring his army south through the mountain passes, the Greeks decided that their best plan was to try to stop, or at least delay, the army in the mountains.  There were several passes, but the one they thought was most defensible was the pass at Thermopylae.  It was located at the edge of a mountain which climbed west to form Mount Oeta.  The mountain range ran down almost to the sea east of the pass.  Any army trying to advance would find itself hemmed in by the sea and marshes until it reached the pass itself.   The Persian fleet, the other major threat, the Greeks hoped to stop as it sailed by Artemisium, a beach on the northern coast of Euboea.

The Battle of Artemisium

The island of Sciathus lies just off Cape Sepias, on the Magnesian peninsula, not far from Artemisium.  The Greeks landed a small force on the island and posted three lookout ships offshore, one from Troezen, one from Aegina, and one from Attica. When the Persian fleet finally sailed from Therme, ten of its fastest ships were sent ahead.  The Greek ships were apparently caught off guard or were considerably slower than the Persian vessels. The Troezen and Aeginetan ships were both captured and the Attic ship was run aground by her captain at the mouth of the Peneus to avoid capture. The crew only escaped by jumping off her at the landing spot and running away.  One of the handsomest of the Troezen crewmen was taken to the prow of the ship and killed by having his throat cut. The captors felt it was a good omen that the first prisoner they captured was the handsomest.  One of the Aeginetans, Pytheas, received better treatment as a captive.  He had been seriously wounded fighting the Persians after they boarded his ship.  Admiring his courage, they nursed him back to health and even took him back to their camp to show the others someone of great valor.

The brief fighting and the fate of the three ships had been observed by those on Sciathus, who lit beacon fires to warn the rest of the Greek fleet at Artemesium.  The news caused a small panic among the fleet and most of the ships sailed to Chalcis, leaving only a small party on Euboea to report on further Persian moves.  The Persian scouting force did not come away from the encounter unscathed.  Three of the ten ships were wrecked on a reef called the Ant, lying between Sciathus and Magnesia, after which a warning marker was left.  Once the advance ships reported back, the entire Persian fleet sailed from Therme, arriving at the cape of Sepias after a day of sailing.

The day the Persian fleet arrived the seas were calm, but the following morning the wind began to pick up. It was the beginning of a storm, called a "Hellespontian."  Those who could pulled their ships ashore, but those unable to reach shore safely were destroyed when the seas drove them onto the rocks or the beaches along the coast.  The storm lasted for three days and was said to have destroyed as many as four hundred warships, with additional losses among the transport vessels.

The Greek watchers left on Euboea, seeing the devastation caused by the storm, managed to get word to their fleet, which returned to Artemisium to await the arrival of the Persians.  On the fourth day, when the storm had blown itself out, the Persians put to sea and sailed south along the coast of Magnesia.  They rounded the cape and anchored in the gulf off Aphetae.  According to Greek legend, Aphetae, the Launching Place, had been the place where Heracles was left behind by Jason and the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece when he went to fetch water.[55]

A late-arriving squadron of fifteen Persian ships, mistaking the Greek ships off Artemisium for their own fleet, sailed into the midst of the Greek vessels.  Before they realized their mistake they were captured.  The Persian commander, Sandoces, was among those captured, as was Aridolis, prince of Alabanda, and Penthylus, a general from Paphos.

The Greeks had assembled a fleet of 271 triremes, with nine penteconters, at Artemisium.  Eurybiades, a Spartan, served as commander. Confident, when they returned, that they could easily dispatch a Persian fleet devastated by the recent storm,  the Greeks were disheartened to find that the storm had done less damage than reported.  The force they were facing was quite large and ready for battle.  The coalition was on the verge of breaking up and taking flight.

Herodotus' story is that the fleet only remained because Themistocles, the Athenian commander, was bribed by the Euboeans, who gave him thirty talents to stay.  He, in turn, gave a share of the money, five talents, to Eurybiades, the Spartan, and another three talents to the Corinthian commander, Adimantus. Eurybiades and Adimantus assumed that the money originated with the Athenian government.  Herodotus' strongest condemnation is reserved for Themistocles, who came away from the deal making a profit.  However, it is not clear whether, at a secondary level, the moral of the story relates to the overall character of the three Greek commanders, who could only be induced to fight for money, or whether it is a criticism of Athens, which now viewed motivation as little more than a payroll item.  The unanswered tactical question is not so much whether Athens felt it needed to bribe its military leaders to get them to fight, but whether it was investing wisely when it chose to pay them to fight at Artemisium.  Was it better to risk the fleet at Artemisium because it would contribute little to the defense Athens once the Persian fleet arrived offshore, or did Artemisium offer the greatest chance of victory? [56]

The battle took place over three days.  When the Persians arrived at Aphetae, they saw the Greek fleet and realized that it was a small force.  Fearing that they would flee if the Persians confronted them with their entire force, they decided to send two hundred warships around Euboea to be stationed in the strait of Euripus, the channel separating Euboea from Boeotia.  The Greek fleet would be cut off if it tried to escape through the channel.

The Greek fleet, which  may have been warned of the Persian plan by a deserter, debated an attack on the 200-ship Persian force sailing around Euboea, but came to no decision.  On the following day the Greek force put to sea in expectation of an attack.  The Persians appeared unwilling to offer battle and in the late afternoon the Greeks began attacking.  Herodotus suggests that they considered their attack little more than a training exercise.  In a maneuver called "breaking the line," used at the battle of Lade, a warship would attempt to sail through the enemy's line, and once through, attempt to ram one of the enemy ships.  Whether the attacks caused any serious damage, the Persians managed to recover and, with their larger force, attempted to surround the smaller Greek fleet.  The Greeks however, on signal, formed a defensive circle, with their prows facing the Persian fleet and their sterns close together. For a short time they remained stationary in their defensive circle with the Persian ships closing in.  Then, on signal, the warships all moved forward to attack.  Whether the fading light gave them an advantage, or the move caught the Persians by surprise, the Greeks managed to capture thirty of the enemy ships.  When night fell the two fleets retired.

A violent storm struck in the evening and rain fell the entire night.  It was said that the bodies and wreckage from the day's fighting drifted over to the Persian anchorage at Aphetae.  The Persian fleet sailing around Euboea was caught in the open by the storm and many of the ships were lost.  The fleet at Aphetae remained inactive for most of the next day. However, the Greeks, who had been reinforced by fifty-three Attic vessels during the day, waited until late afternoon, then took to their ships and sailed over to attack the Cilician ships.  Towards nightfall they broke off the attack and returned to Artemisium. 

The Persians, on the third day, went into battle formation about mid-day.  The Greeks, this time, did not advance, but waited in a semi-circular defensive line off Artemisium.  The Persians, in a crescent formation, tried to encircle the Greeks.  Finally the Greek ships sailed forward to meet  the Persian attack. In contrast to the first days' fighting, Greek tactics were not enough to save them against a determined attack.  They suffered heavy losses. Five Greek ships, with their crews, were captured by the Egyptians and half the Athenian warships were disabled.

When they returned to Artemisium, the Greeks decided that it was pointless to continue the fighting. To disguise their retreat they lit fires on shore, waiting for Themistocles to give the final order to leave. While they were waiting, a messenger arrived to inform them that the Greek force holding the pass at Thermopylae had been annihilated and that the Persian army was advancing on Athens.  There was now no reason to remain and they abandoned Artemisium.  The Corinthians, having arrived first, were the first to leave; the Athenians, having arrived after the others, were the final contingent to leave.[57]

The Pass at Thermopylae

In the autumn of 481 B.C., the Greek cities convened an Hellenic congress (Synedrion of Probuloi or Congress of Representatives), which met at the isthmus of Corinth, under the presidency of Sparta.  A delegation from Thessaly offered to help guard the Olympian pass against Xerxes' army, but requested help from the other Greek states.  The congress agreed and organized a force of 10,000.  Sailing through the Euripus, it disembarked at Halus (Alus), then marched to the pass between Mount Olympus and Mount Ossa, near Tempe. Discovering that Tempe was not the only pass which the Persians could use, they decided to leave.  They were not a large enough force to defend more than one mountain route.

The congress, once it heard the reports, decided that the best place to defend southern Greece was the pass at Thermopylae (literally the "hot gates," named for the hot sulfur springs in the vicinity)  The Spartan king Leonidas, said to be a descendent of Heracles, was chosen as commander.  A force of between 7,000 and 10,000 marched to the pass and occupied it. The Peloponnesians provided a large share, about 4,000, with Tegea and Mantinea providing 500 each and the district of Arcadia sending 1,000.  The Spartan contingent (Spartiates - those with full citizenship) consisted of the 300 members of Leonidas' royal bodyguard.  The city of Corinth sent 400, Thespiae sent 700, and Thebes provided 400.[58]

Once they understood the size of the Persian force camped outside the pass, the would-be defenders began to have serious misgivings about their mission.  The Peloponnesians wanted to withdraw and set up a defense at the Isthmus instead of Thermopylae.  The Greek cities seemed unaware of, or indifferent to, the danger posed by the Persians.  The Spartans did not plan to interrupt their celebration of the Carnean month festival.  Once it was over they promised additional troops.  The other cities offered the excuse of the Olympic festival.  They could only spare an advance guard.  Leonidas held firm, voting that they remain.  He did however agree to send messengers to request reinforcements.

The Persian army waited four days before it attacked the Greek defenders. The Medes and Cissians, on the fifth day, made a frontal assault. When their attack failed to dislodge the Greeks, Xerxes sent in the Immortals.  The Spartans and their Lacedaemonian allies are said to have used the tactic of retreating en masse, then, after convincing their opponents to attack, turning on them in a counterattack.  At the end of the first day, the Immortals were also forced to withdraw.  The second day's fighting ended with the Persian forces unable to make any headway.

Xerxes, frustrated by the first two days of battle, was approached by a Malisian, named Ephialtes, who told him of a mountain path, between Mount Oeta and Mount Trachis, which led to Thermopylae, behind the Greek positions.  Ephialtes agreed to guide the Persians and  Xerxes ordered Hydarnes, the commander of the Immortals, to take his troops and follow Ephialtes.  Moving at night, they did not reach the summit of the pass until dawn. The only opposition they encountered was a detachment of Phocians. Hydarnes, determined to reach the main force, ignored them when they retreated.  Leonidas, with the force holding the pass, may have received word from deserters during the night that part of the Persian foot had left the main body of troops.  His first real warning came when those standing guard spotted Hydarnes' force as it descended and came running into camp at dawn to report what they had seen.

A hastily-called war council was held.  Some of the Greek contingents may have already decided to leave or Leonidas may have sent them away, determined to hold the pass with a corps of Peloponnesian hoplites.  Herodotus argues that Leonidas' motive was heroic: it would be disgraceful to leave a post they had been ordered to hold.  There also was a prophecy the Spartans had been given by the Pythian priestess, which said that Sparta would either be destroyed or, if not, would lose her king.  "Sparta... by the manhood of Persia... shall be sacked - or she shall not, but then Lacedaemon's watcher shall mourn for a king that shall die, from Heracles' race descended."

Leonidas was left with the force of Lacedaemonians, plus the Thespians and Thebans.  Xerxes made his libations at sunrise and, when he was ready, the army was ordered to advance.  The Greeks, who had been defending the walls in the narrowest part of the pass, came out from behind their defensive positions and advanced to meet the Persians.  Whether there was more than one charge, the force of the attack was enough to break the spears of the Greek hoplites and they resorted to fighting with their swords.  In heavy fighting Leonidas was killed, along with the entire bodyguard of 300.  There was a fight over his body but the Greeks managed to retrieve it. They repulsed four attacks before Hydarnes and the Immortals arrived. The Thebans, forced to remain by Leonidas, are said to have surrendered, but were afterwards branded as cowards on the orders of Xerxes. The Greeks then retreated and took up positions on a small hillock.  The Persians finished them off, probably with arrows or spears, rather than by a frontal assault.  On the Persian side, two sons of Darius, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, were killed.

The account of the battle, as provided by Herodotus, emphasizes the heroic nature of the struggle but provides relatively few details.  There are some questions as to its accuracy.  The reason given for the delay in sending reinforcements to Thermopylae - the Carnean and Olympic festivals were being celebrated - seems rather flimsy, given the nature of the Persian threat. At the same time, it seems odd that there were no Athenian hoplites among those defending the pass while the Peloponnesians made up a large share of the defending force - disproportionately large, considering that Sparta was located furthest from the fighting, geographically.[59]

Background to Thermopylae

In terms of Persian military strategy, the geography of mainland Greece presents something of a chicken-and-egg question.  Did Greek vulnerability to a sea attack motivate Persia to become a sea power, or did the development of naval power convince Persia that the conquest of mainland Greece was feasible?  Unlike many of the cities of Greek Ionia, which were essentially island kingdoms, mainland Greece was not a small island.  Yet, with its many gulfs, bays, and inlets, it could hardly be described as landlocked. The Peloponnese was, after all, a very large peninsula. To the west lay the Ionian Sea and on the southern coast was the Messenian Gulf, the Laonian Gulf, and the Argolian Gulf. To the north was the Corinthian Gulf. Athens was a coastal city as well.

The size of the Persian Empire was testament to the military capabilities of the Persian army, when it came to land campaigning.  Yet land campaigning came with its own set of risks. Armies or individual units had little hope of rescue if they got themselves in trouble in enemy territory, as Cyrus discovered in his 529 campaign and Darius learned in his 516 Scythian adventure.

Xerxes, in organizing such a massive invasion force, had introduced a new element into warfare in Greece.  It was not simply the size of the force which was new, although lower Greece had never before been threatened by a force of such size.  What was new was a proportionately greater emphasis on naval strategy.  Naval warfare was not, in itself, new.  The backbone of the Ionian Revolt had been the island cities, and the suppression of the rebellion had necessitated the adoption of a marine strategy.  In one sense what the Persian navy contributed to the expedition was not so much raw naval power, although it did do that, rather it provided mobility or maneuverability for the land forces.  Naval battles, such as Artemisium or Salamis, were spectacular confrontations, in and of themselves.  The ability to defeat an opposing navy was militarily significant. However their real power may have been the ability to determine the outcome of fighting on land.  It was not necessary to order a costly attack on a strongly-defended position, when transport ships could bypass a position and land troops at any number of places which were lightly defended or undefended.  As supply vehicles, ships were more efficient at provisioning troops then land-based transport.  A greater amount of supplies could be transported over greater distances.

If Greece represented a military opportunity for a maritime power, the converse was also true - it was a nightmare for any land force trying to resist a sea invasion. The Spartans, as the primary power in the Peloponnese, could be expected to put up stiff resistance in any encounter with the main body of Persian troops, particularly if it came at the Isthmus of Corinth as expected. But what if the Persians landed troops somewhere in the rear. or put agents ashore to foment a rebellion among the Helots or Sparta's regional allies, the Mantineans or Eleans?  The coastline of Greece was only one of the problems faced by the defenders. There were political problems as well.  Sparta and Athens had political and economic rivals who might see the Persian invasion as a chance to settle old scores.  The problem for Sparta was Argos.  With Athens the fear was the island city of Aegina.

Argos had been an ancient power in the Peloponnese, but had been eclipsed by the rising power of Sparta.  Around 550 B.C. Sparta had decisively defeated Argos to claim Thyreatis, the district lying between the two cities.  In 494, the Spartan and Argive armies confronted each other again at Sepeia, near the hill of Tiryns (about four or five miles from Argos).  It was said that the Argive generals mimicked the orders given by the Spartans.  When the Spartans gave the command for breakfast, the Argives would do the same.  Realizing that this was happening, Cleomenes, the Spartan King, ordered his soldiers not to stand down, even if the command for breakfast was given.  The Argives, hearing the Spartan command, began to make breakfast. The Spartans picked up their weapons and attacked.  The Argives suffered heavy casualties in the attack. Their own estimate was 6,000 killed.  Those who survived took refuge in the grove of Argos.

According to Herodotus, the hatred between the two cities was so great that the Spartans surrounding the grove used trickery to entice those in the grove to come out and surrender.  Cleomenes sent word in through deserters that the ransom for specific individuals had been received.  When those called came out, they were all killed.  One of the Argives finally climbed a tree and saw what was happening.  When no one else came out Cleomenes piled brush around the grove and set it on fire.  He left when he learned that the grove burned was sacred to Argus.

Herodotus' story of Argive generals foolishly allowing enemy heralds to determine their own actions may not be an accurate account. Whatever the true story was however, casualty figures suggest that the Argives had committed a serious military blunder.  Cleomenes, on his return to Sparta, was tried for failing to capture Argos.  He was acquitted.  He was accused of taking a bribe not to take the city.  It has been suggested that he may have believed that Argos, in a weakened condition, might serve Sparta's goals better than a city which had been totally destroyed.  The killing by the Spartans of those leaving the grove, suggests a form of political killing in conjunction with an attempt to install a puppet government, since those coming out were called by name. Argos, since her defeat, had recovered somewhat.  She was not yet in a position to challenge Sparta, but her hostility was undiminished.  If she could not attack Sparta herself, the fear was that she would be willing to help the Persians, should their invasion plans involve the Peloponnese.[60]

For Sparta, the Athenian navy offered the best hope of stopping or at least deflecting the threat posed by the Persian fleet.  Keeping the Athenians happy was a delicate political and military calculation.  They needed to provide enough troops to persuade Athens that they were committed to her defense, without seriously weakening their main force gathering at the Isthmus.  Leonidas and his bodyguard of 300 was to serve as their commitment.  They persuaded their allies in the Peloponnese to supply the rest.  The Greek plan, as conceived, was not to sacrifice the Spartans in a last-ditch effort to stop the Persian army at Thermopylae.  Thermopylae was something of a decoy, a delaying action which would allow the Greek navy to defeat or seriously cripple the Persians.  The size of the Persian fleet meant that it would likely win in any contest on the open sea.  It was most vulnerable if it had to fight in a confined space.  There were two possibilities.  One was the strait between Marathon and the island of Euboea, south of Artemisium.  The other was the strait at Salamis, across from Athens.  Allowing the Persian invasion force to reach Athens without trying to prevent the advance was risking everything on a single battle.[61]

Thermopylae Revisited

In his story of Thermopylae, Herodotus suggests that there was only the main pass at Thermopylae and the secret Anopaea trail, which was revealed to the Immortals by the traitor Ephialtes.  There was a third route at Trachis, just west of the beginning of the secret Anopaea trail.  (Once the battle at Thermopylae was over, Herodotus states that  the Persian army used the Trachis pass to enter southern Greece, rather than Thermopylae.)  The Trachis trail ran along the Asopus River, which had cut a gorge leading toward Mount Oeta and Doris.  It has been suggested that the Greeks had stationed a force at the citadel there, even if Herodotus fails to mention it. The force was sufficiently strong to discourage a Persian attack.  The supposedly "secret" path of Anopaea was also not totally secret. A force of 1,000 Phocians had been assigned to guard it.

Leonidas, in organizing the Thermopylae defense, may have been aware that there was a Persian force moving somewhere behind him.  He was "taken by surprise" in a sense, not because the Persians arrived behind his lines, but because they arrived a day earlier than expected.  Leonidas had assumed that the route they would take would lead them around Mount Callidromus.  Herodotus suggests that Leonidas decided to go down fighting out of a sense of duty - duty would not permit him to withdraw in the face of the enemy.  Yet the reason for the determined defense may have been less related to the Spartan military code of honor and more directly linked to the hope that any delay would give the Greek navy at Artemisium time to draw the Persian fleet into battle.  If the Persian army were able to advance through Thermopylae, the Persian fleet would no longer be needed in a supporting role at Artemisium and could sail around Attica to await the army off Athens. A Greek victory, on the other hand, might seriously cripple Persian power at sea, leaving the Greek navy free to attack the Ionian cities.  Even a partial Greek victory might leave the Persian fleet too weak to support an invasion of the Peloponnese.[62]

The Persians, in the first two days of Thermopylae, even with the help of the Immortals, were unable to make any serious headway, in Herodotus'  version.  Alternatively, the Persians may not have made an all-out assault during those days, engaging in more of a reconnaissance-in-force, or intending to create a diversion for Hydarnes' movement behind Leonidas.  Hydarnes probably had planned to begin his march the night of the first day's fighting, but thunderclouds and showers caused a postponement.  Marching all night, the force of Immortals encountered the Phocians near Eleutherochori around dawn.  The Phocians retreated to the south to defend the road to Doris.  Hydarnes chose not to pursue them, although he probably left a rear guard to prevent them from attacking.  Thermopylae was still 14 miles away. 

News of the Immortals' approach may have reached Leonidas from his own watch stationed on the hills above, or the messengers may have been Phocian runners, sent to inform him of their withdrawal and the Persian advance over the Anopaea. Whether they actually arrived at dawn, when the Persians are said to have encountered the Phocian hoplites at the pass (still 14 miles away) is questionable. After a council of war, Leonidas sent the bulk of the defending force south towards Tithronium and Elatea.  There it could keep open his line of retreat.. He stayed behind with a force of 2,000, primarily the Lacedaemonians augmented by the 700 Thespians and the 400 Thebans.

Ephialtes had calculated that the Immortals would be able to reach Thermopylae early in the morning of the third day.  He had advised Xerxes to order the main force to attack about mid-morning. When the attack began, Hydarnes was still miles away and the Immortals probably did not arrive until noon.  Whether the Persians charged once or several times, their sustained attack had disrupted the Greek defensive phalanx.  With their spears broken and now useless, the Greeks were reduced to fighting with their swords.  Leonidas was killed during the close-in fighting and for a time there was a fight over his body, until the Greeks managed to drag it away. The custom of front-line leadership, a risky tactic, was not confined to the Greek army.  On the Persian side, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes, sons of Darius, were both killed in the fighting. [63]

When the Immortals arrived, the bulk of the Greek force retreated to a small hill.  They defended themselves as best they could, but had almost ceased to exist as a fighting force.  Most had lost their swords or were too weak to wield them.  They no longer had the strength to hold up their shields, which would have offered some protection.  Some continued to fight with daggers. Having gone without water for most of the morning however, even those who could still stand were in no condition to defend themselves.  The Persians may have sent in infantry in a final assault or may have used archers, with small groups sent in to finish off the survivors.

The massacre of the Lacedaemonian defenders is something of a curious ending to the battle, particularly as it contrasts with the treatment of the 400 Theban hoplites, who were allowed to surrender.  Xerxes was said to have been so incensed by the Spartan defense that when he found the body of Leonidas among the dead, he had the head cut off and placed on a pole.  The Thebans, who were probably ordered to defend a steep track near the east gate of Thermopylae, had been cut off.  According to Herodotus, when they surrendered they persuaded the Persians that they were on the Persian side, but had only been fighting because Leonidas had forced them to.  The story saved their lives, yet Xerxes had them branded as if they were slaves.

Xerxes' actions more likely were related to the message he wanted to send to the Greeks.  Sparing the Theban hoplites may have been a negotiating tool designed to win over the political leadership of Thebes, which had yet to come over to the Persian side.  The message for the Spartans and the rest of Greece was one of  intimidation - no mercy would be shown to those who defied the Persian Empire.

The Fall of Athens

The Persian army resumed its advance towards Athens several days after the battle. Thebes and most of the Boeotian cities submitted. The Persian army reached Attica about a week after the battle. (Thermopylae and Artemisium have been dated to either July 21st or August 19th in  480 BC, and the Persian army arrived in Attica at the end of July or beginning of August, or alternatively, at the end of August or the beginning of September.

Following the withdrawal from Artemisium, the Greek fleet had assembled in the sound of Salamis.  The Athenians initially believed that the Spartans would try to intercept the Persian advance in Boeotia.  However, having lost a king in, what seemed to them, a foreign venture, they were unwilling to risk another force against the advancing Persians. They felt their best hope lay in a determined defense of the Isthmus approaches to the Peloponnese.  Their forces were pulled back and fortifications were strengthened.  Leonidas' brother, Cleombrotus, was placed in command.  The Scironian road was destroyed and a great wall was constructed.  Panicked by the approach of the Persian army, the Athenians decided that their city could not be held and made plans to abandon it.  The ten generals issued a proclamation that the Athenians were to save their children and households in any way that they could.  Most were sent to Troezen, Aegina, or Salamis. 

According to Herodotus, when Xerxes arrived at Athens (about the beginning of September), the city was nearly empty.  The only resistance came from a small group of temple stewards and fanatical poor men, who barricaded themselves in the Acropolis. (The oracle of Delphi had prophesied that Athens' wooden wall would save her and this group of defenders now interpreted the wooden wall to be the wooden barricade they erected at the Acropolis.)  However, the determination and tactics of the defenders suggests that the defense was too well organized to be the work of Athenian rabble.  The Athenians likely left a small garrison behind. (The Persians captured 500 prisoners in the fighting, who were later released by the Samians.).[64]

The Persians used the Areopagus, the small hill opposite the Acropolis, to launch their attack.  Using flaming arrows they managed to set the barricade on fire.  Although the smoke and fire made conditions for the defenders intolerable, they refused to surrender.  When the Persians sent troops forward to probe the defenses the defenders managed to push great stones over the walls onto those approaching the gates.  The Persians brought the confrontation to an end when they discovered an unguarded route and managed to get a small force to the top.  Realizing that their defense was now hopeless, some of the Athenians threw themselves off the walls to their deaths, while others retreated to the inner chamber.  The attackers found a way to open the doors and butchered those they found there.  The Acropolis was then plundered and set on fire. The siege had lasted about three weeks, ending on September 21st.


The island of Salamis lies just off the coast of Attica, west of Athens. The channel of water separating Salamis from the mainland is known as the Channel or Straits of Salamis. A ship entering the Straits after leaving the Piraeus, Athens' harbor complex, in 480 B.C. would have encountered Psyttalea, an islet at the mouth of the channel, which splits the entrance into two smaller channels. From Psyttalea to the mainland is about three-quarters of a mile. The same distance separates the island from the Cynosura (Cape Barbara), a thin finger of land stretching out from Salamis toward Psyttalea.  Running parallel with the Attic coast, the Cynosura forms the southern side of the channel, which is a little over a mile wide at this point. Where the Cynosura merges with Salamis it rounds into a small bay, called the Bay of Ambelaki, housing the port city of Salamis. The Straits narrow and the channel turns north before widening into the Bay of Eleusis. Where the channel turns north, the island of Aghios Giorgios (Farmakoussai) and a small island near the mainland serve to further narrow the passageway to half a mile.  The main Greek fleet would be stationed just north of these narrows, waiting for the Persian fleet to attempt a passage.  The problem Themistocles faced was luring the Persian ships into the Straits.

The Battle of Salamis occurred in September 480 B.C., although the exact date is uncertain.  It was either September 20th or September 23rd, according to most authorities.  The combined Greek fleet numbered 380 vessels.  The Athenians, with their 200 galleys, provided the backbone of the force.  According to Greek tradition, they faced a Persian armada of 1,000 ships.[65]

With Athens in Persian hands, the Bay of Phalerum became the assembly area for the Persian fleet.  In planning the next move in his campaign, Xerxes decided to hold an expanded council of war. He came down to Phalerum to meet with the various rulers and commanders of the fleet.  Mardonius, serving as the king's representative, made his rounds among the military leadership. The question was whether there was any need to fight another sea battle. 

The Carian queen Artemisia advised Mardonius not to fight. 'Spare your ships and do not fight this sea battle.'  The Greeks, as sailors, were superior at sea to the Persian naval forces, she argued, and sea battles, for the Persians, were therefore more risky.  Xerxes, in capturing Athens, already had achieved one of his main objectives.  If nothing else, the fleet could be used to intimidate the Greeks.  They were not prepared for a long confrontation and would soon run out of food.  The Persian military threat, directed at individual cities, would be enough to break up the alliance.  The Peloponnesians would be unwilling to fight for Athens if they found themselves threatened.[66]

Xerxes essentially thanked Artemisia for her advice, then went with the majority and ordered the fleet to prepare for battle.  Herodotus' account downplays the role of the Persian military staff and planners.  Xerxes, almost on a whim, could make snap decisions.  Whether Artemisia's speech actually took place, it probably was an accurate assessment of the military situation existing prior to the battle.  The superiority of the Greek navy was readily recognized even by the Persians.  It was not the only consideration in military planning, but it did need to be factored in.

It is likely that Xerxes' war council took place on the eve of the battle. Yet, the preliminaries  had begun long before the fleets actually met in the straits of  Salamis. Initially Persian strategy was to continue its campaign against Greece by invading the Peloponnese. If a confrontation with the Greek fleet, which had taken up a defensive position in the sound of Salamis, was to be avoided, then at least it needed to be neutralized.  If it would not come out of the sound, then the Persians would bottle it up.  They began blockading operations by construction of a causeway made of ships lashed together between Salamis and Attica, on the eastern side of the sound.  The Greeks countered with a regiment of archers which, if nothing else, harassed the crews trying to complete the mole.  In the end, there were not enough ships to both complete the span and support the Peloponnesian advance. Xerxes requested additional ships, including the Pontic fleet from the Hellespont.[67]

News that the Persian fleet was being reinforced alarmed the Greeks.  Food was running short and there was now the danger that the Persians would either finish the causeway or would use their ships to enforce the blockade. The question was whether to stay, and risk starvation, or to escape, in hopes of saving the fleet to continue the fight later.  Eurybiades, the fleet's Spartan commander, instinctively favored ordering the fleet to disperse and make a stand at the Isthmus.  Themistocles, commanding the Athenian fleet, came close to blackmailing him.  He would either order the ships to remain in the straits of Salamis, or the Athenians would refuse to follow his lead to the Peloponnese.  Without the Athenian navy, the other Greek ships would refuse to follow the Spartan lead and would sail home.  At one point, Themistocles threatened that the Athenians would move their entire population from Athens to Italy, if the fleet left Salamis. Eurybiades relented and the fleet was ordered to remain.

Themistocles, fearful that the Greek allies would decide to abandon Salamis, contrary to orders, sent a messenger named Sicinnus to the Persians.  Sicinnus was to tell them that Themistocles had switched sides and wanted to help defeat the Greeks.  The Greek fleet was on the verge of breaking up. While the dissolution of the fleet would serve to eliminate the threat posed at sea, Sicinnus tempted them with an alternative proposition. If morale among the Greeks was bad enough to cause them to think of abandoning Athens, it would be relatively easy to capture the entire fleet.  Let individual Greek ships slip the blockade and the fleet could be reassembled to fight the Persians again. Destroy or capture the ships before they escaped Salamis and there would be no Greek fleet to resurrect. After discussing this news, the Persians decided to block the exits from Salamis, trapping the Greeks and bringing the blockade to a successful conclusion.  They landed a force of 400 soldiers on the island of Psyttaleia. The Egyptian squadron of 200 vessels was ordered to sail around Salamis to block any Greek escape through the Megarian Channel. Opposing them was a squadron of 50 Corinthian warships, sent by the Greeks to guard the Megarian Channel and the approach to Salamis from the west.[68]

Eurybiades' order to stay had not stopped debate among the Greek commanders.  During the debate Aristides arrived to inform them that the Persian fleet had encircled their force. They must now prepare to fight.  A Tenian ship, deserting from the Persians, arrived to confirm the news. Before ordering the Greek crews to their ships, Themistocles set about making a sacrifice.  Three Persian captives, said to be the children of Artayctes and Sanduce, Xerxes' sister, were brought to him.  The prophet Euphrantides asked that they be consecrated for sacrifice, and offered to Bacchus the Devourer, with prayers for victory.  Themistocles was reluctant, but when a mob seized the three prisoners and led them to the altar, the three were sacrificed [69]

It is not known how the Greeks lured the Persian fleet into the trap. One theory is that a decoy squadron was launched from the Bay of Ambelaki, screened by the promontory of the Cynosura.  Moving east in column along the promontory, the crews were unusually noisy, alerting the Persians to their presence even before they could be seen.  The crews of the Ionian and Phoenician warships watched the ships, one by one, as they emerged from behind the Cape.  The Greek ships, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the enemy vessels, continued moving forward, then began to slow. Turning their prows toward the Persians in a defensive posture, they slowly began to back up.  For a Persian fleet expecting the Greeks to surrender, the Greek hesitancy reinforced the image of a beaten force.  Was the Greek fleet which had fought so fiercely at Artemisium now afraid to engage them?  It was rumored that Xerxes was coming down to the water to accept the surrender of the Greek fleet.

The Phoenician and Ionian commanders let their enthusiasm get the better of their judgment, if only for a few minutes. It was all that was needed to turn their command into chaos.  The Greek line, resembling a crescent as it receded in the distance, looked less and less like a trap and more and more like an opportunity.  Their confidence grew. They would be soon be strengthened by the reinforcements from the Pontic fleet.  Xerxes, who would reward those who distinguished themselves, was watching from one of the hills above. Whether the commanding officers gave a general order to attack or whether a few ships took it on themselves to give chase, the Phoenicians and Ionians began to move into the Channel.  Other than advancing as rapidly as possible against the retreating Greek ships, the Persian command had given little thought to the organization of their attack and it was now virtually impossible to recall any of their ships.

The three contingents of the Persian fleet soon filled the main channel, advancing toward Aghios Giorgios.  The Phoenicians, with their high-decked ships, on the right, were in the lead.  The Cypriot and Levantine vessels were in the center, while the Ionian ships were on the left.  Many of the Greek crews, seeing the size of the approaching Persian force, lost confidence in Themistocles' gamble, and simply beached their ships.  Those who did not abandon the fight however, were beginning to wonder what their commanders were thinking.   Why were they not ordered to attack?  It was said later that a phantom appeared in the form of woman and taunted them: 'Madmen,' she said, 'how much further are you going to back up?'[70] 

The main Greek fleet was now fully deployed north of the narrows. Eurybiades, the Spartan commander-in-chief, with the Peloponnesian squadron, was stationed on the Greek right.  The Athenians, commanded by Themistocles, formed the center and left.  Geographical location would now provide the Greeks with a major advantage. The passage through the narrows between Aghios Giorgios and the mainland, about half a mile wide, left enough room for only twenty galleys rowing abreast.  If the Persians had a thousand ships in the straits, only twenty were in a position to close with the enemy.  The Phoenician warships were the first to move through the narrows, but they were unable to organize an effective formation for either attack or defense.  Themistocles either personally led the initial attack or signaled to the other Athenian ships to move in. Among the first to respond was the Athenian, Aminias of Pallene, who rammed the Phoenician flagship, commanded by Xerxes' brother Ariamenes (Ariabignes) head on.  The two ships became entangled.  When Ariamenes led a boarding party to capture the Greek ship, Aminias and Sosicles ran him through with a lance and threw his body overboard.  Other Greek ships moved in to help and, gaining confidence, began to press their attack.

Tactically, the Greeks did not need to sink or destroy all the Persian ships.  They merely needed to disable them. The floating wrecks of destroyed vessels served to clog the passage further, presenting obstacles which the Persian vessels needed to navigate through.  The Phoenician galleys, with their high decks and sterns, were faced with another problem.  A sea breeze, which created a strong swell in the waters of the channel, made them difficult to maneuver.  The swells caused them to roll and their high decks suffered damage when they collided.  Unable to turn quickly enough, they were vulnerable to broadside attacks from the Greek triremes.

If the Greeks, and particularly the Athenians, relied heavily on their ability to ram and sink enemy vessels, the fighting did not end with a wood-shattering collision.  The Athenian triremes carried a complement of eighteen marines, made up of fourteen men-at-arms and four archers.  Their orders were to board and capture enemy ships, once they had been rammed.  Their armor, made of bronze, gave them a distinct advantage over the Persian marines, whose protection consisted primarily of cloth helmets, leather corselets, and woven-wicker shields.  As they swarmed unto the decks of the crippled ships, they overwhelmed the defenders.  Persian archers tried to bring them down, but arrows were not enough to stop them.  

Despite the difficulties of the narrows passage, the Ionians had managed to bring enough vessels through to mount a strong challenge to the Peloponnesian squadron.  Yet they were unable to continue the fighting when the Phoenician right collapsed.  The Phoenician commanders decided that they could no longer sustain their attack.  Their front-line ships turned around in an attempt to withdraw.  In doing so, they collided with fresher ships, coming up to join the attack.  The loss of momentum was observed by the Ionians in the center and left, causing them to disengage and flee.

As the Persians began to disengage they found themselves under attack from an unexpected direction.  Aeginetan and Megaran vessels, sailing out of the Bay of Ambelaki, fell on the Persian ships still in the Salamis Channel. The ships which managed to escape returned to their anchorage in the Bay of Phalerum and the protection of the Persian army.  The Persian force which had been left on Psyttaleia was forgotten.  Aristides collected a force of soldiers, sailed over to the island and massacred the Persians left there.  According to Herodotus, Persian losses among sailors and marines were made higher by the fact that few knew how to swim.   The Greeks showed those who did survive little mercy.  As they moved through the floating wreckage, any Persian sailors or marines found clinging to the debris were clubbed to death, either with improvised clubs or with oars.[71]

The fighting had lasted for seven or eight hours and the Persians lost (or saved) about half their fleet. By one estimate, the Greeks lost forty ships, the Persians over 200. This number was the number sunk and probably did not include those captured.  While the Greeks had won a decisive victory, they had not managed to destroy the Persian fleet.  When the Persian vessels retreated to Phalerum, the Greeks, rather than pressing their attack, were content to return to their base on Salamis.[72]

Whatever plans Xerxes may have had to renew the fight were quickly abandoned, once a military council assessed the results of the battle. He had been placed on the defensive.  While he still hoped to conquer Greece, he was fearful that he would himself be trapped in Europe. The Greeks might sail to the Hellespont and destroy the bridge there, cutting off his line of retreat, or, just as terrifying, stir up a revolt among the Ionians  With his fleet still outnumbering that of the Greeks, was he abandoning his goal prematurely?  Athens had been captured and victory seemed in sight. Was the real problem a "loss of nerve" or was the extent of the Greek victory not entirely apparent from the battle statistics?

In one sense the loss of 200 ships, out of an estimated force of 1,000, while a severe blow, still left a sizeable navy.  But it also assumes that the Greeks had made an accurate count and/or had not exaggerated the number of ships they were facing at the beginning of the fight.  If the actual size of the fleet was substantially smaller, the greater the proportionate loss suffered.  If, for example, the Persian fleet had been around 400, the loss of 200 ships would have meant a casualty/loss rate of fifty percent.  Another problem was the distribution of losses among the various squadrons.  It appears that some forces suffered greater losses than others.  The Phoenician fleet, considered one of the most powerful wings of the Persian navy going into Salamis, had been virtually annihilated.  Coming out of the battle, it may have been reduced to a single squadron.  That may be the reason Xerxes ordered the execution of the Phoenician command (not, as reported, for slandering the Ionians).

According to the story, some Phoenician survivors came to Xerxes toward the end of the battle, and blamed the outcome on the traitorous actions of the Ionian commanders.  As they were talking, Xerxes happened to see an encounter between a Samothracian and an Aeginetan ship. The Samothracian ship had just rammed an Attic ship, causing it to sink. Before the Samothracians could back their ship away from the entanglement, an Aeginetan ship attacked them, and their ship began to sink.  From the deck of their sinking ship they mounted a javelin attack on the Aeginetans, killing those who showed themselves.  They then boarded the Aeginetan ship and captured her. Angered, Xerxes ordered his servants to behead the Phoenicians.  Having shown themselves to be cowards, he would not allow them to slander those who were better than they.[73]  

Despite the outward show of support for the Ionians, Xerxes may have been entertaining doubts about their continued loyalty.  He was only too aware that, while political expediency might make them temporary allies of Persia, their cultural ties to mainland Greece would, ultimately, pull them away.  Persian military prestige had been damaged by Salamis, but of greater significance, for the Ionian cities, was the fact that the defeat had taken place at sea.  It was the Persian navy which had suffered the loss.  The key to intimidation and control of a kingdom of island states was a powerful navy.  The Phoenician fleet, which had been a major Persian tool in the subjugation of the Ionian cities, had been demolished by a smaller Athenian fleet, and the Ionians had been present to see it dismantled.

Concluding that the Persian fleet was now too weak to take the initiative at sea, Xerxes made plans to return home.  Responsibility for the conquest of Greece would be returned to the army - and left for the following year's campaigning season.  Victory, if it came, would be the result of a deliberately-planned campaign, not a spectacular shortcut.  Xerxes could blame the failure of the campaign on his commanders and point to the blunders committed at Salamis, but the underlying cause may have been a sudden shift in goals and unrealistically high expectations.  The Persian strategy of steadily advancing a massive army had, by-and-large, been successful. The capture of Athens was proof of that.  Yet, in his eagerness to bring the campaign to a swift conclusion, Xerxes temporarily deviated from that plan.

Xerxes did not flee Athens immediately after Salamis, although Herodotus claims he made plans to run away.  A decision was made, not to end the campaign, but to renew it the following spring, with Mardonius in command.  However, it was decided to evacuate Attica.  The main body of Persian troops would winter in Thessaly.  Artabazus and 60,000 troops were detached from the main force to accompany Xerxes back to the Hellespont.

The Greek response to the withdrawal was somewhat timid.  Indications that the Persian army was withdrawing were not believed. Even the normally aggressive Spartans were reluctant to leave their defensive positions on the Isthmus.  Cleombrotus claimed that a solar eclipse on October 2nd prevented him from attacking the Persian rear-guard as they withdrew to the north. The victorious Greek fleet, on the day following Salamis, seeing that the Persian army was still in camp, assumed that the Persian fleet was still there and preparing to renew the fight.  The Greeks  made plans to fight a defensive battle.  Like their Spartan counterparts, they seemed less than eager to take the offensive. Once it was confirmed that the Persian fleet had left, they are said to have immediately begun a pursuit.  Yet, they never caught sight of the fleeing ships, even though they pursued them as far as Andros (an island off the southern end of Euboea).

At a war council held on Andros, Themistocles is said to have proposed sailing to the Hellespont to destroy the bridges there, trapping Xerxes in Europe.  Eurybiades, still commander-in-chief, argued that Xerxes should be allowed to escape, He posed a greater threat to Greece if he felt trapped.  His argument carried the day.  The Peloponnesians, still holding the majority, voted to call off the pursuit.  More than likely the Spartans were unwilling to commit to an expanded war or, were more skeptical of a strategy relying so heavily on naval power.  The Persians were no longer an immediate threat.

Themistocles' plan to trap Xerxes by destroying the bridge was unnecessary.  When Xerxes arrived at the Hellespont the bridge was no longer there, probably destroyed by a storm.  He took a ship across to Abydos and continued on from there to Sardis.

The Greeks attributed their deliverance from the Persians, at least in part, to divine intervention.  Even Themistocles, not known for his humility, was willing to acknowledge the role of the gods. "It is not we who have won this victory, but the gods."  Athena, the Mistress of Athens, worked unceasingly on her behalf.  She not only pleaded on their behalf with her father, Zeus, but, according to some sailors, appeared over the fleet at Salamis, shouting encouragement.  Zeus finally gave in and helped, but only after the Greeks took to their ships.  Poseidon, god of the sea, sent the storms which destroyed part of the Persian fleet before it reached Salamis.

Just before Salamis, Dicaeus, an Athenian exile accompanying the Persians, was walking with Demaratus, a Lacedaemonian, on the Thriasian plain east of Eleusis.  They saw a cloud of dust rising from Eleusis, as if thousands of men were marching through.  Suddenly they heard a loud cry coming from the cloud.  Thinking it was associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries, Demaratus asked the Athenian what it meant.  Dicaeus said that it was the Iacchus-cry (the mystic name for Dionysus), the celebratory shouts of the annual festival.  Since the city of Athens was now empty of people, the sound was certainly divine in origin.  The Athenian added that it had to be a bad omen for the Persian force.  If it came down on the Peloponnese, the king and his army were in danger.  If it moved toward the Salamis, the Persian fleet was at risk.  As they watched the dust rise, it turned to mist and formed a cloud, which drifted toward Salamis and the ships waiting there.


(1) Herodotus, "The History" I, p. 125.
(2) Jim Hicks, "The Persians," Time-Life Books, (New York, NY 1975), pp. 10-11.
(3) Herodotus I, p. 91.
(4) Herodotus I, p. 86.
(5) The Bible, Book of Daniel 5:25.
(6) Jim Hicks, "The Persians," p. 24.
(7) J. B. Bury, S. A. Cook, F. E. Adcock, eds., "The Cambridge Ancient History: Volume IV: The Persian Empire and the West," Cambridge at the University Press, (London, New York 1964), p. 12.
(8) "The Cambridge Ancient History," p. 15.
(9) Herodotus I, pp. 211-214.
(10) Herodotus III, p. 9.
(11) Herodotus III, p. 26.
(12) "Cambridge Ancient History," p. 21.
(13) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 23, 173; Herodotus III, pp. 64, 66.
(14) Nicolas Grimal, translated by Ian Shaw, "A History of Ancient Egypt" Blackwell, (Oxford 1992), p. 369.
(15) Herodotus III, p. 62.
(16) Jim Hicks, "The Persians," p. 28.
(17) Herodotus III, pp. 30, 61.
(18) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 175-176; Herodotus III, pp. 70-79.
(19) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 176-177; Herodotus III, pp. 150-152.
(20) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 178-179.
(21) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 179-180.
(22) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 181-182; Herodotus III, pp. 127-128.
(23) "Cambridge Ancient History," p. 183; Herodotus III, p. 94; IV, p. 44.
(24) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 194-195; Herodotus III, p.89-94.
(25) Tim Burford, Norm Longley, and Thomas Brown, "The Rough Guide to Romania," Rough Guides, (New York 2004), pp. 350 & 359.
(26) Professor John M. Mackenzie, Gen. ed., "Peoples, Nations and Cultures: An A-Z of the Peoples of the World, Past and Present," Weidenfeld & Nicolson, (London 2005), p. 405.
(27) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 212; Herodotus IV, pp. 85-89, 93 & 137-138.
(28) Herodotus IV, pp.97-98.
(29) Herodotus IV, pp.120, 119-120.
(30) J. B. Bury and Russell Meiggs, "A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great," Macmillan, (London 1989), p. 152; Herodotus IV, pp.122-124.
(31) Herodotus IV, pp. 131-132.
(32) Herodotus IV, pp. 134-136, Herodotus I, p. 211.
(33) Herodotus IV, p. 140.
(34) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 212-213; Herodotus IV, pp. 102, 104 & 124-125.
(35) Jim Hicks, "The Persians," p. 71; Herodotus III, p. 89.
(36) Herodotus V, pp. 33-34.
(37) Herodotus V, pp. 36-38.
(38) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 218.
(39) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 218.
(40) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 219, 221, 223; Herodotus V, pp. 99, 103, 108 & 112-115.
(41) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 223-224; Herodotus V, pp. 117, 119-121.
(42) Herodotus VI, pp. 14-16.
(43) Herodotus VI, pp. 42-43.
(44) Herodotus V, p. 105.
(45) Herodotus V, p. 7. VI, p. 94.
(46) Herodotus VI, pp. 46-47.
(47) Herodotus VI, pp. 94-101.
(48) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 241-245; Herodotus VI, pp. 112-117.
(49) Herodotus VII, pp. 12-14.
(50) Herodotus VII, pp. 17-18.
(51) Herodotus VII, pp. 89 & 184-186.
(52) Herodotus VII, p. 187.
(53) "Cambridge Ancient History," p. 273; Bury & Meiggs, "A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great,: p. 169; J.M. Roberts, "History of the World," Oxford University Press, (New York 1993), p. 148.
(54) Herodotus VII, pp. 34-37.
(55) Herodotus VII, pp. 179-193.
(56) Herodotus VIII, p. 5.
(57) Herodotus VIII, pp. 7-21.
(58) Herodotus VII, pp. 172-174; 201-204.
(59) Herodotus VII, pp. 211-225.
(60) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp. 165-166; Herodotus VII, p. 148; VI, pp. 76-82;.
(61) "Cambridge Ancient History," p. 281.
(62) "Cambridge Ancient History," pp.281, 292-293; Herodotus VII, p. 218; VIII, p. 31.
(63) "Cambridge Ancient History," p.281, 293-297.
(64) Herodotus VII, p. 141.
(65) Herodotus VIII, p. 82; Charles W. Eliot, LL.D., ed., "Plutarch's Lives" P.F. Collier & Son Corporation, (New York 1937), p. 18.
(66) Herodotus VIII, p. 68.
(67) Jim Hicks, "The Persians," p. 58; "Cambridge Ancient History," p. 305.
(68) Colin Thubron, "The Seafarers: The Ancient Mariners," Time-Life Books, (Alexandria, VA 1981), p. 62.
(69) Plutarch, "Lives," "Themistocles," p. 18.
(70) Herodotus VIII, p. 84.
(71) Colin Thubron, "The Ancient Mariners," p. 67; Herodotus VIII, p. 95.
(72) "Cambridge Ancient History," p. 312-313; Colin Thubron, "The Ancient Mariners," p. 67.
(73) Herodotus VIII, p. 90.
(74) Colin Thubron, "The Ancient Mariners," p. 64; Herodotus VIII, p. 65.

Suggestions for further reading.

Enzo Angelucci and Attilio Cucari, "Ships," McGraw-Hill Book Company, (New York 1975)

Clifford N. Anderson, "The Fertile Crescent: Travels in the Footsteps of Ancient Science," Sylvester Press, (Fort Lauderdale, FL 1972).

Robert B. Asprey, "War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History," William Morrow and Company, Inc., (New York, NY 1994).

James Barter, "Lost Civilizations: The Ancient Persians," Lucent Books, (Farmington Hills, MI 2006).

S. G. F. Brandon, "Milestones of History: Ancient Empires," Newsweek Books, (New York 1973).

Tim Burford, Norm Longley, and Thomas Brown, "The Rough Guide to Romania," Rough Guides, (New York 2004).

J. B. Bury, S. A. Cook, F. E. Adcock, eds., "The Cambridge Ancient History: Volume IV: The Persian Empire and the West," Cambridge at the University Press, (London, New York 1964).

J. B. Bury and Russell Meiggs, "A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great," Macmillan, (London 1989).

Roberta Conlan, Managing ed., "Lost Civilizations: Anatolia: Cauldron of Culture," Time-Life Books, (Alexandria, VA 1995)

Paul K. Davis, "100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present" Oxford University Press, (Oxford 1999)

Charles W. Eliot, LL.D., ed., "Plutarch's Lives" P.F. Collier & Son Corporation, (New York 1937)

Richard N. Frye, "The Heritage of Persia" The New American Library, (New York 1963)

Janet Serlin Garber, ed., "The Concise Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations," Franklin Watts, (New York, NY 1978).

Roman Ghirshman, Vladimir Minorsky, Ramesh Sanghvi, "Persia the Immortal Kingdom," Orient Commerce Establishment, (New York, NY 1971).

Nicolas Grimal, translated by Ian Shaw, "A History of Ancient Egypt" Blackwell, (Oxford 1992).

Felix Guirand, ed., translated by Richard Aldington and Delano Ames, "New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology," Prometheus Press, (New York 1959).

Herodotus, translated by David Grene, "The History," The University of Chicago Press, (Chicago, 1987)

Jim Hicks, "The Persians," Time-Life Books, (New York, NY 1975).

John Keegan, "A History of Warfare," Alfred A. Knopf, (New York 1993).

Veres Laszlo and Richard Woodman, "The Story of Sail," Naval Institute Press, (Annapolis, MD 1999).

Richard Russell Lawrence, ed. "The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness Naval Battles," Carroll & Graf Publishers, (New York, NY 2003).

Professor John M. Mackenzie, Gen. ed., "Peoples, Nations and Cultures: An A-Z of the Peoples of the World, Past and Present," Weidenfeld & Nicolson, (London 2005).

Sandra Mackey, "The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation," Dutton, (New York, NY 1996).

Jane R. McIntosh, "Ancient Mesopotamia: New Perspectives," ABC CLIO, (Santa Barbara 2005).

J.M. Roberts, "History of the World," Oxford University Press, (New York 1993).

Colin Thubron, "The Seafarers: The Ancient Mariners," Time-Life Books, (Alexandria, VA 1981).

Frederick G. Vosburgh, Editor, "Greece and Rome: Builders of Our World," National Geographic Society, (Washington, D.C. 1968)