The Persian Wars
The classical period is bounded by the two confrontations of Greece and Persia, one in 481-480 B.C., with the invasion of Persia and the other in 333-323 B.C., with the expedition of Alexander the Great and the conquering of the Persian Empire. The arrogance of the Persian kings who, by commanding their enormous armies and fleets, were certain of their victorious outcome, as well as the eventual overwhelming victory of Greece, provided the catalyst for the creation of the 5th century classical spirit.
In 499 B.C. the Greek cities of Ionia - led by Miletos and assisted by Athens and Eretria - revolted against Persian oppression. The revolt was crushed and the punishment of the Greek cities was exemplary. The entire male population of Miletos was killed and the women and children were sold as slaves. The assistance of Athens and Eretria gave Darius, the Persian king, the desire to implement a scheme, which he had been contemplating for many years, the subjugation of the mainland Greece. The first Persian invasion took place in 492 B.C. with Mardonios (the son-in-law of Darius) to run a military expedition to reassert their power in Thrace and Macedonia. Although his expedition was successful, he had to return to Persia as his fleet was destroyed while rounding the Mt. Athos peninsula. Two years later, Darius organized another expedition aiming in the destruction of the city-states of Athens and Eretria. He sent his fleet with two commanding generals, Datis and Artaphernes, and a sizable army, to burn Eretria and land at the shores of Marathon on the coast of Attica, about 32 miles from Athens. When the word reached Athens, it had already been decided - due to Miltiades' insistence - to encounter the enemy outside the walls, in Marathon.
The Athenians sent out a runner, Pheidippides, to ask Sparta, 140 miles to the south, for help - the first "Marathon race", but the Spartans were involved in religious festivities and were unable to assist. The Athenians, with their general Miltiades, who used ingenious military tactics - similar to those Hannibal would use in the future - stormed against the great Persian army and won an unbelievable victory. The Persians withdrew to Asia, only to return ten years later under the command of Darius' successor, his son Xerxes. Herodotus describes with awe the overwhelming force of land troops and ships. Thirty-one Greek city-states - led by Athens and Sparta - formed an alliance to fight the enemy. Their first encounter was at the narrow pass of Thermopylae, 150 miles away from Athens. The Spartan king Leonidas commanded the Greek forces. Before incredible odds Leonidas dismissed most of the other cities' contingents and remained at Thermopylae with just 300 Spartans to fight the massive Persian troops. After a heroic resistance the defenders were killed. Herodotus refers to the savage fight between Spartans and Persians over the dead body of Leonidas.
Faced with the imminent arrival of the Persian army, the Athenians were persuaded by their leader, Themistocles, to put their trust in their naval forces and confront the invaders at sea. The Athenians' fleet - built with the profits of the vein of silver in Lavrion - was the "brain child" of Themistocles, who believed that Athens should place emphasis on naval supremacy. Themistocles lured the Persian fleet to the narrow straits between the mainland and Salamis. The Persian infantry burned down the evacuated Athens. The narrowness of the strait prohibited the enormous-size Persian fleet to move. Herodotus mentions that the Greek fleet was in orderly fashion while the Persian didn't follow any tactical maneuvering. The Athenian victory was enormous. Xerxes withdrew, leaving behind an army of 100,000 men under Mardonius, who was defeated in the decisive battle of Plataea in 479 B.C. by the joined forces of Sparta, Megara and Plataea. At the same time, the Greek fleet destroyed what was left of the Persian at Mycale, across of the island of Samos.
The last episode was played out at the Eurymedon River at Pamphylia some nine years later. There, Kimon, the Athenian General, delivered the final blow on the Persian army and navy, bringing an end to the long chapter of Persian efforts to dominate Greece. The importance of the Persian wars was depicted in the work of Aeschylus, Perses, the History of Herodotus and the lyric poetry of Simonides and Pindar. Xerxes is portrayed as a ruler of unlimited power over his troops - mostly slaves from his vast empire, without unity and determination - and even over nature (the enchaining of the Hellespond because it was rough when he wanted to cross it). He is the personification of hybris (arrogance) defeated by the sophrosyne, order, purpose, moderation and rationality of the independent Greek city-states, united to protect their lives, homes, common religion, language and culture. Their unbelievable victory, against all odds, justified their feeling of cultural superiority and the belief of human responsibility and determination of their future. These beliefs obtained a visual image in the 5th century, through the restraint of emotions and the consciousness of the surroundings of classical art.
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