A Smaller History of Greece; from the Earliest Times to the Roman Conquest

Author: William Smith

Chapter VII. The Persian Wars.—From the Ionic Revolt to the Battle of Marathon, B.C. 500-490.

The Grecian cities on the coast of Asia Minor were the neighbours of an Asiatic power which finally reduced them to subjection. This was the kingdom of Lydia, of which Sardis was the capital. Croesus, the last and most powerful of the Lydian kings, who ascended the throne B.C. 560, conquered in succession all the Grecian cities on the coast. His rule, however, was not oppressive, and he permitted the cities to regulate their own affairs. He spoke the Greek language, welcomed Greek guests, and reverenced the Greek oracles, which he enriched with the most munificent offerings. He extended his dominions in Asia Minor as far as the river Halys, and he formed a close alliance with Astyages, king of the Medes, who were then the ruling race in Asia. Everything seemed to betoken uninterrupted prosperity, when a people hitherto almost unknown suddenly became masters of the whole of western Asia.

The Persians were of the same race as the Medes and spoke a dialect of the same language. They inhabited the mountainous region south of Media, which slopes gradually down to the low grounds on the coast of the Persian gulf. While the Medes became enervated by the corrupting influences to which they were exposed, the Persians preserved in their native mountains their simple and warlike habits. They were a brave and hardy nation, clothed in skins, drinking only water, and ignorant of the commonest luxuries of life. Cyrus led these fierce warriors from their mountain fastnesses, defeated the Medes in battle, took Astyages prisoner, and deprived him of his throne. The other nations included in the Median empire submitted to the conqueror, and the sovereignty of Upper Asia thus passed from the Medes to the Persians. The accession of Cyrus to the empire is placed in B.C. 559. A few years afterwards Cyrus turned his arms against the Lydians, took Sardis, and deprived Croesus of his throne (B.C. 546). The fall of Croesus was followed by the subjection of the Greek cities in Asia to the Persian yoke. They offered a brave but ineffectual resistance, and were taken one after the other by Harpagus the Persian general. Even the islands of Lesbos and Chios sent in their submission to Harpagus, although the Persians then possessed no fleet to force them to obedience. Samos, on the other hand, maintained its independence, and appears soon afterwards one of the most powerful of the Grecian states.

During the reign of Cambyses (B.C. 529-521), the son and successor of Cyrus, the Greek cities of Asia remained obedient to their Persian governors. It was during this reign that Polycrates, tyrant of Samos, became the master of the Grecian seas. The ambition and good fortune of this enterprising tyrant were alike remarkable. He possessed a hundred ships of war, with which he conquered several of the islands; and he aspired to nothing less than the dominion of Ionia, as well as of the islands in the AEgean. The Lacedaemonians, who had invaded the island at the invitation of the Samian exiles, for the purpose of overthrowing his government, were obliged to retire, after besieging his city in vain for forty days. Everything which he undertook seemed to prosper; but his uninterrupted good fortune at length excited the alarm of his ally Amasis, the king of Egypt. According to the tale related by Herodotus, the Egyptian king, convinced that such amazing good fortune would sooner or later incur the envy of the gods, wrote to Polycrates, advising him to throw away one of his most valuable possessions and thus inflict some injury upon himself. Thinking the advice to be good, Polycrates threw into the sea a favourite ring of matchless price and beauty; but unfortunately it was found a few days afterwards in the belly of a fine fish which a fisherman had sent him as a present. Amasis now foresaw that the ruin of Polycrates was inevitable, and sent a herald to Samos to renounce his alliance. The gloomy anticipations of the Egyptian monarch proved well founded. In the midst of all his prosperity Polycrates fell by a most ignominious fate. Oroetes, the satrap of Sardis, had for some unknown cause conceived a deadly hatred against the Samian despot. By a cunning stratagem the satrap allured him to the mainland, where he was immediately arrested and hanged upon a cross (B.C. 522).

The reign of Darius, the third king of Persia. (B.C. 521-485), is memorable in Grecian history. In his invasion of Scythia, his fleet, which was furnished by the Asiatic Greeks, was ordered to sail up the Danube and throw a bridge of boats across the river. The King himself, with his land forces, marched through Thrace; and, crossing the bridge, placed it under the care of the Greeks, telling them that, if he did not return within sixty days, they might break it down, and sail home. He then left them, and penetrated into the Scythian territory. The sixty days had already passed away, and there was yet no sign of the Persian army; but shortly afterwards the Greeks were astonished by the appearance of a body of Scythians, who informed them that Darius was in full retreat, pursued by the whole Scythian nation, and that his only hope of safety depended upon that bridge. They urged the Greeks to seize this opportunity of destroying the Persian army, and of recovering their own liberty, by breaking down the bridge. Their exhortations were warmly seconded by the Athenian Miltiades, the tyrant of the Thracian Chersonesus, and the future conqueror of Marathon. The other rulers of the Ionian cities were at first disposed to follow his suggestion; but as soon as Histiaeus of Miletus reminded them that their sovereignty depended upon the support of the Persian king, and that his ruin would involve their own, they changed their minds and resolved to await the Persians. After enduring great privations and sufferings Darius and his army at length reached the Danube and crossed the bridge in safety. Thus the selfishness of these Grecian despots threw away the most favourable opportunity that ever presented itself of delivering their native cities from the Persian yoke. To reward the services of Histiaeus, Darius gave him the town of Myrainus, near the Strymon. Darius, on his return to Asia, left Megabazus in Europe with an army of 80,000 men to complete the subjugation of Thrace and of the Greek cities upon the Hellespont. Megabazus not only subdued the Thracians, but crossed the Strymon, conquered the Paeonians, and penetrated as far as the frontiers of Macedonia. He then sent heralds into the latter country to demand earth and water, the customary symbols of submission. These were immediately granted by Amyntas, the reigning monarch (B.C. 510); and thus the Persian dominions were extended to the borders of Thessaly. Megabazus, on his return to Sardis, where Darius awaited him, informed the Persian monarch that Histiaeus was collecting the elements of a power which might hereafter prove formidable to the Persian sovereignty, since Myrcinus commanded the navigation of the Strymon, and consequently the commerce with the interior of Thrace. Darius, perceiving that the apprehensions of his general were not without foundation, summoned Histiaeus to his presence, and, under the pretext that he could not bear to be deprived of the company of his friend, carried him with the rest of the court to Susa. This apparently trivial circumstance was attended with important consequences to the Persian empire and to the whole Grecian race.

For the next few years everything remained quiet in the Greek cities of Asia; but about B.C. 502 a revolution in Naxos, one of the islands in the AEgean Sea, first disturbed the general repose, and occasioned the war between Greece and Asia. The aristocratical exiles, who had been driven out of Naxos by a rising of the people, applied for aid to Aristagoras, the tyrant of Miletus and the son-in-law of Histiaeus. Aristagoras readily promised his assistance, knowing that, if they were restored by his means, he should become master of the island. He obtained the co-operation of Artaphernes, the satrap of western Asia by holding out to him the prospect of annexing not only Naxos, but all the islands of the AEgean sea, to the Persian empire. He offered at the same time to defray the expense of the armament. Artaphernes placed at his disposal a fleet of 200 ships under the command of Megabates, a Persian of high rank; but Aristagoras having affronted the Persian admiral, the latter revenged himself by privately informing the Naxians of the object of the expedition, which had hitherto been kept a secret. When the Persian fleet reached Naxos they experienced a vigorous resistance; and at the end of four months they were compelled to abandon the enterprise and return to Miletus. Aristagoras was now threatened with utter ruin. Having deceived Artaphernes, and incurred the enmity of Megabates, he could expect no favour from the Persian government, and might be called upon at any moment to defray the expenses of the armament. In these difficulties he began to think of exciting a revolt of his countrymen; and while revolving the project he received a message from his father-inlaw, Histiaeus, urging him to this very step. Afraid of trusting any one with so dangerous a message, Histiaeus had shaved the head of a trusty slave, branded upon it the necessary words, and as soon as the hair had grown again sent him off to Miletus. His only motive for urging the Ionians to revolt was the desire of escaping from captivity at Susa, thinking that Darius would set him at liberty in order to put down an insurrection of his countrymen. The message from Histiaeus fixed the wavering resolution of Aristagoras. He forthwith called together the leading citizens of Miletus, laid before them the project of revolt, and asked them for advice. They all approved of the scheme, with the exception of Hecataeus, one of the earliest Greek historians. Aristagoras laid down the supreme power in Miletus, and nominally resigned to the people the management of their own affairs. A democratical form of government was established in the other Greek cities of Asia, which thereupon openly revolted from Persia (B.C. 500).

Aristagoras now resolved to cross over to Greece, in order to solicit assistance. The Spartans, to whom he first applied, refused to take any part in the war; but at Athens he met with a very different reception. The Athenians sympathised with the Ionians as their kinsmen and colonists, and were incensed against the satrap Artaphernes, who had recently commanded them to recall Hippias. Accordingly they voted to send a squadron of twenty ships to the assistance of the Ionians; and in the following year (B.C. 499) this fleet, accompanied by five ships from Eretria in Euboea, crossed the AEgean. The troops landed at Ephesus, and, being reinforced by a strong body, of Ionians, marched upon Sardis. Artaphernes was taken unprepared; and not having sufficient troops to man the walls, he retired into the citadel, leaving the town a prey to the invaders. Accordingly they entered it unopposed; and while engaged in pillage, one of the soldiers set fire to a house. As most of the houses were built of wickerwork and thatched with straw, the flames rapidly spread, and in a short time the whole city was in flames. The Greeks, on their return to the coast, were overtaken by a large Persian force and defeated with great slaughter. The Athenians hastened on board their ships and sailed home.

When Darius heard of the burning of Sardis, he burst into a paroxysm of rage. It was against the obscure strangers who had dared to burn one of his capitals that his wrath was chiefly directed. "The Athenians!" he exclaimed, "who are they?" Upon being informed he took his bow, shot an arrow high into the air, saying, "Grant me, Jove, to take vengeance upon the Athenians!" And he charged one of his attendants to remind him thrice every day at dinner "Sire, remember the Athenians." Meantime the insurrection spread to the Greek cities in Cyprus, as well as to those on the Hellespont and the Propontis, and seemed to promise permanent independence to the Asiatic Greeks; but they were no match for the whole power of the Persian empire, which was soon brought against them. Cyprus was subdued, and siege laid to the cities upon the coast of Asia. Aristagoras now began to despair, and basely deserted his countrymen, whom he had led into peril. Collecting a large body of Milesians, he set sail for the Thracian coast, where he was slain under the walls of a town to which he had laid siege. Soon after his departure, his fatherin-law, Histiaeus came down to the coast. The artful Greek not only succeeded in removing the suspicions which Darius first entertained respecting him, but he persuaded the king to send him into Ionia, in order to assist the Persian generals in suppressing the rebellion. Artaphernes, however, was not so easily deceived as his master, and plainly accused Histiaeus of treachery when the latter arrived at Sardis. "I will tell you how the facts stand" said Artaphernes to Histiaeus; "it was you who made the shoe, and Aristagoras has put it on." Finding himself unsafe at Sardis, he escaped to the island of Chios; but he was regarded with suspicion by all parties. At length he obtained eight galleys from Lesbos, with which he sailed towards Byzantium, and carried on piracies as well against the Grecian as the barbarian vessels. This unprincipled adventurer met with a traitor’s death. Having landed on the coast of Mysia, he was surprised by a Persian force and made prisoner. Being carried to Sardis, Artaphernes at once caused him to be crucified, and sent his head to Darius, who ordered it to be honourably buried, condemning the ignominious execution of the man who had once saved the life of the Great King.

In the sixth year of the revolt (B.C. 495), when several Grecian cities had already been taken by the Persians, Artaphernes laid siege to Miletus by sea and by land. A naval engagement took place at Lade a small island off Miletus, which decided the fate of the war. The Samians deserted at the commencement of the battle, and the Ionian fleet was completely defeated. Miletus was soon afterwards taken, and was treated with signal severity. Most of the males were slain; and the few who escaped the sword were carried with the women and children into captivity (B.C. 494). The other Greek cities in Asia and the neighbouring islands were treated with the same cruelty. The islands of Chios, Lesbos, and Tenedos were swept of their inhabitants; and the Persian fleet sailed up to the Hellespont and Propontis, carrying with it fire and sword. The Athenian Miltiades only escaped falling into the power of the Persians by a rapid flight to Athens.

The subjugation of Ionia was now complete. This was the third time that the Asiatic Greeks had been conquered by a foreign power: first by the Lydian Croesus; secondly by the generals of Cyrus; and lastly by those of Darius. It was from the last that they suffered most, and they never fully recovered their former prosperity.

Darius was now at liberty to take vengeance upon the Athenians. He appointed Mardonius to succeed Artaphernes as satrap in western Asia, and he placed under his command a large armament, with injunctions to bring to Susa those Athenians and Eretrians who had insulted the authority of the Great King. Mardonius, after crossing the Hellespont, commenced his march through Thrace and Macedonia, subduing, as he went along, the tribes which had not yet submitted to the Persian power. He ordered the fleet to double the promontory of Mount Athos, and join the land forces at the head of the gulf of Therma; but one of the hurricanes which frequently blow off this dangerous coast overtook the Persian fleet, destroyed 300 vessels and drowned or dashed upon the rocks 20,000 men. Meantime the land forces of Mardonius had suffered so much from an attack made upon them by a Thracian tribe, that he could not proceed farther. He led his army back across the Hellespont, and returned to the Persian court covered with shame and grief (B.C. 492).

The failure of this expedition did not shake the resolution of Darius. He began to make preparations for another attempt on a still larger scale, and meantime sent heralds to most of the Grecian states to demand from each earth and water as the symbol of submission. Such terror had the Persians inspired by their recent conquest of Ionia, that a large number of the Grecian cities at once complied with the demand; but the Athenians cast the herald into a deep pit, and the Spartans threw him into a well bidding him take earth and water from thence.

In the spring of B.C. 490 a large army and fleet were assembled in Cilicia, and the command was given to Datis, a Median, and Artaphernes, son of the satrap of Sardis of that name. Warned by the recent disaster of Mardonius in doubling the promontory of Mount Athos, they resolved to sail straight across the AEgean to Euboea, subduing on their way the Cyclades. These islands yielded a ready submission; and it was not till Datis and Artaphernes reached Euboea that they encountered any resistance. Eretria defended itself gallantly for six days, and repulsed the Persians with loss; but on the seventh the gates were opened to the besiegers by the treachery of two of its leading citizens. The city was razed to the ground, and the inhabitants were put in chains. From Eretria the Persians crossed over to Attica, and landed on the ever memorable plain of Marathon, a spot which had been pointed out to them by the despot Hippias, who accompanied the army.

As soon as the news of the fall of Eretria reached Athens, a courier had been sent to Sparta to solicit assistance. This was promised; but the superstition of the Spartans prevented them from setting out immediately, since it wanted a few days to the full moon, and it was contrary to their religious customs to commence a march during this interval. Meantime the Athenians had marched to Marathon, and were encamped upon the mountains which surrounded the plain. They were commanded, according to the regular custom, by ten generals, one for each tribe, and by the Polemarch, or third Archon, who down to this time continued to be a colleague of the generals. Among these the most distinguished was Miltiades, who, though but lately a tyrant in the Chersonesus, had shown such energy and ability, that the Athenians had elected him one of their commanders upon the approach of the Persian fleet. Upon learning the answer which the courier brought from Sparta, the ten generals were divided in opinion. Five of them were opposed to an immediate engagement with the overwhelming number of Persians, and urged the importance of waiting for the arrival of the Lacedaemonian succours. Miltiades and the remaining four contended that not a moment should be lost in fighting the Persians, not only in order to avail themselves of the present enthusiasm of the people, but still more to prevent treachery from spreading among their ranks. Callimachus, the Polemarch, yielded to the arguments of Miltiades, and gave his vote for the battle. The ten generals commanded their army in rotation, each for one day; but they now agreed to surrender to Miltiades their days of command, in order to invest the whole power in a single person. While the Athenians were preparing for battle, they received unexpected assistance from the little town or Plataea, in Boeotia. Grateful to the Athenians for the assistance which they had rendered them against the Thebans, the whole force of Plataea, amounting to 1000 heavy-armed men, marched to the assistance of their allies and joined them at Marathon. The Athenian army numbered only 10,000 hoplites, or heavy-armed soldiers: there were no archers or cavalry, and only some slaves as light-armed attendants. Of the number of the Persian army we have no trustworthy account, but the lowest estimate makes it consist of 110,000 men.

The plain of Marathon lies on the eastern coast of Attica, at the distance of twenty-two miles from Athens by the shortest road. it is in the form of a crescent, the horns of which consist of two promontories running into the sea, and forming a semicircular bay. This plain is about six miles in length, and in its widest or central part about two in breadth. On the day of battle the Persian army was drawn up along the plain about a mile from the sea, and their fleet was ranged behind them on the beach. The Athenians occupied the rising ground above the plain, and extended from one side of the plain to the other. This arrangement was necessary in order to protect their flanks by the mountains on each side, and to prevent the cavalry from passing round to attack them in rear. But so large a breadth of ground could not be occupied with a small a number of men without weakening some portion of the line. Miltiades, therefore, drew up the troops in the centre in shallow files, and resolved to rely for success upon the stronger and deeper masses of his wings. The right wing, which was the post of honour in a Grecian army, was commanded by the Polemarch Callimachus; the hoplites were arranged in the order of their tribes, so that the members of the same tribe fought by each other’s side; and at the extreme left stood the Plataeans.

Miltiades, anxious to come to close quarters as speedily as possible, ordered his soldiers to advance at a running step over the mile of ground which separated them from the foe. Both the Athenian wings were successful, and drove the enemy before them towards the shore and the marshes. But the Athenian centre was broken by the Persians, and compelled to take to flight. Miltiades thereupon recalled his wings from pursuit, and charged the Persian centre. The latter could not withstand this combined attack. The rout now became general along the whole Persian line; and they fled to their ships, pursued by the Athenians.

The Persians lost 6400 men in this memorable engagement: of the Athenians only 192 fell. The aged tyrant Hippias is said to have perished in the battle, and the brave Polemarch Callimachus was also one of the slain. The Persians embarked and sailed away to Asia. Their departure was hailed at Athens with one unanimous burst of heartfelt joy. Marathon became a magic word at Athens. The Athenian people in succeeding ages always looked back upon this day as the most glorious in their annals, and never tired of hearing its praises sounded by their orators and poets. And they had reason to be proud of it. It was the first time that the Greeks had ever defeated the Persians in the field. It was the exploit of the Athenians alone. It had saved not only Athens but all Greece. If the Persians had conquered at Marathon, Greece must, in all likelihood, have become a Persian province; the destinies of the world would have been changed; and oriental despotism might still have brooded over the fairest countries of Europe.

The one hundred and ninety-two Athenians who had perished in the battle were buried on the field, and over their remains a tumulus or mound was erected, which may still be seen about half a mile from the sea.

Shortly after the battle Miltiades requested of the Athenians a fleet of seventy ships, without telling them the object of his expedition, but only promising to enrich the state. Such unbounded confidence did the Athenians repose in the hero of Marathon, that they at once complied with his demand. This confidence Miltiades abused. In order to gratify a private animosity against one of the leading citizens of Paros, he sailed to this island and laid siege to the town. The citizens repelled all his attacks; and having received a dangerous injury on his thigh, he was compelled to raise the siege and return to Athens. Loud was the indignation against Miltiades on his return. He was accused by Xanthippus, the father of Pericles, of having deceived the people, and was brought to trial. His wound had already begun to show symptoms of gangrene. He was carried into court on a couch, and there lay before the assembled judges, while his friends pleaded on his behalf. They could offer no excuse for his recent conduct, but they reminded the Athenians of the services he had rendered, and, begged them to spare the victor of Marathon. The judges were not insensible to this appeal; and instead of condemning him to death as the accuser had demanded, they commuted the penalty to a fine of fifty talents. Miltiades was unable immediately to raise this sum and died soon afterwards of his wound. The fine was subsequently paid by his son Cimon. The melancholy end of Miltiades must not blind us to his offence. He had grossly abused the public confidence, and deserved his punishment. The Athenians did not forget his services at Marathon, and it was their gratitude towards him which alone saved him from death.

Soon after the battle of Marathon a war broke out between Athens and AEgina. This war is of great importance in Grecian history, since to it the Athenians were indebted for their navy, which enabled them to save Greece at Salamis as they had already done at Marathon. AEgina was one of the chief maritime powers in Greece; and accordingly Themistocles urged the Athenians to build and equip a large and powerful fleet, without which it was impossible for them to humble their rival. There was at this time a large surplus in the public treasury, arising from the produce of the silver-mines at Laurium. It had been recently proposed to distribute this surplus among the Athenian citizens; but Themistocles persuaded them to sacrifice their private advantage to the public good, and to appropriate the money to building a fleet of 200 ships.

The two leading citizens of Athens at this period were Themistocles and Aristides. These two eminent men formed a striking contrast to each other. Themistocles possessed abilities of the most extraordinary kind; but they were marred by a want of honesty. Aristides was inferior to Themistocles in ability, but was incomparably superior to him in honesty and integrity. His uprightness and justice were so universally acknowledged that he received the surname of the "Just." Themistocles was the leader of the democratical, and Aristides of the conservative party at Athens. After three or four years of bitter rivalry, the two chiefs appealed to the ostracism, and Aristides was banished (B.C. 483). We are told that an unlettered countryman gave his vote against Aristides at the ostracism, because he was tired of hearing him always called the Just.


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Chicago: William Smith, "Chapter VII. The Persian Wars.— From the Ionic Revolt to the Battle of Marathon, B.C. 500-490.," A Smaller History of Greece; from the Earliest Times to the Roman Conquest, ed. Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853 and trans. Ingram, J. H. (James Henry) in A Smaller History of Greece; from the Earliest Times to the Roman Conquest (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=58RFUZSJ2FJD79W.

MLA: Smith, William. "Chapter VII. The Persian Wars.— From the Ionic Revolt to the Battle of Marathon, B.C. 500-490." A Smaller History of Greece; from the Earliest Times to the Roman Conquest, edited by Braybrooke, Richard Griffin, Baron, 1783-1853, and translated by Ingram, J. H. (James Henry), in A Smaller History of Greece; from the Earliest Times to the Roman Conquest, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=58RFUZSJ2FJD79W.

Harvard: Smith, W, 'Chapter VII. The Persian Wars.— From the Ionic Revolt to the Battle of Marathon, B.C. 500-490.' in A Smaller History of Greece; from the Earliest Times to the Roman Conquest, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, A Smaller History of Greece; from the Earliest Times to the Roman Conquest, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=58RFUZSJ2FJD79W.