100 DECISIVES BATTLES IN HISTORY//ART OF WAR
15 May 1479 b.c.
Egyptian: Unknown (probably approximately 10,000 men). Commander: Pharaoh Thutmose III.
Kadesh alliance: Unknown. Commander: King of Kadesh.
By reestablishing Egyptian dominance in Palestine, Thutmose began a reign in which Egypt reached its greatest expanse as an empire.
In the early years of the eighteenth century b.c., the power of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom was waning. That coincided with the immigration of the Hyksos, a Semitic population probably from the region of Palestine, that used superior weaponry to toopple the faltering Thirteenth dynasty. The Hyksos dynasty began ruling Egypt in 1786 b.c.and lasted until 1575 b.c.By then the Hyksos had become sufficiently complacent and content to lose their edge, and the Egyptian population reasserted control over their own nation. The new pharaoh, who began the New Kingdom era, was Ahmose (ruled 1575–1550 b.c.). Ahmose was not content with merely regaining his country, but wanted to extend Egypt’s northeastern frontier to establish a strong buffer zone. He also wanted to extend Egypt’s poower because exposure to foreign peoples had given the Egyptians a taste for things that could come only from outside their country. Hence, conquest and trade as well as security motivated Ahmose’s war making.
Following in Ahmose’s footsteps, later pharaohs extended Eg
Hatshepsut’s passive foreign policy, however, encouraged subject kings in the Middle East to ponder the idea of independence. Under the direction of the King of Kadesh, supported by the powerful Mitanni population east of the Euphrates, the states of Palestine and Syria broke free of Egypt’s rule about the time of Hatshepsut’s death.
Early rumblings of discontent had not been punished by Egyptian forces, so the King of Kadesh, who probably exercised suzerainty over most of
The cause of Hatshepsut’s death has never been positively determined; it may have been assassination at Thutmose III’s direction. Whatever the reason, Thutmose III was eager to take the throne and restore Egyptian power. After directing that Hatshepsut’s name be obliterated from all public buildings, he set about rebuilding an army that had been idle for more than two decades. His southern flank was secure because the Nubians had become increasingly
Egyptianized. He could therefore focus on the rebellious kings to the northeast wfirst army to take the field after such a long hiatus would almost certainly not be that large. The Egyptian army was comprised primarily of infantry, carrying shields and side arms—either axes or sicklelike swords. The aristocracy fought from chariots an
In his second year as pharaoh, Thutmose III took his army into action. He appears to have been skilled as an organizer because the rapid progress his army made implies a well-laid-out logistical system. He was also the first pharaoh who, apparently, took his own chroniclers on campaign with him because the details of the march and the battle are contemporary with the campaign. Megiddo was the first battle in history for which that can be said. Thutmose departed the Nile delta at Tharu on 19 April 1479 and just 9 days later was at Gaza, some 160 miles up the coast. He arrived there on the anniversary of his coronation, but spent no time in celebration; his troops were on the march the next morning.
Twelve days from Gaza, the Egyptians encamped at Yehem, about 80 to 90 miles from Gaza and probably about 16 miles southwest of Megiddo. That walled city was the target because Thutmose’s intelligence corps had reported that the King of Kadesh and all his vassal kings were there. At this point, Thutmose had three possible routes to Megiddo. The road no
Whether through accurate supposition or by good intelligence, Thutmose was correct in his choice. Apparently, the King of Kadesh never thought that Thutmose would be stupid enough to commit his force to a narrow defile, so he concentrated the bulk of his army on the road near Tannach. Thutmose led his men out of Yehem toward Aruna on 13 May. As they approached the pass, he took the point position in his chariot, certainly a decision designed to inspire his troops and assure them of the correctness of his decision. As they debouched from the pass, they encountered only a small covering force, which they quickly drove away. Here Thutmose heeded his subordinates. Instead of launching a pursuit, he agreed to deploy his force in a defensive posture to allow the entire column to come up. Hearing of the arrival of the Egyptian army, the King of Kadesh withdrew his forces back to Megiddo.
Thutmose, either that afternoon or during the evening, decided not to attack the forces of Kadesh but instead to take up a position to the west of the city. He deployed his men in an arc athwart the small river Kina, with his flanks resting on high ground. This gave him a good route of retreat, if necessary. On the night of 14 May, the two armies camped, facing each other. At dawn, Thutmose spread his forces in three groups. He commanded in the center, and his left flank extended to the northwest of Megiddo, to be in a position to block any enemy retreat on the road that led northwest from
ithout having to worry about threats to the rear of his army.
the city. The details of the battle are too sketchy to determine how it was conducted. All the contemporary chroniclers state is that the enemy fled before the pharaoh’s forces: “His Majesty went forth in his chariot of electrum adorned with his weapons of war, like Horus armed with talons, the Lord of might, like Mentu of Thebes, his father Amen-Ra strengthening his arms” (Petrie, A History of Egypt, vol. II, p. 107).
Whatever the missing details, the Egyptians gained the upper hand, and the enemy fled in haste for the protection of the city walls, abandoning their camp and much of their materiel. That was what saved the Egyptians, at least temporarily. The Egyptian troops, lured by the prospect of loot, abandoned the chase and turned themselves over to pillage. That allowed the enemy to escape, although just barely. The residents of the city closed the gates rather too quickly, and the fleeing troops had to be hauled over the walls with ropes made of clothing. Thutmose was not happy, and chastened his men. “Had ye afterwards captured this city, behold I would have given [a rich offering to] Ra this day; because every chief of every country that has revolted is within it” (Breasted, A History of Egypt, p. 290).
Having failed to capture the city in a rush, Thutmose settled down for a siege. He ordered a wall of circumvallation built of wood from the surrounding forests; the rampart was called “Thutmose, encloser of the Asiatics.” In the wall, one gate was built, through which those inside the city that wished to surrender could exit. The details of the siege were recorded on a roll of leather stored in the temple of Amon, but only the reference to that scroll survives. The countryside was sufficiently lush to allow the Egyptians to eat well out of the fields and off the cattle and sheep herds. The length of the siege is debatable, sources listing it as anywhere from 3 weeks to 7 months, although it was probably shorter rather than longer. However long it took, the besieged finally ran out of food and surrendered.
Although a number of kings were taken captive, surrendering either during the siege or at the city’s fall, the King of Kadesh managed to escape, probably in the immediate wake of the battle. Thutmose took little retribution on the captive kings or the city, although he did remove back to Egypt much of the city’s wealth. Thutmose, however, had captured on the battlefield the king’s son, who he took back to Egypt as a hostage, along with others of the king’s family as well as the sons of the other rebellious but now humbled kings. The description of the spoils of war is long and impressive, including 924 chariots, 2,238 horses, 200 suits of armor, and the tent belonging to the King of Kadesh along with all his furniture and household goods. Added to the spoils of later victories on this campaign, 426 pounds of gold and silver were acquired.
With Megiddo now firmly in hand, Thutmose marched his men northward toward Lebanon, taking possession of the cities of Yenoam, Nuges, and Hernkeru. It is not known if these cities had sent their submission to him during the siege of Megiddo or if Thutmose had to capture them upon his arrival; either way, they came under his control quickly. He ordered a fortress built in the area in order to keep back any threat the escaped King of Kadesh might mount and then proceeded to reestablish Egyptian hegemony by either accepting the vassalage of the local kings or replacing them with successors who would swear loyalty. Just as he had done with the son of the King of Kadesh, Thutmose took the sons of those rulers back to Egypt. This not only ensured cooperation, but it allowed the Egyptians to raise the hostages in a manner that would immerse them in Egyptian culture and power, making them more amenable to control when the hostages were in a position to succeed their fathers.
Thutmose was back in his capital city of Thebes in early October and master of a new and more stable Egyptian Empire. It would not always be happy; he conducted another fifteen campaigns in the northeast to either subdue rebellions or beat back foreign threats. During his eighth such campaign, he fought and defeated the Mitanni on the other side of the upper Euphrates, taking Egypt to the limits of its empire. This completely transformed Egypt as a nation. The wealth that came into Egypt in the form of annual tribute was so massive that it allowed for the construction of temples and public buildings for which Egypt is best known today, barring only the Pyramids and Sphinx
Megiddo in History Although historians know of battles before Thutmose III and the King of Kadesh fighting in 1479 b.c., this battle was the first to be recorded by eyewitnesses, making it the first recorded battle in history. Because of disputes over dating, however, just when the battle took place is a matter of some debate. James Breasted in 1905 gave a detailed account of the battle, and his dating has been used in the Megiddo entry as the most specific, giving day and month as well as year. William Petrie’s translation of the Annals of Thutmose III gives contemporary dates, not in years b.c. but by years of the pharaoh’s rule. Hence, we learn that Thutmose began his campaign toward Megiddo when he left the town of Tharu on the Nile delta on the twenty-fifth day of the month Pharmuthi in the twenty-second year of Thutmose’s reign. That also creates some problems because he dated his reign not from the previous year when he succeeded Hatshepsut, but from the death of his father and the year he should have begun his rule. The battle at Megiddo is placed variously in 1458, 1467, 1469, etc.
Megiddo remained an important location in the ancient world, on the crossroads between the Hittites in the north and the Egyptians in the south, as well as those of the trade routes from the Mediterranean eastward to the empires of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. The Book of Judges describes an eleventh-century b.c. battle along the River Kishon, flowing along the Plain of Esdraelon, which Megiddo overlooked. In that battle, Israelite forces under Deborah and Barak defeated the Canaanite forces of King Jabin. In 609 b.c., King Josiah of Judah was defeated and killed at Megiddo by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho.
Even more unspecific about the date of the first battle at Megiddo is the date of the last one. The Hebrew word for Megiddo is Armageddon, described in the biblical Book of Revelation as the site of the final battle between the forces of good and evil. The foundation for one of the great ironies of history is thus foretold: the beginning and the end of military history occur at the same site.
Through both the Old and Middle Kingdoms Egypt had striven to remain isolated; after the expulsion of the Hyksos and the wars of the New Kingdom, commerce with foreign powers was too profitable to ever go back to the old days. The administration of an empire required the establishment of an expanded bureaucracy as well as a large standing army, both of which are expensive propositions. The wealth was the gift of the gods, so the priesthood also expanded, gaining in both wealth and power. Their temples demanded the best in craftsmanship, and the artistic life of Egypt benefited. Two hundred years after Thutmose III, Rameses II fought to maintain the borders of the empire. No pharaoh fought as often as he, but by the thirteenth century b.c. the power of Egypt had reached its height. From then onward, the Sea Peoples, the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, and finally the Romans all either weakened Egypt or exercised dominion over Egypt.
Benson, Douglas. Ancient Egypt’s Warfare. Ashland, OH: Book Masters, 1995; Breasted, James Henry. A History of Egypt. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1905; Gabriel
Persian: Possibly 50,000. Commander: Cyrus II, the Great.
Lydian: Unknown, but probably more than those of Persia. Commander: Croesus.
Cyrus’s victory gave him control of the vast wealth of Lydia and denied Babylon a strong ally. From this victory, Cyrus challenged and won the Neo-Babylonian throne, establishing the Persian Empire.
In 612 b.c., the Assyrian Empire, which had dominated and terrorized the land from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean since the middle of the eighth century, was overthrown. In that year, two subservient populations, the Babylonians and the Medes, joined forces and captured the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. In the wake of that victory, the empire was divided between the victors: Nabopolassar of Babylon ruled the southern half, and Cyarxes of Media ruled the northern. Media was originally the region that today encompasses northwestern Iran along the southern bank of the Caspian Sea into Armenia. Under Cyarxes, Median power was stretched westward to the frontiers of Asia Minor and eastward almost to Afghanistan. Cyarxes died in 585 b.c., the year that he and the kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor agreed that the border between their territories would be the Halys River. Cyarxes was succeeded by Astyages, who apparently was quite a tyrant and who alienated the Median aristocracy by depending on religious advisors for his policy formulation.
In 580 b.c., Astyages’s daughter gave birth to a son, named Cyrus. Legend has it that Astyages dreamed that this grandson would overthrow him, and Astyages ordered his death, but Cyrus was saved in a fashion virtually identical to that of Moses in Egypt. Whatever the exact details, Cyrus lived in the region called Persis (Persia), which today would lie in southwestern Iran near the Persian Gulf coast. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that in 553 Cyrus was approached by Harpagos, sometime commander of the Median army, asking that Cyrus begin a rebellion against Astyages; if he would do so, the Median aristocracy would support it. The length of the rebellion is difficult to determine because sources from the time (and soon thereafter) vary considerably. Probably it went on for 4 years until the battle at Pasargadai (the capital of Persis), when Harpagos defected to Cyrus. Allying himself with the Scythians and Hyrcanians (from the southern Caucasus), Cyrus captured the Median capital of Ecbatana during 550–549.
Cyrus immediately gained the confidence of not only the Median aristocracy but almost all of Astyages’s former subjects because Cyrus went to great lengths to show himself a just and merciful conqueror. Many of the Median military leaders received high command positions in the Persian army. While Cyrus consolidated his throne, trouble was brewing on his western frontier. The King of Lydia, Croesus, was the son of Alyattes, who had established with Cyarxes the Halys River as the border between Lydia and Media. Croesus apparently had had good relations with Astyages and viewed Cyrus with alarm. Croesus began developing alliances with Egypt, Babylon, and Sparta. Lydia was well known for its superior cavalry, and with all those extra troops it could prove a serious threat to Cyrus’s new realm. While visiting Gubaru, future satrap of Susa in Elam, Cyrus learned that Croesus had led troops across the Halys into the province of Cappadocia and was pillaging the countryside. Cyrus gathered his forces and marched west in the spring of 547. His army marched along the Median-Babylonian frontier, crossed the Tigris River at Arbela (site of a later victory by Alexander the Great), picked up some reinforcements from Armenia and Kurdistan, and descended into the Cappadocian plain late in 547.
The two armies met near the town of Pteria and fought a hard but inconclusive battle at the beginning of winter. No details are available, other than there was no clear winner. As the Cappadocian plain had been stripped of resources during the Lydian occupation, Croesus decided it was best to withdraw to his capital at Sardis. After wintering there, he would regather his forces, supplemented by those of his allies, and resume the war in the spring. When he reached Sardis, Croesus dismissed his Greek mercenary troops and sent messages to his allies, detailing his military needs for the next season’s campaign.
Cyrus met with his advisors after the battle and received much the same counsel: go home for the winter and start up again next spring. Here, however, Cyrus showed his first flashes of genius. Sure that Croesus would not want to keep his mercenaries on the payroll during the winter, and that Lydia’s allies could not possibly dispatch reinforcements for a few months, Cyrus decided to follow Croesus to Sardis. After waiting sufficient time for Croesus to get home and dismiss his forces, Cyrus launched a forced march through Anatolia. Croesus heard a rumor of Cyrus’s approach but put no stock in it. Indeed, not until the Persian forces appeared at the city gates did Croesus believe what was happening.
In spite of what Cyrus had supposed, Croesus was able to call up a large army. How large is unknown, but it almost certainly was significantly more than the Persians. Xenophon gives Cyrus’s strength as 200,000, but it was probably somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000. The two forces met just outside Sardis on the Plain of Thymbra early in 546. Cyrus placed his army in square, with flanking cavalry and chariot units set back. The Lydians deployed in the traditional formation of long parallel lines. The battle opened with the Lydian cavalry attempting to envelop the square. As they advanced, the enveloping units moved ahead of the center, leaving gaps in the Lydian line. Here Cyrus deployed his secret weapon. At Pteria, one of his generals had noticed the way in which Lydian horses had shied at the presence of Persian camels used for transport. Cyrus formed his pack animals into the first camel corps in history and sent them forward. Catching the smell of the camels, the Lydian horses panicked.
The cavalry dismounted and attempted to fight on foot, but their lances proved too unwieldy to be effective. Inside Cyrus’s square formation, his archers launched volley after volley of arrows into the Lydian ranks, further disorganizing them. Cyrus’s infantry and chariots on the flanks charged into the dismounted Lydian cavalry, and then, with the gaps on either side of the Lydian center wide open, Cyrus sent his cavalry through them. The result was a rout, as Lydian survivors ran for the walls of Sardis. Persian forces immediately surrounded the city and besieged it for 14 days. Learning of a possible weak point in the defenses—where the city’s walls met and melted into a cliff—Cyrus sent a small force up the hill and onto the walls, which at that point overlooked the citadel; his troops quickly captured it and Croesus. The city opened its gates to Cyrus the following morning. From this point, Lydia ceased to exist as an independent kingdom.
Although Cyrus’s victory over Croesus came in 546 b.c., 7 years before his conquest of Babylon, the victory at Thymbra marked the turning point in Cyrus’s campaign to establish a Persian Empire. Babylon, as co-inheritor of the Assyrian Empire, was a natural rival, in spite of the fact that they had done little to provoke Cyrus.
The Babylonian King Nabonidus was in the midst of his own internal crisis. Although intent on maintaining strong trade routes between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean, which would of course continue to enrich the wealthiest of ancient cities, Nabonidus provoked his population over religious matters. He had come to power from his position as a general, rather than through birth. Thus, he distrusted the Babylonian establishment. He preferred the worship of Sin, the moon goddess, over Marduk, the Babylonian national deity. He established temples to Sin in Babylon, a direct affront to the people. In response to a dream, Nabonidus marched the army to the city of Harran to reestablish the Temple of Sin there. He then spent 7 years campaigning in Arabia, capturing territory as far as Yathrib (Medina). He colonized a string of oases through Arabia, although it is unclear if this was for military or trade purposes. This expedition also alienated the Babylonians because the king was supposed to be in attendance at the New Year’s festivals, and Nabonidus missed seven in a row. His son and regent, Balshazzar, oversaw the business of government. When, after extending his power far to the east in campaigns up to Bactria (modern Afghanistan), Cyrus turned toward Babylon, Nabonidus finally tried to appease his subjects and defend his land. He sent for all the idols of Marduk to be collected in Babylon to strengthen its spiritual defenses. But apparently it was too late. Cyrus seems to have been in contact with the religious leaders in Babylon, assuring them of his religious tolerance, and thus fomenting a resistance movement in Nabonidus’s backyard.
There are two completely different accounts of the fall of Babylon to Cyrus. In September 539 b.c., Cyrus and his army defeated the Babylonians at Opis, the former capital of Akkadia, which city he proceeded to destroy. On 10 October, the town of Sippar surrendered without a struggle. Hearing this, Nabonidus fled Babylon. One of his former governors, now in Cyrus’s camp, was Ugbaru, governor of Gutium (a region somewhere east of the Tigris), who entered Babylon against no opposition. Cyrus then entered to a massive welcome on 29 October; the people proclaimed him the agent of the god Marduk, delivering the city from the heretic Nabonidus.
The other version speaks of a two-year siege, 539–538 b.c. According to this version, put forth by Herodotus, Cyrus was on the verge of giving up the siege because the inhabitants of Babylon had amassed a huge hoard of supplies. Instead, he decided (or was advised) to divert the channel of the Euphrates River, which flowed through Babylon. By diverting the river into a marshland, the water level fell to a point where Persian troops could wade the river and enter Babylon through the floodgates. “The Babylonians themselves say that owing to the great size of the city the outskirts were captured without the people in the center knowing anything about it; there was a festival going on, and they continued to dance and enjoy themselves, until they learned the news the hard way” (Herodotus, The Histories, p. 118).
The capture of Babylon marked the reunion of the old Assyrian Empire, now expanded by Cyrus to include Asia Minor and the Persian Gulf coast almost to India. After founding the Persian Empire, Cyrus went on campaigning and was finally killed in combat in his seventieth year against Scythian forces near the Jaxartes River. It was the campaign against Lydia, however, which deprived Babylon of a powerful ally and secured Cyrus’s western flank, that put Cyrus in a position to become an emperor; “when once Lydia had been overthrown the balance of power and the interests of Babylonia and Iran [Persia] were in conflict.” A showdown was probably inevitable, and Nabonidus was no match for Cyrus.
The Persian Empire proved to be the first “world” empire in history. Before this, there had been large-scale conquest, such as that the Assyrians had accomplished, resulting in what was an empire in size but not in administration. That is what Cyrus initiated, an imperial administration. By offering religious tolerance, peace, and improved roadways to facilitate trade, the Persians continued to build on Cyrus’s foundation and expand the empire even farther, into Egypt and parts of southeastern Europe, although they met their match in the Greeks at Marathon and Salamis in the early fifth century b.c. Cyrus was virtually worshiped by his subjects, not because he demanded it like a pharaoh, but because he earned it. His release of the captive Jews, who had been in Babylonian captivity for decades, reestablished a Jewish homeland that lasted until the Romans dispersed the Jews again in the first century a.d. Although viewed by the Jews as an instrument of God to deliver them (just as the Babylonians viewed him), Cyrus’s return of the Jews to the east coast of the Mediterranean certainly had strategic overtones, for they provided a friendly population to act as a buffer zone against an expansive Egypt. To all, he was a welcomed change from the brutality of the Assyrians, the last major conquerors in the region. By extending an understanding demeanor, Cyrus readily gained support where the Assyrians had gained only discontent and hatred. Unlike the Assyrian Empire, which was overthrown by rebellion, the Persian Empire’s life of more than two centuries came to an end only with the arrival of Alexander the Great.
Cook, J.M. The Persian Empire. New York: Schocken Books, 1983; Gershevitch, Ilya. The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985; Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. Baltimore: Penguin, 1954; Lamb, Harold. Cyrus the Great. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960; Xenophon. Cyropaedia. Translated by Walter Miller. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979–1986.
c. 21 September 490 b.c.
Greek: 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans. Commanders: Callimachus and Miltiades.
Persian: Possibly 20,000. Commander: Datis.
Persian defeat stopped a major invasion of Europe and established the Greek military as a force to be reckoned with. This event set up the later Persian invasion that was defeated at Salamis and Plataea.
At the beginning of the fifth century b.c., Persia owned an empire that stretched from India to the Mediterranean. Begun two generations earlier by Cyrus the Great, the Persian Empire at this point was under the control of Darius. Darius had been the architect of the campaigns that stretched the empire to its current limits, and he seemed constantly to be hungry for more land. The Persian Empire acquired lands by conquest and then incorporated the captured nations into the established Persian administration. Thus, the army that the empire fielded was made up of a wide range of races with a variety of military talents. At its core, the Persian military depended on the original populations of the empire, the Medes and the Persians. These were the best trained and equipped troops, as well as the most highly motivated. These two populations also provided the officers that commanded the other troops brought in via conquest. By the start of the fifth century, they were a seemingly unbeatable force, for no enemy had been able to withstand their might.
In the first decade of that century, however, problems arose that ultimately led to Darius dispatching an expedition to Greece. The Persian Empire exercised hegemony over the western coast of Asia Minor, then called
Ionia, which was inhabited by Greek colonists. The Ionian Greeks swore fealty to the Persian Empire and provided troops, but were not overly enthusiastic about Persian rule. When Darius campaigned up the Danube valley in 512 b.c., he left an Ionian Greek contingent guarding a bridge along his line of supply. When the Scythians, upon whom Darius was making war, prevailed over Darius, the Persians withdrew toward that bridge. The Greek commander, Miltiades, proposed destroying it and letting the Scythians destroy the Persians, but he was overruled by other Ionian leaders. Darius escaped, but swore vengeance on Miltiades, who abandoned his homeland of the Chersonese (the modern Gallipoli peninsula) and fled to Athens, the city of his birth. There he entered into Athenian politics.
Athens had recently overthrown the tyrant Hippias, who fled to Persia and entered Darius’s court. The city, under the leadership of Cleisthenes, established a republic in 510. This provoked some of the city’s aristocrats to appeal to the military state of Sparta to remove Cleisthenes, which they did temporarily, but Cleisthenes (with the support of most of the population) expelled the Spartans. Afraid of Spartan retribution, Cleisthenes toyed with the idea of courting Persian support. Although Athens ultimately conceded to Sparta political preeminence in Greece, a faction of the Athenians covertly leaned toward Persia.
In 499, the Ionian city-states began a rebellion against Persia, and they appealed to the Greek city-states for aid. Sparta and most of the others declined, but Athens provided twenty warships and the city-state of Eritria provided another five. The major Persian city of Sardis in Asia Minor was burned by the Greeks in 498. When Darius suppressed the Ionian revolt, he swore revenge on Athens, who had dared to aid the Ionian rebels. That fact, coupled with the fact that his enemy Miltiades was active in Athenian politics, gave Darius a double reason for invasion. In 492, Darius sent an army to subdue Thrace, and in the process forced the kingdom of Macedonia to swear fealty. This put the Persians in position to invade Greece from the north, but a storm wrecked the Persian fleet, which necessitated a second attempt. This Darius mounted in 490 (some sources argue 491 b.c.), sending 600 ships full of infantry and cavalry to subdue Athens and establish Persian might in Greece. Before the campaign started, however, he sent heralds throughout Greece demanding the surrender of all the city-states. When the expedition sailed, under the command of Darius’s general, Datis, the deposed Athenian tyrant Hippias was with it. He was to agitate among the disaffected Athenians and provoke a rebellion, in return for which he would become governor of Greece within the Persian Empire. As mentioned earlier, a pro-Persian faction existed in Athens to respond to this call for action.
As the Persian forces sailed for Greece, the Greeks were in disarray, with political infighting taking place in Athens, as well as the latent Athenian hostility to Sparta. Troops of the largest empire the world had known up to that time descended on a small set of city-states without a proven military record. All the odds were in the Persians’ favor.
The nature of the Athenian military system was that each of the ten tribes of the city-state had a commander leading its forces, with a pole-march in overall command. As the Persians approached, the serving polemarch was Callimachus; among the tribal commanders was Miltiades. When the Persian fleet sailed across the Aegean and attacked the city-state of Eritria, the Athenians correctly surmised the Persian strategy. Datis, commander of the Persian fleet, hoped to draw the Athenian military out of the city to march to the aid of Eritria; this would give the Persians the opportunity to either destroy the Greek army in the open or bypass it and sail directly for Athens, attacking the city while the army was away. The Athenians sent for Spartan assistance on 9 September 490, but were disappointed to learn it would be delayed because of religious reasons; a festival had to be observed and the army could not march until the full moon, on the night of 20–21 September. Thus, Athens was on its own for a while.
The size of the Persian force is unknown, but probably was approximately 25,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry. Datis placed some of these forces under Artaphernes and sailed with the remainder to the Bay of Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens. Datis landed his troops, probably about 12,000 to 15,000 strong, on the Plain of Marathon. The Athenians arrived with about 10,000 men and occupied the high ground on the west side of the plain. They were soon reinforced by 1,000 troops from Plataea, a city-state long allied to Athens. For 8 days, the two armies faced each other: the Greeks unwilling to abandon the safety of their position and the Persians unwilling to attack it. Within the command council, the Athenians argued the merits of action or inaction. On the ninth day, word arrived that Eritria had fallen, meaning that Persian reinforcements would not be long in coming. Half the commanders were in favor of waiting for the Spartans to arrive, they being the best troops Greece had to offer. Miltiades, however, argued against waiting. Knowing that a faction within Athens favored peace at any price (which meant giving the Persians everything and accepting Hippias back as tyrant), he argued that the sooner action was taken and victory achieved, the less likely they would be stabbed in the back politically. The deciding vote fell to Callimachus, who agreed with Miltiades.
On 21 September (probably), Miltiades formed up the Athenian army. The Plain of Marathon was flanked by marshes and bisected by a stream, the Charadra. The Persian cavalry, for which the Greeks had no corresponding forces of their own, were not present, having been taken to the northern marsh to water. With the cavalry being more than a mile away and on the other side of the fast-flowing Charadra, the Greeks hoped to force a decisive action quickly on the southern half of the plain. The Greek forces were stretched over a front almost a mile wide, as was the Persian infantry. Miltiades thinned the center ranks to extend the front and strengthen the flanks. The standard Greek military formation, the phalanx, was made up of spearmen in a unit usually eight ranks deep. On this day, the center was but four ranks deep, with the flanks being eight (some sources say twelve) ranks deep.
As the two forces were relatively equal in number, the Greeks depended on the speed of their attack to neutralize the most effective part of the Persian army, its archers. As the Greek line descended from its high ground and approached the Persian line parallel and backed up against the ocean, they approached steadily at first. When, however, they came within about 200 yards of the Persians, the range at which the archers could effectively fire, the Greeks broke into a run to both throw off the aim of the archers as well as to minimize the time they were exposed to their fire.
Whether by design or by plan, the Greek flanks reached the Persian line first, thus bending their line in the center. The Persian counterattack took advantage of this and the weakened Greek center broke and the troops began to withdraw. This coincided with the success of the attacking Greek flanks, which doubled the Persian army back on itself. Thus, the Persian flanks retreated back and toward the middle of their position, while the Persian center left its position to pursue the Greeks in front of them. The Athenian center withdrew off the plain to the high ground and then regrouped and counterattacked. This sent the Persian center retreating into the confused mass of the collapsing Persian flanks, and the entire Persian force began disintegrating. The cavalry was never able to form up and assist the infantry; by the time they were alerted to the danger and ready for battle, it was too late. The Persian troops that survived the slaughter fled for their ships, but they left behind, according to the Greek historian Herodotus (The Histories, p. 430), 6,400 men killed as well as seven ships destroyed. The Greeks lost 192 killed.
Although the battle was a total victory for the Athenians, they could not spare the time to celebrate. Artaphernes was sailing from Eritria, and Datis still had a number of men and ships under his command. Thus, the Athenians quickly left Marathon and marched through the night back to Athens. The Persians indeed had joined forces and sailed for the city, but when they approached the next day and saw the Athenian army drawn up awaiting them, they decided against landing and sailed home.
Too late, the Spartans arrived. Learning of what had transpired, they marched to Marathon to view the Persian dead. Seeing the results of the battle, the Spartans praised the Athenians and then marched home. The Athenians took their 192 dead and buried them in a common grave, the mound of which was one of the major landmarks of the Marathon plain from that day forward.
Legend has it that Pheilippides, an Athenian courier, ran from the battlefield to Athens, announced the victory, and collapsed in death. He was in fact the one who was sent to alert the Spartans earlier in the month and covered the 150 miles in 2 days, but the run to Athens after the battle probably did not happen. This, however, is the basis of the modern marathon race, supposedly the distance he ran to announce the battle’s outcome.
The Greek victory at Marathon was not conclusive, in that it did not keep the Persians away; they returned 10 years later to be defeated at the even more decisive battle of Salamis. However, Marathon does mark a significant turning point. The limits of the Persian Empire were reached. Darius, who had stretched the empire to such distant lands, did not live to see it go farther. Darius died in 486, so his successor Xerxes led the second invasion of Greece. It also marks a change in momentum. Although the Persians had suffered a defeat at the hands of the Scythians (mentioned earlier), the Scythians did not follow up. The Greeks, however, used their victory here as the springboard for their future world power. The Greeks, never before tested against serious military opposition, established themselves at Marathon as an army of note. More importantly, it gave them a psychological boost for future conflicts, for in the second round of fighting, a decade later, they did not stand in awe of an invincible Persian military. As J. F. C. Fuller writes, the victory “endowed the victors with a faith in their destiny which was to endure for three centuries, during which western culture was born. Marathon was the birth cry of Europe” (Fuller, A Military History of the Western World, vol. 1, p. 25).
23 September 480 b.c.
Greek: 370 galleys. Commander: Themistocles.
Persian: Approximately 1,000 galleys. Commander: Xerxes.
The Persian naval defeat, followed by the military defeat at Plataea, ended the attempt to expand the Persian Empire into Europe and made the Greeks the dominant population in the Mediterranean region and Europe.
Although Darius’s attempt to invade Greece in 490 b.c. failed, he was not about to allow the Greeks to go unpunished for their earlier aid to rebellious provinces in Ionia. He would have immediately mounted another invasion, but first had to deal with a rebellion in Egypt. Before subduing that revolt, Darius died in 486 b.c., to be succeeded by his son Xerxes. Xerxes finished the job in Egypt and then set about mounting the punitive expedition to Greece. It is impossible to know for sure just how large an expedition it was because contemporary writers are notorious for exaggerating numbers, whether to make their own victory look better or because the Persian juggernaut seemed so immense it had to be the 2.6 million people Herodotus claimed. Then again, if one assumes that this number includes not only soldiers but also all the various support personnel (cooks, clerks, launderers, etc.), then perhaps it is not too outrageous. Herodotus, however, claims that with the support personnel the total number on campaign with Xerxes was more than 5 million. More modern writers (Maurice, Journal of Hellenic Studies, and Munro, The Cambridge Ancient History) place the fighting forces at between 150,000 and 180,000, drawn from all the Persian Empire.
Since their stunning victory in 490 over the Persians at Marathon, the Greeks had not been as focused as the Persians on the upcoming war. Athens, Sparta, and most other poleis (city-states) had returned to their contentious ways and fallen out among themselves. When hearing the news of Xerxes’s oncoming forces in the winter of 481, they finally sublimated their differences by meeting in a pan-Hellenic conference under Spartan leadership at the Isthmus of Corinth. Many of the northern poleis did not send representatives, however. The major point of discussion was where to make their defensive stand. Sparta argued that, because the Peloponnese, the peninsula upon which they lived, was the heart of Greek independence, the stand should be made at the Corinthian isthmus. This, however, would abandon all of northern and central Greece to Persia without a fight, and such a decision might lead to the poleis north of the isthmus defecting to Xerxes in order to save their lands from destruction. If the defense was mounted farther forward, narrow passages at Thermopylae or the Vale of Tempe could be held by a small military force, while the straits between mainland Greece and the island of Euboea offered a narrow body of water where the Persian numeric naval superiority meant little.
When an expedition to the north found too many passes to hold, the force returned to the south, giving the northerners the impression that they were about to be abandoned. To make bad matters worse, when the Greeks consulted the famous Oracle at Delphi for advice, the response was extremely negative: it implied that Athens would be destroyed, but the other poleis would not if they held themselves aloof. A second attempt at consultation was more positive, but also somewhat puzzling. The Athenians were told to defend themselves behind “wooden walls,” which could mean either their city walls or the bulkheads of the ships of the Athenian navy. The second interpretation was the most widely accepted, and an appeal went to the Greek colony of Syracuse for its powerful navy. They could not respond, however, because they were about to be attacked by the Carthaginians of North Africa, possibly under the direction of Xerxes, for he held sway over the Phoenicians who had established the city of Carthage. The Greeks finally decided to mount a northern defense, the Spartans too afraid of having to fight alone at the Isthmus of Corinth.
Meanwhile, Xerxes in the spring of 480 began moving his massive force around the perimeter of the Aegean. He did so by crossing the Hellespont (the straits near modern Istanbul) on two bridges of boats in one of the most massive engineering feats of its day. As Darius had done before him, Xerxes sent heralds into Greece to demand tokens of submission; they received positive responses only in the northernmost city-states. Having passed his force out of Asia Minor and into Europe, the Persian army marched along the coast, with the navy carrying their supplies. They moved around the Aegean rim toward the Greeks awaiting them at Thermopylae and the narrow Euboean Channel.
A force of 7,000 to 8,000 led by King Leonidas of Sparta stood at the pass of Thermopylae, a stretch of beach along the Gulf of Malis. Three hundred thirty-three ships blocked the channel through which the Persian ships would have to travel if they were going to continue supplying the army. The Greeks were hoping for the naval battle to be decisive, with the army delayed only as an excuse to force the Persian navy into the narrow waters. The Greeks were fortunate that the Persian fleet ran into a storm and lost 400 warships. Themistocles, commanding the Athenian ships in the fleet, counseled an immediate attack to take advantage of the Persian disaster. The two navies fought two battles, but both were draws. The Greeks retreated, however, upon hearing that the Greeks at Thermopylae had been betrayed and overrun fo With the Persian army on the march, the citizens of Athens decided to abandon the city, leaving only a defensive post on the Acropolis llowing a gallant last stand by King Leonidas and his bodyguard of 300.
With the Persian army on the march, the citizens of Athens decided to abandon the city, leaving only a defensive post on the Acropolis:
they were putting their faith in the wooden walls of the Greek navy. Themistocles led the navy to the narrow waters between the coastline below Athens and the island of Salamis. If the Persians sent ships to sail both directions around Salamis, the Greeks would be bottled up in a very small area, but Themistocles placed his fleet in that dangerous position to tempt the Persians to attack rather than bypass the fleet and march directly for the Spartan defensive position at the Corinthian isthmus. Meanwhile, Xerxes’s army overwhelmed the Acropolis and burned Athens. As the Persian navy approached, dissension among the Greek naval commanders welled up. Eurybiades, the Spartan, was in command even though the Spartan naval contingent was small. Because Sparta commanded the entire defense of Greece, however, a Spartan commanded the fleet. Many ship captains did not want to put themselves into the dangerous position Themistocles counseled, but he prevailed when he threatened to take his Athenian ships (which were the bulk of the entire Greek navy) and leave the rest to their fate. When on the morning of 22 September 480 another challenge to this strategy was mounted, Themistocles gambled even more heavily. He sent a secret message to Xerxes offering to turn traitor in the midst of the battle if the Persian ships would attack. He had no intention of doing this, but it forced Xerxes’s hand as well as forcing the rest of the captains to fight when the Persian fleet came rowing toward them on the morning of 23 September.
Xerxes sent a contingent of 200 Egyptian ships to enter round the west coast of Salamis, blocking a Greek retreat, while the remainder of his ships entered the narrow waters from the east, rowing right into Themistocles’s trap. The Persian fleet of about 1,000 ships had to divide itself to round the island of Psyttaleia to enter the Salamis channel and then they had to round a long peninsula to enter the channel proper, which was way too narrow for their huge numbers to maneuver. The Persian fleet depended on speed and maneuverability, neither of which they now had. The 370 larger and heavier Greek galleys needed only to row forward into the confused Persian fleet, ramming anything and everything in their path. For 7 to 8 hours the sound of shattering wood and the shouts of battle and death rose up to Xerxes, who sat on a throne watching what was supposed to be his naval coup de main. Instead he saw more than half his fleet destroyed while the Greeks suffered the loss of only forty ships.
Although Xerxes stayed in Athens for a few more days and gave the impression that he was going to renew the battle, he was actually making plans for his retreat. Fearful that the Greek navy might chase his remaining ships all the way back to Asia Minor and then destroy his boat bridge, he made plans to withdraw his army from Europe back into his own lands. He left a force of possibly 180,000 under his general Mardonius to finish off the Greek armies. This he did on the advice of Artemesia of Halicarnassus, a queen who not only had provided ships for the Persian invasion but had distinguished herself in battle at both Euboea and Salamis. She told Xerxes that this was the best solution, for if Mardonius was victorious, Xerxes could claim the credit for leaving him in command, but if Mardonius lost, then Xerxes could disavow any fault for the defeat because he had not been personally in command. Indeed, Mardonius did lose the following August at Plataea after attempting to take advantage of the Greeks who were soon squabbling again. He did have some Greek allies with him at the battle, but the 80,000 Greeks under the command of the Spartan general Pausanias proved too disciplined a force for the polyglot Persian army to stand against.
The battles of Salamis and Plataea ended this round of the Greco-Persian wars; for the next 150 years, Greece and Persia fought intermittently, mainly in Ionia, the east coast of Asia Minor populated originally by Greek colonists. From naval, military, and political points of view, the world changed after these battles.
The Persian navy had dominated the eastern Mediterranean for half a century, with the Phoenicians making up the bulk of the navy and the Ionian cities providing both ships and bases. Further, the Phoenician colony of Carthage, as stated earlier, by acting in concert with Persia, extended Persian sway across almost the entire Mediterranean Sea. This was reversed after Salamis. As long as the Persian Empire existed, and it lasted until its defeat by Alexander the Great in 331 b.c., it maintained a navy to be reckoned with, but the Athenian navy was the primary power for decades after the Salamis victory. When the Peloponnesian War broke out between Athens and Sparta in the second half of the fifth century b.c., Sparta dealt with the Persians in order to use their fleet against Athens. Still, the Persian navy was never the same power it had been. Athens came to dominate trade in the eastern Mediterranean, and the Ionian cities were encouraged by the Greek victory and began making trouble for their Persian masters. Maintaining order in Asia Minor became an ongoing problem for the Persians from this time forward.
Militarily, the Greek army had become the best in the world. The heavily armed hoplite, the Greek infantryman with spear, armor, and discipline, became the standard by which other soldiers were measured. The phalanx in which he fought was the formation that dominated the battlefield until the Roman Empire adapted and modified it into the cohort. Indeed, from this point forward, Greek soldiers and formations were used by the Persians, who hired Greek mercenaries in large numbers to fight their wars in Asia. With the hoplites, Philip of Macedon controlled Greece, and his son Alexander built an empire that reached India.
The greatest change came politically and socially. Many commentators point to Salamis and Plataea as the turning point in all of European history, the point at which Europe became a culture based on Greek civilization and not a vassal of Eastern emperors. Fuller (A Military History of the Western World, vol. 1, p. 52) states that these two battles “stand like the pillars of the temple of the ages supporting the architecture of western history.” Durant (The Life of Greece, p. 242) describes the Greek victory as the most momentous “in European history, for it made Europe possible. It won for western civilization the opportunity to develop its own . political institutions, free from the dictation of Oriental kings. It won for Greece a clear road for the first great experiment in liberty; it preserved the Greek mind for three centuries from the enervating mysticism of the East, and secured for Greek enterprise full freedom of the sea.” Thus, the basis of western political institutions, philosophies, and sciences comes from Greece; little is done today, or even conceived of, that the Greeks did not ponder upon more than two millennia past.
Had the Persians prevailed, they might well have spread their empire deep into Europe. If they had been able to maintain some sort of order in Greece itself (a tall order to be sure) and drawn on Greek soldiers to supplement the already massive and talented Persian army, little in Europe stood in their way. No European population had the organization to mass against them; even the previously successful Scythians may have failed against a reinforced Persian military. A Persian navy carrying the empire’s soldiers across the Mediterranean may even have quelled the nascent power of Rome. The world, indeed, could have been completely different but for Themistocles’s gamble at Salamis.
Burn, A. R. Persia and the Greeks: The Defence of the West, c. 546–478 bc. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1984 ; Durant, Will. The Life of Greece. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1939; Fuller, J. F. C. A Military History of the Western World, vol. 1. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1954; Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. Baltimore: Penguin, 1954; Hignet, Charles.