"This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory, including among others what was the cause of their waging war on each other."
— The beginning of Herodotus' Histories
This is one of the most mythologized wars in the history of Western Civilization. The basis of the conflict was laid when Cyrus The Great
founded the Persian Empire
, conquering several Greek colonies in Asia Minor in the process. Under Darius, a successor of Cyrus', several of these Greek cities
rebelled and enlisted the help of kinsmen across the ocean, notably Athens. Annoyed at this, Darius mounted a campaign against Athens, but was defeated on the field of Marathon.
Darius' successor Xerxes, after he had persuaded
the rest of The Empire
to accept him as King, launched a massive second invasion of Greece. He was delayed by the Spartans at the mountain pass of Thermopylae and by the Athenian fleet at Artemisium, however Xerxes continued to march on until he arrived at Athens. Athens had been evacuated, which deprived the Persians of the human part
of their Plunder
when they sacked
it. The Persians mused over their "capture" a little when they received a message that the Athenian politician Themistocles intended to defect. Xerxes took the offer, but Themistocles lured the Persian fleet into an ambush, resulting in its destruction in the Battle of Salamis.
The next year the Athenian and Spartan armies fighting side by side destroyed what was left of the Persian army at Platea. This pretty much secured the independence of Greece from Persia.
See Alexander the Great
's campaign against Persia for the sequel.
Tropes exemplified by the Greco-Persian Wars:
- The Alliance: The Anti-Persian alliance
- Antihero: Themistocles the Athenian politician. He was normally a Sleazy Politician but when his cunning was needed to defend Greece it was awesome.
- Armor Is Useless: The armor of many Persian troops was made of cloth and wicker. Admittedly, said troops were equipped for long-distance warfare, and such armor was pretty effective at deflecting enemy arrows (as well as being light enough to enable them to maneuver quickly). But in close-quarter combat with the bronze-armored human tanks that were Greek hoplites? Might as well have been fighting naked.
- And the trope is utterly trashed by said bronze-armored human tanks, of course.
- Artistic License - History: Herodotus' account is not very reliable. To be fair, he got a lot of it right, but quite lot was simply made up for him due Rule of Drama or faulty information accidentally propagated. Case in point: The numerous mentions of Persian slaves. Slavery was outlawed in Persia since before Cyrus' time (Zoroastranism, the Empire's religion, was explicetly against slavery).
- Awesome, but Impractical: The Persian army. Massive in numbers and a clear indicator of the Empire's size and power...very cumbersome to move and supply.
- Badass Army: The Spartans.
- Badass Creed: Go Tell the Spartans, Stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie Thermopylae Memorial.
- The Spartans are free, but not in all things. Their law is their master; they fear it more then your slaves fear you. (Demaratus to Xerxes)
- What is more awesome is that he said those kind of things to a ruler prone to Bad Temper
- Badass Navy: The Athenians.
- Batman Gambit: How Themistocles got his navy. No one in Athens wanted to prepare for war with Persia; indeed, no one in Athens even considered them to be a credible threat. Athens' local rival Aegina, on the other hand, was more credible. So Themistocles stirred the pot and preyed on public fear until finally the government agreed to fund the building of a navy. Then it turns out Aegina doesn't want war with Athens? What a waste of money! What are we supposed to do with all these ships? Wait...are those the Persians coming over the sea..?
- Battle Butler: Sicinnus the private tutor of Themostocles' children. And the private spy as well.
- Boring, but Practical: All Greek hoplites carried a shortsword, but it was there for decoration, and only the Spartans actually knew how to use it. This is why the Spartans carried the day at Plataea: finding themselves in a desperate struggle for survivals, the Persian soldiers started grabbing the spears, and this desperate move quickly disabled the Tegean... Only for the Spartans, who arrived immediately after, to draw their swords and continue as usual as soon as they lost their spear.
- Bigger Bad: From a Greek perspective, Mardonius was this. It was he who convinced Xerxes to invade Greece a second time and lay waste to Athens. His motivation varies from Greed to just plain Honor Before Reason depending on the source you consult.
- The Captain: The Athenian captain Aminias racked up one of the highest scores at Salamis. Which also makes him The Ace.
- The Chessmaster: Themistocles, the leading Athenian politician at the time. Mardonius, leader of the Persian army and commander of the Immortals was one for the Persian side. In fact, some modern historians hold that if he hadn't perished in Plataea, he'd have won.
- Cool Ship: Triremes are cool ships.
- Cool Versus Awesome: Artemisia VS Themistocles, Mardonius VS Leonidas.
- Conservation of Ninjutsu: For some reason, Persians seemed less formidable as their numbers grew.
- This was because their army became ridiculously cumbersome. It took them something like 5 months to get from the Hellespont to Greece, and at that point, the war season was nearly over and they were running out of supplies. Oops.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: The entire first invasion (before Marathon) and the first half of the second one can be succintly summed up as "The Persians trounce everything Greek in their path".
- Crowning Moment Of Awesome: Lots of them.
- The tactic used at Marathon- the Athenians managed to close around the Persians like a pincer, encircling them and slaughtering them.
- On the Persian side, just getting to Greece took some Crazy Awesome feats of engineering, like carving a massive canal around a storm-prone mountain and building a pontoon bridge across the Hellespont. Twice.
- Persia also deserves credit for curbstomping Greece for most of the first and second war (one of the reasons Marathon and Salamis are so memorable is because it broke their winning streak, essentially. The Persian Empire almost every other engagement).
- Thermopylae, of course.
- The Greeks claim the moral victory, though. Stories of courageous yet doomed men have always inspired people, and Thermopylae was one of the oldest true examples of this. Vindicated by History, perhaps?
- The Battle of Salamis, when it was up to a thousand Persian ships against 300 or so Greek ones. The Greeks backed into the narrow straits of Salamis and the Persians crashed into each other. Most of the damage to the Persians they did to themselves.
- David Versus Goliath
- The people weren't worried about the Persians, however. Only Themistocles was.
- Deadpan Snarker: The Spartans prided themselves on their laconic wit. In fact, the English word "laconic" comes from the Spartans' name for their own country: Laconia.
- Decapitated Army: Fun fact: The Persians were steamrolling the Greeks in Plataea, until General Mardonius fell in battle, causing the Persians to fall in disarray and giving the Greeks the chance to strike back.
- Deus ex Machina: The Athenian Navy was built with the proceeds from a silver strike that happened just as people were starting to worry about the Persian threat. Apparently Reality Is Unrealistic.
- The Dragon / The Lancer: Mardonius to Xerxes. Depending on which side you are talking about.
- The Heavy: Xerxes was in charge, but Mardonius was the main leader, strategist and battlefield commander of the army. Incidentally, Mardonius was also the Final Boss of the campaign.
- Didn't See That Coming: The one reason the Greeks won: the Persians never saw their tactics coming:
- when facing the Greeks, the Persians were used to face a slow-walking infantry square they could hit with a Rain Of Arrow until it broke, at which point they could choose if to have their cavalry mop up the enemy or let the survivors tell their city-state what happens fighting the Persians. At Marathon, the Genre Savvy general Miltiades launched every single Athenian hoplite in a downhill charge after deploying them with a four-ranks line at the centre and eight ranks at the sides, thus crossing the arrows killing zone before the Persians could inflict meaningful losses and then enacting an encirclement manouvre, resulting in both the first defeat of a Persian army at Greek hands and a Curb-Stomp Battle;
- at the time, naval battles were fought by boarding the enemy ships, a kind of warfare in which the larger Persian ships had the advantage thanks to their more numerous and experienced crews. The Athenians had recently invented the naval spur, and used their ships to sink the Persian ships with ramming. Furthermore, their troops were hoplites, whose heavy armour granted them a decisive advantage in melee combat against the relatively unarmoured Persian troops, and, as the Persians had been warned but chosen to ignore, the wind of the area of Salamis gave the advantage to the Greek ships, made heavier and more stable by the armour of the embarked troops. The end result? Another Curb-Stomp Battle;
- at Plataea, the Spartans opened the battle by retreating (either due disruption from the supply chain or because of bad omens divined at a sacrifice previously that day). Given what had happened the previous time, the Persians believed it was a route and moved to pursue, only to put themselves downhill from the Spartans and the nearby Tegeans, who, seeing themselves engaged, turned around and charged. It was a repeat of Marathon, only much worse: with them being in the weaker pursuit formation and the phalanxes from Greek allies being already engaged by the Athenians, the Persians were in an ever worse situation, and when they grabbed the spears of their enemies they discovered they were facing the one Greek army that knew how to use swords;
- Subverted at the Thermopylae: a look at the terrain and knowledge of how the Hoplites fought told the Persians they would have to fight the Greeks in melee combat without any arrows. Not by coincidence, the Persians won this one.
- Driven to Suicide: Pantites, one of the 300 Spartans, was sent as a messenger to Thessaly and didn't make it back in time for the Battle of Thermopylae. He was accused of cowardice and hanged himself.
- Elite Mooks: Hoplites for the Greek army, The Immortals for the Persian army.
- The Emperor: Xerxes.
- The Empire: Persia. At least from the Greek's viewpoint. Cyrus had actually done some very impressive things in the field of human rights such as emancipating the Jews from Babylon and establishing freedom of religion.
- Too bad Cyrus was long dead by the time Persia invaded Greece.
- Evil Counterpart: Mardonius and Themistocles were quite alike, but fought in different sides. Who is the Evil Counterpart of who depends on whose side you're on.
- Fake Defector: Sicinnus, who carried the false message to Xerxes at the instruction of Themistocles. He risked being tortured to death for it, perhaps from Undying Loyalty, perhaps from the possibility of freedom and citizenship, perhaps from both. In any case it may be that we today owe the survival of the idea of democracy to a slave. An odd paradox.
- Final Boss: Mardonius was the last Persian commander (all others either retreated back to Persia or died beforehand), and his death essentially ended the conflict.
- Four-Star Badass: Basically anyone in charge of an army. The most famous Greek ones being Themistocles, Leonidas, while Persia had Mardonius and Atemisia.
- Galley Slave: Averted; rowing a trieme was to tricky of work to trust to slaves.
- God Emperor: Xerxes, but only in fiction. In reality he was a member of Zoroastrianism.
- Of course, the Greeks didn't exactly understand this, since while the Persian Zoroastrians were monotheists, the Greeks took some of their rituals of (secular) allegiance to the Emperor as being forms of worship.
- God Save Us from the Queen!: Queen Artimisia of Halicarnassus personally comanding a Trieme at Salamis in Xerxes' fleet avoided an attack by ramming a nearby Persian ship that "just happened" to be commanded by her rival thus making the Athenians think she was an ally.
- Hero of Another Story: Themistocles and the Athenian Navy during the Battle of Thermopylae. In pop culture at least, the Badassery of the Spartans tends to overshadow the vital role the Athenians played in keeping the Persian fleet bottled up in the bay, so that troops had nowhere to land but in front of the Spartan meat grinder.
- History of Naval Warfare: The Battle of Salamis was, depending on how you measure such things, the largest naval battle ever fought. It also provides one of the crowning examples of Galley Combat.
- Honor Before Reason: Madness!... This! Is! Sparta!!
- Mardonius had a bad case of it, as well. He sternly refused to bribe any politicians with gold, seeking to finish the war via honorable methods (either diplomacy or war). This proved to be his undoing. If he had resorted to bribes, it's likely he'd have won in the end.
- Intrepid Reporter: Herodotus, who recorded these events and may have been the first Intrepid Reporter.
- Or maybe he was just wrote compelling yarns. He is generally thought to have been born between 490 and 480 BC, which would have made him at the most ten years old in the year of the Thermopylae and Salamis, so what his "Histories" were all written long after the events described in them. And of course he was prone to exaggeration - for instance, he claimed that Xerxes' army contained 1.7 million footsoldiers.
- Though that may have been due to a mistranslation of the Persian numerals.
- Besides writing compelling yarns is not incompatible with being an Intrepid Reporter.
- Just Following Orders: "Go Tell The Spartans".
- Lady of War: Queen Artimisia.
- She was also a Magnificent Bastard. Oh yeah wasn't she ever! Ramming her rival convinced the Greeks she was on their side and allowed her to escape, while also convincing Xerxes she was the only competent commander in the fleet since triremes tended to look alike at a distance.
- Land of One City: A typical Greek state was this.
- Last Stand: Thermopylae.
- It could also count as You Shall Not Pass except for the fact that they actually did pass.
- Les Collaborateurs: It is possible that as many Greeks fought on the Persian side as on the anti-Persian side.
- My Friends... and Zoidberg: The Three Hundred Spartans...and the Four Thousand Thespians. And the Unrecorded Number of Helot Slaves. Doesn't have quite the same ring to it...
- Never Found the Body: Mardonius supposedly perished in battle, but his body was never found or recovered.
- Noble Top Enforcer: Mardonius was all in all a very fair guy. He toppled tyrants and raised democracies in their place, and sought democracy with the Greeks. He also did not resort to corruption or bribes (unlike the Athenian Themistocles). Of course, most of the Persians weren't any worse than him.
- Off with His Head!: What happened to Leonidas after he fell in battle and the rest of the Spartans were killed.
- OOC Is Serious Business: The above. Normally the Persians treated the bodies of their enemies with respect, but Leonidas pissed Xerxes off so much that he ordered the body defiled and refused to return the remains for proper burial.
- Plunder: The spoils from Salamis, and the tale of the wealth found probably did not shrink in the telling.
- Police State: Sparta bore a suspicious resemblance to a modern Police State.
- Proud Warrior Race Guy: The Spartans, of course. And they made the most of it.
- Pyrrhic Victory: Greece won, but the country had been scorched to the ground, thousands were dead and they soon found themselves in a violent civil war.
- Ramming Always Works: Justified. Triremes could only ram or board, and were to a large degree built for ramming.
- Redemption Equals Death: Before the climax of the battle of Thermopylae, Leonidas ordered two Spartans named Eurytus and Aristodemus to return home because of severe eye infections. They were escorted away from the battle, but Eurytus decided to stay and fight even though he was practically blind while Aristodemus continued home. Aristodemus was thus considered a coward by the rest of Sparta, and he was only cleared of this charge after he died at the battle of Plataea.
- Herodotus surmises that if both men had returned home or only one man had been excused, the Spartans would not have blamed them.
- And unfortunately for Aristodemus, Death didn't quite equal Redemption either. At Plataea he was in such a hurry to regain his honor that he broke ranks and engaged the Persians one-on-one, getting himself killed. Though the Spartans agreed he had made up for his conduct at Thermopylae, he was denied special honors at his funeral because he didn't fight like a proper Spartan.
- The Republic: Athens invented the word "democracy". And yes they did have slaves and Feuding Families, etc. You have to start somewhere.
- The Slow Walk (Greek hoplites in a phalanx looked like ten thousand men making a slow walk. All of them Made of Iron)
- Though by this time most city-states prefered to take the last few hundred feet in a Zerg Rush. Except of course for the state that is most famous for discipline.
- The Spartan Way
- The Strategist: Many. Most famously, Themistocles the Athenian politician who won Salamis with his brillant tactics, and Mardonius, the Persian commander who never lost a battle until his death.
- Unreliable Narrator: Herodotus, one of the Western World's first historians, prone to exaggeration and embellishment. Granted, he was writing before Journalistic Integrity was invented.
- Victorious Loser: Persia in both invasions. In the first they lost at Marathon, but beforehand conquered a lot of lands in Greek territory. In the second they were repelled, but Xerxes did what he set out to do: Burn Athens to the ground. In fact, after that was done, he retreated with most of his forces and left Greece.
- Villainous Valor: Herodotus is always just as quick to mention the bravery and skill of the Persian soldiers as he is the Greek defenders.
- It helps that his city was on the Persian side under Queen Artimisia.
- You Have Failed Me: When a pontoon was wrecked by a storm the Great King did this to the Persian engineers responsible. The engineers who built the next pontoon, were "rather more careful" in their work.
- Quite likely fictional as well. Does make for a great narrative, though. Note that there was no such thing as Persian engineers - any engineers employed by Xerxes were likely Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Anatolians or Greeks.
- We Are Struggling Together: Greeks were always struggling together.
- We Can Rule Together: Eight years after the battle of Salamis, Themistocles was banished from Athens by ostracism, then driven from Greece when the Spartans (who hated him) falsely accused him of partaking in a pro-Persian conspiracy. He found asylum with his former enemies, the Persians, and (instead of e.g. taking revenge) King Artaxerxes (son and successor of Xerxes) made him governor of Magnesia.
- We Have Reserves: The Persian's chief asset according Greek sources. As it was, this was Zig-Zagged and perhaps Double Subverted. The core of the Persian army was drawn from the Iranic citizenry of the empire who not only vastly outnumbered the forces even a united Greece could field, but were trained and well equipped for battle. Unfortunately, they were armed and trained for a different kind of warfare than the Greeks, and when the latter could force them to do battle on Greek terms the result tended to be crushing.
- Won the War, Lost the Peace: Greek won, but it soon fell in a violent civil war amongst themselves.
- Written by the Winners: Almost the entire understanding of the war is based on Greek writings, since not many Persian ones have survived (Persia has had a history of being invaded and having its old knowledge burned; first by Alexander, then by various warring warlords, the Islamic empire, and then the Mongols) and/or have been actively sought out by historians. Needless to say, bias in the sources is almost certain in analysing it from a historical perspective.
Depictions in fiction:
- 300 by Frank Miller, a Battle Epic of the Battle of Thermopylae from the Spartans' persective, based on the account given by Herodotus.
- The 300 Spartans, a 1962 film that inspired Frank Miller.
- 300, the live action movie adaptation of Frank Miller's comic book.
Live Action TV
- The Histories by Herodotus of Halicarnassus is the historical main source on the Greco-Persian Wars. While not "fiction" per se, it probably contains its share of legends and embellishments.
- Gates of Fire by Steven Pressman is a historical novel about the Battle of Thermopylae.
- ''Creation by Gore Vidal presents a rare Persian perspective of these events.
- The Persians by ancient Greek tragic playwright Aeschylus, a contemporary of the Second Persian War, and the only extant Greek tragedy concerned with historical (as opposed to mythical) events. It is set at the Persian royal court in Susa and centers around the news from the Battle of Salamis being brought back to Xerxes' mother Atossa.