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Hendrik Willem Van Loon

The Persian Wars

How the Greeks Defended Europe against Asiatic Invasion and Drove the Persians Back across the Aegean Sea

T HE Greeks had learned the art of trading from the AEgeans who had been the pupils of the Phoenicians. They had founded colonies after the Phoenician pattern. They had even improved upon the Phoenician methods by a more general use of money in dealing with foreign customers. In the sixth century before our era they had established themselves firmly along the coast of Asia Minor and they were taking away trade from the Phoenicians at a fast rate. This the Phoenicians of course did not like but they were not strong enough to risk a war with their Greek competitors. They sat and waited nor did they wait in vain.

In a former chapter, I have told you how a humble tribe of Persian shepherds had suddenly gone upon the warpath and had conquered the greater part of western Asia. The Persians were too civilised to plunder their new subjects. They contented themselves with a yearly tribute. When they reached the coast of Asia Minor they insisted that the Greek colonies of Lydia recognize the Persian Kings as their over-Lords and pay them a stipulated tax. The Greek colonies objected. The Persians insisted. Then the Greek colonies appealed to the home-country and the stage was set for a quarrel.

For if the truth be told, the Persian Kings regarded the Greek city-states as very dangerous political institutions and bad examples for all other people who were supposed to be the patient slaves of the mighty Persian Kings.

Of course, the Greeks enjoyed a certain degree of safety because their country lay hidden beyond the deep waters of the AEgean. But here their old enemies, the Phoenicians, stepped forward with offers of help and advice to the Persians. If the Persian King would provide the soldiers, the Phoenicians would guarantee to deliver the necessary ships to carry them to Europe. It was the year 492 before the birth of Christ, and Asia made ready to destroy the rising power of Europe.

As a final warning the King of Persia sent messengers to the Greeks asking for "earth and water" as a token of their submission. The Greeks promptly threw the messengers into the nearest well where they would find both "earth and water" in large abundance and thereafter of course peace was impossible.

But the Gods of High Olympus watched over their children and when the Phoenician fleet carrying the Persian troops was near Mount Athos, the Storm-God blew his cheeks until he almost burst the veins of his brow, and the fleet was destroyed by a terrible hurricane and the Persians were all drowned.


The Persian Fleet is Destroyed Near Mount Athos

Two years later more Persians came. This time they sailed straight across the AEgean Sea and landed near the village of Marathon. As soon as the Athenians heard this they sent their army of ten thousand men to guard the hills that surrounded the Marathonian plain. At the same time they despatched a fast runner to Sparta to ask for help. But Sparta was envious of the fame of Athens and refused to come to her assistance. The other Greek cities followed her example with the exception of tiny Plataea which sent a thousand men. On the twelfth of September of the year 490, Miltiades, the Athenian commander, threw this little army against the hordes of the Persians. The Greeks broke through the Persian barrage of arrows and their spears caused terrible havoc among the disorganised Asiatic troops who had never been called upon to resist such an enemy.

That night the people of Athens watched the sky grow red with the flames of burning ships. Anxiously they waited for news. At last a little cloud of dust appeared upon the road that led to the North. It was Pheidippides, the runner. He stumbled and gasped for his end was near. Only a few days before had he returned from his errand to Sparta. He had hastened to join Miltiades. That morning he had taken part in the attack and later he had volunteered to carry the news of victory to his beloved city. The people saw him fall and they rushed forward to support him. "We have won," he whispered and then he died, a glorious death which made him envied of all men.


The Battle of Marathon

As for the Persians, they tried, after this defeat, to land near Athens but they found the coast guarded and disappeared, and once more the land of Hellas was at peace.

Eight years they waited and during this time the Greeks were not idle. They knew that a final attack was to be expected but they did not agree upon the best way to avert the danger. Some people wanted to increase the army. Others said that a strong fleet was necessary for success. The two parties led by Aristides (for the army) and Themistocles (the leader of the bigger-navy men) fought each other bitterly and nothing was done until Aristides was exiled. Then Themistocles had his chance and he built all the ships he could and turned the Piraeus into a strong naval base.

In the year 481 B.C. a tremendous Persian army appeared in Thessaly, a province of northern Greece. In this hour of danger, Sparta, the great military city of Greece, was elected commander-in-chief. But the Spartans cared little what happened to northern Greece provided their own country was not invaded. They neglected to fortify the passes that led into Greece.

A small detachment of Spartans under Leonidas had been told to guard the narrow road between the high mountains and the sea which connected Thessaly with the southern provinces. Leonidas obeyed his orders. He fought and held the pass with unequalled bravery. But a traitor by the name of Ephialtes who knew the little byways of Malis guided a regiment of Persians through the hills and made it possible for them to attack Leonidas in the rear. Near the Warm Wells—the Thermopylae —a terrible battle was fought.



When night came Leonidas and his faithful soldiers lay dead under the corpses of their enemies.


The Battle of Thermopylae

But the pass had been lost and the greater part of Greece fell into the hands of the Persians. They marched upon Athens, threw the garrison from the rocks of the Acropolis and burned the city. The people fled to the Island of Salamis. All seemed lost. But on the 20th of September of the year 480 Themistocles forced the Persian fleet to give battle within the narrow straits which separated the Island of Salamis from the mainland and within a few hours he destroyed three quarters of the Persian ships.


The Persians Burn Athens

In this way the victory of Thermopylae came to naught. Xerxes was forced to retire. The next year, so he decreed, would bring a final decision. He took his troops to Thessaly and there he waited for spring.

But this time the Spartans understood the seriousness of the hour. They left the safe shelter of the wall which they had built across the isthmus of Corinth and under the leadership of Pausanias they marched against Mardonius the Persian general. The united Greeks (some one hundred thousand men from a dozen different cities) attacked the three hundred thousand men of the enemy near Plataea. Once more the heavy Greek infantry broke through the Persian barrage of arrows. The Persians were defeated, as they had been at Marathon, and this time they left for good. By a strange coincidence, the same day that the Greek armies won their victory near Plataea, the Athenian ships destroyed the enemy's fleet near Cape Mycale in Asia Minor.

Thus did the first encounter between Asia and Europe end. Athens had covered herself with glory and Sparta had fought bravely and well. If these two cities had been able to come to an agreement, if they had been willing to forget their little jealousies, they might have become the leaders of a strong and united Hellas.

But alas, they allowed the hour of victory and enthusiasm to slip by, and the same opportunity never returned.