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Battles of Ancient Greeks
That Shaped Western Civilization

Battles of Ancient Greeks

19 February 2020

On the occasion of the 2500th anniversary since the Battle of Thermopylae (Hot Gates) and Salamis, we remember the greatest battles of Ancient Greeks, the outcome of which had unquestionable value in the preservation of Greek culture and values. It was because of the outcome of those battles that the Greek culture and values remained alive and were able to develop and flourish. Those values would later become the foundations of Western Civilization as we know it today.

Image after introtext
The Battle of Issus (Alexander the Great on the left, King Darius on the right), a mosaic in the House of the Faun, Pompeii - Credit: Berthold Werner / Public domain

1. The Battle of Marathon, 490 BC

The Battle of Marathon was the culmination of the first attempt by the vast Persian Empire, under King Darius I, to subjugate Greece. The great King of Persia had sent ambassadors to the Greek city-states, asking for “earth and water”. In other words, he was asking Greeks to give up their rights over their land and their free will. Many smaller Greek city-states duly obliged, having been demonstrated recently of the Empire’s power. However, the city-state of Athens put the Persian ambassadors to trial and then they executed them. Spartans simply threw them down a well. The Persian forces landed in the bay near the town of Marathon. The Athenians, aided by a small force from Plataea, marched to Marathon and blocked the two exits from its plain.

Athens had also sent a messenger to Sparta for support, however, the Spartans refused to go to the Athenians’ aid immediately because they were celebrating Carneia, a religious festival which forbade military action during the festivities. Miltiades, the Athenian general, devised a battle strategy that proved to be successful and the Greeks defeated the Persian army who broke in panic towards their ships. Realizing that the remainder of the Persian forces could sail to Athens and their city was still under threat, the Athenian army marched as quickly as possible back to Athens, arriving just in time to prevent the Persians from securing a landing. After this failure, the Persian fleet returned to Asia. On the next day, the Spartan army arrived at Marathon, having covered 220 km (140 mi) in just three days. Realizing that they were too late, they recognized the importance of the Athenian victory.

“Fighting at the forefront of the Greeks, the Athenians at Marathon laid low the army of the gilded Medes.”

The above epigram, composed by Simonides of Ceos, was placed on top of the place where the fallen Greeks in Marathon were buried. The defeat at Marathon did not have much of an impact on the vast resources of the Persian Empire. For Greeks, however, it was an enormous victory with great significance. It proved to people that the Persians were not invincible and resistance, rather than subjugation, was possible! The victory at Marathon was also vital for the young Athenian Democracy, preserving the foundations of what would soon become the Golden Age of Athens.

Battle of Marathon

2. The Battle of Thermopylae, 480 BC

In 2020, Greece celebrates the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae (Hot Gates), when a small force of Greeks stood their ground in one of history’s most famous and important last stands, to delay the advance of the Persian army. 10 years after the Battle of Marathon and the first, unsuccessful, attempt to subjugate Greece, the Persian Empire under King Xerxes I lunched its second attempt, amassing a massive army and navy with the aim to conquer all of Greece.

The Athenian politician and general Themistocles suggested that the allied Greek forces should block the advances of the Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae (that took its name from the thermal water springs in the area) and the Persian navy at the straits of Artemisium. Athenians did not have the numbers to contribute both in land and sea, so they focused their efforts on the naval battle. The Spartans would lead the allied army in Thermopylae. However, the advance of the Persian army happened to coincide once again with the Carneia, the religious festival of the Spartans that forbade military action during the festivities, and the Olympic Games which demanded the Olympic truce. The Spartans consulted the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi who, according to Herodotus, gave the following prophecy:

"O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Honor the festival of the Carneia!! Otherwise,
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles."

The Spartans decided to send one of their two kings, King Leonidas, with the 300 men of the royal bodyguard. Their aim was to persuade along the way as many Greeks as possible to join their forces and follow them to Thermopylae, where they would await the arrival of the main Spartan army. Xerxes waited four days before attacking the pass of Thermopylae, in case the Greek forces would surrender. The small Greek forces led by the 300 of King Leonidas successfully defended the pass for two whole days. However, a local named Ephialtes, motivated by the desire for reward, informed King Xerxes of a mountain path around Thermopylae. Learning of the news, Leonidas ordered the other Greek forces to retreat and told them that he would stay with his guard to protect their retreat and give them time. The contingent of 700 Thespians refused to leave and stayed behind with the Spartans to fight and die. The self-sacrifice of the 300 Spartans and the 700 Thespians allowed more than 3000 men to retreat and fight again in the next battle.

“Oh stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians that
we lie here, obedient to their laws.”

This epitaph was engraved on a commemorative stone placed on the ground where the Spartans fell at Thermopylae, usually attributed to Simonides of Ceos. Following the fall of the pass of Thermopylae, Themistocles and the Greek navy abandoned the Straits of Artemisium and retreated to Salamis where the Athenian general convinced the allied forces to seek a decisive victory against the Persian fleet. The significance of the Battle of Thermopylae lies not on its effect on the outcome of the Persian Wars. Its importance lies on the inspirational example it set. The people of Greece understood that even heavily outnumbered could put up an effective fight against the Persians and the defeat at Thermopylae turned Leonidas and the rest of his men into martyrs. That boosted the morale of the Greeks for the upcoming battles. "Which of the following," writes Diodorus of Sicily commenting on the sacrifice of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, "will not envy the death of these men, who, having found themselves in the grip of an overwhelmingly superior state, physically bowed, but remained unmoved by their soul."

Battle of Thermopylae

3. The Battle of Salamis, 480 BC

Often seen as the first ever-recorded naval battle and one of the most important battles of antiquity, the Battle of Salamis took place about a month after the Battle of Thermopylae. The Persian army had already entered Athens and destroyed the city, including the old Temple of Parthenon on the Acropolis. The Athenians had to abandon their city and take refuge at the island of Salamis. Themistocles persuaded the allied forces to mount a last stand at Salamis, in an effort to destroy the Persian navy that would end their dominion in the sea. All Greeks knew that this was truly the last stand, their last effort to stop the invasion of the Persian Empire and free their lands. Especially the Athenians needed only victory, otherwise, they would likely not see their homes again. According to Aeschylus, as the Persian ships set sail and approached the Greek, they heard the Greeks signing before they saw the allied fleet:

“O sons of the Greeks, go,
Liberate your country, liberate
Your children, your women, the seats of your fathers' gods,
And the tombs of your forebears: now is the struggle for all things.”

The Greeks initially appeared to go back their ships as in fear, allowing them to gain a better position and gain time until the early morning wind. Suddenly, a single ship shot forward to ram the nearest Persian vessel with the whole Greek fleet then following suit and storming to the Persian lines. The overwhelming numbers of the Persian fleet served as an active hindrance in the straits of Salamis, with the small number of Greek ships being able to perform maneuvers much easier. The defeat of the Persians in Salamis was overwhelming.

Fearing that the Greeks might attack the bridges across the Hellespont and trap his army in Europe, Xerxes retreated to Asia with most of his army, leaving behind Mardonius and his elite infantry and cavalry units to complete the Greek conquest. The following year, Mardonius’ forces would meet the Greek allied army once again, at the Battle of Plataea. The Battle of Salamis was the turning point in the Persian Wars. Persians suffered a major blow to their prestige and morale and Greeks were safe from conquest. The Battle of Salamis gained legendary status, similar to the one of the Battle of Thermopylae, mostly because of the desperate circumstances and the unlikely odds. Quoted by most historians as one of the most significant battles in human history, some historians even argue that if the Greeks had lost the battle, the whole trajectory of human history would have changed.

"If the West had a birthday, it would be today."

Dominic Selwood emphasized the importance of the Battle of Salamis for the Western Culture, on the occasion of its 2500th anniversary in 2020.

Battle of Salamis

4. The Battle of Plataea, 479 BC

The Battle of Plataea marked the end of the Persian invasion to the West. Mardonius and the elite Persian forces that stayed in Greece during the winter had built a fortified camped near Plataea in Boeotia, in a strategic place. The Greek allied forces (including Athens, Sparta, Corinth and Megara), marched out of the Peloponnese and arrived at Plataea. For more than 10 days the two armies were across each other, with only small incidents taking place. Mardonius’ forces managed to cut the supply line of food and water to the Greek forces, thus, the Spartan general, Pausanias, ordered a gradual retreat backward and closer to Plataea. The retreat was to take place during the night so that it goes unnoticed by the Persian army.

However, some contingents of the Greek army strayed away from the formation in the dark and delayed the retreat. Upon the first daylight, Mardonius and the Persians thought that the Greeks abandoned their position and were in full retreat. Looking to end this campaign once and for all, he ordered an immediate pursuit with the elite Persian cavalry. The rest of the Persian army followed the cavalry. The Greek army was scattered in the plain, with Spartan and Athenian forces fighting in different places. The Spartans, alongside the Tegeans, were pushing hard into the Persian lines to reach Mardonius, who was surrounded by a bodyguard of 1000 men. A Spartan warrior named Arimnestus killed Mardonius and the Persians around him began to flee. The Athenians were also successful in their battle and the now united army stormed the Persian camp and breached its defenses, killing most of the men inside. The Athenian allies continued north and freed all Greek city-states from the Persian rule.

Battle of Plataea

The Battle of Marathon was important because it showed that the Persian Empire can be defeated. The naval Battle of Salamis saved Greece from immediate conquest. But it was the Battle of Plataea that effectively ended the threat of the Persians and their invasion to the West. Although the Greeks remained worried that Xerxes would try to invade again, the Persians’ desire to subjugate Greece was much diminished. This allowed the ‘Golden Age of Athens’, as it is known, to take place.

The period that followed after the end of the Persian threat saw Athens enter an era of splendor. Democracy, philosophy, arts and literature, theater, tragedy, sculpting and many more flourished during this era. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pericles, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes and Phidias are only a few of the great men that lived in this age and left an invaluable legacy to Western Civilization and the world in general. The Battle of Plataea marked the end of the Persian invasions and the beginning of the Greek counter-attack, which would mainly be manifested by Alexander the Great, more than a century later.

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