The Persian Empire came about through the unification of two tribes that arose in modern day Iran. At times the empire is actually referred to as the Medeo-Persian Empire. The empire came to prominence when King Cyrus unified the tribes and made war, quite successfully, against the Babylonian, which was the Middle Eastern superpower of the time. Much of what we know about the empire comes from two sources (excluding archaeological digs), and that is Herodotus and The Bible. Okay, there is a debate as to whether the Biblical account is accurate or not, but considering that Herodotus is referred to as The Father of Lies, I feel that some credence should be given to the Biblical account. Anyway, if you are interested in reading Herodotus’ account you can easily find it on the Internet.
The Persians and the Greeks initially came into conflict when the Persians conquered Asia Minor and set up garrisons in the Greek cities along the Aegean Coast (otherwise known as Anatolia). However due to logistical difficulties they didn’t expand any further to the west. The many of the colonies along the coast were well established cities (though there were some non-Greek regions as well, such as Lydia). Anyway, since the Greeks generally didn’t like being ruled by foreign powers the city states ended up rebelling in an event known as the Ionian Revolt. The Persians pretty quickly crushed the revolt but since the rebellion was being supported and funded by Athens and her allies, the Persians realised that something had to be done. Initially Darius, the current king of Persia, sent a fleet around the coast of the Aegean Sea however a storm off of Athos put paid to that plan (though this event is generally ignored by most scholars, our history lecturer referred to this as the first Persian War).
Battle of Marathon
Out of all the battles of the Greco-Persian Wars I must admit that Marathon would have to be my favourite. Basically, realising that sending the fleet around the coast wouldn’t work, Darius tried another tactic – he sent his army directly across the Aegean Sea and made a beach head at Marathon. Unfortunately for him, when he got there he discovered that the Athenian forces were waiting for him. Despite him having a numerical advantage the Athenians ended up winning the day and drove his army, and his fleet, off the Greek peninsula. Darius wasn’t going to leave it at that though because, despite being defeated in the context of things this was little more than a minor setback. However, he had suffered a defeat and as such he needed to rebuild his army, and his fleet, for his next shot at the title. Unfortunately for him a revolt in Egypt put paid to his plans, and before he could launch a third invasion he died.
There are probably a few reasons as to why Darius was defeated, one of them being that he was relying on securing the beachhead at Marathon. In fact the entire invasion rested on him being able to secure that beachhead. The Greeks also realised this and were going to do the best to prevent that from happening. However in the end it all came down to tactics. The tactics that the Greeks used is actually the exact same tactics that Hannibul used in the Battle of Cannae to utterly annihilate the Roman forces. Anyway, the tactic that was used was known as Double Envelopment (or the Pincer Move). Basically the centre of the line would be the weakest point while each end forms the stronger points. The enemy is then enticed to attack the centre, at which point the troops retreat drawing the enemy with them. As they are drawn back the flanks then move in to envelop the enemy army shifting the advantage. This is a particularly useful tactic when you are facing an army that significantly outnumbers you.
I won’t go into any further details about the battle here, but you can always check out Wikipedia, or even Herodotus. However, if you are wondering why the long distance race is referred to as the marathon, it is because after the Persians had been defeated an Athenian, Phidipides, ran from Marathon back to Athens to announce the victory.
Significant of the Battle
Okay, one might be tempted to suggest that the Battle of Marathon cannot be taken in isolation from the third Persian War, however I suspect that if the Greeks had lost here as opposed to losing when Xerxes returned for a re-enactment of 300 then there would have been some noticeable differences. However, it let us consider what could have happened in a general sense.
Athens was a democracy prior to the Persian invasions, and it is possible that despite a defeat at Marathon it would have maintained its government. However it would not have been free. In fact it is quite likely that if the Athenians had been defeated and Athens seized then the Persians would have installed a puppet government. Mind you, Athens would have simply been the start of a larger invasion, but Darius had secured a foothold from which he could then move out to deal with the other city states. While it is possible that he could have began a slow subjugation of the Greek peninsula, we must also remember the Egyptian revolt. There is no indication that this would not have occurred. However the Athens that was considered as the birthplace of democracy would have been no more. A Satrap would have been left behind with a garrison and any government decisions would have had to have been approved by him. While it is possible that the democratic institutions may have survived, it would be unlikely. The more feasible scenario would be that the city would be run by a tyrant.
Despite capturing Athens, Darius would still have difficulties in securing the entire peninsula. The Greeks were a fiercely independent people and the capture of one city would not necessarily mean the subjugation of the entire peninsula. In fact you would probably find that while Attica would be under Persian Rule the regions to the north and the south would still be independent. As well as being a collection of city states, Greece is also very mountainous. Attica is bordered by a mountain range to the north, and the gulf of Corinth to the south. As such expanding his control beyond Attica would have been quite difficult. The most likely scenario would be that the Persians would be in control for a time but would soon face attacks from other city-states seeking to liberate Athens. However, the catch is that Athens would unlikely become the powerhouse that it did. Also, having achieved a victory, Darius, and his son Xerxes, would not have seen the need to launch the third Persian War. Sure, they might eventually take all of Greece, but it is also possible that by this time the Empire would have become so stretched out that it would slowly begin to decay.
The thing about Greek culture is that most of the significant pieces of literature arose after the defeat of the Persians. The great philosophers and playwrights weren’t writing until after the war. While we do have some writings prior to the wars, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as a handful of poems and philosophical texts, most of the major pieces didn’t come about until later. As such it is quite possible that if the Persians had been victorious our culture would not have been as heavily influenced by the Greeks as it currently is. In fact our culture would be vastly different (so different that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to even imagine what it would be like). Everything from language to literature, and even to the theatre, has been shaped by Greco-Roman thought. If anything, our literature and culture would have much more Persian influence than it currently does.
It has also been suggested that our political thought has been shaped by the Greeks, and in many cases that is true. One of the roles that philosophers played in the ancient world was drafting constitutions and speculating on the idea of state-craft. Plato’s Republic is all about the idea of the perfect state. Sure, his idea was a from of Tyranny, but for Plato to have reached this point he needed to have seen a democracy function. Okay, the Persians, at least during Darius’ reign, took a light touch approach in relation to ruling conquered territories (they would install a Satrap who would govern the region), however that did not necessarily mean that the city-states could operate independently. Rather they were subject to the Satrap, who could install and remove rulers as he saw fit.
I’ll finish off with a possible counter-factual scenario because, well, I find them fun. So, Darius, having secured a victory in Attica discovered that the Egyptians have revolted, however since he does not want to give up his recent gains he sends his son Xerxes into Egypt to attempt to subdue them while consolidating his gains in Greece. He strikes a treaty with the Thebans to the north, but also secures the mountain passes since he has a much greater threat to the south – Sparta.
Darius has a significant advantage over the Spartans – they are a land power whereas Darius has a fleet at his disposal. The Spartans rally a force to attempt to liberate Athens however Darius effectively holds them off at the Ithmus. While the Persians and the Spartans are fighting Darius sends troops across the gulf to attack them from behind. This results in a victory for Darius who them moves in and conquers the entire Peloponese. However his victory is short lived because Xerxes has been defeated in Egypt forcing Darius to return to Persia to raise some more troops. Leaving Satraps in Greece he travels to Egypt in an attempt to clean up his son’s mess; however he dies on the way back.
Darius’ successor isn’t Xerxes as he was killed in Egypt leaving the throne to another king, whom we will call Cyrus. Cyrus isn’t actually all that effective and under his reign the empire begins to break apart. The Persians are quickly kicked out of Greece after a Theban general raises an army and attacks Attica. This has the effect of uniting Greece under Theban rule. The Thebans then move across the Aegean and reclaim territory lost to the Persians while the Egyptians move up north and claim the Levant. However the Greeks, who don’t have a huge army, don’t penetrate much further inland, and with a weakened Persia don’t see the need to secure their borders. This new Greek state isn’t a tyranny, but isn’t the philosophical powerhouse that we have in our time. Instead it is a fairly backward merchantile state that doesn’t develop much in a cultural sense.
The middle east isn’t Helenised because there is no need for Alexander the Great to arise. The Persians have already been defeated and are no longer a threat. Instead the fertile crescent maintains it’s Persian identity, while the Levant develops a distinctly Egyptian flavour. Greek never becomes the common tongue of the east, rather it is Persian. However, one thing that still happens is the rise of Rome. Rome still ends up conquering Greece, and in turn the entire Mediterranean seaboard. However, I will leave it at that and will talk about the third Persian Wars next time.