In the ancient Greek world, warfare was seen as a necessary evil of the human condition. Whether it be small frontier battles between neighboring city-states, lengthy city-sieges, civil wars, or large-scale battles between multi-alliance blocks on land and sea, the vast rewards of war could outweigh the costs in material and lives. While there were long periods of peace and many examples of friendly alliances, the powerful motives of territorial expansion, war loot, revenge, honor, and the defense of liberty ensured that throughout the Archaic and Classical periods the Greeks were regularly engaged in warfare both at home and abroad. There were many battles that took place throughout this time, this paper will focus on two of the Wars and the battles within them, the Persian Wars with Greece and the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta.
During the Ancient Greece military battles, there were different tactics, formations, and weaponry that were used. The backbone of the Greek army was the ‘hoplite’. A foot soldier, who fought with a long spear, short sword, and used a large round bronze shield for protection. For further protection if he could afford it, he would have worn armor, which included a helmet, breast plate, and leg and ankle guards. In battle, hoplites fought as a team in close quarter, while their general was in front leading by example. They lined up in ranks and locked their shields together with just their spears pointing over the top. This formation was known as a ‘phalanx’. The Greek soldiers were well trained, disciplined, and very brave (in order to hold the formation during attacks). A hoplite had to pay for his armor himself, unless his father was killed in battle. Then he was given his father’s equipment. Since armor was required, only the wealthy could be in the army as a Hoplite. Enemy soldiers saw only a wall of spears and shields moving towards them. It was tough to break through once a phalanx started marching forward. The hoplite formation gave a new emphasis on the importance of each ordinary soldier (instead of just the aristocratic heroes of the Iliad) which in turn, helped democracy to develop in Greece. The Hoplite phalanx helped Greece to fight off the Persians during the Persian War.
The Persian Wars were between the Greek city-states verses the largest empire on earth, the Persian Empire. Several of the most famous and significant battles in history were fought during the Wars, these were the Battle of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Platae, all of which would become legendary. The Greeks were, ultimately, victorious and their civilization preserved. If they had been defeated then the western world may not have inherited from them such lasting cultural contributions as democracy, classical architecture and sculpture, theatre, and the Olympic Games.
The Battle of Marathon marked the first attacks of the Greco-Persian War. The battle was between Greece who was led by Athens and Persia. The origin of the battle begins in 490BC when the king of Persia sent a large fleet of soldiers to punish the Athenians for revolting. The Persian troops landed in the coastal town of Marathon, where they were met by the armed Athenians. One of the most important Athenian war leaders was Miltiades. Miltiades persuaded the other Athenian generals of the need to confront the Persians in open battle. For this battle, Miltiades made his Athenian force stronger on its two flanks (outsides or wings) and weakest in its middle to meet the larger invading Persian force. When the flanks routed the Persians they were facing instead of pursuing them, hoping the center would hold while they broke through the lighter of the Persian infantry, they returned to help the weakened center. Strategy and discipline of the Athenian army gave Greece its’ first victory over the Persian Empire.
Something interesting that came from The Battle of Marathon was what we know today as the Marathon. After the Athenians victory over the Persian army in the plain Marathon, they sent a messenger Pheidippides to run ahead to Athens (26 miles away) and announce the victory of the to the city. This is where we get the idea of the marathon (a long endurance run of 26.2 miles). But, the myth of Pheidippides and the 26-mile run is likely from and confused with the Greek Historian Herodotus’s account on the 140-mile two day run of Pheidippides from Athens to Sparta and back. The Greek historian Herodotus, the “father of history” made no mention of Pheidippides running to Athens in his account of the Battle of Marathon. Herodotus was known for his famous work The Histories which is where we get the modern meaning of the word “history.” He traveled a lot and wrote down his experiences and observations, that provide us today with detailed accounts of important historical events, like the Battle of Marathon. While he traveled he listened to myths and legends, recorded oral histories, and made detailed notes of places and things that he saw. The Histories were divided into nine books the first five books try to explain the rise and fall of the Persian Empire and his accounts of the geography of each state conquered by Persia and their people and customs. The last four books tell the story of war itself.
After their defeat at Marathon, the Persians went back home, but King Xerxes gathered troops together and returned in greater numbers ten years later. Which lead to the battles known as the Naval Battle of Artemisium and the Battle of Thermopylae. The naval battle of Artemisium was commanded by Spartan Eurybiades and the Athenian contingent fleet was commanded by Themistocles. The Battle of Themopylea was led by Spartan King Leonidas. Themistocles played a big part in building the Athenian fleet by moving the Hoplites to fast-moving warships called trireme that had multiple layers of oars. Themistocles strategy was ramming into the other ships and finishing the job with small teams of hoplites. The Persians attacked Greece at the pass of Thermopylae. King Leonidas and his small band of Greeks managed to hold the pass for three days before falling to the Persians, while at the same time, the fleet, managed to hold off the Persians at the naval battle of Artemision. During the battle of Artemisium a large portion of the Persian fleet was wrecked by a big storm. Considering all the loses on each side the Athenians and the Greek fleet would then retreat Artemisium and re-group at Salamis.
The Battle of Salamis was a naval battle between the Greek City-states and the Persian Empire of Xerxes. The Greek City-states navy was led by Eurybiades and the very important Themistocles while the Persian Navy was commanded by Xerxes and his two Generals Artemisia I of Caria and Ariabignes. During the battle, Xerxes watched from a distance as his men fought the Greeks. His fleet outnumbered the Greek ships, and he expected an easy victory. Though the Greeks were greatly outnumbered by the Persian ships, they had the advantage of their speed and knowledge of the waters and the battle plan. The Persian fleet was lured into the narrow waters of the strait at Salamis, where the massed Persian ships had difficulty maneuvering. The Greek triremes then attacked furiously, ramming or sinking many Persian vessels and boarding others. The Greeks would end up losing dozens of ships while the Persians lost hundreds. Themistocles’ strategy led important victory for the Greek and the defeat of the Persians.
Following the Greek naval success at the Battle of Salamis, came the Battle of Plataea. The final land battle between the Persians and the Greeks took place a year later in the region of Boeotia, near the town of Plataea. The Greek hoplite as at Marathon eleven years before, once again proved more than a match for the Persian invader, and a victory was won which would not only guarantee freedom from foreign rule, but also permit an astonishingly rich period of artistic and cultural endeavor which would lay the cultural foundations of all future Western civilizations. Over the next few years leadership in the war against Persian passed from Sparta to Athens. The Delian League slowly turned into an Athenian Empire, and the former allies of the Persian War became the bitter enemies of the Peloponnesian Wars.