IN 480 BC there occurred one of those turning points in history, where the trajectory of history and the future of Western Civilization hung in the balance. That event was the Persian invasion of Greece.
The roots of this conflict went back twenty years.
Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, had incorporated the Greek cities along the Aegean coast of modern Turkey, then called Ionia, into his dominions. But in 500-499 B.C., the Ionian Greeks rebelled against Persian rule. The rebels were aided by the Ionian “mother city”, Athens; and by the small city of Eretria, on the island of Euboea. The revolt was short lived; but Persian memory was long.
In 490 B.C., Darius I (called “the Great”) dispatched an expeditionary force to punish Athens and Eretria. The size of the force has at times been exaggerated, but the ground force (fleet aside) was likely around 50,000 men; transported across the Aegean by a substantial fleet of warships.
The Persians quickly overcame and destroyed Eretria. Their army then embarked again and landed on the mainland, on the beach of Marathon; only 25 miles from Athens. After appealing in vain for Spartan aid, the So of their own city (plus a minor contingent from the nearby town of Plataea), the Athenians engaged the Persians with only their own 10,000 hoplites at Marathon.
The Battle of Marathon showed the world for the first time the inherent superiority at close-quarters fighting of Greek hoplites over the lighter armed archers of Asia. The Persian army, despite its numerical advantage, was routed and thrown (literally!) back into the sea.
Ten years later, Darius’ son and successor, Xerxes, launched a second invasion. This one was far, far larger in size and scope than his father’s. Darius had sent a punitive expedition; Xerxes led an invasion, the purposes of which was to bring the free city-states of Greece into “the fold” of the Persian Empire…..
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