The Persian Wars - Why the Persians lost.

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Matthew Amt as a Greek Hoplite.
(c)Matthew Amt 1999 Thanks for the permission!

From: Matthew Amt's Greek Hoplite Page


The Persian invasion of Greece in 480-79 BC failed for a number of reasons. Individual Greek commanders aided in the Greek victory through the excellent use of tactics and planning. Differences between the Greek and Persian fighters played a role, as the Greeks had better morale, and logistics played a part, as did differences in equipment. The Persians were to some extent responsible for their own defeat, however the Greeks also had problems that could have threatened their victory. Herodotus offers an assessment of the wars, which is likely to be very accurate.

The Greek Commanders

Individual Greek commanders such as Leonidas, Pausanius and Themistokles played a huge role in the defeat of the Persians. Leonidas arrived early enough at Thermoplyae to secure the best position for defence, the middle of the narrow pass, so that the huge numbers of Persian soldiers would mean that they could not fight effectively. Leonidas, as the overall commander of the Greeks there, would have recognised this fact when they were choosing their location. Despite that the Greeks were beaten at Thermopylae, Leonidas achieved his goal of delaying the Persians, by staying behind with a small force even though it would mean death, whilst the Greeks made an orderly withdraw. Because of this act, the Greeks would have been in a better position to defeat the Persians later as their numbers would not have been as depleted as if all the Greek forces at Thermopylae had been lost. Pausanias is another Greek commander than contributed to the Persian defeat. The Greek victory at Plataea has been credited to him, as he reversed a seemingly hopeless situation. They were outnumbered and he was commanding a hastily arranged group of Greek states that openly disobeyed him, as they were not used to being in the command of another state. Despite this, they defeated the Persians there thoroughly. Themistokles played a huge role as well. Before the invasion, by using the war of Athens with Aegina as a motive, he managed to convince the Athenians to become a maritime power. This ensured that, even though the ships were not used against Aegina, they were available for use against the Persians. These ships became invaluable to the Greeks in later battles. Themistokles also managed to keep Greek unity intact and convince them of the best place to fight at Salamis. He threatened to take the Athenians to Italy when the Greeks disagreed with him, and later, when they still seemed uncertain, he tricked Xerxes to attack. This provided a turning point in the war, as the Greeks finally went from being defensive to going on the offensive after this battle.

Differences in Greek and Persian Fighters

Differences between the Greek and Persian fighters in terms of morale, logistics and equipment also had a part to play in the Persians defeat. The Greeks were fighting for their survival and their autonomy, and, at the battle of Salamis, if they lost then slavery was almost sure to be the result. This would boost their morale by encouraging them to fight at their best, whilst the Persian troops were fighting in the knowledge that their own home was safe. Logistically, the Persians heavily outnumbered the Greeks, however this was often to their disadvantage. Due to the Persian army’s large numbers, the Persian fleet was used to support them, by providing supplies and communications. Themistokles saw this as a potential flaw in the Persians’ plan, and realised that if the Greek navy could defeat the Persian, than the Persian army would be disadvantaged. The large numbers of the Persian force also disadvantaged them at Thermopylae and Salamis, where the Greek tactics of fighting in narrow areas meant that the Persians could not use their numbers to full efficiency, and at Salamis this also meant that the numbers of ships crowded and hindered each other. In terms of equipment, the Persian infantry had already been outclassed by the Greeks in close fighting at the battle of Marathon , ten years before the invasion under Xerxes. Even though Xerxes took with him fighters from other areas of his empire with different equipment, at the battle of Themopylae, the Greeks still possessed the better equipment and training and so this would help to protect their warriors.

Persian Mistakes

The Persians were in some extent responsible for their own defeat, through the misjudgment of several situations. Before the battle of Salamis, the Persians believed Themistokles when he sent them a message, saying that he was a “well wisher to [the Persian] king” and hoped for their victory. In this belief, they moved to the position that Themistokles had wanted, thus aiding the Greeks. There were also errors in the Persians’ naval tactics that aided in their defeat in that fight. The straits at Salamis were too narrow for the number of ships used by the Persians, and those in command were unfamiliar with the navigational conditions there. This inexperience and heavy numbers helped the Greeks, who were familiar with the area, to inflict heavy losses. Again, at the battle of Plataea, the Persian commander, Mardonius, made an error of judgement that aided in the Persians’ own defeat. Mardonius was advised not to risk another battle by Artabazus, however he disagreed with this advice, and the Persians were later defeated. He also mistakenly believed that the Spartans were afraid of the Persian forces, as they were swapping places with the Athenians to avoid them, and this view would encourage him to make careless decisions in battle.

Difficulties for the Greeks

Despite the fact that the Greeks won, there were many factors making this outcome difficult for them. Disunity among the Greek states became a problem that the Greeks had to overcome. To start with, not all of the Greek states joined the Greek cause. The Delphic oracle advised Argos and Crete not to become involved, and the tyrant of Syracuse refused to send help. Herodotus, although he is uncertain of the truth in the tale, tells of rumours of Argos being approached by the Persians, and later decided to stay neutral. States such as Thessaly willingly joined the Persians. During the Persian campaigns, further threats to Greek unity endangered the Greek victory. Before the battle of Salamis, the Peloponnesians wanted to withdraw to the Isthmus, whilst other states, including Athens, wanted to stand their ground. The Greek fleet was also restless, as they were afraid that they would be trapped in the straits. This division between the allied states could have threatened their hopes of winning, as disunited they would not have the strength to individually defeat the Persians. To overcome this problem at Salamis, Themistokles threatened to take the Athenians to Italy, and later forced the Greeks to fight by tricking the Persians. Exiles could also make victory difficult for the Greeks. Demaratus, after the battle of Thermopylae, advised Xerxes on the strength and numbers of Sparta’s army, and the best way to dispose of them.

Herodotus' assessment

Herodotus’ assessment of the Persian Wars in his Histories, VII.139 is reasonable in its assumptions, and most likely accurate. Had the Athenians not met the Persians at sea, than other states may not have tried, however more likely without the strength necessary to defeat them. Herodotus gives the numbers of Greek ships at Artemisium as being 271, 127 of which were Athenian. Other states provided ships ranging from two to forty. Without the Athenians’ large supply of ships, the Greeks could not have controlled the sea, but might have tried, as their navy was a resource meant to be used in war. The Peloponnese would have then been relatively easy to take, as Herodotus says, as Persian troops could simply sail around land defences, no matter how elaborate they were, to land on the other side. The Persian navy could then still be used to supply the army, as the Athenians wouldn’t have been there to help destroy the Persians at Salamis. The Greek states there would then be looking after themselves first, and if surrendering to the Persians was a way of protecting them, then they might have done this, leaving Sparta. Sparta would not have surrendered, reputedly stated by Demaratus to Xerxes, telling him that the Spartans would fight even if all the other Greeks surrendered. However, heavily outnumbered, they would not have succeeded. Herodotus’ assessment is thus a reasonable and likely accurate one, as the turn of events that he describes is believable and able to be supported using the events that actually did occur.


Thus, the Persians were defeated in 480-79 BC for a number of reasons. Individual Greek commanders played a huge role. Leonidas succeeded in delaying the Persians, Pausanius is credited with their defeat at Plataea, and Themistokles is responsible for the increased size of the Greek navy, their victory at Salamis, and for keeping the Greeks unified beforehand. Differences between the fighters in terms of morale, logistics and equipment aided the Greeks, as they were fighting for their independence, thus boosting their morale, their lower numbers were an advantage in the Greek terrain, and they were better equipped to fight there. The Persians were to some extent responsible for their own defeat, misjudging several situations, such as the truth behind Themistokles claim to them, the navigational conditions in the straits at Salamis, and the decision to keep fighting at Plataea. Despite this, the Greeks had other factors making victory difficult, such as the disunity of the states both before and after the invasion started, and the treachery of people such as Demaratus. Herodotus offers an assessment of the war, and the Athenians’ part in it, is accurate. It offers a version of events that would have occurred had the Athenians not been fighting the Persians, which is reasonable and believable due to the fact that without the Athenian navy, the Greeks wouldn’t have had the strength to defeat the Persians at sea.

Bengtson, H., et al., The Greeks and the Persians, Dell Publishing Co., New York, 1968
Dillon, M., and Garland, L., Ancient Greece, second edition, Routledge, London and New York
Dunstan, W., Ancient Greece, Harcourt College Publishers, USA, 2000
Ehrenburg, V., From Solon to Socrates, second edition, Routledge, London and New York, 1996
Hammond, N., A History of Greece to 322 BC, Oxford University Press
Herodotus, The Histories, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1987
(c)Thea, 2001
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