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Birth of History: Herodotus' Persian War

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  • 0:05 Contemporary History…
  • 0:52 Herodotus
  • 1:59 Darius the Great vs. Athens
  • 6:22 Xerxes and the Battle…
  • 7:08 The Battle at Salamis
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lecture begins with Herodotus' special place in history. It then looks at the miracle at Marathon and seeks to explain how it happened by comparing phalanx warfare to Persian warfare. Following that, we'll run through a brief summary of the rest of the war, with special attention drawn to Greek triremes.

Contemporary History vs. Historical Records

The Persian War is the first war for which we have a complete contemporary history. Certainly, many cultures left us records of their wars. Earlier kings, emperors and pharaohs decorated their temples, tombs and palaces with depictions of their victories. They might erect a stele listing the peoples they had subjugated. They might even compose an epic poem to commemorate their battles. Yet though these things are all of interest to a historian, they are not, as it were, histories. They are propaganda, and often they're as vague as they are biased. They attributed success to divine favor. They rarely mentioned failures, and when they did, they attributed it to evil spirits or bad council.

Herodotus

Herodotus provided a vital record of Persian War events
Herodotus Image

Then came Herodotus. Herodotus was a very well-traveled fellow. He traveled extensively and wrote about the places he visited as well as places he'd heard of. Some of the things Herodotus recorded were inaccurate, but his inaccuracies derive from misinformation and a desire to sensationalize. Despite these failings, Herodotus endeavored to record and explain the history of his day in natural, rational terms. For the cosmopolitan Herodotus, successes and failures were not the work of the gods but the results of men's decisions and actions.

Herodotus' record of the Persian War is a gem for historians. Herodotus does more than provide an unbroken account of the actions of the various Greek states and the Persians. He examines their motives, their strategies, their deceptions and their counter-deceptions. The picture Herodotus paints is of former rival Greek city-states forming an uneasy alliance against a common threat. Let's see how these city-states fared.

Darius the Great vs. Athens

The year was 490 BCE. Darius the Great, Emperor of the Persians, conqueror of the world, had grown tired of Greeks trying to colonize his empire. He'd subjugated the Cyclades and much of Macedon and Thrace, yet these incursions persisted. Finally, he thought he'd found the source of the problem - the city-state of Athens. He launched a two-pronged attack. He landed an army to the north to march on Athens, then sent his navy to attack the city itself.

Word reached the Athenians of this invasion. They appealed to the Spartans and other city-states for reinforcements, but none would come to their aid. Alone, the Athenians marched north to meet the Persians at Marathon.

In our lecture on phalanx warfare, we saw how the feuding Greek city-states had invented the most vicious, effective and decisive form of combat ever seen. At Marathon, the Greeks turned this awful form of warfare from one another onto the Persian invaders. The Persians were, at first, amused to see the vastly outnumbered Athenian phalanx suicidally charge across the field. Then they were shocked when this disciplined fighting force failed to break beneath a shower of arrows. Then they were absolutely terrified as the phalanx rolled through their undisciplined ranks like an unstoppable boulder and drove them into the sea.

Locations that Darius the Great attacked as Emperor of the Persians
Darius the Great Attack Map

The Athenians then ran 26 miles to deny the Persians a landing at Athens. Defeated, the Persians retreated. At the final count, the Persians lost 6,400 men in their invasion of Athens, while the Athenians lost less than 200 men turning them back.

How did this happen? To answer that question, we must compare the Greek phalanx to the Persian horde.

Where the Persians were lightly armored to maximize mobility, the phalanx formation focused not on individual mobility but on group discipline and thus could afford to be much more heavily armored. Where the Persians avoided risking hand-to-hand combat, the hoplite is designed for it. A hoplite doesn't hit-and-run or skirmish; he brings pitched, decisive battle to his foes. The individualistic Persian warrior has nothing worth dying for, whereas the group mentality of the hoplites allowed them to face death and fight on.

And a final point, one that the Greeks thought most important: the Persian horde was composed of slaves, or at least subjects, whereas the Greeks were all free men. Slaves make terrible soldiers. The warriors of the Persian horde lacked any motivation to fight beyond fear of pain or death. In the end, they feared the flails of their masters less than hellish nightmare of hand-to-hand combat with Greeks who were fighting resolutely for their freedom. Their masters might beat them; the Greeks certainly would.

Yet geography played as much of a roll as tactics. Had the battle of Marathon taken place in a more open country (instead of a level few acres surrounded by mountains and the sea), things might have turned out differently. The Persians could have simply outmaneuvered the Athenians (or overwhelmed them), but the mountains of Greece penned the Persian horsemen in. With the sea behind them and all exits blocked by hoplites, the Persians were forced to bring the fight to the Athenians.

With such a foe in such tight quarters, hit-and-run tactics were meaningless. The phalanx formation made it incredibly difficult to hit the Greeks from afar. The mountainous terrain made running all but impossible. The only other tactic available was to simply spill the horde unto the Athenians. Yet the undisciplined and individualistic slaves broke before the tightly bunched phalanx, while the mountainous terrain kept the Greeks from being surrounded and overwhelmed.

When the Athenians finally charged the Persian ranks, it became clear that the Persians weren't better at fighting, just better at fleeing. The Athenian hoplites held steady against twice their number, while the Persian horde did what it was best at: it fled. Darius' foray into Europe was brought to an abrupt end.

The Athenians sought advice from the Oracle at Delphi
Oracle at Delphi

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