The reasons for the Greek victory against the Persians in 490 to 480/479 BC was a mixture of exceptional leadership, skilful tactics and strategy, superior weapons and soldiers, and Greek unity. Strong leadership was the most important aspect of the Greek defence, as without the intelligence and bravery of the leaders, the Greeks would have been easily defeated. As a result of the excellent leadership; Greek tactics, strategy, and unity were greatly strengthened. Combined with their better weapons and soldiers, the Greeks held the advantage and seized opportunities at the perfect moment.
Also, with each victory the Greeks grew more confident of success and defiant of the Persian attempts to invade. The poor organisation and disarray of their enemy led to an undermining of the Persian might and further improved Greece’s chances of success.
Despite the lack of official unity throughout Greece, many brilliant leaders from individual cities combined their skills and abilities to defeat the Persians. Greek leadership developed from weak and conflicting to united and strong, directly contributing to a Greek victory over the Persians as they promoted unity, strategy and a determination to defend their homeland.
Without this firm leadership, the other reasons for Greek success would not exist as strongly.
Despite the Greeks strong defiance of Persia, Darius and many of his council still foolishly believed that they could easily overcome the Greeks. They were short sighted as they saw only personal fame and glory to be gained, and as a result, did not prepare for the possibility of difficulties, and certainly not defeat.
This arrogance reflects the poor leadership from the Persian side, which aided the Greeks in defeating them.
When Darius invaded, there was conflicting debate at Athens as to whether they should defend the city walls or meet the enemy. However Miltiades’ excellent leadership persuaded the council to take supplies and leave the city if the Persians landed. This is seen in the ‘Miltiades’ Decree.’ Despite being the Polemarch, Callimachus relied on advice from Miltiades who had in depth experience in Persian combat. As opposed to the Persians, the Greeks were willing to co operate in the defence of their country which directly lead to their success. Both Callimachus and Miltiades convinced the Athenian Assembly to send an army to Marathon.
At Marathon, the 10 strategoi were equally divided in decision as to whether to attack the Persians or retreat, as they were heavily outnumbered. A decision was made to attack, and each of the generals was given one day to hold in command. Aristides and three other leaders gave their leadership command to Miltiades. This meant that Miltiades was in command for five out of the ten days of battle, and due to the generosity of the other generals, was able to carefully plan a much more effective attack over five days instead of one. When Miltiades was informed that the Persian calvary was absent, he timed the attack to surprise the Persians.
“We know enough to realise the brilliance of Miltiades’ generalship at every stage: his decision to march to Marathon, his determination to attack, his grasp of the suitable opportunity, and his tactical disposition of the infantry line.” (Hammond)
It was this brilliance that allowed the Greeks to win at Marathon, which directly increased their confidence and improved future chances of defeating the Persians. The Persian leaders Datis, Hippias, and Artaphernes were confident of a victory over Athens after their defeat of Eretria. “Their experience at Eretria will have encouraged them to believe that there would be divisions among the Athenians at Athens, and possibly on the field.” (Bury& Meiggs)
They therefore did not predict the Athenians to challenge them at Marathon, and dismissed their own cavalry. This foolish decision costed them the battle as the Athenians would have been intimidated by the excellent Persian cavalry, which could have easily defended a Greek attack. It is this arrogance and poor insight from the Persian leaders that added to a Greek victory.
After the death of Darius, his son Xerxes was persuaded by his overconfident advisor Mardonius to attack the Greeks, and in doing so, Mardonius exaggerated Greek weaknesses and character. Even when Damaratus repeatedly told Xerxes that the Spartans were the bravest and best fighters of Greece, Xerxes still mocked them for their appearance and actions. “For four whole days he suffered to go by, expecting that the Greeks would run away.” (Herodotus)
Contrasting with Persia’s arrogant and assuming leaders, Greece produced the finest leadership after Marathon. Themistokles was an example of excellent leadership, as he prepared for the possibility of renewed attacks from Persia. He fortified the Piraeus bay, and used surplus to build 100 new triremes to fight against the Persians.
“The pre eminent importance of his statesmanship was due in the first place to his insight in discerning the potentialities of his city and in grasping her situation before any one else had grasped it; and then to his energy in initiating, and his adroitness and perseverance in following, a policy which raised his city, and could alone have raised her, to the position which she attained before his death.” (Bury& Meiggs)
Themistokles’ clever tactics and strategy emerged from his high quality leadership, as he carefully selected the positions and methods for the Greek defence. Themistokles persuaded the Greek navy to battle against the Persians despite being outnumbered as Artemisium. Herodotus says that Themistokles even bribed some of the navy leaders to keep the Greek unity together. He again exhibited his leadership skills when he planned the attack on the Greek navy. Themistokles chose excellent timing and precision in attacking the Persians where the weather, tide, and narrow straits made it difficult for the enemy. At Artemisium, “The Persian admirals did not know the coastal waters of the Greek peninsula, and they were comparatively inexperienced in naval warfare…” (Hammomd) The Persians were unorganised as they did not expect attack and disadvantaged because of their lack of competent leaders. At Thermopylae, Leonidas was a responsible, respected, and courageous leader; and despite facing inevitable death, he continued to fight for the Greek cause, whilst dismissing many of the other soldiers from battle because “he tendered their safety”. (Herodotus)
Sparta was given overall command but did not abuse her powers as a leader. “The fact that Sparta did not seek to extend her own Alliance and assert her own supremacy, but preferred to treat as an equal with the other states and let them choose their leader, is an outstanding mark of her far sighted statesmanship.” (Hammond). This again contrasted with the competitive and all-for-one nature of the Persian leaders, as the Greek leaders promoted unity and alliance.
Themistokles also cleverly chose the position of the battle at Salamis so that the Greeks few numbers would be placed at the biggest advantage- “Themistokles had managed that a naval battle should be fought at Salamis, and under the conditions most favourable to the Greeks.” (Bury& Meiggs). However the Persians were “badly generalled” and this spread chaos throughout the Persian navy.
Themistokles made an extremely clever and daring plan to fool the Persians at Salamis. He sent a slave to tell Xerxes that the Greeks would attempt to escape during the night through the straits. The Persians wasted their energy guarding the exits and in the morning the Greeks successfully attacked them. Themistokles’ ingenious plan lead to the defeat of the weary Persians at Salamis, and once again proved that the main reason for the Greek victory was the insightful and daring leadership shown at that time.
Pausanius “won the most splendid victory which history records” (Herodotus) at Plataea. He found it necessary to withdraw from Plataea as the battle had developed into a stalemate. Whilst the Persian leader Mardonius assumed that the Greeks would be weak whilst they were changing position, the Greeks counter attacked. “But when the main body of Persians had drawn up within bowshot behind their fence of wicker shields, the order to charge was given, and the heavy Peloponnesian infantry dashed at a run upon the enemy’s line…The result was decisive.” (Kagan)
The clever strategies used by the Greeks were a direct result of their qualified leaders, and lead to the defeat of Persia. All the locations and tactics chosen by the Greeks contributed immensely to their victory and was the second most important reason for the Greek triumph.
Miltiades chose Marathon as a strategic site for the battle- the high lands surrounded both roads to Athens and hid the Athenians until the perfect moment to attack. Due to Miltiades’ former knowledge, he knew that the Persians would be strong towards the centre, and so he placed the skilled Athenian infantry into wings to encircle the Greeks. Miltiades aimed at surprising the Persians and “the men charged at the double and hurled themselves upon the Persian infantry”. (Hammond)
This was the first time such an attack had been attempted, and the creativity and excellent strategy was all due to the amazing ability of the leaders, Miltiades and Callimachus. The run created fear and confusion in the Persian ranks and allowed the Greeks to close in before the Persian bowmen could release their arrows. Despite the Persians breaking through the middle Greek troops, the Greek wings wheeled around to attack the Persians from the rear, as Miltiades planned. He had even organised the attack so that the Persians could only flee north towards a difficult marsh, where many died.
The Persians did not realise the Greek tactics and strategy, as they underestimated their ability. Instead they believed that “the Athenians were bereft of their senses, and bent upon their own destruction: for they saw a mere handful of men coming on at a run without either horsemen or archers.” (Herodotus) As they were caught unaware, the Persians had little time to adopt new tactics for battle. Their strategic preparation was poor. At Thermopylae, Leonidas selected his position carefully, and fought in a narrow pass in which the Persians had difficulty in passing through. This greatly advantaged the Greeks, as the narrow space could only admit a small portion of the Persian army.
They also had a stone wall to protect the army camp. In addition, the Persian cavalry were unable to fight in the small area, which would increase the Greek chances of winning dramatically. The Spartans planned strategies on drawing the Persians into the pass and would then wheel around and attack them.
Themistokles understood that the Greeks were unable to fully defeat the Persians over land and selected Artemisium as the ideal location to battle their navy. At Artemisium the Greek leaders developed strategy of combining the triremes to form a circle facing outwards to attack the Persians. This plan overcame the disadvantage of being greatly outnumbered.
Themistokles carefully chose the timing and position of the battle. The strategy of drawing in the Persian fleet into narrow waters meant that the enemy ships began to collide with each other. Themistokles waited until the tide rose and began to push the Persian ships off course, “the low-built Athenian triremes, which were less affected by the swell, rowed in to the charge and rammed their opponents, shearing their oars or holing their sides…A great victory had been won by tactical skill, by the use of the ram, and by the fighting quality of the Greek marines.” (Hammond)
Despite using citizen troops, the Greek hoplites were better trained and equipped than the Persians. The hoplites wore bronze visored helmets, solid bronze breast plates, and carried longer shields and javelins. On the contrary, the Persians wore light armour, wicker shields and used bows and arrows, which became useless in close contact. The discipline in which the hoplites were famous for was shown through their ability to encircle the Persians and attack from the rear. “In hand to hand fighting their defeat of a more numerous enemy was due to their courage, spearmanship, general and the finest infantry force in her whole history.” (Hammond)
At Artemisium, the navy was extremely well disciplined whilst facing many Persian ships surrounding them. They responded to two signals and successfully formed a close circle to attack the Persians. This shows the exceptional skill from the sailors that contributed to their victory.
Both the Spartan hoplites and the Tegeans were acknowledged as having great fighting skills and discipline at Plataea- “by the superb spirit and skill of the Spartan hoplites, who proved themselves to be the finest infantrymen not of Greece alone but of the civilised world.” (Plutarch, Aristides)
Thus the incredible skill and ability of the Greek soldiers, combined with their superior weapons contributed immensely to their victory.
The battle at Marathon was to be a direct planned attack by the Persians on Athens. After the downfall of Eretria, Athens united under their leaders like Miltiades and planned on how to save the city. Their appeal to Sparta for aid was reluctantly refused as the Spartans had an important religious festival to attend to. Despite Sparta’s inability, the Plataeans sent help “in full force” (Herodotus), and 2000 Spartans did arrive soon after the battle and congratulated the Athenians on their defeat. “No one in antiquity doubted the sincerity of the religious scruples which had prevented them from participating in the battle.” (Kagan?)
Sparta and Athens “now joined hands to resist the invasion” as they were singled out by Persia as the Greek leaders. (Bury& Meiggs)
In 481 BC the congress at Isthmus united 31 Greek states to discuss the possible Persian threat. Athens discarded her claim to leadership, knowing that the other states would prefer Sparta to lead. In doing so, a quarrel that may have divided the union was avoided. All past disputes were ended, and deadly enemies Athens and Aegina combined their naval superiority. The meeting of the Greeks was “an attempt to combine all the scattered cities of the Greek world to withstand the power of Persia.” (Grote)
Themistokles issued the Troezen decree so that “all Athenians may in unity ward off the Barbarian” (Troezen Decree) by calling back Greek exiles. This plan was clever, as the exiles like Xanthippus and Aristides combined their efforts to resist the Persians, despite being previously forced to leave their own country.
At Thermopylae “the Thespians stayed entirely for their own accord, refusing to retreat and declaring that they would not forsake Leonidas and his followers.” (Herodotus) Despite the number of forces joining the army at Thermopylae, many of them, including the Spartans were unwilling to provide full assistance as they did not think it was feasible to defend the northern states. Thus unity was at times strained and lacked the full force it potentially had.
Mardonius attempted to offer peace with the Athenians in an attempt to undermine Greek unity and overpower the Spartans. However the Athenians angrily refused, displaying their courage and alliance with the Greek cause. Mardonius made a second offering, and he even believed they would change their minds. The underestimating of the Greek unity and Athenian determination was one reason why Persia failed to defeat Greece. “Artistides declared that, so long as the sun continued in his course, the Athenians would attack the Persians with the aid of the gods…” (Kagan) “The campaign of Plataea was the finest achievement of Greek unity.” (Kagan)
23 states took an oath of comradeship to fight together until the Persians were defeated, and over 100 000 Greeks joined the battles. In comparison with the Greeks, the Persians were ominously competitive. Pausanius and his second in command Artabazus were rivals and schemed to take control and glory from each other.
The strongest reason for a Greek victory against the Persians in 490 to 480/79 was the extraordinary ability of the leaders. This led to the next most important reason- the cunning tactics and strategies used by the Greeks. The skill of the Greek soldiers and their superior armour also greatly contributed to their victory, as only their bravery and aptitude would help them overcome the size of the Persian army. Unity was the least contributing factor throughout the battles as it was inconsistent and was only really significant when Athens and Sparta joined forces.