In 486 BC Xerxes succeeded his father Darius the Great as King of Persia

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Last updated: April 8, 2019

In 486BC Xerxes succeeded his father Darius the Great as King of Persia. His immediate intentions as King were quite clear as the Mediterranean world witnessed him put to rest rebellions in both Egypt and Babylon.

It was only a matter of time before he would turn his attentions to Greece to avenge the burning of Sardis in 499BC which is father had attempted but failed to achieve a mere six years previous. Xerxes felt certain that he could learn from the mistakes of his father in 492 and 490BC and usurp power from the Greeks and thus increase the power and size of the Persian Empire.However, despite a considerable difference in man power between that of the Greeks and the Persians, Xerxes was soon to realise that due to clever military tactics, the development of the Athenian Navy, weaknesses in the Persian forces and Greek unity that avenging his father was an impossible task. Certainly one of the major reasons for the Greeks ability to overcome the Persians in the Persian Wars was that of military tactics.

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A prime example of such a case was there use of geographical features which hindered the vast numbers of Persian soldiers yet served dividend for the Greeks.This was very much the case when the Greeks chose Thermopylae as their main point for land defense. This particular area is surrounded by steep hills, rocky paths and boggy ground in which the Greek army positioned itself thus using it as firm protection to the phalanx. This thus left the Persian army in exposed open space with no means of getting at the Greek phalanx with its mobile Calvary and archers as the Persians would normally be accustomed. They were thus left to fight hand to hand with the Greeks superiorly trained Hoplites who, with shields, spears, and long swords, were far better equipped to fight in such conditions.Another example of supreme military tactics only this time at sea was the naval tactics used by the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis.

The Greeks, due to a smaller naval contingent, were aware that they could not compete with the formidity of the Persian navy in large expanses of open water. Using a fleeing tactic, according to Herodotus under the instruction of the Oracle at Delphi, “flee, flee but if not, take to the wooden walls”, the Greeks led the Persian navy into the narrow straits of Salamis.This ensured that the smaller more manoeuvrable Persian ships were not able to be put to good use and thus the Hoplite full Greek ships were able to defeat the Persians forcing them to sail back to Persia in disarray. One can’t help but notice how the Greek victory at Salamis echoes the achievement of the Greeks ten years previous at the Battle of Marathon where according to Herodotus “only 192 Athenians died” compared to the “6400 Persian dead”. Another factor that lead to Greek victory in the Persian Wars was that of Greek unity.In 481BC due to the lingering threat of a Persian invasion a conference of Greek states, including states that medized after Thermopylae, was convened by the Spartans with the full backing of the Athenians. From this meeting came the formation of the Hellenic league which was certainly a crucial factor that lead to the Persians being defeated. First and foremost it was decided that all feuds between states were to end meaning that rivalries such as those between Athens and Aegina were to come to an end.

The truce between the Athens and Aegina also incurred great naval significance which will be mentioned later on.This was certainly a critical step for it ensured a unity which was crucial if they were to fight on the same side and achieve a well organised well drilled unit. To have arguments amongst those fighting for the same cause would only serve to hinder in the long run.

The second important decision made at this meeting was that the Spartans would have the overall command over both the army and the navy. This would eliminate any conflicting differences between the two units and ensure that they moved in coercion with each other.It also cancelled the possibility of Generals from different countries arguing amongst themselves if the army was just under one rule. Due to the ever present threat of the Persians it was also important that the Greeks did not render themselves to any sudden attacks which could devastate their army and their chances of fighting off the Persians. One way in which this would be possible was if neighbouring states, who had chosen to medize to the side of the Persians, were allowing easy passage for the Persian army.

Therefore the Athenians and Spartans set about confiscating all land from such states thus putting a stop to any sudden attacks but further more providing them with reasonable buffer zones in anticipation for the Persians. Military wise this also helped the Greeks for it now limited the Persians attacking options but also meant that the Greek army would reap the rewards of the land rather than that of the Persians. Two further notions were also put forward suggesting three spies be sent to Sardis to investigate the Persians and envoys be sent to Argos, Syracuse, Crete, Corcyra and Thessaly to request military aid.A second meeting took place in 480BC at Isthmus where both disappointing yet crucial news was heard. The size of the Persian army was considerably larger than that of the Greeks. Herodotus claims the Persian army consisted of 5,283,220 men and 1,300 ships which has been shunned by experts who believe this to be unrealistically large and have sized it down to around 80,000 men and 600 ships which for the period was still a formidable army. Despite this news being slightly down hearting it meant the Greeks could now concentrate their strategies on making sure the Persians were not able to utilise such an enormous army.

The formation of the Hellenic League thus also indirectly enabled the Greeks to break some of the morale of those in favour of the pro Persian faction. For Thessaly, unlike the other countries, requested and offered help. “Men of Greece, it is necessary to guard the pass into Olympus in order that Thessaly and the whole of Greece might be sheltered from war. We are now ready to guard it with you, but you must also send a great army; if you do not send one, know well that we will come to terms with the Persians. For it is not right that we, acting alone as the defenders for the rest of Greece, should be destroyed on your behalf.

This was promising news for the Greeks and thus 10,000 hoplites under the command of Euaenetus and aided by Themistocles were sent by sea to Halos and then marched to Tempe. They then withdrew their men from Tempe two days later. Herodotus thinks the reason being that “the chief cause of withdrawal was that Tempe could be turned” however some experts believe, due to the fact that Xerxes was not due to arrive there for a further two months, that it was a military display to put fear in the heart of the Greeks enemy thus creating a military advantage.Despite some obvious preparation by the Persians during 484-481BC for the war: the building of a canal through mount Athos thus avoiding having to round the peninsula risking boat wreckage like Mardonius did during the land and sea campaign through Thrace in 492BC, bridges being built over Hellespont and the river strymon thus allowing easy passage, food depots being built on route so as to ensure nourishment for the Persian army and roads being built and paved again also allowing easy passage, the Persians still showed military weaknesses which certainly were a heavy factor causing their defeat.The Persian army were very skilled in fighting on flat, wide spaces like those found in Asia. This enabled them to use their cavalry and archers to the best effect by swinging them around the enemy and attacking the phalanx. As the terrain in Greece was mountainous this meant they were not suited for fighting.

As the mountains were not a sudden change it shows military weakness in that the Persians should have been better equipped to fight in such conditions.Also allowing themselves to get into a position where there lager number of men becomes insignificant (i. e.

; a narrow straight in which they can not properly spread) showed true military weakness. For Herodotus claims the Persians boasted “5,283,220” men compared to a mere “100,000” Greek men. Despite expert claims that these numbers are most likely incorrect in their size, what they do serve to show is that the Persians were blessed with more men and should have made this into an advantage.Herodotus further suggests the power of the Persian army by saying “Xerxes sent Heralds to Greece demanding Earth and water for a second time..

. thinking those who had not given to Darius would give to him” thus illustrating that Xerxes to believed in the greatness of his army. The Persians also lacked sound military decisions at occasions which also served a part in their defeat. In this instance Xerxes decided to keep his ships waiting for two weeks before giving the command to advance to the Gulf of Pagasai.In doing this he ignored local knowledge of the weather (the fact that late August was renowned for stormy weather) and found his fleet caught in, as Herodotus describes it, “a ‘Hellespontian’, as the people call it-which raised a confused sea like a pot on the boil”, causing damage to many of his ships. Certainly to have left two weeks earlier would have made a very significant difference to the campaign of the Persians.Another factor that certainly enabled the Greeks to defeat the Persians was the development of their Navy which with the right tactics would be able to compete against that of the Persians.

The first reason for the development of the navy was an alliance with Aegina who boasted a very strong fleet. The Greeks new that if they did not ally Aegina then Persia would meaning their navy would be far too strong to overcome. Robin Osbourne says of the Aegina Navy “Athens with Corinthian help could only just match it”. He also points out that had Athens not joined with Aegina then “Aegina’s naval power…

ight assist Persian overloadship on the Greek mainland” thus forcing the Greeks into a weak position. The second reason for a much improved Greek Navy was that Themistokles in 483/2BC re-iterated the threat of the Aegineians, already with a formidable navy, and thus persuaded Athens to divert profits from Athenian silver mines to build somewhere in the region of 100 more ships. It goes without saying that this thus caused more diversity within the Greek Navy thus posing a bigger threat to that of the Persians.Herodotus claims the Greek Navy to obtain “310 triremes and 4 penteconters” which experts believe to be a slightly cloded view due to Herodotus’ nationalism and thus take the view of Aeschylus who claims “310 triremes and 10 other boats of which I am not certain”. So certainly there were a number of major reasons as to why the Greeks were able to defeat the Persians in 480/479BC, however to accredit one with the title of ‘more important’ would be both inaccurate and incorrect.Certainly the only way to view it is that these reasons combined helped to create an army that was able to defeat the Persians. Had one been taken away then it is perfectly plausible to argue that results would have varied.

For example, had the Persians won on land then would the naval battle have been as important to obtain good land position. Certainly there are more memorable aspects of any victory but certainly with war no more important for a detail missed, as shown by Xerxes, could be a nation lost.

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