Background

Athens is said to have been continuously inhabited since about 3000BC, though in reality probably not long after the flood in about 2500BC. The original city was built on a fortress shaped rock, the Acropolis. As the city grew buildings appeared around the Acropolis with the most important ones being built on top of the Acropolis. To illustrate how ancient the city was, we find that Athens had a sophisticated constitution, first established in writing by Dracon (draconian law) in around 622BC and replaced by a new system formulated by Solon in 594BC, three years after the first Babylonian captivity.

Pisistratus seized power in around 540BC and was a popular ruler who made Athens rich and powerful, until his death in 527BC. Democracy was re-established in 510BC and continued until Philip II defeated Athens in 338BC.

Burning of Sardis

In 508BC emissaries from Athens travelled to Sardis, the Persian headquarters in Anatolia. There they met Darius’s representative and the local governor. They sought an alliance where the might of Persia would serve to protect them from Spartan adventurism. This pact was short-lived. As mentioned in the previous article on Miletus, the Athenians and Eretrians helped Miletus to burn Sardis in 499BC. Sardis was the capital of that part of the Persian empire at the time during the reign of Darius the Great (also known as Darius I).

Darius the Great was not at all pleased about this and had a servant repeat the words, “Master, remember the Athenians” three times whenever he sat down to dinner.

Battle of Marathon

After suppressing the Ionian revolt in 493BC the Persians (Herodotus sometimes alternately calls them Medes and Persians in the original Greek, although translators go with one or the other) invaded Greece at Marathon in 490BC. On their way to Marathon they subjugated the Eretrians, stripped their temples of their treasures, burnt them to the ground, and captured and enslaved all the inhabitants. When they arrived at Marathon, flushed with victory, they were confident they would treat Athens the same way.

The decision to land at Marathon followed the advice of Hippias, the son of Pisistratus who had been exiled from Athens after Sparta helped to remove him. His motive was to seek support from all the local states in an attempt to bring Athens under his control. He decided to assist the Persians to achieve this goal.

The Athenians and Plataeans were outnumbered significantly by the Persians and thinned their line in the centre to match the length of the Persian line. They ran to fight the Persians who thought it suicidal madness for the Athenians to risk an assault with so small a force, so they rushed into battle with no support from cavalry or archers. The centre of the Greek line fell because it was too thin and so the Persians attempted to pursue them, but the wings held and closed together trapping the Persians between them, with Greeks coming at them from both sides.

The Greeks won with 192 losses compared to 6400 Persian deaths. Herodotus records that they were the first Greeks who dared to look without flinching at Persian dress, for until that day no Greek could even hear the word Persian without terror.

According to legend, an Athenian messenger was sent from Marathon to Athens, a distance of about 25 miles (40km), and there he announced the Persian defeat before dying of exhaustion. This tale became the basis for the modern marathon race. Herodotus, however, relates that a trained runner, Pheidippides was sent from Athens to Sparta before the battle in order to request assistance from the Spartans—he is said to have covered about 150 miles (240km) in about two days.

The second Persian invasion

When Darius heard the news of the battle, he was furious and increased his preparations for war. During this time Egypt rebelled and Darius died while preparing to suppress this revolt.

His son Xerxes brought Egypt under control and then made preparations to invade Greece. This was prophesied in Daniel 11:2, “And now will I shew thee the truth. Behold, there shall stand up yet three kings in Persia; and the fourth shall be far richer than they all: and by his strength through his riches he shall stir up all against the realm of Grecia.” This fourth king was Xerxes.

He built two bridges across the Hellespont (the straight just south of the Bosporus, now called the Dardanelles) and cut a canal to avoid taking their 1207 ships around Mt Athos, where previously many had been lost in a storm. Herodotus says the Persian army was 2.64 million fighting men in the combined army and navy, including those from Europe. This invasion was decided in two land battles and two naval battles.

Thermopylae

The first land battle was at Thermopylae and is the most famous. It was a narrow pass between the sea and the mountains and was defended by 7000 Greek soldiers. They stopped the Persians here for two days of intense fighting, and then at night Ephialtes, a local goat herd, betrayed them for money and showed the Persians a path through the mountains allowing them to fight from both ends. When Leonidas, the King of Sparta, realised what had happened he dismissed the army but he and his 300 soldiers and 700 Thespian soldiers fought to their deaths, as Leonidas thought it unbecoming for Spartans to desert their post. There were also 400 Thebans who were forced to fight against their will and switched to the Persian side during the last phase of the battle.