Greece i. Greco-Persian Political Relations




First contacts. Immediately after subjugating the Medes, and thus taking the initial step in creating an immense empire that stretched from Eastern Iran and Central Asia to the Aegean Sea, the founder of this empire, Cyrus II (called “the Great” by the Greeks), started his first expedition westwards, as the Medes had done with the conquest of Eastern Anatolia up to the River Halys some forty years before. In 547 B.C.E. Cyrus II turned against Lydia and its king Croesus, who controlled most of Western Anatolia (including the Greek cities along the Aegean coast) and who clearly intended to exploit the upheaval in Media and Persia to his own advantage by crossing the Halys frontier and invading Cappadocia. When the Lydian and the Persian army confronted each other in Cappadocian Pteria (Herodotus 1.75 ff.), the battle ended inconclusively the same evening. Cyrus did not resume the fight on the following day, and Croesus therefore withdrew in the direction of Sardis and disbanded his army. Having been informed of this, Cyrus took up the chase at once, besieged Sardis, and after two weeks captured the city and the king.

By conquering Sardis and consequently seizing power over the whole of the Lydian empire, Cyrus became the ruler of most of Western Asia Minor, too. His rule was consolidated, however, only after several of his generals (Tabalus, Mazares and, above all, Harpagus) had forcefully subjugated the somewhat unruly or even openly rebellious Greek cities on the Aegean coast. From then on for two centuries the Persians were neighbors of the Greek population resident in Anatolia and became partners of the Greeks in trade and commerce as well as their adversaries in war, since in the long run the latter was inevitable. The essential perennial problem facing the Greeks was that the single city-states (póleis) were politically independent (in Asia Minor as well as in Europe) and only joined forces in case of danger.

The Ionian Revolt. In the course of time the tumult amid the Ionian and other Asiatic Greeks abated; they made their peace with the new masters and learnt to live under Persian rule as more or less loyal subjects of the Great King. But since the Greek cities were afraid of further increase in Persian power and weary of Persian imperial ambitions altogether, and on the other hand the Persians suspected possible interference by the main-land Greeks in Asia Minor, some kind of conflict was inevitable.

When the Persians expanded both to Egypt (under Cambyses) and into the Black Sea and the Propontis region (under Darius I) and began favoring the Phoenician trade, the Greeks felt more and more hampered. Increasing taxes, the pressure of military service, and the overall political system, which appeared tyrannical to the Greeks, intensified their dissatisfaction and in the end, beginning from Miletus, led to a serious revolt, instigated in 499 B.C.E. by Aristagoras, the tyrant of Miletus. The prelude to and the immediate cause of this revolt was the failure of an attack on Naxos by Aristagoras and a Persian fleet led by one of the King’s cousins, the “admiral” Megabates, who is mentioned with this title on a Persepolis Treasury Tablet (no. 8, lines 6 ff.). Aristagoras laid down his office, called upon the Ion-ians to overthrow their Persian-backed tyrants, and even gained some military support from small Athenian and Eretrian squadrons. Thus the so-called “Ionian Revolt” took place, which is described in great detail by Herodotus (5.23.1-6.42.2), who provides the only surviving and coherent, albeit extremely biased, account of these events.

In view of the refusal by Sparta, Argos, and other cities to bring the expected aid, the only military success of the rebels was the occupation and destruction of the lower town of Sardis in 498, which encouraged other cities of the Hellespont and Caria to join them. Overall, their actions were not systematic and coordinated, although Herodotus refers once (5.109.3) to a koinón (“League” or “Common Council”) of the Ionians and there is also some evidence of a shared coinage among them (in a stylistically uniform series of electrum staters). The Greek cities on Cyprus revolted at the same time too, under Onesilus of Salamis, but they were recaptured already in 497 B.C.E. by the Persians with help from the Phoenician cities established on the island and for the Ionian resistance, were are not significant. When the Persian counter-offensive led by three of Darius’ sons-in-law, Daurísēs (Daurises) Hymaéēs, and Otánēs, and Darius’ brother and Lydia’s satrap Artaphrenēs began, the advance could not be held up, despite some setbacks, by the fragmented Ionian troops. Finally the Persians united all their armed forces by land and sea and prepared for the attack on Miletus. In the autumn of 494 B.C.E., when a number of the Greek rebels had already given up and after the defeat of the Ionian fleet at the island of Lade (situated off the city of Miletus in the gulf), Miletus was besieged and burned down, and the inhabitants were deported or enslaved, if not killed. Thus the Persians took their revenge for the destruction of Sardis, and subsequently the Persian supremacy over the whole of the Aegean coastal region and the offshore islands (Chios, Lesbos, etc.) was re-established in a ruthlessly firm manner. But the destructions of the cities and their depopulation must have stayed within limits, because already by 480 B.C.E. the Ionians provided naval contingents for Xerxes’ expedition and the port of Phocaeas was used as the assembly point for the fleet.

Since from the outset the demand for isonomia, “equality of political rights” (as proclaimed by Aristagoras), was one of the decisive points, the Ionian revolt must be considered as an important stage in the clash between Persian despotism and Greek democracy and liberty. However, as Oswyn Murray (p. 480) has aptly remarked, it is surprising “that the Greeks did not seize the far more favourable occasion of the accession of Darius, when so many other areas of the empire broke free,” for which Murray himself finds a partial explanation in “the limitations of Greek understanding of the nature of the Persian imperial power.”

The Persian Wars. The Ionian Revolt was only the prelude, however, to a far greater clash between Greeks and Persians or between “the Hellenes” and “the barbarians,” as the proem of Herodotus’ Histories has it; and his is the only detailed account of these struggles. “The Persian Wars” is used as an appellation for the events which took place in 490 and 480/79 B.C.E. respectively, when the Persian troops and fleet invading Greece were beaten off by the Greeks at Marathon, Salamis, and Plataeae.

Already from his title “king of the countries containing all races” (xšāyaθiya dahyūnām vispazanānām) attested on his inscriptions (DNa 10 f., DSe 9 f., DZc 5) it appears that Darius I did subscribe to the age-old idea of world domination, which strove to bring all races and peoples together under one great king in one vast empire, the extent of which was unlimited in principle. And indeed there are indications showing that already during the reign of Darius the Persians were looking beyond the Western frontiers of their empire. Thus the ultimate cause of the Persian Wars was the westward expansion of the Persians, which in connection with the Scythian expedition of Darius I (intended to bring peace to the northern frontier of the empire and which went far beyond the Black Sea) had led to a European bridgehead between the northern Aegean Sea and the lower reaches of the Danube River. Herodotus, for example, tells us that the king sent out his physician Democedes to reconnoiter anchorages, sailing conditions etc. along the Greek coast (3.135.1-138.4) and that he conquered the island of Samos as the first of all Greek póleis (3.139.1-149). It has to be added, however, that the Persians became aware of the close relationship between the Western Anatolian Greeks and their kinsmen on the other side of the Aegean, and the serious implications of this situation for themselves, only through the events of the Ionian Revolt, when Athens and Eretria had supported the Ionian rebels (see above). After these experiences Darius may have thought that the Ionian Greek cities would keep peace only if their cognates beyond the Aegean Sea had been eliminated as potential sympathizers and active supporters. But this remains only a conjecture, since we have no direct first hand evidence for the Persians’ view of these matters.

The first attack on European soil was directed at Thrace and at the Scythians on the Western shore of the Black Sea, and in 492 B.C.E. Mardonius, Darius’ son-in-law, crossed the Hellespont and undertook an expedition (see Zahrnt) with a large army and a great number of ships. The expedition was almost a total failure and merely succeeded to consolidate the Persian rule in Thrace and Macedonia at the Northern Aegean coast (Herodotus 6.43.1-45.2), while Athens and Eretria, the important port and trading town on Euboea, may have been the actual destination, as Herodotus (6.45.2) expressly adds.

In the meantime Athens now adopted an anti-Persian line as favored by Themistocles and Miltiades, whereas before, the Pisistratidae and in 507 B.C.E. also Cleisthenes, had pursued a pro-Persian policy and the Athenians in that same year had received help from Persia against Sparta and its allies on the condition that they submitted to Darius (Herodotus 5.73.1).

In the course of the year 491 B.C.E., Darius sent messengers to Greeks everywhere demanding “earth and water,” the symbols of submission, for the King; at the same time he sent orders for the construction of warships and carriers for his cavalry and horses to the Greek cities in his domain (Herodotus 6.48.2), so that the Greeks were able to foresee the imminent invasion.

The first direct expedition against Greece took place in the following year (490 B.C.E.), under the command of Datis (the Mede who already during the Ionian Revolt was on an inspection tour of Asia Minor, as evinced from the travel rations he received, Lewis, 1980), and the King’s nephew Artaphrenes, son of the above-mentioned Artaphrenes. It seems most likely that the Persians themselves considered it a punitive operation designed to safeguard their maritime supremacy. The Persian troops (which included Greeks from the cities in Asia Minor) crossed the Aegean Sea and advanced slowly: They forced Naxos and other islands into submission again, then turned to Carystus at the southern end of Euboea, and took Eretria by betrayal (Herodotus 6.99-101.3). In the end the Persians and their faithful follower Hippias, the exiled Athenian tyrant, landed in the first days of September 490 at Marathon in Attica (supposedly a suitable location for a cavalry battle), where the Athenian contingents (9,000 hoplites, reinforced by about 1,000 Plataeans, as well as their lightly armed troops) came up to them and surprisingly (thanks to new masterly tactics used by Miltiades) managed to repulse the numerically much superior Persians (perhaps about 90,000 men and 1,200 horses) back onto the ships (Herodotus 6.102-132), even before the Spartan relief troops (which had obeyed a religious law) had arrived (Herodotus 6.102, 120). Having suffered considerable losses (6,400 men), and seeing no chances of success, the Persians sailed back to Asia Minor.

After the failure of this first expedition to Greece, a second attempt was only to be expected, and indeed Darius prepared an army of far greater magnitude for this war (Herodotus 7.1.1 f.). Beyond any doubt this second campaign was to be a serious attempt to move the Aegean frontier of the Empire further westwards and to set up Greece as an additional satrapy or at least as a vassal state dependent on the Persian King. But the Greeks did not stand idly by: Sparta was able at last to overcome her internal problems after the recent war with Messenia, and Athens was also actively engaged in both political and military spheres. Those found favorable towards the Persians were accused of mēdismós “sympathizing with the ‘Medes’ (=Persians)” (see below) and ostracized in the same manner as supporters of (the former) tyranny had been. Just in time Themistocles was allowed to build up a powerful navy and was therefore able to lay the foundations for establishing Athens as the leading maritime power in Greece. And somewhat late in the day, in 481 B.C.E., a kind of military union of the majority of the Greek póleis was forged under the leadership of Sparta for the imminent common struggle against the Persians (Herodotus 7.131-132.2).

Military preparations and rearmament on the Persian side were delayed by some years owing to the death of Darius I in November 486 B.C.E. and the subsequent revolts in Egypt and Babylonia. It was only from 483 that systematic measures were taken by Darius’ son and successor Xerxes I, including the building of a complex system of bridges spanning the Hellespont, and in order to avoid a repetition of the 492 fiasco, the digging of a canal 2200 m. long through the Athos peninsula (Herodotus 7.22.1-24). The steps taken to store provisions for soldiers and draught animals are also stressed by Herodotus (7.25.1 f.). 

The Great King himself was in command of an enormous army, perhaps about 100,000 men and 600 triremes, advancing from the north. Most figures given by the ancient authors, as for example by Herodotus (7.184.1-5) of more than 500,000 marines, 1.7 million armed forces and 80,000 horsemen are gross exaggerations. The Greeks first took a defensive position in the Tempe Valley between Mt. Olympus and Mt. Ossa, but abandoned it when they realized that there was an alternative detour passable without difficulty. Thus they moved out of Thessaly and took a new position at the Thermopylae Pass, while the Greek navy was massed at Cape Artemisium on the northern tip of Euboea. In September 480 the Thermopylae Pass fell into the hands of the Persians, since they could overcome the positions held by the Greek defenders thanks to the treachery of Ephialtes, a man of Malis, and were thus able to break the resistance of the Spartan king Leonidas I and the Thespians and Thebans accompanying him after three days of heroic resistance. The strategists responsible for this location had inexcusably overlooked this alternative detour on their reconnaissance. The Greek fleet at first defended itself skillfully and with some success against the Persians, but then withdrew to the Saronic Gulf and took part in a successful evacuation of the inhabitants of Athens, after the Athenian Council had decided to confront the Persians at Salamis.

Thus Athens was taken by the Persians and was destroyed by Xerxes’ army. The Greeks appeared to be in a hopeless situation, but Themistocles held on to his strategy of initiating a decisive naval battle at Salamis (and not at the Isthmus of Corinth, where most of the fleet had retreated to), and since it was relatively late in the year (one of the last days [ca. 29th] of September), the Persians let themselves be dragged into the foray. The Persian fleet advanced into the narrow waters between the Attic coast and the island of Salamis, with the Athenians and Themistocles, who was better acquainted with the local conditions, laying in wait. Thus in the end the Persians were beaten under the very eyes of Xerxes, sitting enthroned on the beach, though the Greeks had only about 400 ships (Herodotus 8.48; Thucydides 1.74.1), far fewer than the Persians. The Greeks proved superior in tactics by ramming their opponents and showing greater mobility in maneuver rather than concentrating on boarding the enemy. This great victory of the Greeks is described in detail, though with a host of digressions, by Herodotus (8.56-96) and in a more straightforward manner by the Messenger in Aeschylus’ Persai (the Persians; verses 249-514), the magnificent poetic celebration of the Persian Wars and of the leading role of Athens in this Greek struggle for freedom.

After some days spent making preparations for further attacks, Xerxes seems to have altered his plans suddenly, returning unexpectedly to Asia Minor with the remaining fleet. We can only speculate about his reasons: Had there been a revolt somewhere in the empire or was he merely afraid of a potential one? Or was it just the seasonal factor, making it increasingly unsuitable for him to launch an expedition? Without doubt the mistiming of his actual advance and his going on to the offensive against the Greeks were major errors on Xerxes’s part.

His commander-in-chief, Mardonius, and the presumably now much smaller army, left with him, spent the winter in Thessaly and tried, through the good offices of the Macedonian king Alexander I, to win over Athens as a Persian ally against Sparta and the Peloponnesians, but he failed (Herodotus 8.136.1-144.5). Early in 479 B.C.E., Mardonius set off towards Athens, but near Plataeae in Boeotia, the entire armed forces of the Peloponnesians, who had left their fortifications, and of the Athenians, whose numbers were increasing daily under the leadership of Pausanias, went into action against the Persians (Herodotus 9.19.1-89.4) and won a decisive victory more significant for world history than those of Marathon and Salamis. On the same day (says Herodotus 9.90.1, without being credible, however) a Greek fleet led by Leotychidas II, king of Sparta, won a further victory at Mt. Mycale opposite Samos (Herodotus 9.99.1-106.4). 

These great victories of the Hellenes in 480 and 479 B.C.E. made not only the liberation of Greece possible, but also encouraged a more aggressive struggle for political independence by the Asiatic Greeks. Since Sparta, the leader of the victorious Greek League, showed little appetite for taking on any engagement in favor of the Asiatic Greeks, Athens could take advantage of this opportunity and in 478 B.C.E. founded the Attic-Delian League. The Athenian Empire (as it were), thus became the leading power in the Aegean Sea for the next decades. Already in the same year Pausanias had taken the offensive in Cyprus and at the Bosporus, where he could recapture Byzantium, before he was ordered back to Sparta. During the next years Kimon, Miltiades’ son, who had endowed Athens with so much power and prestige, eliminated the remaining Persian bases in the Aegean area and waged war even further in the East, as shown by his victory over the Persian army and navy at the River Eurymedon in Pamphylia in 466 B.C.E. (cf. Thucydides 1.100.1), after which not only the Greeks of the Anatolian south coast, but also Carian and Lycian cities joined the Attic-Delian League.

The Peace of Kallias. The aggressive policy of this League, or in reality Athens, during the period after 478 B.C.E., led to a number of military confrontations, for example in Egypt and on Cyprus, which were not always successful. Whereas several of the confederates of the Attic-Delian League were weary of the incessant fighting and hostilities, in Athens herself this anti-Persian policy came to an end only by 450 B.C.E., after the death of the influential Kimon, when Pericles became the political leader of the town and withdrew the Athenian contingents from the fighting in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. At that time an embassy headed by Kallias went to Susa and in 449 B.C.E. concluded a peace treaty by which it was agreed to regard the entire Aegean Sea and the strip of the Anatolian coast, which belonged to the League, as a restricted area from which Persian forces were excluded. The historicity of this so-called Peace of Kallias is still at issue (see Meister). Kallias is said to have been one of the richest people of his time; he married a daughter of Miltiades and half-sister of Kimon, but later joined Pericles. He was given a carte blanche for the negotiations with King Artaxerxes I (see Herodotus 7.151; Diodorus 12.4.5), but the Athenians were disappointed by his diplomatic endeavors and the negotiated peace terms, and took him to court as result (Demosthenes 19.273).

As we have already suggested, our analysis of the Greco-Persian relations is restricted by the fact that our sources shed little light on the motives behind the political actions and policy taken by the Persians. For in general it holds true that any continuous account of the history of (the western part of) the Persian Empire must be based on the Greek sources. Whereas first the expansionist policy favored by Darius and Xerxes led to confrontations with the Greeks in 490 and again in 480/79 B.C.E., after that the Persians seem to have been interested only in maintaining the existing frontiers. Nonetheless now and then some satrap in Asia Minor, if not the Great King himself, was drawn into the Greeks’ internal conflicts. But our sources are very scanty for the period following the events described by Herodotus, and this is already true for Thucydides, whose intense concentration on the Peloponnesian War also entailed an undue disregard for the role of the Persians.

The Peloponnesian War. At some time during the Peloponnesian War, about 412 B.C.E., Persian policy changed direction: Whereas officially there was peace between the Persian Empire and Athens since the Peace of Kallias (see above), even if tensions could not be excluded, the relationship with Sparta was still officially determined by the state of war lasting since Xerxes’ invasion of Greece. When the Attic-Delian League began to gradually fall apart during this war, the Persians laid claim to the Ionian cities in Asia Minor and to their tributes (Thucydides 8.5.4-6.3). And because the Persians had always carefully watched internal Greek developments and conflicts of interests, they could quickly exploit the situation through bribery and corruption, as they had often done in the past. The existing situation induced the Great King to intervene financially on Sparta’s behalf, supplying the gold and money needed for equipping and manning the Peloponnesian fleet.

Presumably it was soon after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, that Sparta made the first attempts to start negotiations with the Persians. The embassy of a certain Artaphernes to Sparta, which has been described by Thucydides (4.50.1-3) may have been related to this. For occasionally the Greek sources deal with such official embassies, either sent by the Great King to some Greek city-state or some Greek envoy(s) going to Susa. Of particular interest are the details given by Thucydides about such a royal emissary, Artaphernes by name, who traveled to Sparta in winter 425/24 B.C.E., but was intercepted by an officer of the Athenian navy at Eïon on the river Strymon and brought to Athens, where his documents (written in “Assyrian letters”) were deciphered, before he was escorted to Ephesus and returned home (see Lewis, 1977, pp. 2-82). On the other hand already in the summer of 430 B.C.E. some messengers of the Peloponnesians were stopped by the Athenians at the court of the Thracian king Sitacles and were executed in Athens (Thucydides 2.67.1-4).

Thus the three treaties between Sparta (with her allies) and the Persians (i.e. particularly King Darius II and the Lydian satrap Tissaphernes) signed in 412/11 B.C.E. and initiated chiefly by Tissaphernes (who in some respects played a double role) changed the overall situation. They stipulated in an increasingly detailed manner (see Thu-cydides 8.18.1-3; 37.1-5; 58.1-7) that all the countries and cities which were under Persian rule or had once been under her rule, should belong to the Great King and that Sparta with her Peloponnesian allies and the Great King would henceforth wage war side by side against Athens and would not sign a separate peace treaty with the enemy. The regulations as laid down took into account the interests of both sides, and reflected the events at the theatre of war and provided more and more detailed financial arrangements. As a result of these treaties Sparta succeeded in dragging Persia into the war against Athens, which had been so drastically weakened after the Sicilian defeat in 413 B.C.E., that her Asiatic allies tried everything to extricate themselves from her with the help of others.

On the other hand, having destroyed the Peloponnesian fleet in 410 B.C.E. in the battle at Cyzicus (as a result of which the passage into the Black Sea was reopened for them), the Athenians under Alcibiades could conclude a cease-fire with the Phrygian satrap Pharnabazus (with whom Alcibiades was to take refuge shortly after). This is one of many cases where the great rivalry among the Persian satraps in Asia Minor is plainly manifested.

When in 408/07 B.C.E. prince Cyrus the Younger arrived at the Aegean coast and the Spartans sent Lysander to Ionia, the new commander of the Peloponnesian fleet asked the Persians for increased assistance (Xenophon, Historia Graeca 1.5.1-7). And indeed Cyrus, the influential new káranos (OPers. *kārāna-, a kind of supreme commander; thus Xenophon, Historia Graeca 1.4.3) of western Anatolia granted it without hesitation. Thus Persia became more and more involved in the last phase of this Greek Thirty Years’ War on the side of Sparta, even if only through financial subsidies. In the end Persia was successful and thus “had won the second great war with the European Greeks” (Olmstead, p. 371).

The Persian War of Sparta. The financial resources of the Persians had enabled Sparta to build a fleet and had therefore contributed to the great victory of Sparta over Athens in the war for the hegemony in Greece, while in exchange, Sparta had sold off the Asiatic Greeks to the Persians. Now, after the Attic Delian League had broken up, and after the events following the ascension of Artaxerxes II to the throne when Cyrus, his younger brother, had failed to dethrone him in spite of help from 10,000 Greek mercenaries and Spartan support, the more balanced and integrated Persian policy pursued by the satraps Tissaphernes (in Sardis) and Pharnabazus (in Dascylium) was a real danger for the Greeks in Asia Minor. Thus the “Ionian problem” was again revived. The Ionian cities, to which (and to the tributes of which) the Persian laid claim, asked Sparta for help in order to defend their autonomy and thus Sparta, for the first time, began a war on Persian ground, in Asia Minor.

For six years (400-394 B.C.E.) Spartan troops fought in Western Asia Minor (see particularly Xenophon, Historia Graeca 3.1.3-4.2.8), and at first they were quite successful. Later, when the Spartan king Agesilaus (to whom Xenophon devoted his encomiastic biography Agēsílaos) took the command of the expeditionary forces in 396 B.C.E., he mobilized additional Greek, Carian, and Mysian troops (among them the remnants of the legendary 10,000 Greek mercenaries of Cyrus), and even a Persian nobleman by name of Spithridates went over to the Spartans. Agesilaus tried to exploit the strivings for autonomy by the different Anatolian nations and to turn them against the Persian King. His actions, however, were rather haphazard, and he dissipated his energies in too many different operations. In the end these Spartan attempts failed miserably, above all because the Persians (1) combined their efforts under a common supreme command, first under Tissaphernes, then Tithraustes, and finally Pharnabazus; and (2) financed the building of a new fleet on Cyprus by the Athenian emigré Konon (a willing tool of the Great King) and the expenditure of a coalition of Thebes, Corinth and other póleis that rose up against the tyrannical rule of Sparta in the so-called Corinthian War (395-386 B.C.E.). The outbreak of this war, aimed to re-establish the power of Athens vis-à-vis Sparta, forced Agesilaus to return to Europe; and Konon’s victory in the naval battle off Cnidus in 394 B.C.E. brought to an end the involvement of Sparta in Asia Minor (Xenophon, Historia Graeca 4.3.10-12). Thus after more than eighty years Persian naval supremacy in the Aegean and the entire east Mediterranean Sea had been re-established.

The war had spelt out the weaknesses in the structure and organization of the Persian Empire: the striving for autonomy of the single nations and the rivalries between the individual satraps. This instability of the Persian Empire or, to be more exact, its Anatolian part, where the control exercised by the Persians was at times somewhat precarious, appeared openly here for the first time, and it increased dangerously in the course of the 4th century.

The King’s Peace or the Peace of Antalcidas (387/86 B.C.E.) and thereafter. The retreat of Sparta from Asia Minor and the renewed war in the motherland led to an increasing indifference towards the problems of the Asiatic Greeks. After years of negotiations, during which the Spartan admiral Antalcidas was sent to the satrap Tiribazus and then to Susa and the Great King himself, the so-called King’s Peace was agreed. This peace settlement, which Antalcidas extracted from Artaxerxes II, was in reality a dictate by the Great King imposed on the Greeks but at a time when the Persian empire had become rather weak. Therefore it is not surprising that the Greeks at first resisted and then only very reluctantly accepted the King’s terms at a peace conference held in Sparta in 386 B.C.E. The essential points in the King’s terms for peace stipulated that “the cities in Asia should belong to him just as the islands of Clazomenae and Cyprus, whereas the other Greek cities, both the small and the great, should remain autonomous, except for Lemnos, Imbros, and Skyros, which should belong to the Athenians just as before” (Xenophon, Historia Graeca 5.1.31).

This dictatorial King’s Peace, which was “a prescription and not an agreed compact” (Isocrates, Panegyricus 176), more or less set the pattern for the following decades, during which the Greeks were pre-occupied with their own affairs and constantly operated against each other in various alliances and groupings, even if they all sought Persian backing and endorsement at one time or another. For the Persians exploited what was in the Greeks’ view the fundamental principle of the autonomy of the single póleis for splitting up the whole of Greece into powerless miniature states and thus undermined the autonomy brought to them by transforming it into a treacherous “Greek gift” (Bengtson, 1977, p. 271). The most important challenge of the Persians was triggered off by Euagoras, the king of Salamis on Cyprus (Diodorus 14.98.1-15.9.2), who after Konon’s dismissal by the Persians tried to achieve independence and seize control of the entire island. For a time he was able to extend his power into Cilicia and Phoenicia, but in the end he was thrown back into Salamis, was enclosed there and thus forced into accepting the peace terms convenient to the Great King. These were, however, favorable for him in so far as “he should be king of Salamis, should annually pay the fixed tribute [viz. to Artaxerxes] and obey as a king to the King’s orders” (Diodorus 15.9.2).

At this time the Attic rhetor Isocrates made himself the spokesman of pan-Hellenic propaganda, and called on the Greeks, for the first time in 380 B.C.E. in his inflammatory Panegyrikós, to unite and wage war on the Persians. In this speech Isocrates emphasized the actual inferiority of the Great King, who was powerful only thanks to the disagreements among the Greeks themselves and whose weakness in effect he made clear by the expedition of Cyrus the Younger’s 10,000 Greek mercenaries and the numerous rebellions in his empire. In 346 B.C.E., when the political situation in Greece had changed fundamentally, in his Phílippos Isocrates resumed his demands again and appealed in the same vein to the Macedonian king Philip II (359-336 B.C.E.). The ground having been prepared by this, the Greeks were defeated finally by the Macedonians, among whom Greek culture had only reached the ruling dynasty and with regard to whom it is still at issue, whether or not they had been Greeks, i. e. speakers of a Greek dialect. In Macedonia, which in former times was part of the Persian Empire, Philip II had deliberately taken that empire as a model (see Kienast) in building up his supranational kingdom and its court institutions (Chancery, Life Guards, Harem, etc.). It was this Macedonian king, who after his victory in the decisive battle of Chaeronea in August 338 B.C.E. and the subjugation of the Greek, proclaimed the pan-Hellenic war against Persia in order to avenge the atrocities committed in 480 B.C.E. by Xerxes. Barely one year later, after he had been murdered, his young son and successor Alexander III, called the Great (336-323 B.C.E.), took over the rule as well as the supreme command in the expedition against the Persians. His triumphant progress through the Persian Empire culminating in the victorious battles at the River Granicus (in May 334 B.C.E.), at Issus (in November 333), and at Gaugamela (in October 331), brought the breakdown of the Persian Empire after the death of Darius III, assassinated in 330 B.C.E. by his Bactrian satrap Bessos.

PARTICULAR ASPECTS. The following sections discuss various particular aspects of the political relations between Greece and the Persian Empire, which are of a general interest, depending on the evidence available, however, and not striving for comprehensiveness.

Sources. As already indicated above, the most disturbing feature for any assessment of the Greco-Persian relations is the fact that the evidence available to us is almost entirely Greek. To understand the reasons for Persian diplomatic and military policies we have no other sources than Greek historiographers like Herodotus, Thucydides, Ctesias, Xenophon, etc., who were not always as perceptive as Xenophon, who saw quite well (Anabasis 1.5.9), that “the Great King’s rule was strong owing to the extent of the country and the number of its people, but at the same time was weak owing to the length of the roads and the scattering of its forces.”

Contemporary historical information on the Persian Wars is almost completely missing, since our main source, the Historíai written by Herodotus, already belong to the next generations. But single points of those famous events are reflected also in poetry of the time, e.g., in Pindar’s songs and, above all, in Aeschylus’ Persians

The work of Herodotus as a whole outlined the rise of the Persians and the Greek resistance to them, but it is also enriched by a number of accounts of the various nations the Persians had conquered under Cyrus the Great and his successors (Lydians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Scythians, etc.). The Persian Wars are described in Books V to IX, and with the description of what happened in 479 B.C.E. this account comes to its end. Herodotus’ account is based mainly on Greek sources, particularly on oral tradition and the stories circulating among the people. Altogether the work presents a wealth of material and certainly much reliable information, but it is also subjective in approach and not always impartial, although it appears not to falsify the facts intentionally. All the figures supplied by Herodotus must be questioned, however, and the greatest drawback is that Herodotus does not have an overview of (and therefore does not allow us to look at) the overall historical and political context and the motives of the leading histori-cal figures.

With regard to the Greco-Persian relations, the work of Thucydides is of minor importance, since its central focus is elsewhere: in the clash between Athens and Sparta for hegemony in Greece in the so-called Peloponnesian War. In the course of this war the Persians interfered only occasionally by giving bribes and concluding three treaties with the Peloponnesians in 412/11 B.C.E. (see above).

Ctesias of Cnidus, the 23 books of whose Persiká are lost and known to us only in part by quotations found in later writings and by the excerpts of the Byzantine Patriarch Photius, had lived for many (perhaps 17?) years at the Persian Court as the personal physician of the King and his family and as such was present in the battle at Kunaxa in 401 B.C.E. and gave Artaxerxes medical care when he was wounded by Cyrus the Younger (Xenophon, Anabasis 1.8.26 f.). As a result of this long stay he could have an intimate knowledge of the conditions at the royal court, and actually he also does claim to have consulted the “royal parchments” (basilikaí diphthérai), i.e. the historical annals of the Persian King (Diodorus 2.32.4; cf. Jacoby, Fragmente, p. 450, no. 5, par. 32.4). Ctesias was not a historian, however, notwithstanding all his polemic against Herodotus; and his work is often fictitious, prejudiced and at times plainly incorrect, when evaluated against the evidence found in Old Persian or other Oriental texts.

Xenophon, a contemporary of Ctesias, has described the expedition of Cyrus the Younger in 401 B.C.E. (in which he had participated himself) in his Anabasis. From this and because subsequently he was among the Greek mercenaries of Agesilaus until 394 B.C.E., he had first-hand knowledge of the Achaemenid Empire. His other major work, however, the Cyropaedia, is not a factual and historically authentic biography of Cyrus the Great, but composed in the genre of a moralizing Greek novel describing the development of Cyrus’ character as a benevolent ruler. The authenticity of each single piece of information given in this book must there-fore be examined with utmost care.

The writings of other historiographers of Achaemenid times like Charon of Lampsacus (Persiká), Dinon of Colophon or even Ephorus of Cyme, whose Historíai were a primary source of Diodorus Siculus and Nicolaus of Damascus, are not extant; and the later a work was written and the further in time from the Achaemenid Empire, the more we must doubt the authenticity of the information it provides.

Apart from literary sources, individual Greek inscriptions are also of historical importance. This includes, for example, the so-called epigrams from the Persian Wars found in the Athenian agora, the epitaphs of those who fell at Marathon or Salamis and some dedicatory inscriptions and other epigrams on the Persian Wars (the most impressive of which have also been recorded in literature). Of special interest is a letter of Darius I (preserved in a copy of the 2nd century C.E. from Magnesia-on-Maeander) to an official (not necessarily a satrap) by the name of Gadatas, who is reproached with having disregarded the interests of some shrine and its priests. From its linguistic style it is clear that this text was translated from an Aramaic original and can thus be regarded as an indirect testimony of a memorandum of the Achaemenid administration (cf. Schmitt).

The Asiatic Greeks. The Greeks along the Anatolian coast, whom the Persians called Yaunā “Ionians” (although they were not all Ionians), came under Persian rule in 547/46 B.C.E., when Cyrus II marched against the Lydian king Croesus (among whose forces Ionian contingents also fought) and the Greeks surrendered to the Persians unconditionally or even joined them voluntar-ily (see La Bua), as we learn from Herodotus’ account (1.141.1-176.3). Most of them then supported the Lydian insurgents under Paktyes, but were quickly defeated by Cyrus’ generals Mazares and Harpagus. With the exception of Miletus (who had not participated in this rebellion) from now on all the Greeks had to do military service for their new masters and had to provide the Great King with troops, particularly with naval contingents and warships. But, as Gerold Walser explained (p. 14), the actions of the Persian leaders imply neither a particular hostility towards the Greek cities nor the intention of changing their constitutional position in any fundamental way. Evidently Cyrus and his followers did not have a high opinion of the Greeks, since they witnessed the Greeks holding long discussion with each other, but ending up by fighting separately against the Persians. And Cyrus is said to have made fun of them as people who assemble in the midst of their cities, swear an oath and then proceed to deceive one another (Herodotus 1.153.1). 

As far as the Persian King was concerned, the Asiatic Greeks, who previously enjoyed a good relationship with the Lydians, were too remotely located from his royal capitals. Thus they came under the influence of the satraps in Sardis and Dascylium who enjoyed a considerable scope of freedom. For notwithstanding definite territorial reorganizations during the Achaemenid period, most of western Asia Minor seems to have been divided between the Lydian satrapy (OPers.) Sparda (with the capital of Sardis) and the Phrygian satrapy (OPers.) tayaiy drayahyā “(the people) who (dwell) by the sea” (with Dascylium as its center). The satraps residing there had been often involved in Greek (and even internal Greek) affairs. But what is meant exactly by the particular terms Yauna “Ionia,” Yaunā takabarā “the peltē-wearing Ionians,” Yaunā tayaiy uškahyā utā tayaiy drayahyā “the Ionians of the mainland and (those) who (dwell) by the sea” or the like, all being used in the Old Persian lists of countries and peoples, cannot be determined with absolute certainty. But it should not be overlooked here that Darius the Great’s so-called Foundation Record DPh (which certainly dates from the early years of his reign) gives Sparda “Lydia” as the most northwestern province of the Empire, whereas the oldest of all the inscriptions of Darius (the one at Mt. Bisitun) lists Yauna “Ionia” under a distinctly separate entry.

That those Greek cities, which were ruled by an autocratic tyrant, joined up with the Persians more easily than those with a democratic constitution, has to do with the feudal system and its gifts and preferences, into which they fitted far better. But anyway they were all quite willing to be swayed by Persian gold and subsidies. Of some importance was the fact that Persian naval power depended to a great extent upon the contingents of warships provided by the Greek cities along the Anatolian coast. This aspect interested the Great King but beside this, Asia Minor was never the center of his attention and concerns, and the Greeks there even less so.

After the Persian Wars and especially after the battle at Mt. Mycale the Ionian coastal cities, which had partly joined this alliance willingly as “allies” (Gk. sýmmachoi), but had also been to some extent compelled by military force, were included, too, in the Attic-Delian League (Herodotus 9.104, 106.1-4). The extant sources do not supply sufficient details or specify exactly when each city joined the League, and even the tribute lists of the League itself does not settle these problems. The cities belonging to the League are expressly called “autonomous” by Thucydides (1.97.1), and their autonomous status is confirmed by the Persians in the Peace of Kallias. But this probably meant in essence no more than that they now had to pay tribute to the Attic-Delian League instead of the Persians, and that the Persian garrison was replaced by an Athenian one.

The Peloponnesian War offered the opportunity to bring back the Greeks of Asia Minor under the rule of the Persians with the aid of Sparta and her Peloponnesian allies, but for several reasons (not least because of different interests of the Persian satraps involved) this aim could be achieved only with some delay (see above). And the definitive resolution of this conflict in the end came about with the so-called King’s Peace of 387/86 B.C.E. (see above), at a time when the European Greeks had lost interest in their Asiatic cognates. And if they did afterwards deplore the miserable fate of the Asiatic Greek cities, this was contained a good dose of hypocrisy.

It should be emphasized that the struggle for liberating the Asiatic Greeks from the yoke of Persian tyranny was not an overriding aim of the Greek city-states in Persian-ruled Asia Minor (which in any case contained a mixed population and were not purely Greek settlements) nor for any Greek general operating there. This holds true for generals operating officially on behalf of their city (like Agesilaus) as well as for those (as it was mostly the case) in the pay of some (perhaps rebel) satrap or of the Great King himself (like Konon), since their motives were either financial or at most, as in the case of Agesilaus, in line with the policy of their homeland.

It should also be mentioned in passing that according to available evidence, the Asiatic Greeks were also at times victims of deportations and displacements. Thus, for example, the rebellious Ionians were threatened with enslavement and their daughters with deportation to Bactria (Herodotus 6.9.4). And later Herodotus reports (6.20) that Darius indeed had then moved the Milesians taken prisoners to a village at the mouth of the Tigris River, just as in 490 B.C.E. the captured Eretrians were settled at Arderikka in Susiana (ibid. 6.119.1-4), where they still lived at Herodotus’ time.

Greeks in Persian Service. Especially from the reign of Darius I we hear of Greeks who were in the service of the Persian King etc., whether as soldiers, mariners (like Skylax of Caryanda, who explored the sea-routes from the Indus to the Persian Gulf and from there around Arabia for Darius) or artisans, craftsmen, interpreters, etc. This is an aspect of the Greco-Persian relations which has been treated in a more systematic way only relatively recently (1978) by Josef Hofstetter who presented an extensive prosopographical investigation about the Greeks’ share in the Persian Empire (about 350 persons known by name). By far the largest group was the more than sixty Greek participants in Cyrus the Younger’s expedition in 401 B.C.E., whom we know by name from Xenophon’s Anabasis and other contemporary sources. Larger groups were also the participants in Darius’ Scythian campaign (the dating of which is not undisputed) and the accomplices and collaborators on Xerxes’ expedition to Greece in 480/79 B.C.E., particularly at the pass of Thermopylae and at Salamis. To these can be added a great number of other mercenaries and soldiers of all ranks (e.g., Miltiades, Pausanias, and Themistocles) – apart from the anonymous masses of Greek soldiers and mercenaries, many ambassadors, some tyrants of single cities, who made common cause with the Persians at some time or other (among them the Athenians Hippias and Alcibiades, Euagoras of Salamis on Cyprus, and Polycrates of Samos), and not least a great many deserters and refugees. The most famous among these refugees and exiles were the Spartan king Demaretus, who after his dismissal was an adviser to Xerxes and had a royal fief in the Troad (Herodotus 6.70.2 f.; 7.3.1-4; 101.1-104.5, etc.), and Themistocles, who having been ostracized and charged with Medism (see below) lived the latter years of his life as Artaxerxes’ vassal in Asia Minor. The first partisan, by the way, who defected to the other side, was Eurybatus of Ephesus, who did not recruit Greek mercenaries for Croesus (who had already paid him for it), but went over to Cyrus the Great and betrayed the Lydian king’s plans to him.

Whereas surprisingly we hear of only one single interpreter (a certain Melon in the service of Darius III), there were at least four Greek physicians practicing at the royal court, viz. Democedes of Croton (under Darius I), Apollonides of Cos, the famous Ctesias of Cnidus (under Darius II and Artaxerxes II), and Polycritus of Mende. But if one is concentrating only on persons known by name, the actual facts are misrepresented to a certain extent, at least in several spheres. For example, we know from the great Susian building inscription DSf, that Ionians co-operated in the construction of Darius’ palace at Susa, on the one hand in the transport of cedar timber by water as well as of the colors for the wall-reliefs, and on the other hand by working as stonemasons, as they had already done in Pasargadae, according to the Ionian technical, formal and stylistic peculiarities recognized by Nylander. Likewise, Ionian Greek craftsmen were also involved in the construction work at Persepolis, as we learn from the Persepolis tablets. The only two Greeks known to us by name, however, are two laborers (one Nikon and a certain Pytharchus) working in the quarries above the Persepolis terrace, where they left their mark by chance in short memorial graffiti in Greek (Pugliese Carratelli, 1966).

Medism. Greeks with a pro-Persian or “Medizing” attitude in Athens (cf. Holladay) and elsewhere in the Hellenic world, and even entire Greek cities as such, were frequently accused of mēdismós, “sympathizing with the ‘Medes’” (for the term see Graf). Convictions for such a stand, any joining with the Persians’ cause and particularly voluntary political or military co-operation with the Persians, were regarded as punishable offences especially in the epoch of the Persian Wars. The relevant verb (Greek mēdízein) was also used to describe the adoption of Persian customs and traditions, the wearing of Persian clothes or a luxurious lifestyle in general. Memorable cases of Medism during Xerxes’ invasion of Greece were those of the Thessalian family of the Aleuadae in La-risa, Thorax and his brothers (cf. Westlake), who in 479 B.C.E. even put forces at Xerxes’ disposal (Herodotus 9.1, 58.1), and of the oligarchs of Boeotian Thebes, which city Bengtson (1977, p. 179) describes as the stronghold of Medism.

In the daily internal political squabbles and battles, Medism was often used as a weapon, and even a deadly weapon, thus, for example, against Themistocles (in 471 B.C.E.) and Pausanias, despite their victories over the Persians near Salamis and at Plataeae respectively. Medism was regarded a serious offence, since the interest of the whole of Greece was at stake and not only that of a single city. After being ostracized (in 471 B.C.E.) and then charged with Medism, Themistocles in his absence was even sentenced to death, but he succeeded in fleeing Greece and taking sanctuary with Artaxerxes I as his vassal (see Thucydides 1.135.2-138.6; Plutarch, Themistocles, passim). In the case of Pausanias the reproach of conspiracy with the Persians was substantiated by his manner of dressing in the Persian fashion, his Oriental bodyguard, and his alleged intention to marry one of the Great King’s daughters (Thucydides 1.95.3-6; 128.3-135.3). Authentic evidence of Medism is found also in four Athenian ostraca, in which the accused, a certain Kallias (son of Kratios and therefore not identical with the famous Kallias [see above], son of Hipponicus), is named ho Mêdos “the Mede” (see Graf, p. 18).

The terminology appearing in “Medism” etc. is connected with the fact that “the Medes” (Gk. Mêdoi) continued to be used inadvertently and anachronistically by Greek authors in cases where Persians were meant. It was only during the 5th century B.C.E. that the domination of the term “Medes” decreased little by little in favor of “Persians,” thereby reflecting with some delay the changes within the Achaemenid empire itself, where the Persians to all appearances only gradually took on the dominant role and the privileges the Medes had occupied before.


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(Rüdiger Schmitt)

Originally Published: December 15, 2002

Last Updated: February 23, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XI, Fasc. 3, pp. 292-301

Cite this entry:

Rüdiger Schmitt, "Greece  i. Greco-Persian Political Relations," Encyclopædia Iranica, XI/3, pp. 292-301, available online at (accessed on 23 February 2012).