XXIV. The Wars of the Greeks and Persians

WHILE the Greeks in the cities in Greece, South Italy and Asia Minor were embarking upon free intellectual enquiry and while in Babylon and Jerusalem the last of the Hebrew prophets were creating a free conscience for mankind, two adventurous Aryan peoples, the Medes and the Persians, were in possession of the civilization of the ancient world and were making a great empire, the Persian empire, which was far larger in extent than any empire the world had seen hitherto. Under Cyrus, Babylon and the rich and ancient civilization of Lydia had been added to the Persian rule; the Phoenician cities of the Levant and all the Greek cities in Asia Minor had been made tributary, Cambyses had subjected Egypt, and Darius I, the Mede, the third of the Persian rulers (521 B.C.), found himself monarch as it seemed of all the world. His couriers rode with his decrees from the Dardanelles to the Indus and from Upper Egypt to Central Asia.

The Greeks in Europe, it is true, Italy, Carthage, Sicily and the Spanish Phoenician settlements, were not under the Persian Peace; but they treated it with respect and the only people who gave any serious trouble were the old parent hordes of Nordic people in South Russia and Central Asia, the Scythians, who raided the northern and north-eastern borders.

Of course the population of this great Persian empire was not a population of Persians. The Persians were only the small conquering minority of this enormous realm. The rest of the population was what it had been before the Persians came from time immemorial, only that Persian was the administrative language. Trade and finance were still largely Semitic, Tyre and Sidon as of old were the great Mediterranean ports and Semitic shipping plied upon the seas. But many of these Semitic merchants and business people as they went from place to place already found a sympathetic and convenient common history in the Hebrew tradition and the Hebrew scriptures. A new element which was increasing rapidly in this empire was the Greek element. The Greeks were becoming serious rivals to the Semites upon the sea, and their detached and vigorous intelligence made them useful and unprejudiced officials.

It was on account of the Scythians that Darius I invaded Europe. He wanted to reach South Russia, the homeland of the Scythian horsemen. He crossed the Bosphorus with a great army and marched through Bulgaria to the Danube, crossed this by a bridge of boats and pushed far northward. His army suffered terribly. It was largely an infantry force and the mounted Scythians rode all round it, cut off its supplies, destroyed any stragglers and never came to a pitched battle. Darius was forced into an inglorious retreat.

He returned himself to Susa but he left an army in Thrace and Macedonia, and Macedonia submitted to Darius. Insurrections of the Greek cities in Asia followed this failure, and the European Greeks were drawn into the contest. Darius resolved upon the subjugation of the Greeks in Europe. With the Phoenician fleet at his disposal he was able to subdue one island after another, and finally in 490 B.C. he made his main attack upon Athens. A considerable Armada sailed from the ports of Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean, and the expedition landed its troops at Marathon to the north of Athens. There they were met and signally defeated by the Athenians.

An extraordinary thing happened at this time. The bitterest rival of Athens in Greece was Sparta, but now Athens appealed to Sparta, sending a herald, a swift runner, imploring the Spartans not to let Greeks become slaves to barbarians. This runner (the prototype of all "Marathon" runners) did over a hundred miles of broken country in less than two days. The Spartans responded promptly and generously; but when, in three days, the Spartan force reached Athens, there was nothing for it to do but to view the battlefield and the bodies of the defeated Persian soldiers. The Persian fleet had returned to Asia. So ended the first Persian attack on Greece.

The next was much more impressive. Darius died soon after the news of his defeat at Marathon reached him, and for four years his son and successor, Xerxes, prepared a host to crush the Greeks. For a time terror united all the Greeks. The army of Xerxes was certainly the greatest that had hitherto been assembled in the world. It was a huge assembly of discordant elements. It crossed the Dardanelles, 480 B.C., by a bridge of boats; and along the coast as it advanced moved an equally miscellaneous fleet carrying supplies. At the narrow pass of Thermopylae a small force of 1400 men under the Spartan Leonidas resisted this multitude, and after a fight of unsurpassed heroism was completely destroyed. Every man was killed. But the losses they inflicted upon the Persians were enormous, and the army of Xerxes pushed on to Thebes and Athens in a chastened mood. Thebes surrendered and made terms. The Athenians abandoned their city and it was burnt.

Greece seemed in the hands of the conqueror, but again came victory against the odds and all expectations. The Greek fleet, though not a third the size of the Persian, assailed it in the bay of Salamis and destroyed it. Xerxes found himself and his immense army cut off from supplies and his heart failed him. He retreated to Asia with one half of his army, leaving the rest to be defeated at Platea (479 B.C.) what time the remnants of the Persian fleet were hunted down by the Greeks and destroyed at Mycalae in Asia Minor.